Monday, June 18, 2012

There is Nothing More Useless Than a Human Being

In part four of Purcell's From Big Bang to Big Mystery, he discusses what he calls "grace notes in the human sonata."

In music, grace notes are "nonessential ornamentations" added to the written score. The term isn't entirely apt, because in the case of human beings, it seems that the grace notes are paradoxically essential.

That is to say, much of what is "necessary" in man is inessential and even inconsequential. In other words, who cares if we have two legs, or six arms, or twelve toes, or a belly button on top of our head?

Conversely, everything that is completely unnecessary from an evolutionary standpoint is precisely what defines us as human: music, poetry, painting, humor, philosophy, religion, love, etc.

Indeed, one could even go so far as to say that it is man's uselessness that is so useful. For example, can you think of anything more useless than a baby? Babies are literally useless, in that they are born at least eight months premature and are therefore neurologically incomplete, just retarded apes. The only thing a baby is good for is for growing into another useless human being.

This notion of uselessness is quite central to our humanness. For example, consider beauty. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Human beings can survive without it, which is proved by the existence of __________ [insert cheap shot here].

In his How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, Scruton writes that "To look on a thing as beautiful is to value it for what it is, not for what it does or for the purposes it serves. On the contrary, it is the intrinsic value of beautiful things that renders them useful" (emphasis mine).

Not only are "value" and "usefulness" not synonymous, but the most precious things are generally without economic value or practical utility, for example, my son's smile, or the Stanley Cup, or the wonderfully retro styling of my Luxman Amp.

Scruton continues: "The case may be compared to that of friendship. Your friend is valuable to you as the thing that he is. To treat him as a means -- to use him for your purposes -- is to undo the friendship. And yet friends are useful: they provide help in times of need, and they amplify the joys of daily living. Friendship is supremely useful, so long as we do not think of it as useful."

Think about that. There are degrees of sociopathy, the essence of which involves treating human beings as means, not ends. A mass-murdering psychopath such as the one depicted in The Devil in the White City quite literally sees human beings as objects to be used and discarded, of no more intrinsic value than a paper napkin.

What is especially frightening about these types is that they are adept at mimicking humanness, and may even appear to be unusually empathic and caring. But their empathy is just a tool of manipulation. They can't actually put themselves "inside" the other and "feel their pain," to quote another (less pernicious) sociopath.

The environment -- man's context -- is another thing that most people do not and cannot treat "as having only instrumental worth" (Scruton). Here again, what could be more useless than, say, the beauty of Yosemite, or of the Grand Canyon? Why not pave over the former and build condos in the latter? But what would the world -- or the cosmos -- be without its breathtakingly useless beauty?

Indeed, this beauty appears to be fractally organized, in that it is present in every realm, from the extreme macro to the micro, and from the exterior and objective to the interior and subjective. It is seen in every scientific discipline from astrophysics to molecular biology, and in every human endeavor from playing music to laying bricks.

Thus, what is true of Truth is equally true of beauty. Just as we encounter intelligible truth everywhere we look in the cosmos, so too do we witness beauty. And truth is also "useless" in its own way, which we refer to as "disinterestedness."

Science, of course, requires a great deal of passion in its practitioners. But this passion cannot dominate. It must be a means, not an end, the end being truth for its own sake. "Intellectual honesty" means accepting any and all facts, even if they threaten a cherished theory or belief. Don't worry, there is a higher beauty, and truth is its penumbra. Or, we could say that beauty is the fragrance of truth.

For "true beauty is equally a form of self-denial" (Scruton). Think of all the self-denial involved in becoming a great musician, writer, or artist.

In fact, we can measure the value of so much modern art by its self-indulgence, which is the opposite of self-denial. For most people there is a kind of immediate feedback that lets them know they're on the wrong track: when they are -- or think they are -- "original." Originality is permissible, so long as it is simply an effect of something else. If it is elevated to an end, it becomes more useless than uselessness.

Right. Back to Purcell. On the first page of this section, he relates a compelling vignette from a film called The Lives of Others. It takes place in East Germany, and its central character is a Stasi agent (Captain Wiesler) who spies on innocent citizens.

Now that I think about it, he's a bit like St. Paul, persecuting those who pose the greatest threat to the state, AKA the Living.

In this case, Wiesler has been spying on an artistic couple, a playwright and his actress girlfriend. Gradually he finds himself "attracted by the beauty, meaning and love present in their life but absent from his own. Various scenes show Wiesler's gradual transformation from remorseless defender of the GDR to one who's prepared to risk his life for those he's spying on."

What a powerful allegory. Purcell quotes a reviewer who wrote that it "demonstrates that the human soul is mysterious and hard to obliterate. Even the coldest heart can thaw. Even the most technocratic imagination can respond to a sudden whisper, an implicit grace note."

Which shows that man is only human when he realizes that there are things more valuable than life, and that these are utterly useless.


Blogger ge said...

another Purcell
w/ an ode to the Valuable uselessness of Musick

6/18/2012 08:58:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

"For "true beauty is equally a form of self-denial" (Scruton). Think of all the self-denial involved in becoming a great musician, writer, or artist."

or Saint.

6/18/2012 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

More on that in the first minute of this.

6/18/2012 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

" Friendship is supremely useful, so long as we do not think of it as useful."

Think about that. There are degrees of sociopathy, the essence of which involves treating human beings as means, not ends."

Consider also, that the modern school is designed to manufacture productive human capital (read any white paper on ' common core curriculum' or ' race to the top').

Anyone find a lack of harmony in that cognitive dissonance?

6/18/2012 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

There have been times in my life when the only friends I had were the people who needed help moving refrigerators.

6/18/2012 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

As reflected in my previous comment, one of the things the Lord has been dealing with me about is my hardness of heart. The beauty of nature is one of those things that opens us to the beauty of God, who, as you say, is to be desired for His own sake and not for what He is able to do for us.

6/18/2012 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger EbonyRaptor said...

As with so many of the depthless truths of God - they seem upside down or opposite of what we would expect or see on the surface.

1 Cor. 13:12 "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."

In my headlong race through life I think I have finally slowed down enough to appreciate the beauty surrounding me. It's not that I didn't see beauty before but I flew past and over and around so much of the depth and breadth of His creation.

6/18/2012 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger John Lien said...

"Conversely, everything that is completely unnecessary from an evolutionary standpoint is precisely what defines us as human: music, poetry, painting, humor, philosophy, religion, love, etc."

Realizing that was such a paradigm shifter for me. Thanks for teaching me that.

6/18/2012 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

I just finished "Devil in the White City." Good travel reading, and it helped to renew my appreciation for life as we now know it. On the other hand, something has also been lost, I think, inasmuch as our culture - more broadly, Western culture - has lost the ability to pull together to create such wonders as they did for the Chicago World's Fair. Is there anything more useless than a Ferris Wheel? Or The Ferris Wheel? Or massive buildings placed over swamp land and meant to endure only for six months, and which at the end most people wished would be destroyed quickly because the slow process of their decay was unbearable? And yet in working to create this massive piece of ephemera, I suspect that most people involved came that much closer to realizing their true humanity.

6/18/2012 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"Or, we could say that beauty is the fragrance of truth."

Like a good steak n' beer.

It's true.

6/18/2012 06:50:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

poor mush-head Rolling Stone readers get articles like this:
'What You Need to Know About the GOP's War Against Eric Holder

By Jillian Rayfield

Read more:

6/19/2012 06:16:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Maybe I'm imagining things, but I read Rolling Stone back in the day, and it was more than just a slavishly conformist and angry far left rag with homoerotic ads, or a People magazine for people which short attention spans. I mean, there was a degree of independence from the MSM, not to mention more than a whiff of classical liberalism. Just as our musical crap was superior to the musical crap of today, so too was our adolescent political crap.

6/19/2012 06:40:00 AM  
Blogger ge said...

yeah! remember those lester bangs or JR Young [the guy who'd write lil short stories insteada actual] record reviews?

6/19/2012 07:54:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, and there were reliable record reviews and a total mockery of lightweights and mediocrities who are now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, e.g., Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, etc.

6/19/2012 08:15:00 AM  

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