The Liberal Arts as Magic and as Paradox

John Agresto

First, a story. Many ages ago, when I was a graduate student at Cornell, I remember sitting with my friend, Tom, at one of those Greek restaurants that were all over what was called “Collegetown.” We were talking about Aristotle and the difficulty we both had in understanding what he was getting at. The waitress standing nearby perked up and said, “Do you people know Aristotle?!”

“Well,” Tom said, “I sure wish we knew him better. He can be difficult at times.” “Difficult,” the young woman responded, “I’ll say. He was in here the other day giving me a real hard time, and then he pinched me.”

I’ve thought about this episode off and on over the years as I have tried to come to terms with Aristotle. But “coming to terms” with Aristotle meant reading, asking him questions, getting exasperated, then making him into a friend with whom one could have a conversation. In time, old Aristotle became as alive to many of us as that Johnny-come-lately Aristotle was to our friendly but beleaguered waitress.

Now, when you consider it, this is surpassing strange. Aristotle is dead. In a real way, extremely dead. But, in a more important way, hardly dead at all. You see, the most immaterial thing about him turns out to be the most permanent and solid thing about him: his mind. Aristotle lives because he wrote . . . and we read. We can read what he thought. And we can make his thoughts our own.

Isn’t it magical? I can’t have Aristotle’s body. Not his hands or feet or his nose. But I can possess—and in possessing build upon, renew, keep alive, and pass on—his mind. Even though his body has been a-moulderin’ in the grave for centuries, through the medium of books I can transfer the content of his mind to mine. I can have the mind of the greatest genius who ever lived. This, in sum, is the magic, the stupendous magic, of the liberal arts.

Still, while there are forces all around today’s liberal arts that might be happy to acknowledge that such an endeavor has a magical side—many of them see it as bad magic, even black magic. For, you see, we who inhabit the more traditional side of liberal education have the reactionary habit of using our arts to raise spirits from the vasty deep, spirits that do indeed come to us when we call. But, we are accused, what conceivable good are they to us today? What good are these spirits, freighted with their old ideas and antique prejudices? In the modern world, only intellectual savages think wisdom, truth, might be found by looking backwards, backwards to what too many see as a distant if not barbaric past.

That is, isn’t it basically the benighted, the untutored and savage, who think their ancestors are the font of wisdom? But America is a nation destined always to look forward, not back. Is it not clear that to possess Aristotle’s mind is to invite being bound down (to paraphrase Jefferson) with the heaviest chains of ignorance and superstition?

So goes a large part of the modern and scientific critique of the liberal arts: we are a progressive people, and our children should be helped to look forward, not enticed to turn around. Nor, we have to say, is this an accusation leveled at us primarily by our friends in the “progressive” fields of commerce, technology, and science. No; very often they know what we’re doing and seem to have a modicum of respect for it. Rather, often our most serious antagonists are those in the once standard and now reformed disciplines basic to the liberal arts themselves—literature, philosophy, history, even classics.

Still, as is our nature, we savages respond. This turning around is not a form of slavery to the past, but a liberation that helps carry us into the future. At its finest, the liberal arts are a liberation that that helps lead us from opinion into greater knowledge—a liberation from what, today, “everybody knows,” a liberation towards what might be true in itself. A liberation, that is, from thinking we know even when we don’t.

The liberal arts seen in this way become the vehicle to carry us ahead not simply against the winds of public opinions and prejudices but against the stifling forces of academia itself: Forces that pretend that nothing in the past can be of all that much moral or intellectual value today. “After all, Jefferson did own slaves, didn’t he?”

Once we drop the prejudice against looking back, so many of the concerns and problems of the present become clearer. But this involves directing the liberal arts to do one thing above all: to understand the difference between learning about and learning from. How much of liberal education falls into the soft academic trap of merely “learning about.” Consider the gulf between learning about History—or Philosophy or Literature or Art—and learning from those subjects. Yes, we can learn a near infinite amount about Shakespeare or Madison or Newton or Nietzsche. But unless we are willing to look back and try to make their minds live in ours, to have their ideas, concerns, and reasons spark and inform our understanding, we will have wasted our time.

But what shall we learn by looking back? How they dressed or what they ate? Interesting, I guess, but not all that valuable. Antiquarianism is pleasant, though not all that useful.

So . . . learn what? I think two things. First, learn what is ours. Understand with increased clarity the ground from which our current culture and current problems grew. What, for instance, could possibly lead Lincoln to say that the question is not can republics be established but can they endure? And what did he —and Madison and Tocqueville—see as both the real promise and the deepest problems of democratic life? Despite what the more smug among us try to teach, the past was not all prejudice and unthinking convention. Indeed, the ground of all we might take for granted was sharper when our way of life was new, and needed to be rationally argued for and defended against entrenched opposition.

Still, while knowing with greater depth and clarity what is ours is of significant value, perhaps the even greater value of the liberal arts is giving us the minds of those whose views and insights are different, even radically different, from our own. If we can learn anything from Shakespeare or Flaubert or Dostoyevsky about the workings of the human heart it’s not because they see things as we do but because they may well understand that heart far differently. Perhaps Aristotle’s view of the naturalness of the polis can teach us something about both the radicalness and limits of the modern Lockean/Jeffersonian construct. And whose mind is not made more whole by possessing at least a part of what Thucydides knew about human nature, hubris, courage, piety, and the varied causes of war?

Seen in this light, both the magic and the great paradox of the liberal arts become clear. In possessing the minds of the finest writers, artists, and thinkers we do something that is both backward looking and totally, even radically, progressive. We can see the roots of and reasons for what we call our own, and be liberated from believing that we and our peers—or even our parents and professors—have the latest corner on human wisdom. That is, by trying to grasp the minds of the finest thinkers and writers who have lived, we might, for the first time, begin to possess our own.

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