Some of you know that I occasionally publish in Salvo Magazine, and their sister publication Touchstone. I am delighted to announce that I have just accepted a job from Salvo writing weekly blog posts. This will be a chance to help supplement the work being done in the magazine, which I plan to continue writing for as well as time allows.
I hope to use my weekly column at Salvo, which you can access here, to explore a range of cultural issues in keeping with Salvo’s theme of “science, sex, and society.” Some abiding concerns I hope to explore include what it means to be conservative in the post-Rush post-Trump era, and the clash between classical liberalism and modern progressivism. I also hope to build on my earlier work on identity politics by giving special attention to the racial discrimination and stereotyping that is now becoming routine in the universities, of which the recent incident with Jodi Shaw has been particularly instructive. But above all, I plan to continue exploring the gratuity of the liberal arts. This last topic may strike many as exotic, so some explanation may be helpful.
Throughout the years I have found myself arguing against an instrumentalizing of the liberal arts from two directions. On the one hand, I have found myself at loggerheads with conservative Christians who want to use the liberal arts to underscore a worldview agenda yet, because of a truncated notion of what constitutes “Christian worldview,” leave us with a hyper-pragmatic approach to the liberal arts as a consequence. I have written against this tendency here and here and here and here and here and here. But on the other hand, I have also found myself at loggerheads with secularists, who use various frameworks from woke postmodernism to critical theory to instrumentalize the liberal arts, making them mere fodder for an activist agenda. I have interacted with that here and here and here.
The background to my concern about this issue goes back to my experience growing up during the Cold War, and my continued concern about Marxism in its more subtle permutations. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is “gratuity” when applied to the liberal arts?
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 for 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 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 to what is strictly necessary or useful.
The masterminds behind Huxley’s dystopia hated the love of nature precisely because of its gratuity—because it was inefficient and served no essential function in keeping ticking the machinery of the state.
Although Brave New World is fictional, it offered extraordinary insight into the psychology behind real-world totalitarian regimes. A hallmark of 20th 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 the goals of the state. This is one of the reasons Communist officials in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did not just seek out 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 lies 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 vs. Marx
The Christian theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, taught that the liberal arts do have a kind of use, in so far 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 Fredrick 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 desires beyond that which the state could provide.
Paintings and sculpture produced in the style of socialist realism embodied the belief that all art should be useful, subservient to a political agenda. These artworks glorified the pragmatic anthropology of Marx, in which humanity realizes its proper end through productivity.
Freedom Through Art
Significantly, when Marx’s ideas spread to Europe in the 20th century, it was through the liberal arts that writers and artists escaped the oppression of this hyper pragmatic anthropology. My favorite example of this is the German language film, The Lives of Others. Though fictional, the film draws inspiration from the work of real artists who worked 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; consequently, 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 is experiencing a St. Augustine moment: under the power of beauty, he begins experiencing longings that defy his intellect and go against all his training as a communist functionary. Wiesler’s transformation culminates in intervening to save Dreyman at the expense of his career.
The Lives of Others is a moving film, full of artistry and understatement. It beautifully demonstrates why the communists were correct to fear the subversive power of the arts. It shows how good art awakens a desire 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 that was not gratuitous, 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.
Significantly, when talking with a man who used to be a communist agitator in America during the tense years of the Cold War, he told me that the only time he ever experienced transcendence was while alone in nature. He explained that eventually the beauty of the natural world worked on his soul until he had to recon with the claims of transcendence and abandon his Marxist worldview.
To natural beauty for its own sake, and not just what it can do for us, helps to inculcate in us the fundamental truth that the most worthwhile things in life are valuable for what they are in themselves. The very gratuity of beauty underscores the truth that the most basic goods cannot be measured by a purely immanent and temporal frame. Ultimately, this trains our hearts for union with God, who is to be received for what He is in Himself, and not merely because of what He can do for us.
The “Uselessness” of the Liberal Arts
In her recent book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz’s chronicled her journey from loving the liberal arts for their own sake, to using the liberal arts for their pragmatic value, until finally she had a spiritual awakening and rediscovered the gratuity of the liberal arts.
For Hitz, the intellectual life is like a love affair, or like prayer. There are many economic and health benefits to a love relationship, yet if a man holds his wife’s hand merely to experience those benefits, then we rightly say this is perverse. Such perversity will likely rob him of the very benefits a love relationship might otherwise offer. Similarly, there are many neurological and personal benefits to prayer and worship, but if a woman worships God merely to boost her brain, then that is perverse and, ironically, she may miss the irreplaceable benefits of prayer. Similarly, there are many uses for the liberal arts, but if one approaches the intellectual life simply for its pragmatic value, then one is in danger of missing that which makes the liberal arts useful in the first place. Hitz hints at this paradox in the title of the last chapter of her book, “The Uses of Uselessness.”
I think Hitz is onto something. The gratuity of the liberal arts—whether expressed in painting, literature, music, ballet, or philosophy—enable us to push-back against being mere cogs in a system. As our imaginations become well-formed under the gentle tutelage of good art, literature and philosophy, we can begin perceiving the infrastructures of meaning that lie 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. 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.
The Secret Life of an Intellectual
Barbery’s 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 janitor 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 culture are merely a means for advancement and ostentation.
Renée’s story develops simultaneously to the story 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 agendas. Overwhelmed by the emptiness and artificiality of her family, as well as her own sense of life’s meaninglessness, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.
The hinge of the book 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 Tolstoy 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 that serve as foils, we see how the liberal arts can be subverted when instrumentalized.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is not a Christian book, but it does approach the Christian concept of “leisure” expounded by the German Catholic philosopher and theologian, Josef Pieper.
Gratuitous Leisure and the Liberal Arts
In his 1952 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 the collectivist visions of Marxist societies, human flourishing was coming to be defined by productivity. There was a corresponding danger that rest would come to be seen as simply the cessation of labor, valued for its restorative function in enabling men to return to work. For still others, rest offered an opportunity for recreation, as if the purpose of work is simply to buy time for play.
Pieper argued that the answer to all of these—the cult of total work, the notion that we rest in order to eventually get back to work, or the infantile cult of youth with its idolizing of recreation—is the idea of leisure.
We don’t use the term “leisure” much anymore, and when we do it tends to differ little from idleness or recreation. Yet 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, an attitude of “inward calm,” and a willingness to slow down and listen to the permanent things.
Leisure might take form in any number of activities or non-activity. It might be found in the type of receptive stillness that is the precondition for appreciating works of beauty. It might be found in close relationships, such as a husband and wife sitting still holding hands, each enjoying the other’s company without needing to say, do, or expect anything from the other. It might be found by going for a walk in the mountains without the intention of satisfying any pragmatic goal like exercise or restoration. It might also be found by simply sitting in your backyard with your rosary or prayer rope while quietly watching the clouds pass by. In each case, leisure involves a turn from that which is useful to that which is permanent. It involves abandoning our fixation with ourselves and our own productivity.
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.
The Contemporary Attack on Gratuity
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 gratuity to make them-agenda driven. Today the liberal arts are no longer threatened by Communism, but their essential gratuity is being challenged at the highest levels of academia.
Professors at America’s most respected universities have resurrected the Marxist attack on the liberal arts as ends, arguing instead that the liberal arts must be treated as pragmatic means for furthering various activist agendas. Specifically, they have been trying to render the liberal arts useful for the machinery of woke postmodernism, leftist victimology, and critical race theory.
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. To paraphrase Huxley:
Primroses, landscapes and the liberal arts have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature does not keep the machinery of woke postmodernism, critical race theory, and leftist victimology ticking. It was decided to abolish the love of nature and the liberal arts, at any rate, among the lower classes.