15 January 2017

Truth be bought?

Warning: blog-rant ahead.

Binding snobbery be damned. There, I said it.

Look, I’m as much a fan of a physical book as anyone else, and I do understand – and to some extent share – the æsthetic, the psychological and the normative arguments for connecting with a real book in binding as opposed to words in a text file flashed on the screen of a mobile or an e-book. But my liking for physical paper and binding is conditioned by my three-year economic exile in China where English-language books were a rarity and where my old outdated third-generation Kindle device was a godsend.

More to the point, though, I am an avowed fan of Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive and other free public-domain classics – the Jowett translations of Plato, for example, the poems of Robert Southey, the Canterbury Tales, Ivanhoe – which provide an immense store of knowledge, and indeed the better part of it, free of charge. These websites, which do not place a price on ancient wisdom but instead transfer it to anyone who wishes to seek it without asking so much as a penny, are an invaluable service to humankind. And the people who turn up their noses at such things are, indeed, snobs. And snobs of the worst sort, since they prefer the luxury of shelling out anywhere between $10 and $100 – at the least, in the case of some academic works, but my ire on that score will have to wait for another post – to e-books which can be found available for free, to anyone who has internet access and a mobile (which is most people these days).

If one has the inclination, one can immerse oneself in the great works ancient and modern philosophy both, classic literature, history, theology, all for less than the cost of a cup of tea. That is a very powerful thing – something which none of the ancients, or even Johannes Gutenberg himself, would dared have imagine in their wildest of ‘winged visions’.

But – here’s the thing. It’s often contended, more often by people who have no sense of ancient principles and people who actively abuse and contort ancient knowledge to serve ideological ends, that people will only value what they can pay for, and that education (a ‘product’ and ‘service’ in their view, commensurate with all other products and services available on ‘the market’) is no exception. And here’s the thing: they do have a point. Apart from weird ex-expats like me – who depend on Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive Classics for their sanity in places where bookstores were prohibitively out-of-reach, where Amazon was more expensive than it was worth, and where English language books in general were overpriced and of low quality – who really does use these services? And who uses them to expand their horizons and acquire the elements of a liberal education in a day and age where liberal education is itself prohibitively-overpriced for many people?

These are not rhetorical questions – I really would be interested to know. But in my own rather limited experience these are a rather slim minority of people (and, like I said, weirdos). Rather than this showing the virtue, however, of the ‘market’ system the aforesaid Actonites and Pragerites advocate, this shows rather its desolation. The ‘market’ they advocate floods us with cheap – cheap, that is, but not free – entertainment, which is readily and greedily consumed (including by weirdos like me, let me be clear. God forgive me, I’m no less guilty of self-medicating with ‘light’ entertainment, movies and music than anyone else), whilst the wells of wisdom ladling out their medicines for free go nigh untouched.

Capitalists, and indeed the defenders of the capitalist system, understand this perfectly well. They depend on it, in fact. The Mammon-worshipping roaders and running-dogs of the Acton Institute want people to think in brutish, consequentialist terms – the terms of the belly, the terms of comfort and ease and happiness, the terms of ‘utility’. Their sordid sophistries and calculating manipulations of the ancients and of other noble philosophers are aimed at a single goal. They want to convince the everyday American that they have the only ideological system that ‘works’ (and that furthermore is blessed by God), and that any other course would lead them to disaster. And of course that system is sustained by convincing people that the only value there is, is that which can be rendered in terms of economic ‘utility’, and which can be converted into other forms of ‘happiness’ by means of money.

People only value what they pay for, because they are told to value it by a culture which measures success solely in terms of monetary earnings. We are told not to value what has been tested as true, what inspires with beauty, or what persuades with goodness. There is much in our present time that has intrinsic value, which can be simply picked up with a wireless connexion. It’s time we learn to cherish it. And furthermore, it’s time we learn to distinguish wisdom not by the acquisition of costly degrees and titles, or of the prestige (that is to say, expense) of the institutions at which they are attained, but instead by that thirst with which people seek out truth.

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