Conor Sweetman

The Educated Passions

Conor Sweetman
The Educated Passions

Why bother with art at all? It takes up time which could be used for more practical tasks, and to add insult to injury, it takes up our money as well. To be sure, it affords us a degree of entertainment, but other means provide this more directly, with much less effort and without personal investment: things like sports, television or Internet surfing.

In short, what is the purpose of art? For over 2000 years, Western culture has had an answer to this question, which was quite simply: movere et docere. This Latin phrase translates roughly as ‘to move and to teach.’ More specifically, it means that art in general and literature, in particular, is to move the passions by its beauty and teach the mind by its truth. Over the centuries, western culture has oscillated between emphasizing one impulse over the other, but this dichotomy of teaching and moving has always remained a foundational stone of our discussions about the purpose and value of art. This dichotomy has also tied elegantly into our wider understanding of how art functions within culture.

Culture is constituted by the inherited set of shared values which bind a people together and which they, in turn, cultivate and modify in the light of shared experience; those values are at the core of our culture’s religious and artistic experience.

To quote Johannes Herder, shared cultural values are what makes us, us in a sea of them. These values, in turn, traditionally break down into two branches: aesthetic value and ethical value, the scientific study of which is known collectively in philosophy as axiology.

This brings us full circle back to our first dichotomy, since we are moved by aesthetic values and are taught ethical values, and therefore become invested citizens in our culture as we are moved and taught by the art at its core. However, this brings us to our first complication.

When we teach the mind, we must not assume that the knowledge held in mind is self-directing. As Augustine, amongst others, recognized, it is character, with its passions and values, which directs knowledge.

Therefore, in the early church, the most important quality sought in the ideal student was not first and foremost intelligence, erudition or academic discipline, important though these are, but righteousness: right relationship with God.

If the student is not righteous, then educating him or her more will simply equip them with ever more formidable tools with which to be unrighteous. For my part, I prefer my evil men to be stupid and ignorant. Thus, as an educator, my first, foundational task is to cultivate in my students righteous character.

This task, in turn, collaborates seamlessly with the traditional objective of a Liberal Arts education, which is not, as many people seem to think, to teach one the raw, rational content of culture, but rather what to feel. As philosopher Roger Scruton says, it is to teach you what to feel, towards what objects, in what way and to what degree. What you feel derives from what you value, and if you are righteous, then what you value will be what God values.

Therefore, what you feel will manifest in your tastes, indicating what you value, and it is this which will direct the raw content of mind and its critical abilities.

Put another way, righteousness impels you to value what God values. These values constitute your character. That character cultivates your tastes. Those tastes employ your knowledge to interface in concrete ways with the culture in which you find yourself.

Thus, whether we like it or not, the passions do rule our thought, so it is imperative that those passions too are well educated, and when those educated passions locate the valuable in art, we now see clearly why we bother with it.