What strikes me is that the capacity to choose to do things for their own sakes defines a free people. The highest arts of the mind, most freely pursued, as our whole tradition has recognized until lately, are paradoxically the most useful of all…

In my job as President of Wyoming Catholic College, I travel frequently, but I almost always meet with people who share a deep sympathy for liberal arts education and a common belief in the teachings of the Church. Traveling on vacation, especially by car, is an entirely different matter. These past two weeks on our anniversary trip have exposed a very different America, the America that most foreigners probably see first—the America that’s vivid and often vulgar and in love with things and the activities they make possible. But the more I think about what we saw, the more paradoxically heartening it is.

What struck me over and over was the existence of communities of knowledge and expertise centered on things outside the sphere of usefulness, things done freely and enjoyed for their own sakes in the company of the like-minded. True, we were in the America of summer vacation, but it’s more than that. Consider, for example, the middle-aged men, their stomachs well-stocked against starvation, outside in the parking lot of a motel in South Dakota when we pulled in a few nights ago. They sat tilted back in a circle of chairs pulled from their rooms; each of them had within easy reach an open bottle of some highly spirituous beverage; and standing behind them, like horses in the Old West, were their motorcycles, all of which had been groomed to gleaming after a long day on the road. They came from Canton, Ohio, and they were on their way to Sturgis, South Dakota, the Mecca of bikers. When I asked what actually went on in Sturgis, several said that this was their first trip and they didn’t really know; the veterans scoffed at their innocence and made Sturgis sound like a mysterious cross between Woodstock and Las Vegas.

Here’s the point: I could tell from overhearing them that they had keen intelligence within the sphere of their machines and their mechanical differentia; they knew about the best fuels; they had all sorts of experience in the techniques of riding. Hidden among them might have been an academic or a banker—in fact, this could have been a group of law partners. But on the trip to Sturgis, they were bikers first and foremost, living within a code. They did not need motorcycles; the whole idea was their free choice of them. They spoke and thought inside the frame of reference peculiar to the biking “culture” (as we use the word nowadays). Like the thousands more bikers we saw the next day when we passed Sturgis and drove south through Deadwood, they were celebrating an alternative to “more TV,” as Robert Pirsig described being inside a car in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There are countless American cultures like these. Boarding the S.S. Badger in Ludington, Michigan, we saw thirty or forty gentlemen, most of them in their sixties or seventies, taking their antique tractors to a show in Wisconsin. Ask any of them about their tractors, I would wager, and you would get more details than you wanted unless you were also an initiate. Fly-fishermen, weightlifters, wine aficionados, serious hunters—it’s the same phenomenon of shared pleasure. Get fishermen together, for example, and the conversation goes directly to the narrative of fishing and the excited poetry of the telling: the exact scene on the river, the rhythm of the cast, the nature of the strike.

Why are these things pursued freely and with real ardor and without an eye on the clock? It’s because something in them engages their participants in the deeply pleasant rigors of a demanding art—it has to be demanding—chosen for its own sake. And it also involves them in communitas, the kind of community that occurs only outside officialdom of any sort. I can’t help but compare the kind of understanding and community formed in our students at Wyoming Catholic College. The intelligence and earnest commitment involved in tying a fly or lovingly disassembling and reassembling a rifle in preparation for its use in hunting antelope or elk surely have their counterpart in reading a sonnet or working through a prop in Euclid or following the argument in a Platonic dialogue. When these “intellectual” activities are pursued freely and for their own sakes, without regard to their usefulness or the time taken in doing them, the great books most correspond to the things the Americans we saw so clearly enjoy.

And here the paradoxes and complications multiply. In a curriculum like ours, students do not freely choose to work through Euclid or Aristotle—well, except by enrolling. Not only they are required to read them, but time and competing obligations always exert their pressure. So what do we mean by a liberal education, whose root meaning (liber) speaks to the freedom of its pursuits? What strikes me most immediately is how closely free pleasure in the highest activities of the mind resembles pleasure in the exercise of the moral virtues. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that acting with real virtue—courage or temperance, for example—is freely chosen, but only after long and often painful habituation through training. The same is true of the habituation of the mind. For example, how can you fully experience the pleasure of a sonnet without understanding its general nature, its differentia, and its techniques? These must be taught until the reader has mastered the art.

What also strikes me is that the capacity to choose to do things for their own sakes defines a free people. Alexis de Tocqueville long ago praised Americans’ associations, which he considered a schoolroom of liberty and initiative. Perhaps our capacity to do useful things well and with grace comes from the joy we take in the intelligent pursuit of our pleasures—the reason that Josef Pieper called leisure “the basis of culture.” The highest arts of the mind, most freely pursued, as our whole tradition has recognized until lately, are paradoxically the most useful of all.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (August 2018).

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