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Why We Meet as We Do:
Thoughts on Liberal Education

Hendrik_ter_Brugghen_-_Heraclitus [1]

Hendrick ter Brugghen, Heraclitus, 1628

2,731 words

Spanish translation here [2], Czech translation here [3]

Editor’s Note:

This is the text of a talk that I gave on August 15, 1996 to an adult education class that I used to run in Atlanta, way back when I was in graduate school. I recall that the actual lecture was much longer and involved discussions of Rousseau, Kant, Schiller, and Hegel. If a tape comes to light, I will dub it and make it available. 

Why do we meet as we do? Obviously I can’t answer this question on behalf of all of us, but nevertheless I suspect that in answering it, I speak for more than just myself.

We here are dedicated to liberal education, with an almost exclusive focus on the most liberal of the liberal arts: philosophy. But what is liberal education? And why does it draw us here again and again? Ask a college student today, and the likely answer is that liberal education is education by liberals. But liberal education is not liberal in that sense. Indeed, although philosophy has always been a part of a liberal education, every great philosopher before Marx, including those deemed classical liberals, would have to be considered politically conservative by today’s standards.

Liberal education is not liberal as opposed to conservative. Liberal education is liberal as opposed to servile. Liberal education is liberated and liberating education: it is liberated, and it liberates, from the bondage of necessity, specifically the necessities, the promptings, or drives of our physical nature. Most of our lives are devoted to satisfying such drives and desires. The activity of satisfying these desires is work, and the arts we deploy to satisfy them are servile or utilitarian arts.

If the servile arts belong to the world of work, the liberal arts belong to the world of leisure, of play. If the servile arts produce the necessities of life, the liberal arts produce luxuries; indeed, they are luxuries. If the servile arts are part of the economy of nature, the liberal arts are part of the economy of culture. The servile arts embody what can be called technical-instrumental rationality, whereas the liberal arts are enjoyed as ends in themselves.

The servile arts are governed by the logic of investment, of spending money to make money; they measure their usefulness by how much they save and how much they make; a successful expenditure not only circulates back to its source, it returns increased, pulling more and more reality into the economy of necessity — each tiny fish returns home to spawn; because of this, investment is characterized by a horizontal movement of recirculation within the material domain.

The liberal arts are governed by what Georges Bataille calls the logic of expenditure, of investing material wealth not for material, but for spiritual, gains; expenditure cashes in material wealth for spiritual wealth; because of this, expenditure is characterized by a vertical movement of transcendence, the movement from the material to the spiritual. From the point of view of expenditure, this movement of transcendence is a gain, for it rates the spiritual above the material in a hierarchy of value.[1]

From the point of view of investment, however, expenditure is not the transcendence of the material for the spiritual, but a hemorrhage of the material for . . . nothing; it is seen simply as loss and waste. Bataille characterizes non-material values to which material values are subordinated as the sacred; the subordinate material values are the profane.[2]

The liberal arts, therefore, are part of the non-material economy of the sacred; the servile arts are part of the material economy of the profane. The sacred does, however, satisfy some dimension of the human being; it is in some sense necessary. This means that we have to make distinctions within the human soul, and at this point I shall recur to the Platonic distinction between reason, spirit, and desire, reason being the part that responds to the true, spirit being the part that responds to the beautiful and the good, and desire being the part that responds to the necessities of life; whereas the profane satisfies the desiring soul, we might say that the sacred serves the needs of the rational and spirited dimensions of the soul.

Putting these elements together, we can offer a preliminary definition of liberal education: Liberal education is liberated and liberating education — as opposed to servile and utilitarian education; it belongs to the world of leisure and play — as opposed to the world of work; liberal education belongs to the world of culture — as opposed to the world of nature; it is ruled by the economics of expenditure — as opposed to the economics of investment; liberal education is one of the luxuries — as opposed to the necessities — of life; it belongs to the realm of the sacred — as opposed to the profane; and because it belongs to the realm of the sacred, it satisfies the needs of the spirit and the intellect.

By now, I hope that liberal education seems desirable. But now we can raise another question: Is it good? And if it is good for the individual, is it good for society? To answer these questions, I wish to give a loosely “Marxist” analysis of the origins of liberal education. The idea of liberal education arises in ancient Greece. The distinction between liberal and servile arts is based on the distinction between the liberal and servile classes of Greek society. The liberal class was the warrior aristocracy. The servile class consisted of slaves, farmers, and artisans. To understand the origins of the distinction between liberal and servile education, we have to understand the origins of the distinction between liberal and servile classes. To do this, we must go back to the primal scene, the original social order, and the original struggle, from which the distinction between master and slave emerged. Let us take Plato and Hegel as our guides here.

In Republic, Book II, Plato offers us an image of an egalitarian society ruled by the principle of necessity, the provision of food, clothing, and shelter; the society is characterized by communal property and the division of labor and craft specialization; it has a money economy and external trade; it has some wage earners, but most people are independent artisans; there is no government and no class structure, nor is there a professional army; culturally, it is somewhat primitive, with a religion that can be characterized as magical, devoted to the procurement of favorable economic conditions, their festivals and feasts being determined by the seasons and the harvest. There are no real arts, but many crafts. They seem to be vegetarians.

Once Socrates finishes setting out this picture of a city ruled by necessity, the spirited Glaucon objects, “You seem to make these men have their feasts without relishes” and calls it “the city of pigs.” To this, Socrates responds that Glaucon wishes “a luxurious city,” which Socrates then proceeds to describe in such a way that it is unmistakeably a warrior aristocracy.

The luxurious city is a city whose needs are beyond the necessary. It is an economy centered on the pursuit of honor and glory, not the satisfaction of desire. To satisfy its lust for honor, it is a warlike city, with a distinct caste of professional warriors. When these warriors are not fighting for honor, they struggle to win it by other means: by the lavish expenditure of looted wealth for private luxuries and public monuments; by hunting wild animals, the more dangerous the better; by athletic contests, like the Olympic games; by collecting beautiful and useless things; and by the cultivation of exquisite arts, manners, and conventions, the more liberated from nature, the better, such as the art of courtly love, which measured its sublimity by its remoteness from physical consummation, or the Japanese tea ceremony, or the peculiar code of the English gentleman.

The luxurious city is one where men eat from tables, recline on couches, and sleep in comfortable beds; it is a city requiring such professions as perfume makers and pastry chefs, painters and embroiderers, beauticians and barbers, wet nurses and governenesses, grooms and huntsmen, gardeners and courtesans, swineherds and butchers, doctors and dieticians, etc. These servile arts, unlike those of the early city, exist only to produce luxuries for the rich, not the necessities needed by all. To expand the servile class, we need more servile men. Thus the luxurious city adds slaves to the ranks of free craftsmen.

It is Hegel — and the American founding fathers — who help us to understand the creation of the slave class. Cynics never tire of pointing out the irony that the Declaration of Independence, which speaks so eloquently about liberty and equality, was penned by and signed by slave owners. Suffice it to say that the slave owners saw no such irony. But why not? Were they simply blinded by their self-interest? A clue can be found in the Declaration itself, where the signatories pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the fight for freedom. By pledging their lives and fortunes, they were signaling their willingness to give them up for the cause of freedom. But they were not willing to give up their sacred honor; indeed, because they held their honor sacred, they were not willing to give it up — even to save their lives; and because they preferred death to dishonor, they thought themselves worthy of being free men.

As for men who were willing to sacrifice their honor to save their lives and property: These men were slavish; they were unworthy of freedom. In short, the aristocratic mind thinks that it is legitimate for there to be free and servile classes, because there are free and servile men. Free men prefer death before dishonor. Servile men prefer dishonor to death.

But how do we determine which men are free and which men are servile? Hegel’s famous struggle between master and slave in the Phenomenology of Spirit describes the process. The process is a duel to the death for honor. Such duels are fraught with contingency, but if the contingencies follow a certain pattern, the outcome is an aristocratic-slave society. First, there has to be a clear winner and a clear loser in the battle. Second, the defeated party must survive his defeat. This means that the victor must chose to spare him by making him a slave. It also means that the vanquished must choose not to kill himself. The choice of the vanquished to preserve his life at the cost of his honor legitimated his servitude in the mind of the master, and frequently enough in his own mind as well. Furthermore, in the master’s mind, it was his own certainty of his preference of death to dishonor that made him feel worthy of elevating himself while reducing the vanquished to a mere tool for better enjoying his freedom.

It is Hegel’s claim that it is the slave, working for the glorification of the master, who creates the cultural and historical world, the human city as opposed to the city of pigs; the master, by seeking his own glorification, contributes unintentionally to the glorification of all mankind. Indeed, history shows that every advanced culture practiced slavery, that every high art was created by servile men under aristocratic patronage, and that philosophy thought of itself as the noblest of professions because it was the idlest and most useless of them all.

Given that the idea of liberal versus servile education is founded on the social distinction between free and servile men, how can liberal education be legitimate in an egalitarian, democratic society that denies the legitimacy of such a social hierarchy? The answer of most liberal educators today is, unfortunately: It can’t. Liberal education cannot be legitimated in an egalitarian society. The distinction between high culture and low culture, high arts and low arts, freedom and necessity, culture and nature, sacred and profane, must be collapsed.

What does it collapse into? Vocational, scientific, and technological education flourish, and humanities departments, having been subjected to the egalitarian purge of all elitist culture, seem to be dividing themselves into departments of pop culture studies and departments of permanent revolution: gender studies, ethnic studies, queer theory, etc., kvetch tanks dedicated to permanent political campaigning — and dumping grounds for the otherwise unemployable affirmative action tokens. Liberal education becomes, in short, education by liberals — racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse, to be sure — as long as they are liberals. Its content becomes a progressively thinner gruel after repeated straining through the uniform mesh that forms the a priori categories of the liberal mind.

The result? To appreciate the danger of an education increasingly accommodated to popular culture, we have to make a distinction between institutions oriented toward the consumer and what we might call ethical or character building institutions. Consumer institutions cater to the given preferences — in Heideggerian terms, the Geworfenheit and Befindlichkeit — of the individual, no matter how foolish, immature, vain, or vulgar he may be. According to the consumer ethic, the individual finds himself with a certain set of interests and preferences, and then goes out into the world to satisfy them. If he walks into a store and finds his given preferences satisfied, he will buy; if not, he looks elsewhere.

Ethical institutions are different in that they do not cater to the given preferences of the individual; they do not accommodate themselves to the individual, they accommodate the individual to the institution. Why would anyone put up with this? Because individuals have both the capacity and the need to grow, to mature and deepen their preferences and characters, and character-building institutions offer the opportunity and incentives to learn from those who are older and wiser, those who have been in our shoes, who have grown out of them, who know how to help us along, and who have the authority needed to pull and prod us through the tough spots, when, left to consult our given preferences, we would just as soon give up.

According to Hegel, such institutions as marriage, family life, productive work, education, military service, and other forms of civil service are paradigmatic ethical institutions. The problem that education shares with marriage, the family, the workplace, and the military in today’s society are the egalitarian and individualist demands to transform them from ethical institutions shaping preferences to consumer institutions catering to preferences, no matter how immature and ignoble those preferences may be.

The emphasis on popular culture is symptomatic of this trend. Popular culture, unlike high culture, requires no taste and cultivation to enjoy. It caters to our preferences. We do not have to work to enjoy it. Indeed, popular culture is better called consumer culture, for it is created primarily for mass consumption, and bears all the marks of mass production, such as cheesiness and planned obsolescence. Consumer education thus serves not to liberate the mind from desire, from nature and necessity, from the vulgar and workaday; consumer education serves to further ensnare us, by attacking the institutions and conventions that sublimate desire toward something higher.

If what is distinctly human about us is our capacity to create and participate in the culture of reason and spirit, then we have to say that modern education, by tending toward the abolition of high culture in favor of the popular culture of desire, tends toward the abolition of the distinctly human. Thus the question: “Is liberal education a good thing?” really boils down to the question: “Is being human a good thing — or can we be content with merely being clever animals?” The whole tendency of modern education, and of modern life in general, is geared toward reducing us to clever, slavish, appetitive, security-loving, risk-averse, unheroic animals. All too many are content with that lot. But you are not. That is why we meet as we do.


1. In this context, it makes sense to speak in terms of a movement from the material to the spiritual; for Bataille, it is more accurately deemed a movement from the profane to the sacred, and the profane can just as well be spiritual as the sacred can be material.

2. Bataille leaves open the possibility that the sacred non-material values can become routinized and therefore profane, allowing their material negations to assume the role of the sacred. This could serve as a good beginning for a definition of cultural decadence.