Abolafia: The virtue that makes small

I desperately long to sympathize with Katie Carmody’s claim that the humanities are in fact “better” than the sciences because of their ability to address matters of value, aesthetic and moral (“Call me a convert,” Sept. 21). In fact, there are considerable parallels between Carmody’s story and my own, but I simply cannot convince myself that my move from biology to philosophy was a happy Bloomian elevation rather than a tragic Miltonian fall.

It is both parochial and pompous to say that the “most gifted” university students are the ones most likely to be swayed by the siren songs of the “eternal truths.” These are, it seems to me, just the less prudent students, those who forgot the precautionary measure of tying themselves to the mast. Carmody’s aristocratic assumption is the most troubling aspect of her argument. She asked what the “best” would do; she even admitted to nourishing an ambitious demon, but she didn’t trouble to define the best, let alone to defend why the “best” is truly best.

What of the best? It seems to me the essential socio-political discovery of the modern age is the knowledge that what Carmody might call mediocrity is in every objective way better than excellence. Ours is a time in which one need not be a utilitarian to see the brute fact of pacifying entertainment, food on the table and a college degree in a plurality of American households (to say nothing of socialized Western Europe).

Have Americans sacrificed their immortal souls for such well being? Perhaps Carmody would argue that these are lower pleasures, the pleasures of the body, proof that the world has grown vulgar in the age of what Nietzsche called the “virtue that makes small.” I am unconvinced that what the masses had before the modern age of disenchanted, practical education — a romantic (perhaps even religious) peasant life, or perhaps if I am charitable to Carmody, a more imminent intercourse with the eternal truths — is in any defensible way better than healthy, middle-class satisfaction.

It is for this reason that Carmody fails to do justice to Max Weber, a crucial figure in any discussion of values and education. She is right to term the discoveries of social sciences “depressing,” and Weber would have been the first to agree. This depression must come from the realization that our disenchanted world, home to the “iron cage” of modern rational-bureaucratic authority and the ever-expanding cult of efficiency, is in no definable way worse than any other historical epoch. We have uncovered the noble lie of nostalgia, and, mourn it though we may, we must bear its passing with equanimity.

A person with any idea of morality grounded in the happiness or freedom of the greatest number of people must admit that ours is the best age, the age of human mass entertainment, antibiotics and human rights. Coercion still exists, some will protest, only now it has been internalized and leaves no marks. “Precisely!” I can respond happily. I will be forced to take your word for how miserable modern man is in his condition, whereas 200 years ago I could easily have shown you the serf in the field, dragged you down to see the slave in the belly of the ship and walked with you gingerly through the morgue-like halls of the TB sanitarium.

To those who say that the modern age is also an age of mass hunger, poverty and pandemic, I must note that the past would not have been a happier time for the world’s unfortunates; it is just that without technological enablement, these populations simply would not have existed. This argument can in fact be reduced to the Biblical adage about those who are not prosperous: that it is better for them that they were never born, a bit of wisdom I cannot disprove, but of which I can disapprove.

Carmody, thankfully, confines her argument to the “best,” who have always been of the prosperous, and it is in this sense that the modern age has allowed those people who in the past would themselves have been the serfs, slaves and TB patients to reach the levels of education, wealth and opportunity that have always defined the upper echelons of human aspiration.

It is passé in circles both left and right to speak this way, in what might seem the naïve voice of Enlightenment. But perhaps an ignorance of what is philosophically passé is the ultimate victory of modern science.

For the most part (and there troubling are exceptions), science has happily remained tied to the mast, wisely heading Kant’s warning to steer clear of those eternal truths that lie to the left and right, beyond the reach of reason, and it has given us a measurably healthier, more productive life. This is my final problem with an argument like Carmody’s. It is true that science cannot tell us how to live our lives, but does a degree in the humanities really do us any better? Are the post-historicist, post-deconstruction seminars in philosophy, literature and history really productive paths toward those truths toward which Carmody contends the best have always strived?

What good have I done by leaving my lab bench? It seems to me that the more courageous decision in our time is to renounce the temptation to use the language of “the best” and instead embrace the virtue that makes small, a virtue that produces measurable results, a new cancer therapy, a more nutritious grain of rice.

What real proof of the superiority of my humanistic studies do I have after three years? Nietzsche and Montaigne clap me on the back (although probably not, considering the quality of my work), Francis Bacon sneers at me with unmitigated disgust, and Weber himself looks on sadly, mourning a modernity that has proved how empty are great thoughts and how full is a belly sated with genetically modified grain.

Jacob Abolafia is a senior in Davenport College.