Why We Study “Useless” Things

“You amuse me: You’re like someone who’s afraid that the majority will think he is prescribing useless subjects. It is no easy task—indeed it’s very difficult—to realize that that in every soul there is an instrument that is purified and rekindled by such subjects when it has been blinded and destroyed by other ways of life, an instrument that it is more important to preserve than ten thousand eyes, since only with it can the truth be seen.” — Plato, The Republic.


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“Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you (man) are beyond doubt the strangest!” — Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos.


“We talked of (Samuel) Johnson, and particularly of his wonderful knowledge of the world, which I observed was most extraordinary, as he had lived so much in the retirement of Oxford and the Temple. Mr. Palmer remarked very justly that to know the world really well one must not be too much in it. One will see better what is going on and be able to trace the springs of action better by standing sometimes at a side. I pursued the thought. ‘One,’ said I, ‘should not be too early in the world; otherwise he will never know it fully; that is to say, in a philosophical sense.’” — James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson.


I have spent many years as teacher thinking about the thing Walker Percy called the “strangest object” in the universe, and what this same object does in its apparently brief time on an obscure planet in the cosmos. First of all, man wonders, with Augustine, “What is time anyhow?” He wonders why its passing motion, its beginning, middle, and end, includes him. The chief thing that this “rational being,” as Aristotle called him, seeks to learn about is his own existence in a universe that he did not himself create. The novas, quasars, pulsars, and black holes are not looking at this tiny primate. He is looking at them.

Plato, a name to be spoken of only in reverence, tells us that this “strangest being” has something about him more powerful than “a thousand eyes.” It is his mind, without which he cannot see the truth – something which he seeks to know even when he wonders if he can find it. And the very key, as Plato wrote, to answering the question of whether truth is knowable lies precisely in… those “useless subjects,” those we study “for their own sake.”

Aristotle rightly defined the mind as capax universi, that power that is capable of knowing all things, all that is. We are each of us born philosophers, who want to know that “whole” to which we belong and which we, somehow, transcend. No better place to begin wondering about things useful and those beyond use can be found, I suspect, than by reading Joseph Pieper’s amazing little book: Leisure: The Basis of Culture. This book should be read at least three times: once before entering college, once part-way through, and again upon graduation. One of its many lessons is that wisdom is not co-terminus with academic degrees.

As Aristotle said, normal folks can also know about the most important things. But with Aquinas and Aristotle, we think it also a human virtue to know as accurately and thoroughly as we can whatever is about us, beginning with the “know thyself” of classical Greek admonition. When Socrates told us that he was wise because he knew that he did not know anything, it was only after he succeeded in learning many things. What he did not know was not because a thing was unknowable, but because its reality existed in too much light. If we do not see because our eyes have difficulty in adjusting to the bright sun, it does not follow that those things the sun illuminates don’t exist.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in a famous commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, noted that the motto of that institution was the Latin word, Veritas.

Evidently, this motto and gate inscription is a shortened version of an original citation that came from the Gospel of John and included both God and His Church. In the process, truth (Veritas), which began as a person, ended as an abstraction. That truth should be both is also one of the things each soul needs to learn. Truth is the conformity of our minds with what is. As Plato put it, truth is to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.

As Plato said and Aquinas practiced, we only know the truth of something when we also know the arguments against it. The whole truth includes a knowledge of what is not true. It is also the perfection of mind to know what is contrary to mind. That is why we study not just sound but also unsound philosophies, not just orthodoxy but heresies. All error is based in some truth, a truth that is worth finding for its own sake. And that is what education is all about.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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