Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
A.E. Housman

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.


Small is Beautiful, pt. 4

[previous entries in the series: part 1, part 2, and part 3]

Not content to offer mere diagnosis, Schumacher dedicates considerable space in Small is Beautiful to concrete proposals for reform. Recognize the importance of education, technology, and social organization (here, he is primarily thinking of large scale organizations, corporations, government, etc.) to modern society, he focuses on those areas. We therefore begin with education:

If Western civilization is in a state of permanent crisis, it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education. No civilization, I am sure, has ever devoted more energy and resources to organized education, and if we believe in nothing else, we certainly believe that education is, or should be, the key to everything. In fact, the belief in education is so strong that we treat it as the residual legatee of all our problems. If the nuclear age brings new dangers; if the advance of genetic engineering opens the doors to new abuses; if commercialism brings new temptations–the answer must be more and better education.

Small is Beautiful , 84

I don’t think you need to be a particularly sophisticated reader to note the subtle critique here, but whether the modern fixation on education is ridiculous or not, serious reform is necessary. In another work, Christopher Dawson sums up the problem in terms I believe Schumacher would agree with:

In the modern world the average man can go through his whole education without becoming aware of the existence of this elementary and essential spiritual factor either in the individual psyche or in the life of civilization.. Whether he studies the liberal arts or science and technology he is given no inkling of the existence of any higher principle which can be known and which can influence individual behavior or social culture. Yet, as I have said, all the great historical civilizations of the past recognize the existence of some spiritual principles or ends of this kind and made them the key of their interpretation of reality and their concepts of moral order. Hence a system of education like that of the modern secular state which almost totally ignores the spiritual component in human culture and in the human psyche is a blunder so enormous that no advance in scientific method or educational technique is sufficient to compensate for it.

Small is Beautiful, 203

That final line is an important one and hearkens back to a point made by Schumacher and noted in the second post of this series. Namely, that one of the characteristic mistakes of our age is expecting a technical solution to solve a problem rooted in the illegitimate predominance of techne. In concrete terms, this means that reforms that propose to solve the problem of education by adding computers to the classroom or developing some innovative teaching method not only will not help the situation, but are in fact concrete manifestations of what’s gone wrong in the first place. It is precisely the idea that we need only to stumble upon the right method, some neutral set of processes, and then allocate the proper resources to it that is the problem. Endlessly tweaking the method is a waste of time at best and quite often an active harm as this tweaking saps the momentum of centuries in favor of novelty.

What education needs instead is a re-orientation toward what actually matters, namely how to live:

To do so, the task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives. There is not doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them….More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.

Small is Beautiful, 86 (my emphasis)

It’s remarkable how purposeless education is today. Think, what is the point of an education? To make it simpler, let’s restrict our focus to the university, what is the purpose of a college education? If it is to prepare you for a job, then it is a horribly constructed institution, imparting almost no practical skills and compartmentalizing career services into an optionally (and rarely) explored corner of campus. Those exalting the utility of the liberal arts for work conveniently ignore that this utility is entirely accidental. You might end up using some insight from Dante in your job at a fancy non-profit, but your study of Dante was certainly not directed toward that end.

Thus, education cannot be directed toward work (and if it is, ought to be wholly reconfigured and begun again), nor, thanks to the denial of spiritual ends noted by Dawson, can it be directed towards some moral or metaphysical purpose.1 A university education cannot be aimed at making you a better person (as in the classical conception of the liberal arts), because the possibility of moral truth is denied by virtually everyone. That this denial is contradictory nonsense, leading not to a neutral, tolerant system that facilitates the glorious free-flow of ideas, untrammeled by illogical prejudice, but rather a schizophrenic mush of objectively asserted and practiced moral claims that refuse to subject themselves to rationality under the guise of not being claims at all (and thus becoming far less tolerant and more totalitarian than anywhere that dogma is explicitly pronounced) is simply ignored.

So what’s the point? “Critical thinking”? What does that phrase, so often bandied about, even mean? And, come to think of it, how often are “thinking” skills actually taught? How often is a student required to read Aristotle on logic, Cicero on rhetoric, or any book that’s actually about how to persuade and argue rationally? Instead, students are expected to discern how to think critically by (best case) analyzing history and literature and writing papers about them. I confess, this doesn’t make much sense to me. To bring about any real reform, we need to actually articulate a purpose for education and work coherently toward that purpose, which, of course, requires rejecting the abandonment of metaphysics and attendant denial of human nature.

Examined from a different angle: There is no such thing as a neutral space of ideas, no education without some metaphysical grounding. Any assertion to the contrary is a flat lie that utterly destroys any possibility for true education (again, people today are generally only educated by accident and momentum). Moreover, since we are, at our very root, metaphysical beings, education without a coherent metaphysical grounding is profoundly anti-human. It is worse than pointless:

Whether the subjects taught are subjects of science or of the humanities, if the teaching does not lead to a clarification of metaphysics, that is to say, of our fundamental convictions, it cannot educate a man and, consequently, cannot be of real value to society.

Small is Beautiful , 98

Thus, we must, to reform education, abandon the pretense of neutrality, abandon the anti-human ideologies of the modern era, and re-orient education towards the metaphysical, recovering the true purpose of an education: to make us better.

Our reason has become beclouded by an extraordinary, blind and unreasonable faith in a set of fantastic and life-destroying ideas inherited from the nineteenth century. It is the foremost task of our reason to recover a truer faith than that.

Small is Beautiful , 98
  1. “The most powerful ideas of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, have denied or at least obscured the whole concept of “levels of being” and the idea that some things are higher than others. This, of course, has meant the destruction of ethics, which is based on the distinction of good and evil, claiming that good is higher than evil.” (Small is Beautiful, 105)
    Since Schumacher is worried a great deal about environmental degradation, recall that I’ve previously argued that any coherent environmental ethic must be predicated on a hierarchy of being.

On the Death of a particular Friend

On the Death of a particular Friend
James Thomson

AS those we love decay, we die in part,
String after string is sever’d from the heart;
Till loosen’d life, at last but breathing clay,
Without one pang is glad to fall away.

Unhappy he who latest feels the blow!
Whose eyes have wept o’er every friend laid low,
Dragg’d ling’ring on from partial death to death,
Till, dying, all he can resign is—breath.

In Earliest Spring

In Earliest Spring
William Dean Howells

Tossing his mane of snows in wildest eddies and tangles,
Lion-like March cometh in, hoarse, with tempestuous breath,
Through all the moaning chimneys, and ‘thwart all the hollows and
Round the shuddering house, threatening of winter and death.

But in my heart I feel the life of the wood and the meadow
Thrilling the pulses that own kindred with fibres that lift
Bud and blade to the sunward, within the inscrutable shadow,
Deep in the oak’s chill core, under the gathering drift.

Nay, to earth’s life in mine some prescience, or dream, or desire
(How shall I name it aright?) comes for a moment and goes-
Rapture of life ineffable, perfect-as if in the brier,
Leafless there by my door, trembled a sense of the rose.

Chorus from ‘Atalanta’

Chorus from ‘Atalanta’
Algernon Charles Swinburne

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces.
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
With a clamour of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night.

Where shall we find her, how shall we sing to her,
Fold our hands round her knees, and cling?
O that man’s heart were as fire and could spring to her,
Fire, or the strength of the streams that spring!
For the stars and the winds are unto her
As raiment, as songs of the harp-player;
For the risen stars and the fallen cling to her,
And the southwest-wind and the west-wind sing.

For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remember’d is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes
From leaf to flower and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofèd heel of a satyr crushes
The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root.

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal’s hair
Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.