Do Not Seek Immediate Utility In Everything

In his Politics, Aristotle spends a good deal of time discussing the education and training of the youth.  One memorable passage contains the following thoughts:

It is therefore clear that there is an aspect of education which ought to be taught to our sons not because it is useful or necessary, but because it frees the spirit and ennobles the soul.  It is also clear that some of the useful things ought to be studied by the young not only because of their utility, such as reading and writing, but also because they can lead to the study of other things.  In the same way drawing should be studied, not so that one might not be cheated in buying and selling equipment, but rather because this study makes a man observant of beauty.  To seek utility in everything is not appropriate to men who are of great spirit and free.  [1338a—1338b; trans. by S.G. Miller]

I have italicized the last line in the quotation above.  But I wish I could write it in bold-faced, capital letters, and have it carved above the doorways of university lecture-halls.  For in the world of learning or training, we often encounter a sentiment that demands an immediate and cognizable “usefulness” for every subject, every axion, every lesson, and every morsel of wisdom.  Such people are unable to project their minds and imaginations to any sort of higher, nobler plane, to survey the field of life from a better vantage point; they remain imprisoned in the world of the now and the immediate present

This thinking is usually expressed with the same repetitive questions.  Someone will say, Why should I study this?  What benefit will it provide me?  How will this enable me to make more money?  And here the proper answer responses should be:  What?  Don’t you consider living a good life to be a “benefit”?  Don’t you consider having peace of mind, and physical health, to be a “benefit”?  Don’t you think that, in order to be a success in life, you should become a better human being?  Well?  The reason we study philosophy is to make ourselves better and our lives easier; the reason we contemplate beauty is to hone our appreciation of its expression; and the reason—or at least a major reason—we study mathematics is to discipline our minds with logical proofs.  There is a certain constricting literalism that has afflicted the minds of many people; they remain unable to rise above the narrow confines of words to grasp broad concepts and moral principles.  It is this mentality that presents an obstacle to be overcome.  But Aristotle has yet more to say along these lines:

At the present time some of the states with the greatest reputation for attention to their children produce in them such an athletic condition as to detract from the form and growth of the body.  The Spartans, although they have avoided this mistake, turn their children into little animals through their labors, which they think contribute to manliness.  But, as has often been said, attention must be paid not just to one virtue, nor even to one virtue before all others.  Indeed, they do not even consider whether their training leads to that virtue…Nobility and not animalism should play the leading role, for neither a wolf nor any other animal will risk a noble danger, but only a good man.  Those who train their children in athletics to the exclusion of other necessities make their children truly vulgar and available to the state for only one kind of work, and actually train them worse for this one job than others do.  [1339a; trans. by S.G. Miller]

Nobility, and not animalism, should play the leading role.  This is admirably stated.  As important as athletic training is, Aristotle is telling us, it cannot be promoted to the exclusion of other necessities, or else the final product will be something vulgar and useless.  While this may sound like a truism that is easy to grasp, in practice this is not always so.  Even intelligent, capable men can fall victim to what we may call “one dimensionality.”  When I say one-dimensionality, I mean a personality that is so good at one thing, that his growth has been stunted in other areas.  I mean someone who has not learned to temper his superlative abilities and skills with a measure of philosophical reflection, good humor, and knowledge of social interactions. 

Thus by seeking utility in everything, the one-dimensional man denies himself a chance at nobility.  For him, everything must have an immediate and practical purpose.  But philosophy and other civilizing influences take time to germinate and flourish in the mind; and if these nobler pursuits are neglected, stunted emotional and mental growth will be the result.  The consequences of this may be fatal.  An illustrative and tragic example of this one-dimensionality is found in this historian Diodorus Siculus, who was writing in the first century B.C. 

In the year 325 B.C., Alexander the Great held a large banquet for his friends and companions, as was his habit.  Present at this dinner were two capable and accomplished men, a Macedonian named Koragos, and an Athenian named Dioxippos.  Koragos had shown bravery in battle, and Dioxippos had been a victor in the pankration at Olympia in 336 B.C.  As the wine flowed and tongues loosened, these two men became involved in a heated argument.  With the provocations of others, the dispute escalated; eventually Koragos challenged Dioxippos to a duel, which the latter accepted.  Alexander gave it his approval, and the contest was scheduled.  Thousands of men gathered to watch this battle between the two warriors.  Alexander preferred his Macedonian kinsman, while the men of the Greek city-states favored Dioxippos. 

On the day of the fight, Koragos arrived in his best armor.  Dioxippos himself wore nothing except oil on his bare skin; he carried no weapon but a club.  “The Macedonian looked like Ares,” says Diodorus, “as he inspired terror through his stature and the brilliance of his weapons; Dioxippos resembled Hercules in his strength and athletic training, and even more so because he carried a club.”  The contest was then joined.  Koragos threw his spear at his opponent, which Dioxippos dodged.  Koragos then charged him with a long lance; but Dioxippos parried it, then smashed its shaft with his club.  When Koragos tried to draw his sword, Dioxippos knocked him down.  Soon his foot was on Koragos’s neck; he then raised his club in the air, to signify that he had won the contest.  Alexander motioned for the bout to stop; but he was displeased that a Macedonian had been bettered by Dioxippos. 

While Dioxippos basked in the garlands of victory, Alexander’s courtiers grew jealous of him.  As often happens in such environments, they sensed Alexander’s annoyance at Koragos’s loss, and keyed their behavior to suit what would please their autocrat.  Soon a whispering campaign was being conducted against Dioxippos, egged on by jealous attendants.  Eventually, someone made a false accusation against him.  A golden drinking cup was hidden in the cushions where he normally sat during dinners; one of Alexander’s attendants “found” the cup, and accused Dioxippos of theft.  He knew that the Macedonians were conspiring against him, and wanted to see him disgraced, so he left the symposium.  He then wrote a note to Alexander explaining that he had been framed; once this was delivered to the king, Dioxippos took his own life.  Diodorus adds,

He [Dioxippos] may have been ill-advised to accept the duel, but he was even more foolish to have done away with himself, for it gave his critics the chance to say that it was a real hardship to have great strength of body, but little of mind. [XVII.101]

What was the cause of Dioxippos’s undoing?  It was his one-dimensionality; he lacked the maturity and depth to understand the jealousies and intrigues that secretly swirled around him.  While supremely competent in athletic ability, he nevertheless lacked a certain philosophical depth, a wisdom in social interactions, that would have enabled him to make sense of what was happening in Alexander’s court.  The study of moral philosophy would have given Dioxippos the wisdom and psychological armament, so to speak, to deal with his situation.  Instead, he allowed himself to be drawn into malicious intrigues, took them personally, and responded irrationally.  He was probably one of those individuals who sought immediate utility in everything.  It is easy to imagine Dioxippos as one of those people who would have asked a tutor in philosophy, “Of what use will this knowledge be for me?” If so, he should have been reprimanded with this admonition: this knowledge can save your life.

We cannot imagine, for example, that a Washington, a Lincoln, or a George Marshall, would have responded in this way to calumnies.  These man possessed a depth of maturity and reflection that allowed them to shrug off personal attacks, while remaining focused on their purposes and missions.  It is not a matter of intelligence; it is a matter of training the soul to accept the realities of life.  And only the study of philosophy can accomplish this.  No one was more intelligent than Alexander Hamilton, and yet he allowed himself to be sucked into a lethal duel with Aaron Burr in 1800.  No naval commander was more competent than Stephen Decatur, and yet he foolishly fell victim to a duel with Commodore James Barron in 1820. 

He who seeks a rigid utility in all aspects of education marks himself as a man who, as Aristotle notes, lacks both a great spirit and real freedom: for he denies his soul the nutriment needed for growth, and condemns himself to a stunted emotional development that will eventually imperil his fortunes. 



Read more on the improvement of life and thought processes in the new translation of Tusculan Disputations: