There is a weird sensation when we see someone else’s social media feed. We are struck by the unfamiliar faces and conversations, facts, and fictions, even if we think we know the person well. What we think of as a shared reality begins to look more like a shared fragmentation, a world in which we are brought together, but somehow left alone.
There have always been political tribes, religious factions, and rival schools of philosophy. People have always argued about morals and aesthetics, truth and beauty. What is new is that the lack of coherence itself has increasingly become a defining characteristic, a premise of our conversations, the ever-present background of our thought. It may be most noticeable on social media but extends far into the offline world as well.
It is natural to react to this fragmentation in a few apparently contradictory ways. One is a skeptical ennui, a diminished confidence in the sense of things or in our sensemaking abilities and institutions. There is a decadence, as Ross Douthat has argued, defined not so much by hedonism but a lack of will, a sclerosis and restless exhaustion. We find ourselves unwilling to take risks and unable to build. A second reaction moves in the opposite direction. We see a tightening grip on whatever fragments we still possess for fear they too will be lost to the maelstrom. Partisan divides deepen, and we search for experts who support what we already think. (RELATED: New Poll Ranks Most Polarizing Brands In America — Media Companies Dominate The List)
Both responses feed off the other without a resolution. The violent polarization of some produces skeptical ennui in others, like the scraps of a wreck picked over by Scylla then swallowed by Charybdis. Doubt and uncertainty are not dispelled by at turn to ideology, and vicious politics are not remedied by adopting an all-consuming relativism. Like Odysseus, we have no magical return to the comfort of a former time. The only way out is through.
As Aristotle observes in the Politics, every community is held together and understood by its shared goal or end. Without this vision of the good, the community disintegrates. Though he discussed this some 2300 years ago, the idea expressed is true and universal: If we want to have a community and to live well, we must have something to live for. And this is the foundational problem with the modern moment: as Isaac Wilks laments in a recent essay, “…above all we lack the ends.” Further, we are terrible at thinking about and discussing ends simply because we don’t talk about ends. We imagine that to build our house we don’t need to deliberate about what sort of life we should live inside it.
Our technological abilities to create and communicate have never been greater, but we have forgotten that more than skill, we need a compelling reason to sing, paint, and build. Instead, we ignore the Why in favor of what and how, and in our skepticism, we find more conviction in the deconstruction of history than in its telling. Do we wonder that thirty years after Bloom, the American mind seems closed in a way it has never been in recent memory? To quote Ryan Holiday in a recent conversation with Eric Weinstein, “We’ve emptied all these things of meaning, replaced them with nothing, and wonder why everyone is content to burn down the system.” (RELATED: Top Historians Slam NYT ‘1619 Project’ As It Infiltrates Public School Curriculum)
So where do we receive ends and meaning, and where have those before us found them? Chiefly they are found is what are broadly called the humanities. History, literature, music, art, philosophy, religion, especially through the classics — each speaks to us in a different way, but they all address the fundamental question: Why? In them we encounter truth and see its power, we feel the pull of the radiance of beauty, and the glory of the good. In these encounters with a greatness beyond ourselves we find what is worth pursuing, and a shared sense of purpose which we bring into our own lives and the lives of others.
Together with mathematics and the sciences, what I am describing has been called a liberal or sometimes a classical education—liberal in the sense that it is freeing, and classical in its focus on those works which have deeply moved so many others in their pursuits.
To be clear, reading a little Aristotle and Dante is not enough. Philosophy, art, and all the rest must be approached as if our search for truth and beauty matter. This will require an appropriate depth and intensity, not a temporary exhibit or a collection of life hacks. Further, this pursuit must be fundamentally constructive. It will need sincere discussion and practice in disagreement, leading to principles which help all of us see the sense in the world.
Some say a liberal education is not useful because it does not build, but as we are discovering, there is more to building the future than bricks and bytes. And in this sense, it provides something more useful than anything else.
Tommy Welsh has spent the last decade teaching classical education in high school. He is currently writing a book on instruction using the Socratic method, and may be followed on twitter @aTommyWelsh
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