Eccentricity Isn’t a Political Agenda

Marble statue of ancient Greek historian Polybios in Vienna. (Picture via Getty Images)

A classical liberal arts education is not useless, but it is better to approach such learning as though it were—yes, a good education might make you a better worker or a better citizen, but the purpose of education is not to make you a more useful instrument for the Fortune 500 or for the state, or to make you a tool at all. (Though, goodness knows, our schools have produced some real tools over the years.) Education may be understood as selfish (it is better to be cultivated than to remain ignorant, and education opens one up to pleasures that are not available to the uneducated) or as an act of devotion (God did not make us for complacency and idleness). Yet once you start judging it primarily on the criterion of usefulness, you have lost the essence of education and have descended into mere training. Whenever I hear somebody say that we should care about Mozart because babies made to listen to Mozart in the crib go on to score 25 points higher on the SAT, the bad part of me thinks that person should have his ears cut off, because they are not doing him any good. 

(My little one prefers Thomas Tallis, anyway, even if these guys never gave good ol’ English a second thought.) 

None of that should be read as an invitation to turn up one’s nose at the practical arts, which are, after all, the things that keep us from starving to death or dying from smallpox or in general suffering under the material conditions of the early 13th century, as much as a troll over at the Daily Wire seem to like the idea of living in 1220. (Presumably, Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro is slightly less sanguine about the prospects of living, if it were possible, in medieval Europe.) One of the practical arts is politics, which is less intellectually demanding than agriculture and less noble than medicine but which is, unhappily, still difficult to do without entirely. There have been many useful statements of the practical nature of politics, from Bismarck’s famous proverb (“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next-best”) to the misunderstood and often misrepresented thought of Machiavelli, who argued, long before English had the term “political science,” that students of politics should take a scientific approach to the issue—that the problem of politics is not the pursuit of ideals or idealism but understanding how the world actually works and using that understanding toward practical ends in behalf of one’s own people, prince, or republic. The author of The Prince was, indeed, a republican in his own heart, but he wrote his most famous work with a direction toward monarchy because, in his time and place, and in the context of his project—the political unification of Italy—monarchy was what he had to work with. If you have not read James Burnham’s The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, it is a very illuminating book for our time

It is interesting to set Burnham and his Machiavellians alongside such contemporary political writers as Patrick Deneen, whose latest book has received a great deal of attention from friends and colleagues of mine such as Jonah Goldberg and Stephanie Slade, or alongside other so-called New Right (really, New New New New Right, since we get a New Right every 15 years or so) figures as Sohrab Ahmari, in part because of how the underlying allegiances have changed—Burnham assumed that conservatives would be “defenders of freedom,” while Deneen and Ahmari and their kind think we have too much freedom—but also because doing so illustrates the fundamental, inescapable problem of that so-called New Right: its lack of intellectual seriousness. 

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