Most anyone with any interest in a public life these days dedicates themselves to the pursuit of justice or freedom or equity. These things, while valuable, are fraught with questions over how to achieve them or how they look in practice, and it’s not uncommon to find them in contradiction. The less publicly minded may aspire to something like happiness, if not something even more crass like fame or riches, and while happiness is lovely, it runs the risk of being a short-term, vapid interest that neglects a longer view of life, and what yields a sense of fulfillment. For that more measured perspective, I often find myself turning to some fairly highbrow traditionalist, if not straight-up conservative, publications: this is where one finds much more originality of thought—or, rather, a revival of thought that doesn’t get nearly enough mainstream airing today. Perhaps it’s because this tradition, at its best, aspires to knowledge for its own sake, not merely in convenient pursuit of some agenda.
Enter Joseph Epstein, an American man of letters, who, in last week’s Weekly Standard, helps explain why this is an intellectual tradition where I feel like I’m at home. The man is an absolute quote machine, so I’m going to pull from it at length, but I recommend the whole thing.
Epsetin’s piece is an unabashed defense of elitism. This doesn’t mean aristocratic snobbery, necessarily; instead, it means the pursuit of excellence, tracking down the best of everything that the world has produced to date, and placing some faith in the other insightful people down the ages as fellow travelers. The goal, he says, is to become “cultured.” This doesn’t quite mean reading all of a certain group of writers or collecting a certain litany of facts, but instead means coming to embrace a certain pursuit of knowledge within a historical context, seeing how it all fits together and thereby creates meaning. At the same time, this pursuit requires the humility to acknowledge that there is always more to learn, always more to explore, and that learning more only opens up more unknowns beyond. Socrates was the wisest man on earth because he knew how much he didn’t know.
When properly undertaken, the pursuit of excellence doesn’t inflame the ego, but instead knocks down certainties or claims of ownership. Epstein quotes Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, in which one man comments on the soup another has made: “I am not deprecating your talent, Joseph, but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.” Culture acknowledges the debts we incur over history, and how it all feeds into a long-lasting tradition.
Culture means complexity. It means answers don’t always present themselves readily, and a willingness to admit that one may not have all the answers. Epstein again:
I have never quite been able to shake the capping remark made by V. S. Naipaul on a character in his novel Guerrillas: “She had a great many opinions, but taken together they did not add up to a point of view.” Culture, true culture, helps form complex points of view.
Some years ago, the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott was asked what he thought of England’s entering the European Union. “I don’t see,” he answered, “why I should be required to have an opinion about that.” An extraordinary thing for a contemporary political philosopher to say, or so I thought at the time. But later, reading Oakeshott’s Notebooks, I came across two interesting passages that made clear the grounds on which he said it: First, “To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know & to have the courage not to be tempted beyond this limit.” And second, that culture “teaches that there is much one does not want to know.” I wonder if, in the current age, our so-called Information Age, recognizing “what one doesn’t want to know” isn’t among the greatest gifts that the acquisition of culture can bestow.
This is a real struggle: it’s so easy to consume information to no apparent end, and I’m also someone who feels shortchanged, perhaps even somewhat betrayed, if I don’t have the full story behind some things. Drawing limits like this is no easy task. I’m also not one of the cultural vegans that Epstein describes; I have my fondness for certain types of culture that no one would really define as highbrow, and would defend that staunchly. But even then, I can usually fit it in to a vision for a rounded sense of self, even for developing that sense of complexity that comes with culture.
Through it all, though, we can’t forget to step back and look toward the higher goal that drives day-to-day tasks, large and small. Epstein quotes Matthew Arnold:
[T]here are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery…for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection…And this bent always tends…to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their [social origins, wealth, or status], but their humanity.
We won’t necessarily make it, but it’s still worth trying. In this world, at least, I can’t think of anything greater to aim for.