A German Film, a French Novel, and a Catholic Philosopher

In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic Brave New World, there is a scene where “the Director” is giving students a tour of a nursery designed to produce ideal humans. At one point he pauses to clarify why hatred of flowers is being programmed into the lower classes. He explains that love of nature serves no practical purpose in the modern society: “Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes.”

The word “gratuitous” is not a common term in modern vocabulary, and it tends only to be used in a pejorative sense, as when we say that a film has “gratuitous sex and violence.” Yet the word comes from the Latin gratuitus, which means to give freely. Something is gratuitous if it is extra, gracious, and in abundance, beyond what is strictly necessary or useful.

The masterminds in Huxley’s dystopia hated the love of nature precisely because of its gratuitousness—because it was inefficient in serving the machinery of the state. Although Brave New World is fictional, it offers extraordinary insight into the psychology behind real-world totalitarian regimes. A hallmark of twentieth-century experiments in utopia was the belief that man’s aesthetic faculties should be channeled to useful ends, and that works of imagination and beauty should be tools serving political goals. This is one of the reasons Communist officials in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did not seek out only political dissenters to send to prison camps, but also artists and intellectuals.

As artists and intellectuals were sought out and imprisoned, the Soviets sanctioned a new type of art known as “socialist realism.” Socialist realism regulated expression, glorified technology, and reduced art to its purely didactic function. The Marxist philosopher and revolutionary Georgi Plekhanov set the tone for the new mood when he declared that the value of art lay in its social usefulness: “There can be no doubt that art acquired a social significance only in so far as it depicts, evokes, or conveys actions, emotions and events that are of significance to society.”

St. Augustine versus Marx

The Christian theologian St. Augustine of Hippo taught that the liberal arts do have a kind of use, insofar as they kindle desire, which finds its home in God. Education plays an important role in eliciting a desire that no earthly conditions can satisfy. By contrast, Karl Marx aimed for the complete elimination of desire. In the 1846 text he wrote with Friedrich Engels, A Critique of the German Ideology, Marx envisioned a society where desire could be eliminated through men and women fulfilling their purpose as producers. Unsurprisingly, Marxist societies rarely tolerated art that kindled desire for things the state could not provide.

Paintings and sculpture produced in the style of socialist realism glorified the pragmatic anthropology of Marx, in which humanity realizes its proper end through productivity. To solidify this anthropology in the minds of citizens, Marx could never allow for purely gratuitous art; all creativity should be useful in serving an agenda. Even something as seemingly benign as the game of chess came under attack in the Soviet Union. In Live Not by Lies, Rod Dreher tells of a Stalinist-era commissar, N. V. Krylenko, who steamrolled over chess players who resisted the subversion of chess to pragmatic ends. Defending the philosophy that led to the brutal murders, Krylenko remarked, “We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess,’ like the formula ‘art for art’s sake.'”

Freedom Through Art

Significantly, when Marx’s ideas spread to Europe in the twentieth century, it was through the liberal arts that writers and artists escaped the oppression of this hyper-pragmatic anthropology. By pursuing liberal arts (painting, poetry, music, literature, even chess) as things that are valuable for their own sake, they posed a powerful challenge to the theory that all art should be useful, subservient to a political agenda.

One of my favorite films is the German-language production The Lives of Others. Though fictional, the film draws inspiration from the work of real artists who lived under East German Communism.

The film centers on a small group of playwrights, artists, and intellectuals in East Berlin who find themselves stifled by the restrictions of the totalitarian society. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, an agent of the Stasi, suspects that the playwright Georg Dreyman could be subversive, so he orders Dreyman’s apartment to be bugged. As Wiesler begins eavesdropping on Dreyman and his girlfriend, Christa-Maria, he is gradually transformed by what he hears.

Wiesler doesn’t understand what is happening to him, but as he monitors the surveillance feed, he begins to experience longings that defy his intellect and go against all his training as a Communist functionary. He begins taking an interest in deeper things and reading the poetry of Bertold Brecht. His transformation culminates in his intervening to save Dreyman at the expense of his own career.

The Lives of Others is a moving film, full of artistry and understatement, with a haunting soundtrack. It beautifully demonstrates why the Communists were correct to fear the subversive power of the arts. It shows how good art awakens a desire for something beyond the goods that can be provided by the functional machinery of a utilitarian society.


How Love of Nature Is Freeing

Although the Communists could censor art and literature, they could not, obviously, get rid of the natural world with all its gratuitous beauty. Many citizens living under the Communist yoke found peace and solace in the natural world, with its rhythms and splendor that unfold independently of mere functional utility. Through the beauty of nature, men and women were awakened to that sense of wonder that is a precondition for approaching the transcendent.

I once had a conversation with a man who had been a Communist agitator in America during the tense years of the Cold War. Significantly, he told me that the only time he ever experienced transcendence was when he was alone in nature. He explained that eventually the beauty of the natural world worked on his soul until he had to reckon with the claims of transcendence and abandon his Marxist worldview.

Enjoying natural beauty for its own sake, and not just for what it can do for us, helps inculcate in us the fundamental truth that the most worthwhile things in life are valuable for what they are in themselves. The very gratuitousness of beauty underscores that the most basic goods cannot be measured by a purely immanent and temporal yardstick. Ultimately, this trains our hearts for union with God, who is to be adored for what he is in himself, and not merely because of what he can do for us.

French Lessons in Gratuity

The gratuitousness of the liberal arts—whether expressed in painting, literature, music, ballet, or philosophy—enables us to push back against being mere cogs in a system. As our imaginations become well-formed under the gentle tutelage of the liberal arts, we can begin perceiving the infrastructure of meaning that lies beneath the surface of things. This is precisely why the poetry of life, and the sense of wonder that keeps the imagination vivid, fresh, and restless, remains the constant enemy in the prosaic utopias that aim to convince citizens that there is nothing to live for beyond this life. Thus, for collectivist and totalitarian regimes to truly work, the first books to go must be those that have no obvious functional value but enable us to see the world in a fresh and wonder-filled light. Muriel Barbery’s 2006 bestseller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is such a book.

Barbery’s French-language novel centers on the parallel stories of two individuals living in the same block of luxury apartments in Paris. One character is a cynical, overweight widow named Renée Michel, who works as a concierge for the rich families in the block. To the outside world, Renée is a typical working-class woman, yet she harbors a well-kept secret. She spends every minute of her spare time indulging her secret passion for the liberal arts, especially literature, philosophy, art, film, and history. Renée goes to elaborate lengths to disguise her passion from the building’s rich inhabitants, for whom learning and the arts are merely tools for advancement and

Renée’s story develops simultaneously with that of Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old girl whose family lives in one of the luxury apartments where Renée works. The various members of the Josse family are intellectuals, yet for them the liberal arts are a means to pretension, snobbery, and political gain. Overwhelmed by the emptiness and artificiality of her family’s life, as well as her own sense of life’s meaninglessness, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

The turning point occurs when a Japanese businessman named Kakuro Ozu moves into one of the apartments and asks Renée about the Josse family. Renée replies briskly, “Every happy family is alike.” Kakuro immediately finishes the quotation from the opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina by adding, “But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In this sudden moment of recognition, Renée’s secret is out, leading to a series of events in which the lives of Renée, Paloma, and Kakuro become intertwined and transformed.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel about love, curiosity, sadness, transformation, vulnerability, and the ultimate questions of life. Through the lives of Renée, Paloma, and Kakuro, the reader is invited to celebrate the role that art, literature, history, and philosophy play in human flourishing. These characters see the liberal arts as intrinsically valuable, rather than possessing a merely instrumental value to serve personal agendas. Through the various other characters in the luxury apartments, who serve as foils, we also see how the liberal arts can be subverted when instrumentalized to purely pragmatic ends.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is not a Christian book, but it does approach the Christian concept of “leisure” as expounded by the German Catholic philosopher and theologian Josef Pieper (1904–1997).

See Also

Gratuitous Leisure & the Liberal Arts

In his 1948 classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Pieper responded to trends in the post-war era that were moving society towards the condition of “total work.” In the emerging prosperity of post-war capitalism, no less than in the collectivist visions of Marxist societies, human flourishing was coming to be defined simply by productivity. There was a corresponding danger that rest would come to be seen simply as the cessation of labor, valued for its restorative function in enabling men to return to work. For still others, rest was valued as an opportunity for recreation, as if the purpose of work was simply to buy time for play.

Pieper argued that the answer to all three of these—the cult of total work, the notion that we rest simply so we can return to work, and the infantile cult of youth that idolizes recreation—is the idea of leisure.

We don’t use the term “leisure” much anymore, and when we do, it tends to mean little more than idleness or recreation. Pieper taught that the older notion of leisure is more akin to contemplation, to the type of receptive stillness we might find in the artist or the spiritual mystic. To be leisurely in this older sense is to adopt a frame of mind that is open to the bedrock ordering of things, to adopt an attitude of “inward calm,” and a willingness to slow down and listen to the permanent things.

Pieper’s discussion of leisure was closely tied to his understanding of the liberal arts. He saw that leisure offers something to live for beyond the servile arts, while also providing a necessary precondition to experiencing the freeing quality of the liberal arts. He understood that both leisure and the liberal arts are gratuitous, since they do not exist as mere means to pragmatic ends but offer themselves as their own reward.

Josef Pieper (1904–1997)

In developing this line of thought, Pieper drew on a broader intellectual tradition rooted in classical and Christian philosophy which recognized the existence of basic human goods. A basic human good derives value from itself and forms a constituent aspect of human flourishing. The most obvious example of a basic human good is virtue: virtue is its own reward, not something that derives value as a means to other ends. While virtue is the highest human good, there are lesser goods that are constituents of human flourishing, such as creativity, health, attentiveness, etc.

There are also various practices that are basic to human flourishing, such as singing, bird-watching, letter-writing, playing chess, making music, befriending animals, and so forth. A well-ordered reason can perceive that these conditions and activities are not mere proxies for the satisfaction of desire, and not simply means for the advancement of an agenda; rather, these types of activities are intrinsically beneficial given the type of creatures we are. However, these basic human goods are eclipsed in the current climate, where the pervasive assumption is that all reason can tell us is how more efficiently to satisfy personal desire or advance a group agenda.

The Contemporary Attack on Gratuitousness

Pieper was writing during the Cold War, when Marxists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were attempting to strip the liberal arts of their gratuitousness to make them agenda-driven. Today the liberal arts are no longer threatened by Communism, but their essential gratuitousness is being challenged at the highest levels of academia.

Professors throughout America’s most respected institutions have resurrected the Marxist attack on the liberal arts as worthy ends in themselves. These professors argue that the value of the liberal arts can only be found in their usefulness in furthering a range of activist agendas. Woke ideologies rooted in Critical Theory are being used as a sledgehammer to smash the gratuity of beauty, reducing all disciplines to proxies for twenty-first-century political questions.

Meanwhile, scholars who believe the arts have intrinsic value, and need not be subjugated to extrinsic goals, risk having their reputations ruined and their careers cancelled in what is eerily reminiscent of the chess players who were mowed down after trying to keep politics out of the game.

In this emerging state of affairs, merely to enjoy nature and the liberal arts as ends rather than means may soon become a subversive act, exactly as it was in Huxley’s dystopia.

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