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Continuing Education

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So, yeseterday or the day before–I get a little lost here–I got an e-mail.  Part of it went like this:

<<<One related point: remember the old saw about anyone who isn’t a communist at 20 has no heart, and anyone who is still a communist at 30 has no brain? I’d like to think one can have both even at 20, but at some point, still, you have to have answers to the big questions of life, and drive on. By the big questions, I mean the nature of people and society, the sources of truth and moral authority, the purposes for which government is created and so forth. Yes, these are important questions. Yes, they can be–have been–debated forever. But barring an earth-shaking event, these questions should be settled for oneself before one has a family and career. Having an answer removes certain books from the lists. The particular answer chosen removes others.<<<

And I will admit that I was, literally, stopped in my tracks.

I know that I keep saying that I’m going to get around to how you form an objective standard for what is and isn’t “good” in literature–by which I mean the quality of the literature, not whether or not the work necessarily belongs in the Canon, no matter who is defining Canon–but I keep getting brought up short, and this is about as short as it gets.

The first thing is this–I do not believe that it is possible to form definitive answers to the big questions by the time you’re thirty or so, or ever.  I don’t think engagement with the big questions is something you do and finish before going on to other things.

I think we all spend our lives engaging the big questions, bringing new experiences to re-evaluate what we once thought we knew for sure, rearranging and reassessing. 

I’m not talking about wimpiness here, or being unable to take a stand about anything.  At various points in our lives, we will come to the determination that we know enough about X to know what is true about it.  And we act on those decisions, because we must.

But the questions are always open.  And especially the questions as outlined above–the nature of people and society?  I still read a ton of stuff on the nature/nurture problem, and especially Pinker and the new evolustionary psychologists.  I changed my mind about the extent to which both intelligence and behavior was impacted by heredity in my forties. 

The nature of society?  Well, I am, by temperament, a libertarian–my father used to joke that the first full sentence out of my mouth was “Go away and leave me ALONE!”–and I’ve learned enough about history over the years to know that liberal democracy–bourgeois democracy, as the Marxists call it–seems to be the ticket to general prosperity and a more than minority observance of the human decencies.


It’s also the case that bourgeois democracies throw up a number of odd side effects:  a peculiar self-loathing on the part of the very people who profit most from them, for instance, and a rapidly declining birth rate and, finally, a fanaticism about imposing morality by law that sometimes seems to rival the Ayatollah Khomeini’s.  If you don’t believe me, go take a look at everything from anti-smoking crusades in Virginia to anti-“hate speech” legislation across the European union.

Even just ten years ago, I was more sure of my answer to that question about “the nature of society” than I am now.  And though I am no less sure that there is no reason to believe that God exists (note the wording there), I’m no longer of the opinion, which I held in my thirties, that religion is just going to disappear once people become better educated and more prosperous, or even that it would necessasrily be a good thing if it did.

And part of the reason why I am shifting in my opinions here and there is that the world has changed.  Fifty years ago, I could say that religion was just superstition and due to disappear as we all got smarter and less afraid of the vicissitudes of life and faith–but there had never been a society whose majority was made up of nonbelievers.  I had no idea what that w ould look like.  

I now have the beginning of an idea, and I’m not sure of what I’m seeing.  So I’ve been checking around, again, trying to figure out how that works.

I’ve been trying to figure out, as well, what causes the nearly visceral hatred of their own society by so many of the citizens who are most priveleged by it–we all that a certain kind of intellectual trends Left less for a belief in the goodness of various Leftism (that’s hard to maintain given recent history), than because of distaste for and disgust with the society in which he lives.  Why should that be so? 

Aristotle had no such distaste for Greek Civilization.  Even Socrates had no such distaste for the Athens that ended up killing him.  Shakespeare could wax poetic–well, okay, about almost everything–but certainly about the superiority of Britishness in particular and the Western tradition in general. 

And even that line up there about Leftisms obscures some of the issue here–up until World War II, the revolt against the Western tradition occurred on the right as much as on the Left.  In both cases, what you see is otherwise intelligent people willing to lie to themselves and others, ignore the obvious evidence of brutality and murder, twists themselves into knots just in order to give themselves a place to stand while they spit on “liberalism.” 

And by liberalism, they didn’t mean the public option.  They meant democratically elected governments and what they liked to call “the profit motive.” 

And as soon as you begin to look into the issue, the whole thing becomes increasingly confusing, because it doesn’t take long to realize that the terms everybody is using–“the profit motive,” the “bourgeoisie,” “alienation,” “individualism”–obscure more than they illuminate.  It is as if an extremely important discussion has been carried on now for centuries, entirely in code.

Lately, I’ve been reading a book called The Passing of an Illusion:  The Idea of Communism and the Twentieth Century, by Francois Fuget, an intellectual history of Communism in the West–Communism not as an historical phenomenon (although it goes into that, too, necessarily) but as a faith.  And faith is the word. 

One of the things that has been increasingly obvious to me as I go through this book is the fact that this man, who is French, thinks in different categories than I do–thinks with a different framework.  And trying to understand those categories, and to be able to think within them in order to work out the rationale for what he is describing, has been an interesting exercise.

But it’s also an indication that it is part of the Western tradition I knew little about.  I’m not talking about the subject matter, but about the method–the way of thinking.  And it’s something I should understand, if I’m going to understand the world I live in.

So I don’t expect ever to settle the big questions.  I don’t think anybody ever does.

But on top of that, I go out of my way to read things I know before I start that I’m likely to disagree with.  I watch Olbermann and O’Reilly.  I read Ayn Rand and Marx.  I try, as hard as I can, to check out everything I run across that seems to have a significant impact on the world I live in and that also interests me. 

And that goes for fiction as well as nonfiction.  I am not a fan of Tolstoy.  I learned long ago that thegeneral tenor of his mind annoys me and that his writing rings less true to me than Dostoyevski, but “The Kreutzer Sonata” is a famous story, and when I had the chance, only a year or two ago, I read it.  I think it was vile, quite frankly, well done but morally objectionable–the work of a moral thug, quite frankly, even worse than Marvell.

Does that mean I wasted my time?  I don’t think so.  I know something I didn’t know before. 

My father used to say that if you couldn’t make your opponent’s argument as well as he could make it himself, you didn’t know what you were talking about, and I think that holds true. 

The Western tradition is a vast array of different ideas and ideals held together by a very small number of principles that can be defined in a number of ambiguous ways–but the tradition is all of it, not just some of it, and toknow the tradition is to know even those parts we end up rejecting.

And now I’ve blithered quite enough, and I’m in search of a refrigerator.

Written by janeh

November 24th, 2009 at 11:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Continuing Education'

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  1. I have been looking for a fridge myself, in a kind of off and on fashion, which is gradually becoming more, well not urgent, exactly. Necessary. And I’m getting busier and theoretically going out of town in a couple days, so I don’t have time to shop and certainly not to get to the secondhand place where I got such a good deal on the stove to replace the one with the oven door that didn’t close properly.

    Mostly I agree with what you’ve written – but I think you have to have at least a version of the answers to the ‘big questions’ that you can live by and work on much earlier, in childhood, even. I do agree that we never really find absolute knowledge of the answers, and that we should search for them throughout life (hence all that talk of Life as a Journey and labyrinths). But people who don’t actually have some answers, temporary and in draft form though they may be, seem to drift through life without actually giving much thought to why they do what they do. Sometimes they have a rather incoherent view of things that doesn’t really fit together well. I’d find either situation very frustrating.

    And the process doesn’t have to produce answerw that are all THAT temporary. I finally concluded that the time to accept my own conclusions on a contentious issue and move on was when all the arguments against it had a deadly familiarity because I’d heard them all so often, and debating them was getting very tedious (for me, anyway, if not the person who’d just come up with the argument).


    24 Nov 09 at 2:44 pm

  2. This is moving quite beyond my scope since a great deal of what I believe about human nature, the ways of the world, and so on have come from reading fiction and writing it as well. I’m not well read in philosophy, evolutionary psychology, history in great detail. What I know about any of those topics I’ve generally learned from reading fiction. If I can’t understand a particular character’s motivation or the way he/she views and behaves in the world around him, I can make myself become him/her long enough to comprehend why he does what he does. Same sort of thing with people I meet. If I know enough about them, I can figuratively become them and understand, somewhat at least, why they are as they are. Probably this approach is too simplistic but it works for me.


    24 Nov 09 at 4:00 pm

  3. My husband bought me a small wood tombstone to sit on my desk – it’s inscribed with “Alone, at last.” I agree with Jane. I have, as I’ve aged, read a lot, studied a lot, and learned a lot. I am not the same person I was when I graduated from High School or from college or from graduate school. I am approaching retirement (or at least a change in direction). When I was young, I valued the things my parents told me to value. When I was a little older I valued the rejection of all things my parents valued. Now, I have started to find the things I value for myself.

    I didn’t discover philosophy until I was forty and studying Latin. Once I found Lucretius, I never looked back. Reading leads to more reading. Lucretius led me into consciousness theory and evolutionary theories and guys like Pinker. It’s more fun than you might think.

    Socrates, according to Plato, acknowledged his own wisdom simply because he recognized that he did not have all the answers. Wisdom lies not in the answers but in the search.
    jem – don’t rely solely on fiction. While some authors are responsible about how they present information, many are not. I cringe whenever I think of the perverted view of history that has been marketed by Dan Brown.

    Like Jane I see what I’ve read as an investment in my evolving self. Even if I don’t like what I’ve read, I don’t regret the reading. Well – I take that back, I regret reading Brown’s last book – that was a true waste of time.


    24 Nov 09 at 6:00 pm

  4. Hmmm. I know someone who was a LOT more impressed by dorm room bull sessions than I ever was. Life is short and there is much to learn and experience. No, the Big Issues can’t be settled–and that’s the point. You come to a conclusion, and then you deal with the consequences of that conclusion. You only go back and rehash the basic argument when there are serious new facts or reasoning on display–a once in a lifetime experience, if that.

    As for the West’s intellectuals going septic, that’s another one for the dorm room–but I have an explanation which accounts for the observed data.

    There’s a specter haunting the humanities professors, and it’s–well, me, actually, as I go around with my BEST OF ROBERT E. HOWARD, a decent collection of Heinlein, all the Leigh Brackett I can get my hands on, and a print of “Scotland Forever!” on the game room wall. It’s supposed to be Joyce, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and perhaps Warhol on the wall. This is driving them nuts.

    The “intellectuals” turn against the West starting about 1850, and completely by about 1900. That is, as soon as they can see what a free, democratic prosperous society would be like. Read any of the utopians you’d like–and in this instance I might well include Adams and Jefferson. In the future, no one would have “too much” money, religion would pass from the scene, and politics would be reduced to a town meeting level. But EVERYONE would love the fine arts. Let’s see: no politicians, no rich people, no priests. Who does that leave for the big frog in the small pond? Why I do believe it’s the Professor and his good friend the Critic. Sadly for them, it was soon evident that the future included rich people who didn’t care what the critics said, and poor ones who didn’t even have the grace to be deferential.

    Read Matthew Arnold and you can see the dime has dropped. He may have invented the terms “high culture” and “philistine” in the modern sense, and his accomplices would soon add “kitsch” and “lowbrow.” The voices have become more and more shrill as less and less attention is paid to them. I recognize the condition–but then I used to have a toddler in the house. These people are only a problem to the extent they’re taken seriously.

    Too long a post–but I’m tired of having spoiled children with tenure treated as a mystery.


    24 Nov 09 at 6:12 pm

  5. No worries, Gail. I did read THE DA VINCI CODE mainly because I’m a librarian and everybody in creation was reading it and praising it. I found the dialogue awful, the characters flat, and the prose awful. The plot wasn’t bad but I’m not sure I found it credible even within the context of the novel. I was referring to–Joyce, Updike, Fowles, Thomas Hardy, Nabokov, Anne Tyler, Margaret Drabble, Richard Russo, Doctorow. And quite a few mystery writers whose work I admire–Jane included, as well as P.D.James, and others. No romance writers. No Grisham, no Brown (at least not that one, I do enjoy Rita Mae Brown) no Steel, no Roberts or Robb, no Linda Howard (who grew up in the county where I was born) and definitely no James Patterson. And I do occasionally read non-fiction. Maybe philosophy at some point. Not yet.


    24 Nov 09 at 8:51 pm

  6. I’ve always read a lot of fiction – far more fiction than non-fiction – and I’m sure it’s influenced my thinking about life, the world etc. But it’s never been the only thing. It can leave me with questions that inspire me to read more.

    I’ve studied no history since high school, and have taken only three one-semester courses in philosophy (Philosophy of Education, which baffled me and which I nearly failed, and two Contemporary Issues in Philosophy by correspondence, which I enjoyed and did well in). I’ve taken almost no formal classes in theology or religion – Sunday School, which I got out of ASAP, confirmation classes (both many, many years ago), and more recently some short educational sessions, a bit of church history, and right now an evening class of St. Augustine.

    Most of what I think I know about human nature, human society, history etc etc I have gotten from observation, picking up a book on whatever aspect of it has most recently attracted my magpie attention, and thinking about and (when I can) discussing points of interest. I discovered early that a lot of people are remarkably uninterested in medieval England, or what exactly some of those odd phrases in a hymn book or prayer book mean or was that movie about Catherine the Great REALLY accurate.

    I tend to treat fiction as fun. Oh, if it’s done well, the characters can be real to me and sometimes the treatment of some issue can throw new light on it. Conversely, if I can tell from the get-go that, oh, no, this whole thing is practically a party political on side X of issue Y, and I can tell from page one how it’s going to work out and what stock caricatures the author is going to present.

    But if a novel sparks my interest in some particular aspect of humanity, I’m likely to see what some philosopher or historian or theologian has to say about it too.

    Too many books, and too few hours in the day to do it properly! But I’m fortunate in having both a university and public library very nearby, and that the university one allows generous borrowing privileges to those who are no longer students.

    Jem – I read The Davinci Code for the same reason. Some people praise it as a gripping tale even though the history is bad (although I had one acquaintance recommend it to me because it was so educational and you learned so much history from it). I can’t see why it is praised so much. It’s awful. It’s even worse that the cozy by an unfamiliar author I just finished in which the prose reminded me of our recent discussion here, and it’s much longer!


    25 Nov 09 at 7:46 am

  7. Thanks for that, Cheryl. I, also, can tell fairly early into a book I’ve chosen whether or not I want to finish it. I do have the advantage of a collection development source–Public Library Core Collection: Nonfiction– that would guide me in selecting a book of philosophy or history etc that is well researched and not a piece of crap.


    25 Nov 09 at 12:47 pm

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