November 28, 2009

Feeding the Beast

The following quotations are from ch. 3 of Chris Hedges’ most recent book, Empire of Illusion.

“The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive....The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service...come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market....Those who critique the system itself–people such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dennis Kucinich, or Ralph Nader–are marginalized and shut out of the mainstream debate. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter.”

“The bankruptcy of our economic and political systems can be traced directly to the assault against the humanities...A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death. Morality is the product of a civilization, but the elites know little of these traditions. They are products of a moral void.”

“There has been a concerted assault on all forms of learning that are not brutally utilitarian.... Only 8 percent of college receive degrees in the humanities....Business majors since 1970-1971 have risen from 13.6 percent of the graduating population to 21.7 percent....Any form of learning not strictly vocational has at best been marginalized and in many schools abolished....[The] defense of knowledge for its own sake, as a way to ask the broad moral and social questions, has been shredded and destroyed. Most universities have become high-priced occupational training centers.”

“And as small, liberal arts schools have folded–at least 200 since 1990–they have been replaced with corporate, for-profit universities....The myopic and narrow vision of life as an accumulation of money and power...has become education’s dominant ideology....The flight from the humanities has become a flight from conscience.”

“Our not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one....Their entire focus is numbers, profits, and personal advancement. They lack a moral and intellectual core. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships.”

“People like Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson, Robert Rubin, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, AIG’s Edward Liddy, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, along with most of our ruling class, have used corporate money and power to determine the narrow parameters of the debate in our classrooms, on the airwaves, and in the halls of Congress–while looting the country. Many of these men appear to be so morally and intellectually stunted that they are incapable of acknowledging their responsibility for our decline.”

“Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley, and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege, comfort, and entitlement....Our power elite has a blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured, enriched, and empowered it. But the elite cannot solve our problems. It has been trained only to find solutions, such as paying out trillions of dollars of taxpayer money to bail out banks and financial firms, to sustain a dead system. The elite, and those who work for them, were never taught how to question the assumptions of their age. The socially important knowledge and cultural ideas embodied in history, literature, philosophy, and religion, which are at their core subversive and threatening to authority, have been banished from public discourse.”

“The elite...know only how to feed the beast until it dies. Once it is dead, they will be helpless. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. They do not even know how to ask the questions. And when it collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, the power elite will be exposed as being helpless, and as self-deluded, as the rest of us.”


Anonymous Kevin said...

I recall that, when I was in high school, my fellow students and I eagerly and naively lapped up our teacher's definition of the "American system" as "democratic capitalism".

I'd love to run into him today, if he's still alive, so I could offer him my own formulation: That the American system is actually a "plutocratic ochlocracy". I wonder whether he'd even understand me?

5:50 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Ochlocracy = mobocracy, I guess. Idiocracy might be more to the pt. Hedges says that as the economic crisis deepens, a rage will develop in the populace, such as occurred in Weimar Germany. As a result: "A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to simpletons like Sarah Palin to loudmouth talk-show hosts, whom we naively dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal." I can't imagine such a docile population as that of the US developing any kind of sustained rage, but I could be wrong. Cabarets and comedy clubs in Weimar Germany did dismiss Hitler as a buffoon, and made him the target of their jokes, but he had the last laugh. Sarah P. might have it as well, who knows. But if one thing is clear, it's that there is no rosy future ahead.


7:31 PM  
Blogger WCS Minor Circuit said...

This is definitely something that's needs to be said-- and not just once, but over and over again because it seems not to be getting through the heads of the people who actually control these institutions. I doubt we will ever see things get better, judging from the way things are going now, but at least we as individuals can make changes in our own personal lives to not let these elitists totally destroy everything we know in the name of dollar signs (or we can just move elsewhere, though even now that prospect is seeming more and more bleak with more countries blindly following the United State's example).

Though I'm incredibly liberal in my politics, I laugh at the very though of Obama being the savior of our country, much less of the "free world". Democrat or Republican or Independent, the people who are running things are held (most of them willingly) in the chains of banks and corporations, more so than most of us can possibly understand. Obama is a figurehead for the elites, and -- if viewed objectively -- is no different from anyone else in US politics. My own personal politics don't matter when our government is run essentially by money.

I'm sorry for going on more than I should about this, but it is frustrating that most of the people I try to talk to about this in real life just kind of brush me off as some "hippie radical". It's even more frustrating when people ask what I'm majoring in and I tell them "sociology and political science", they just look at me and say "and what are you going to do with THAT?". Students seem to be in college just to get a job, and the very notion of "learning because you love something" seems incomprehensible to mostly everyone.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Well, mobs are inherently idiotic, I think, and the "ochlocracy" aspect captures perfectly the pandering to the lowest common denominator that so characterizes our "culture".

By the way, you and your readers may find the following article as fascinating as I did:

It's from a New Zealand paper, and published in 1897!

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

Latin, German (what I teach), and French are quietly vanishing from our middle schools, and high schools. Around 80% of high school students take their two years of Spanish, and then it's "hasta luego" to foreign language study. Latin, German, and French teachers have an impossible task. If we make the material too hard, then all the kids drop. If too easy, then you don't get the AP results, and it looks like you aren't teaching them anything, which you wouldn't be. The students all sit there looking at you waiting to be entertained. I didn't know that I was going into show business when I started teaching. It is very similar to "Generation X Goes to College." Thanks for the recommendation. It is madness, and I have reconciled myself to teaching English, my secondary certification, for the last half of my career. There is always Shakespeare. My English class will be called "Shakespeare with a Vengeance." The French teacher and I have decided that it is more honorable to go out teaching the right way. Obama wants everyone to go to college. Isn't that a revolutionary idea? I do have a few "gems" this year. There are a couple of Russian boys who just moved here, and they actually do their homework and study. It's been awhile since I've seen any of that action. It almost takes my breath away. Amazing things still happen in America each and every day! Now, how did we "beat" the Soviet Union down? Thanks for the great post.

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Joe from IN said...

It's a shame about the elites, but we also don't have any commoners to keep them honest. Any attempts at civics and humanities for the common man were left in the dust by public education a couple of generations ago. And what middle/lower class college student in their right mind takes a chance on paying back a ($30K minimum for public, $150K minimum for LA college or elite u!) loan for a humanities degree when they've learned little to nothing about the humanities in HS?

As a card-carrying prole who has cracked enough books (including much of Hedges' fine body of work) to understand the waste of human capital that has been occurring in public education, I honestly weep for our country. Palin is the inevitable result of an incomplete public education system.

Here is an education-related news item from my home state. If this doesn't sum up the state of the union I don't know what does:

10:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Thank you all for your insightful comments. If you want to complete the picture, check out "Idiot America," by Charles Pierce, along with "The Lonely American," by Olds and Schwartz--good documentation of the human wreckage caused by The American Way of Life. But I do recommend Hedges' short book, above all, because it is extremely comprehensive in its survey of who and what we are, and why.

The only thing Hedges leaves out--and I fault Michael Moore for this as well (I recently saw "Capitalism")--is that he traces our problems back to about 1980, and the whole Reaganite 'revolution'. It did accelerate things, to be sure, but the real truth abt all civilizations is that they are dialectical: the seeds of their destruction are sown in the early years, serve to expand the power of that civ, and in the fullness of time turn against it. It is for this reason that no civ has been able to avert decline, because the ingrained habits of centuries simply cannot be reversed. In fact, the record is that in the declining phase, civs actually exacerbate the tendencies that are destroying them--and we are going to see a lot more of that, believe me. A few commentators in the US hailed Obama as a 'transformative' president, or potentially transformative, when the truth is that he got into office via huge corporate donations and remains beholden to them for his position atop the system. Even more, he always displayed a conservative temperament, in the classic, organic meaning of the word (i.e., a la Edmund Burke). He has no radical plans for the US, and it should come as no surprise that torture still goes on (including our program of 'extraordinary rendition'), the war in Afghanistan is expanding, we are still in Iraq, Guantanamo remains open, his economic advisers are the very (neoliberal) clowns who gave us the current depression, the whole health care thing is going on the rocks thanks to corporate lobbying, and on and on (this is a very abbreviated list). In any case, for more on the historical roots of our (dialectical) situation, you might want to check out historians such as William Appleman Williams and Joyce Appleby; I also cover some of this territory in "Dark Ages America."

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

I read your post on Hedge’s recent book shortly after receiving a glossy muti-page alumni “newsletter” from the English Department at my undergraduate university which appeared to be nothing more than superficially disguised promotional material for the Kindle and I-Pod, with an overriding message of “You are really not with it, without a digital device.” I do like to think that at least some of the faculty who put this together knew that they were caught in a social machine with which they had to collude, but from which they could not escape. I should scour the newsletter for hidden signs of this, or leave it as a matter of (dwindling) faith. (Hey, how about that name for a device, that we are using all the time without knowing it—the Dwindle.)

Erasmus had famously satirized a decadent Scholasticism, describing its arguments as nothing more than discussions about “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” In our time, the pin has been replaced by the pixel. (As far as angels go, it is probably better to disbelieve in them than take on a New Age fantasy, a “Hello Kitty” spirituality . That would dishonour the bold, awesome critters, that Michelangelo depicted and beheld.)

I know about ten kids between the ages of ten and eighteen in my hometown, and eight of them are on some kind of medication for “mood disorders” ADD, ADHD, or what have you. (We rely on acronymic nomenclature because that is the alphabet of the Three Weird Sisters of Comfort, Convenience, and Efficiency, who value speed, and instant solutions, or the profitable appearance thereof. Hence, of course, the pharmaceutical response to “learning disorders.”)

I really wanted to make some remarks about the “state of the humanities:--I mean college, university, and all, but the disintegration we are living in almost makes that discussion seem “academic.” In a former life, some forty years ago, I devoured books on, and took courses in Aesthetics, which is a subject that still holds my interest, and quite a challenge to take on seriously these days, even for an hour or two a week or a day. The word “aesthetics” derives from the word
“aisthesis” meaning “perception.” Living in contemporary American society may prove such hazards to the basic organic manifold of our being that the ability to perceive becomes so corrupted that education becomes impossible. Or well-nigh so.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mark,

Consider the possibility that we are living in an anaesthetic society--in more ways than one.

As for iPods etc, I liked the remark Ralph Nader made a few mos. ago, that the system gives people gadgets to hold in their hands, in lieu of having any real stake in their lives, any political activity or self-determination. If students are suckers for this sort of thing, so are faculty members, in my experience. The latest toy makes them feel 'empowered', and very few Americans--whether Harvard profs or working-class stiffs--see through this.

Onward and downward!


5:05 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman and fellow posters,

I read The Empire of Illusion when it was released this summer and found parts of it to be very hard to read. Though I know what he's saying is true I agree with you that it may have gained momentum in the eighties but it's now barreling toward us at an unstoppable speed. I recently reread The Brothers Karamozov forty years after reading it the first time as a very idealist young woman. I see now what he meant and why he asked the question: what would the world look like if there were no moral constraints and no community to hold us together?

"For eyeryone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation. For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself. He accumulates wealth in solitude, thinking: how strong, how secure I am now; and does not see, madman as he is, that the more he accumulates, the more he sinks into suicidal impotence. For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people's help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles lest his money and his acquired privileges perish. Everywhere now the human mind has begun laughably not to understand that a man's true security lies not in his own solitary effort, but in the general wholeness of humanity."

This was written about 130 years ago and how many of Anon. student's will read these words and see the wisdom and want to read more? The loss of the Humanities from our educational system will do incalculable damage. But then again, the Ivy League education many elites received appear to have done very little to enlighten them.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Joe from IN said...

"But then again, the Ivy League education many elites received appear to have done very little to enlighten them."

Yes, willful ignorance is not exclusive to those w/o a trust fund! We choose to watch rigged games like the WWE, they choose to watch rigged games like the S&P. The difference is that they've been told that they can turn around and watch the puppeteers at any time. The rest of us have to break a couple of chains just to figure out that it's a show.

3:18 PM  
Blogger DepthDiver said...

As I clean the strawberries I struggle to keep fresh so as to reduce the number of drives to the grocery store in SoCal where I live (green bags: they work!), I think about Hedges' words, and those of the following posters.
I cried when I read what you've included here, Dr. Berman. For I've recently ended my job as a HS teacher within a Court and Community School system that is failing, and yet, its administrators are trying to expand it, so as to save their own jobs. I began my work there with honest and honorable intentions, and learned much, ending with more respect for my students than my co-workers, feeling "beat down" by the system, and coming, finally, back to my own core of values for compassion, human relating, and inherent love of learning for its own sake.
With regard to perception and aesthetics, Dr. Berman, I am reminded of your comments in WG concerning embodiment, pp. 239-241, and would like you to share more, if you think this a good forum. I have recently been mulling much on the notion of grief, and the tension of living between the horizontal and the vertical as you have laid it out in this work.
Also (I don't know whether it is proper to comment on another post in one's response; I've never commented on a blog before), Kingsolver accomplished a tour de force in The Poisonwood Bible, showing with great clarity what patriarchy on the familial, religious, and the national levels can hold; her story is well-etched and carefully detailed.
With sincere gratefulness for your work,

4:21 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear SH,

Well, your experience with the high schl parallels mine a number of times with universities. I began my first academic job at Rutgers University in 1970, and looking back, I was naive beyond belief. I thought we were going to sit around the faculty dining room and talk about ideas(!). Instead, it was abt who had received the largest merit increment, and who was sleeping with whose wife-kinda stuff. One of the grad students, ironically enough, set me straight: "It's just a job to these people," he told me; "ham and eggs, breakfast on the table. That's basically it." Over the years I learned that Rutgers was not unique; that academia was very susceptible to fashionable intellectual trends (including deconstruction, which actually proclaimed that there was no such thing as truth and that for all intents and purposes, the life of an academic was pointless); and that if there was any choice to be made between deep values, e.g. academic standards, and paying off one's mortgage, the 'debate' was over before it even began. Students, of course, pick this attitude up right away, and are as cynical and pragmatic as the faculty. The rare faculty member that actually has deep convictions about the meaning of education generally doesn't last very long, and the student in this category is typically regarded by his/her peers as a freak. So the reality is that on all levels of the educational system, real education occurs in spite of the system, not because of it. You are one among thousands of casualties, and you won't be the last. You know this.

Regarding your ref to WG, I hadn't read it in 9 yrs, so I had to go back and reread the pp. you refer to. I'm not sure I can really comment on that text here; it would take a very long time to unpack it, I suspect. But the thing that I always found so impressive about the work was the sales figures: I regard it as the best bk I ever wrote; it sold all of 2000 copies, and got almost no reviews. Of course, that in itself is no guarantee of quality; it could be the work of a crank. But modesty apart, I think that everything I've written was conceived out of the desire to have a life, rather than a career; and from that pt of view, I now see it as an accident, something of a miracle, that I actually did get tenure, once upon a time. Because the work that issues from the space of conviction, that life has to be about meaning and authenticity, is very different from the work that comes out of the space of "I've got a mortgage to pay off." Finally--and I hope this helps you in your situation--the old cliche abt virtue being its own reward is true. I mean, I'm never going to win a Pulitzer or attain any kind of serious recognition within this society, even if I live past 100; that's a foregone conclusion. But what I can say is that I lived *my* life, and to the best of my ability said and wrote what I believed was true about human culture and human existence, and that that is going to have to be enough. (In fact, it's not bad at all, when you think about it.) If it pissed a lot of people off, if what I wrote was either ignored (like WG) or vilified (like DAA), well, hard cheese. While I respect the need to pay off a mortgage or get the kids braces on their teeth, the bottom line, morally speaking, is what one is willing to sacrifice to have those things. 99% are willing to sacrifice virtually everything; 1%, at best, stick to their guns. You pay a price either way; it's finally a question of which price you want to pay.

Good luck.--mb

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting Diver. As Dr. Berman says – you are not alone but there aren’t a lot of people out there consciously taking the hit.

I worked in the non-profit world for over two decades as I felt it was a better way to live my life in general though I never earned much money. Similarly to you, I found I admired the average client more than the administrators and “managers” of the programs. When the institutions started mirroring the corrupt, corporate-think world we inhabit in the US I tried to form a union. My co-workers were lazy and too inept to see the collapse of the system around them and lacked any real courage. They were easily redirected by organizational promises of one kind or another. Following this I worked for a large union in the Northeast to try and help unorganized workers. It turned out the union was as corrupt as any of the businesses they were organizing against and mistreated their union organizers. I could have kept my mouth shut but I believed in what I was doing. About six of us were fired for standing up to the union and their treatment of a particular young woman who was hospitalized after working herself sick (no, the irony has never been lost on me!). Again, I lost what would have been a very good paying and easy job.

I’m now trying to live in Latin America as best I can. It is far from perfect and life is very uncertain. On some level I’m way too old for this experiment and yet the alternative is living in a kind of prison in the US. I have decided to own less and less so I need less and less money. It is better to live on the periphery of a sick culture than in it.

So, for Diver and anyone really - keep the faith and do what you can to live your life well. Keep reading and exploring the fringes outside of the mainstream. When you can, throw your monkey wrench into the narrative we have learned in the US.

We’ve got some great writers like Dr. Berman, Parenti, Hedges and many others to keep us inspired!

El Juero

9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear SH,

You have to learn to ignore the administrators. Administrators started off as teachers, didn't like it, or couldn't hack it, and climbed as far away from the classroom as possible. I can teach any book I want. My supervisor observes me once every two years; not a bad deal..My frustration comes more from kids unwilling to do anything at home, and parents who are very unintellectual and unsupportive. They usually attack me when I call them for help. The parents you "have" to contact, are never the ones you "want" to contact. In every class I have probably five "gems" and 20 primitive types. I keep the 20 "reluctant learners" quiet so that the five "gems" can learn something. Of course you try to pull the others up, or reach out to them, but it rarely happens. They are just angry at you because you make them stay quiet. Teaching isn't like the movies. The student has to come to you with some curiosity and willingness to learn. (The horse to water thing) I do think that having a job in these dark times is very important. Call me practical. Teaching is a valuable job, probably the best job, even if our materialistic society doesn't value it. We have a faulty culture which Mr. Berman has outlined very well. Why can't I be an eccentric, oddball teacher and still stay true to myself and my discipline?

Here is my "Star Wars" thought and it sums up my view of teaching:

As a teacher, you are Obi Wan living in a primitive, future world that doesn't value your ancient knowledge anymore:reading,writing,spelling,
geography,deep thought,languages, etc. All that trivial stuff. The society may say it does, but it's just an illusion. You can't change the world by yourself, but you can still try to pass on that knowlege which is so rapidly vanishing. That is how I see teaching in the 21st century. Don't expect any praise from superiors, society, or parents. You stay true to yourself and your discipline!

10:34 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

We slowly seem to be collecting a group of NMI's on this blog. To all 42 of you who regularly read it or check in, I just want to say thanks. 42 isn't much, of course, but as a Zen master once said to me years ago: "Consider the alternative!" (If you think the remaining 306.9999999 million out there are enjoying themselves, think again.)

Meanwhile--speaking of nonalternatives--Obama is about to announce a major widening of the war in Afghanistan at West Point tomorrow. I wonder if this will manage to wake the "liberals" up, that this guy is merely George Bush with a command of English. Probably not. But there is a silver lining, after all: Afghanistan has traditionally been called the "graveyard of empires." As in the case of the former USSR, this incredibly stupid venture will accelerate the decline, and what the hell: might as well get it over with; I mean, what is it exactly that we are preserving at this point? But from the viewpoint of those who actually believe the American eagle is a loving presence in the world, the gov't couldn't be making a dumber move. Forward, into the quagmire!


11:08 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

You may have an exceptional situation. As the years passed and things got progressively worse in education, I told myself that I would stay in the game as long as it didn't seep into my classroom. But eventually it did: the commodity society knows no boundaries. When finally the system of student evals was instituted, so that profs were encouraged to become performing bears for lunkheads whose only interest was in being entertained, I knew it was time to find another career. The truth is that capitalism is like DMSO, the universal solvent--everything gets dissolved, as Marx wrote long ago, in "the icy waters of egotistical calculation."


10:09 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Hedges is indeed a prophetic voice, crying out in the wilderness of American culture -- and like so many prophets before him, either ignored or disdained as "too depressing" and "upsetting things." I recommend "Empire of Illusion" to as many people as I can, but very few want to read it. Actually, more than a few are obviously afraid to read it, because they simply don't want to know how bad things are today.

I work with a fair number of recent college graduates, most of them starting careers as engineers and technical writers. Yet their favorite book is "The Secret," which they discuss incessantly, and their viewing is limited to "reality" shows & blockbuster films.

This is a truly frightening prospect: the next generation of technical experts, whom you'd expect to have a scientific, rational, logical approach to life, have quite successfully compartmentalized their expertise. It doesn't seem to touch or inform their emotional side at all, which is mired in a child's magical worldview. Which means they can be all too easily manipulated, right along with the majority of the populace.

As for Obama, I've noticed that while he calls for excellence in education, he limits that to science & math, i.e., immediately marketable skills. There's no call to revive & study the arts & humanities. All that's required is accurate technique; the powers that be don't want their experts clouded by depth of thought, much less a crisis of conscience.

The more I consider it, the more I think that "Idiocracy" will prove to be the single most illuminating & representative depiction of our culture to future generations ... assuming there are any, of course.

Joe from IN: what a horrifying article! Yet "Idiocracy" predicted that all too accurately, didn't it? The extent to which casual cruelty has permeated our culture is sickening. I shudder to think of what the next few decades will be like.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

I have come to dislike the term "humanities", myself. The implied opposition is with the term "divinity". While I am no friend of religion, organized or otherwise, the myopic and obsessive anthropomorphizing of the world that "Humanism" represents scarcely offers an improvement, to my mind.

We'd do better, I think, to revive the term "liberal arts", and to contrast it with its opposite number, the "servile arts". Liberal here is taken to mean "free", or "freedom promoting".

The aim of the liberal arts is to develop the mind of a free individual. The aim of the servile arts is akin to vocational training. As C.S. Lewis wrote, such training "aims at making not a good man but a good banker, a good electrician, [...] or a good surgeon.” [...] If education is beaten by training, civilization dies."

Armed with this contrast, I find it can be very entertaining to confront a contemporary vulgarian who denigrates the liberal arts. The next time you encounter such a buffoon, remind him that he is advocating servility, and commend ironically the pride he takes in being, by Classical standards, little better than a slave. Make clear that, by his standards, his sole worth lies in his ability to be "useful" and to be used by others!

1:36 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I actually like the idea of training, acquisition of skill; craftsmanship, one might call it. It doesn't strike me as servile. Question is what role it plays in the total ecology of the person--and of society.


2:56 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


I certainly agree with you--skill and craft are not inherently servile. The point I had primarily in mind, however, was the contrast that Sister Miriam Joseph--whose book on the Trivium I highly recommend--makes in the following succinct summary:

"The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant—of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business—and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth."

3:10 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Well, I wonder what the good Sister wd have to say abt someone like Bernard Leach.


6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Bernard Leach, the potter? He's the only one by that name I know.

Anyway, Sister Miriam would have great respect for him, I am sure. "Servile" isn't necessarily pejorative, in this context; it just makes a particular distinction, one that goes back to the days of Aristotle, Cicero, and Aquinas.

I was being a bit snarky in my use of the word servile in my earlier post, I admit, but that is because the tenor of the times has shifted so much in the opposite direction that advocates of the liberal arts have to defend themselves these days. In particular, they have to defend themselves against the accusations of "uselessness" from the like of business majors and engineers--the ones who, as Tim indicates, above, Obama wants to "be fruitful and multiply", so that they will save our "great nation".

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Several years ago, my father defiantly told me: "I will not be a slave to nutrition!" A couple of weeks later, he had a heart attack.

"The liberal arts...enable a person to rise above his material environment to live...a free life in gaining truth." Haven't we had enough of the spirit of acquisitiveness? This is the "arrogance of humanism".

Isn't it time we stopped worrying so much about the size of our vocabularies, and more about how we fit into the Whole?

3:44 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Note: The "Anonymous" comment beginning with the words "Bernard Leach, the potter" is mine; apologies for forgetting to sign it.

For anyone interested in learning more about the history of the distinction between the liberal arts and the servile arts, worthwhile material appears at the following:

1. From Ars to Arte to Beaux-Arts

2. The Free Arts and the Servile Arts

3. Why The Liberal Arts Still Matter .

As for the relationship between vocabulary size and "fitting into the Whole", it's quite clear: Keep your vocabulary as simple, even impoverished, as possible, and you increase your chances of fitting seamlessly into the Whole! ;-)

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


So a nun, married to Jesus and swearing allegiance to God over all else was talking about freedom, perfection and truth? The word "truth" alone would be enough to set me off.


I think there is another "ground of being," that of master craftsmen. I sat once in a Sam Maloof rocking chair! What happens to Eric Clapton when he plays, and what happens to me when I listen? I've watched a master violin maker work. Morris's reference to Leach. A Taoist gardener.

Is there such a thing as Buddhist right livelihood?

Such people serve their craft. In a sense their craft owns them and it is usually difficult for them to talk about it. Where do they fit? Are they intellectual? Some are hardly "educated" in the usual sense. Are they servile workers? Some can hardly make a living.

I know that I often envy them.


12:47 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


I share your quibbles about some of Sister Miriam's language, but I think her overall point is quite valid, apart from that.

What I don't share is your ad hominem dismissal of her work, in general, and of the thought that I quoted. Your remark is utterly irrelevant to their merits, or lack thereof.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

It's all a balancing act, I guess. The individual and community, freedom and service, literacy and silence, etc.

Thanks for your thoughts on "master craftsmen". This sounds like the kind of "centering" practice we need. No, more than a practice: a way to live a good life.

2:17 PM  
Blogger DepthDiver said...

Hello; I want to thank Kevin for providing the link to (the second one he posted); this portion of Carr's quoting of Louth has provided me with necessary insight for an intellectual pursuit I've been puzzling through:
"Louth: The medieval university was a place that made possible a life of thought, of contemplation. It emerged in the 12th century from the monastic and cathedral schools of the early Middle Ages where the purpose of learning was to allow monks to fulfil their vocation, which fundamentally meant to come to know God. Although knowledge of God might be useful in various ways, it was sought as an end in itself. Such knowledge was called contemplation, a kind of prayerful attention.

The evolution of the university took the pattern of learning that characterised monastic life - reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation - out of the immediate context of the monastery. But it did not fundamentally alter it. At its heart was the search for knowledge for its own sake. It was an exercise of freedom on the part of human beings, and the disciplines involved were to enable one to think freely and creatively. These were the liberal arts, or free arts, as opposed to the servile arts to which a man is bound if he has in mind a limited task.

In other words, in the medieval university, contemplation was knowledge of reality itself, as opposed to that involved in getting things done. It corresponded to a distinction in our understanding of what it is to be human, between reason conceived as puzzling things out and that conceived as receptive of truth. This understanding of learning has a history that goes back to the roots of western culture. Now, this is under serious threat, and with it our notion of civilisation."
My thought, after reading this, was a reference to "Be still and know that I am GOD".....
Puts a bit of a different spin on the body and (traditional modes of) learning, eh?
-SH (who changed her identity from 'Diver' to DepthDiver--the same person, tho)

1:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel an impulse to attempt to chronicle some of the human, real life and death results of the notion that we can receive truth from god through study, reading, contemplation and the monastic life. I’m not up to the task and others, smarter and better educated than me are doing it already.

I can’t even begin down that path again. I’ve spent too much time with indigenous people. Ironically, it was my best friend in Micronesia, a Capuchin priest who got me started: “if we do only good for 1000 years, we will not make up for the harm.” It never ends.

Thank god they had a decent liberal arts education.

“Civilization” in decline? Okay. It works for me!


10:32 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


You are welcome. It is gratifying to see that at least one person here seems to have understood my point and purpose in posting this information, and not gotten huffily sidetracked by the use of the term "servile".

Folks, if you don't like the term "servile arts" (artes serviles), then complain to Cicero, not to me.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


You might consider the possibility that the huff is justified. After all, the meanings of words evolve over time, and we aren't living in 50 B.C. O tempore, o mores!


11:48 AM  
Blogger ryan kloostra said...

In the conversation about the difference of virtue between servile arts and liberal arts, I respond by saying , "Yep." I find that living in the tension between the two has been very important to my life. As a teacher and a hand crafter of surfboards, I find they are two very different sides of the same coin called "me." A lot is lost when either side is neglected.

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


We may not be living in Cicero's time, but does that fact give us license to dismiss an entire concept because we don't like a word's current connotation, and to ignore both the underlying idea and its historical context?

At any rate, it fascinates me to see all this hostility--even the dredging up of old anti-Catholic prejudices and ressentiment--expressed toward a set of ideas that are very much congruent with notions expressed in both this blog and many comments*, merely because of the terminology used.

On the other hand, ad hominem remarks and explicit anti-Catholic bigotry raise not so much as an eyebrow. Internet discourse is indeed a strange breed of Rorschach test!

*Remember the debate with Dave in another thread, in which you defended "useless" intellectuals against Dave's ideal, the "useful" handyman, the person who "knows how to do things"?

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

P.S. This entire teapot tempest also reminds me of the old adage, "the smaller the stakes, the bigger the battle". I now regret ever having made my first post on the subject. So, everyone, feel free to take a sip from Lethe with regard to the subject!

3:50 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Well as far as I can remember, Dave was putting down so-called useless intellectuals, which I thought was off base. As far as defending work with one's hands: it depends on the consciousness. Joe the Plumber ain't Bernard Leach, by a long shot. You know this.

And I think you have a tendency to use words to dance out of difficult spaces. The word 'servility' has changed meaning since Cicero's time, and your use of it probably seems to most something that is denigrating to activity that may actually be quite profound. This is probably what got people into a (justifiable) huff. Again, just think about it (cd be a satori moment, who knows?).


5:37 PM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

Dear Morris:

A short paragraph from a letter I sent to my undergrad university, after the exchange on your blog last week.

"When I arrived at the University of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, West Africa in 1988 on a Fulbright teaching fellowship, I found waiting for me in my mailbox a copy of the PMLA, to which I had subscribed, articles replete with themes of all the curent "-isms." These I attempted to read, battling a cloud of mosquitoes. I am glad the mosquitoes won. 'Pathologies of epistemology," as the anthropologist, Gregory Bateson has observed, are more hazardous in the long run to the human species than pathologies of the flesh, and I eventually accepted, if it were my misfortune to fall seriously ill or expire in Africa, that laboratory of Nature had pricked conscience to the degree that I remembered myself, and the mortality I shared with those in my immediate community, So I thought it much preferable to suffer this consciously, than to absorb a false sense of empowerment--whatever the shrinking rewards of academic careerism, sitting in front of a text or screen, inebriated with the notion that as syllables burst, so do worlds; this mentality an epidemic of a type of HIV of the mind, with its epicenter in North America. I took that copy of the PMLA, and walked the narrow streets of my neighborhood, tearing out clumps of pages and distributing them to the street vendors, who found them an excellent medium for wrapping up their wares of fried plantain, sliced mangoes, and ground millet pancakes. I wish had had written the MLA to thank them for their contribution to my small success in cross-cultural diplomacy, and "sustainable" development.

Writing that letter was the best inner cleansing I have had in sometime, and your blog has not a little to do with that.

--Mark Notzon

2:14 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mark,

Congratulations, and glad I cd be of help. The only problem is that these people are very dense, and will not be able to understand your letter. I suggest a more straightforward ps: "Please take the PMLA and stick it where the sun don't shine. Yours very sincerely, etc."


2:43 PM  
Blogger bathmate said...

It looks so good in the post.
Many thanks for your nice posting, I like it.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

You're welcome.

Are you by chance a rubber ducky?


6:40 PM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

>>>>>>>>>The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive....

Yes, but it has to be "subversive" and "independent" in only ONE WAY -- the left-leaning way. Chomsky is hardly "marginalized"; he is, more or less, the required reading (together with Marx, for instance).

In the university where I teach, as in any other university I had taught or studied, left-wing political groups and professors were practically the only ones around.

Real subversion would come, not from saying, "I wish lots of American soldiers die in Iraq" or "Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth" -- rather standard claims -- but from saying shocking, inconceivable things like, "I think Bush's anti-terror policy makes sense"; as we see now, considering that Obama is adopting most of his measures.

1:14 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Avital,

Well, there might be another interpretation of Obama adopting Bush's measures: he's basically spineless. He knows who is buttering his bread, and he acts accordingly. I mean, he has also adopted neoliberal economics and appointed neoliberal advisers; this too is spineless, it seems to me. That Obama proved to be 'Bush with a human face' doesn't make him or his policies correct.


7:42 AM  
Blogger Urania said...

I was listening to your lecture on Alternative Radio recently and you suggest leaving the US because it will get worse and worse. But go where? It seems there is trouble everywhere. You live in Mexico. I used to live there too, but now it seems like it is a nightmare there also. Where should one go?
Thanks for your work.

10:57 PM  

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