|Delta of Missouri Chapter Initiation
April 17, 2005
President’s Remarks: Can Liberal Education Give Us “Ought-To”?The distinguished poet Denise Levertov was asked why she never injected her political views, which were very strongly held, into her poetry. Her answer was, “You can’t make a good poem out of ‘ought to.’”On first hearing this, I thought it a very good answer indeed. I liked it so much that I mulled it over. Suddenly I realized it could not be true—at least, not literally. My proof consists of just sixteen words: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Clearly, Dylan Thomas made one of the greatest modern poems in the English language precisely by telling us how we ought to die.
Why, then, had I so liked Levertov’s declaration? One reason may be that poets, especially beginners, undoubtedly are well advised to avoid sermonizing. If it is going a bit too far to say you can’t make a good poem out of ought to, it seems nonetheless true that doing so is very difficult—even for a Denise Leverov or, for that matter, a Dylan Thomas. But I suspect there is another, deeper reason I so liked her answer, and that is that it sounds a lot like a rather different proposition I think is very true indeed, namely, we can’t get good ought-to’s out of poetry!
To explain what I mean, allow me to recite a very brief poem by 19th-century writer Walter Savage Landor, entitled “Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher”:
I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.
Though this poem does not come out and say so, I think it suggests, quite unmistakably, that we ought to die gracefully—that we indeed should go gentle into that good night, thus directly contradicting the counsel given by Dylan Thomas’ poem.
But now it occurs to me that the question of how we ought to die is not closest to the heart for many of you—including our honored young initiates, who might justifiably be more concerned with how they ought to live. Alright then, let us look at what poetry can tell us about whether, say, a young woman should take up residence with an amorous and apparently rather present-oriented boyfriend. “Come live with me and be my love, and we will many pleasures prove,” coaxes Christopher Marlowe’s sweet-talking shepherd boy. Carpe diem! Live for the moment! or, in contemporary parlance, “Go for it.” But outstanding, among the many poetic responses, is Sir Walter Ralegh’s prudent young woman, who sounds rather more like Landor’s philosopher than like Thomas’ rager when she replies: “But could youth last and love still breed,/ Had joys no date nor age no need,/ Then these delights my mind might move / To live with thee and be thy love.” Think, in other words, about what you are doing. Don’t rush into anything you might later regret. Show a little restraint and foresight!
Be the subject death or life, then, poetry, taken as a whole, is completely contradictory: We can find in it whatever “ought-to” we like. We might as well look, for ethical guidance, to old sayings: “Look before you leap” we are warned in one breath, only to be urged, in the next, “He who hesitates is lost!”
Poetry, in addition to not being consistent, is also not exactly serious. The poets themselves admit as much. Robert Frost wrote, “There are things beyond all this which I care more about, and hope we all do.” And Marianne Moore wrote, in her poem “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”!
If we cannot get good “ought-to’s” out of poetry, even less can we hope to get them from the non-verbal arts such as music, painting, or sculpture. As a source of ethical precepts, then, the arts are a washout.
But what of religion? Certainly the holy books of the great religions have seemed eminently serious—or so at least they have been regarded by their believers through the ages. But the objective observer cannot but be impressed by how riddled these books are with inconsistencies. I myself was enculturated in one of the so-called “historic peace churches,” so I learned early on that the Bible teaches against war, as in the book of Isaiah, chapter 2, verse 4 (RSV): “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” I was well into adulthood, however, before I learned that the book of Joel, chapter 3, verse 10 (RSV) recommends exactly the opposite metallurgical transformations: “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let [even?] the weak say, ‘I am a warrior.’”
(I realize that Christian pacifists will want to object that Christ’s message transcended Old-Testament teachings such as the latter; I would reply simply that not all Christians see it this way, and that they can find scripture—even in the New Testament—for their position too.)
And what of that great human endeavor going by the name “science”? Certainly it strives diligently to eliminate inconsistencies. It is true that people—especially non-scientists—occasionally claim not to take science seriously. At the end of Woody Allen’s 1973 movie classic Sleeper, the protagonist (Miles) declares, “Science? I don’t believe in science.… It’s a lot of little guys in tweed suits cutting up frogs on foundations grants”! But such joking aside, scientists, unlike poets, generally take their craft very seriously indeed; and the thoughtful public, with good reason, seems for the most part to agree.
Unfortunately for the seeker of ought-to’s, however, science appears to be intrinsically incapable of providing ethical guidance: It can tell us only what is, not what ought to be. That, in any case, is the conclusion reached by those who have thought most deeply about the matter. It is almost as if the glories of science, including its consistency and its compelling claim to be taken seriously, have been purchased somehow at the price of ethical power. As a source of ethics, then, science appears no more satisfactory than poetry, art, or religion.
Perhaps the negative results of our brief inquiry should not be surprising. So varying and so complex are the situations with which life confronts us that things scarcely could be otherwise. A list of specific ought-to’s would have to be impossibly long; on the other hand, a short list of general ought-to’s would have to be so vaguely phrased that we in effect would be left on our own to figure out how to apply them to specific situations. Whether we admit it or not, then, in real life all ethics are situational.
Our plight, however, is by no means as bad as this might suggest. After all, people treated decently as children nearly always grow up to be decent adults; indeed, even a great many people who suffer rather indecent treatment in childhood also manage somehow to mature into decent adults.
The basic decency of most human beings is subject, however, to one very serious limitation: It can be overridden all too easily by social pressure. I suppose this is something that we knew all along, but it was demonstrated in painful detail by some of the 20th century’s greatest experimental work in social psychology. It was Solomon Asch who demonstrated, in the 1950’s, that even decent, reasonable people can be brought, by peer pressure, to deny the clear evidence of their senses in so simple a task as judging whether one line is shorter than another (Asch 1950). Even more disturbing, however, was Stanley Milgram’s work demonstrating that perfectly decent people could be persuaded, by persistent pressure from an authority figure, to behave in an astonishingly inhumane way (Milgram 1963). What these and related studies show, in general, is that being basically decent is not enough to prevent most of us, when pressured by those around us or above us, from acting in mindless or heartless ways.
This puts us in a position, I think, to see how liberal education, even if it cannot give us definite ethical precepts, may yet be by no means ethically irrelevant. A good liberal education, after all, fosters an appreciation of the arts and sciences; and these, respectively, are essentially the greatest creations of the human heart (the arts) and mind (the sciences). May we not hope, then, that liberal education has its part to play in making us at least a little less prone to heartless or mindless acts? While I cannot prove this, I find it eminently plausible; I hope you do to!
I want to suggest, however, that even were it shown somehow that liberal education has no such beneficial impact on our behavior, we would not thereby gain warrant to consider it a waste; for this would be, in effect, to prefer ignorance over enlightenment—a preference that seems, at least to me, little if any more admirable than preferring, say, cruelty over kindness. How fortunate that most of need consult only our decent hearts, and not books of poetry, science, or religion to know that we ought to take the side of knowledge as against ignorance, and of sympathy as against brutality!
To our honored initiates I want to say, in conclusion: I commend you for using your time here at Truman to deepen your knowledge and appreciation of the arts and sciences. But I want also to challenge you to remember always that liberal education at its best is truly a lifelong process. I congratulate you, then, not so much on a job well done, as on a joy well begun! Thank you.
Asch, Solomon E. (1955). “Opinion and Social Pressure,” Scientific American 193:31-35.
Milgram, Stanley (1963). “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and
Social Psychology 67:371-78.
Robert B. Graber
President, Delta of Missouri