Friday, March 28, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Two

“'Useless' Knowledge,” pages 26-37

Knowledge has long been thought to be a source of power, and typically yields that power as in the case of Prospero, where knowledge brings control over magical forces. Francis Bacon understood, as we do now, that science could become more powerful than Prospero’s staff.

In the Renaissance, learning became something to be enjoyed for its own sake, frequently unmoored from practical concerns. People learned ancient Greek to appreciate Homer – though knowledge of ancient Greek and other languages helped to resolve theological puzzles and forgeries, and classical history provided guides and precedents for current, controversial political actions. Nonetheless, the primary motive for learning was pleasure, some of which emanated from broadened vistas for art and philosophy.

The allure of the ancient languages carried over into improved reputations for those sciences to which classical sources were devoted, such as geometry and astronomy, at least if seemingly disreputable post-classical scholars hadn’t fouled the disciplinary pool.

The sort of impractical approach to knowledge that characterized much of the Renaissance began to give way during the Enlightenment, and the decline accelerated with the French Revolution’s attack on upper-class habits and the proliferation of machines. The value of knowledge has come to be associated with the economic value of its practical applications – an association which exists in England and France, but is carried much further in the USA and the Soviet Union. Practicality has even become an excuse for pruning the acquisition of language to the minimum number of words requisite for business, as if economic expediency were the only purpose for speech. The Russian interest in education serving state aims takes the criterion of practicality still further – though a handful of the elect must learn philosophy to defend the state’s version of dialectical materialism, and a few Soviet scholars acquire a foreign language because “the sacred scriptures must be studied by some in the original German…[p. 29]”.

The interdependence among people, both political and economic, is greater in the modern world than it was previously, and hence the desire to force others to act in ways that we approve also has increased. Educational institutions, for the most part, are charged with producing loyal and productive citizens. [The sacrifice of education to propaganda is a Russellian concern that resurfaced in Unpopular Essays.] Hence we see a premium placed on what is considered to be practical knowledge, as part of a more general phenomenon that also underlies universal military conscription and the boy scouts. We do not have the free time and mental resources to acquire what is deemed to be impractical knowledge.

Of course, practical knowledge really is quite useful. “Without it, we should not have machines or motor-cars or railways or aeroplanes; it should be added that we should not have modern advertising or modern propaganda [p. 30].” We get innovations to improve health and innovations in the means of mass murder, but at any rate, there is still a need for more useful knowledge.

Much of a traditional ornamental education was wasted of course, including the small Latine, and lesse Greeke. Better to teach culture in modern languages than in dead ones – the claim that there should be room in education for useless knowledge is not a defense of traditional education. [Russell also made this point in Education and the Good Life.]

A focus on knowledge that promotes technical efficiency crowds out other types of knowledge that are not as directly practical, but that nonetheless carry large rewards. “When conscious activity is wholly concentrated on some one definite purpose, the ultimate result, for most people, is lack of balance accompanied by some form of nervous disorder [p. 32].” [Compare Russell in The Conquest of Happiness: “One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster [p. 61].”] Overworked military strategists and political fanatics of many stripes are cases in point. Adults, like children, need play, and for play to have its salutary effect, it must be based on strong interests that are independent of one’s main work.

The leisure pursuits of the masses in developed countries tend now to involve mere spectatorship – better than no leisure at all, but not as beneficial as active interests. [And Russell was writing before the ultimate form of passive entertainment, television, was available.] Education must be supplemented to ensure that the population has access to intellectual interests, which are necessary to render significant amounts of leisure time enjoyable. [Russell devoted a chapter of The Conquest of Happiness to impersonal interests.]

Cultural education is necessary to ensure that improved techniques serve socially desirable ends. There is a significant streak of cruelty in humanity, and while education cannot eliminate the tendency towards cruel behavior, it does seem to lessen that tendency. School bullies and the ringleaders directing lynchings are not generally the more intelligent people in their communities. Education doesn’t necessarily make one more of a humanitarian, but it will engender interests in pursuits that are more edifying than being cruel towards others. People like power and to be admired, and the uneducated can only achieve these through brutality. Galileo could make the world better without the need to persecute.

“Perhaps the most important advantage of ‘useless’ knowledge is that it promotes a contemplative habit of mind [p. 34].” People feel compelled to take action, not only unthinkingly, but when doing nothing would be the preferred choice. The charge against Hamlet is too much thought, too little action [though of course, it is Hamlet’s rash killing of an unknown person behind an arras that ignites the wholesale slaughter – RBR], but Othello should be just as compelling a warning of too much action, too little thought. Contemplation helps ward off the compulsion to power and stimulates grace under pressure; it provides the wide vistas which alone can protect against the pain of life’s tragedies.

The quotidian troubles of the missing-the-train ilk are quite minor, but nevertheless can destroy wellbeing; some interest in a slightly relevant intellectual detail or historical parallel can serve as an antidote, removing us from our present travails. A browse through Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy can itself relieve melancholy. This same broader perspective enlivens our pleasures, too. I [Russell] enjoy apricots more from knowing their provenance and etymology.

The largest payoff to contemplation draws from its ability to shield people from adopting anger and cruelty, which are fostered by the intolerance of narrow minds. Broad knowledge provides perspective, both of human limitations and of human potential.

People often invent myths to help them relieve the pain of life – but this short-term palliative stokes pain over the longer term. Russell concludes the chapter with a sort of secular version of the Serenity Prayer. In Russell’s version, useless knowledge helps build the intelligence that allows people to know the difference between what can and what cannot be changed. Further, useless knowledge promotes the broad perspective that renders it easier to accept with fortitude those conditions that are not amenable to reform.