The question, then, is whether what we think of as the normal state of things has been a worthy development. To examine that question seems, pretty clearly, to be a kind of self-improvement, even if you don’t land on conclusive answers, which you probably don’t.
And this understanding is a tool for grappling with today’s dilemmas: For example, anthropologists have also told me that depression and anomie are unknown among the early societies that they’ve studied, because it was so clear what one’s place and purpose were within the structure of these societies. Yet few of us would want humanity to return to these small bands being our universal condition.
But this leads to the question of whether hierarchy is inherently wrong. Is there a kind of large-scale hierarchical civilization that would be more just? Here is where a student may come to understand that Marxism, despite its built-in problems, despite its deserved bad rap in our market-based society, isn’t crazy. To simply know that the kinds of questions Rousseau stimulates are, indeed, questions makes you a better person in the sheer sense of understanding the complexity of the real world, something that escapes ideologues of all kinds.
I especially enjoyed teaching Immanuel Kant’s “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.” One of his categorical imperatives proposes an ultimate ethical obligation, to “act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” That is not, mind you, the old Golden Rule, because “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” could mean that you decide to be lazy and be OK with other people being lazy as well. This fails under the categorical imperative because it would be a poor universal law — a society of layabouts would be a hungry and threadbare one.
However, the categorical imperative leaks when you try to apply it to, say, suicide (Is it wrong because we wouldn’t want all people to do it?) and lying (Is a lie intended to avert catastrophe inherently wrong?). What we ultimately get from Kant is how elusive any truly universal principle is, especially if we consider that different peoples worldwide might have differing perspectives on such matters.
Menand, certainly, doesn’t think contemplating these questions has no value. But how can it be that becoming equipped to debate them didn’t improve his, or most people’s sense of preparation for this vale of tears called life? My mother taught at a university, and when I was around 10, I asked her what college was for, given that even at that age I sensed that students, at least outside of the sciences, were not being filled with quantities of basic knowledge in the same way they were in elementary, middle and high school. She said that after four years of college, students have, or should have, a sense of the world’s complexity, that everything did not easily reduce to common-sense observations of the kind you preface with “Well, all I know is …”
Mom had that right, I think, and Great Books lend precisely this perspective. Having a sense of how to decide what your life is for amid all the possible choices before you; understanding that the ethics of how civilizations and power operate is complex rather than reducible to facile binaries and snap judgments; tasting the elusiveness of the single, irrefutable answer and thus truly appreciating the wit of Douglas Adams’s famous proposal that the answer to everything is “42.” One is, surely, a better person with this perspective under one’s belt.