Book in Hand

According to Desiderius Erasmus, his dear friend and fellow intellectual prankster, St. Thomas More never went anywhere without a book in hand. Yet no one would have described him as a “bookish” man.

Then as now, many were wont to blame the liberal arts for leading wayward souls into a life if impracticality. Yet More, who was second to none in his devotion to “literary studies,” credited them with his good “health, his popularity and influence with an excellent prince, and all men, both friends and strangers.”

He also attributed to the same studies “his easier circumstances, his own greater happiness and the happiness he [gave] his friends, the services he [rendered] his country and his relations and kinsfolk.”

Last but the opposite of least, immersion in books gave him “a greater ease in pleasing heaven.”

How could this be? More was under no delusion that learning was a guarantee of worldly success or sanctity, or even necessary for either end.

What More grasped is that literature, when well written, presents us with a cross section of reality, in all its majesty and degradation, its simplicity and complexity, its folly and wisdom.

When read well, a good book trains our minds in the perception and proper handling of life’s many and varied twists and turns. It helps us to perfect our human potential by cultivating what More called a “good mother wit.”

In light of More’s witness, it saddens me to hear well-intentioned people denigrate the value of liberal arts education.

In the face of an academy weighed down by bureaucratic bloat, and an intelligentsia corrupted by ideological poison, one can sympathize with skepticism about the supposed connection between higher education and a life well lived.

Nonetheless, it is always best to consider first the log in our own eye. Do we believe, or speak and act as if we believe, that money, status, and self-regard are the true ends of higher education?

If so, a genuine liberal education may be just the thing to free us from habits contrary to our own happiness, the happiness of the friends and strangers we influence, and the pleasure of heaven.

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