Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Tuesday, March 29, 2005  

The strange case of conscientiousness

John Derbyshire writes in The Corner:

“A couple of times, visiting places around the country, I've had the opportunity to address a roomful of judges -- including, sometimes, the highest legal officers of a state. Every time I have mingled with these people I have come away in awe of their dedication to the law. “

I have often had a similar experiences with policemen, military people, politicians, clergy, and professionals of various stripes. I am often astonished at the earnestness and dedication that so many men and women imbue their work with.

Yet, to take the case of lawyers as an aggregate - as a class they have done and continue to do immense harm to our nation and culture.

How is it possible that so much decency and conscientiousness results in so much moral disaster?

Let me bring the question into a different focus. Millions of people write seriously either in fiction, literature, entertainment, news, religion, and commentary. All of them are earnest, most highly devoted, and in a group can easily wax poetic on what inspires them, who their heroes are, what they hope to achieve, and how much they love what they do. An outsider would be impressed by their grasp of the nature of their task, the ins and outs, and nuts and bolts of what they face.

The outsider would be tempted to walk away from such an encounter with these people thinking they must certainly be incredibly good at what they do given their professionalism, their good will, and well meaning.

Yet, he would find that about 85% of them were quite poor writers lacking style, elegance, originality, or cleverness. Not because they are stupid, but because they have little depth to their experience, and only rudimentary insight into being. He would then find that the next 14% or so were interesting, often wise, clever, and engaging, but also quite unable to transcend their own time. They end up dating themselves.

The outsider would probably find that only a very few of his contemporaries achieved a level or quality of excellence that made them immortal in expression.

What happens then is that only those who appeal to the broadest or most elite audience will succeed. The tiniest audience of all is for those few who are greatly exceptional. Blake, Dante, Isaiah, Homer. (Shakespeare is in a strange position. He knew how to make his appeal broad and to an elite, and yet his depths have little favor. Bach is in a similar situation.)

The low and middle-brow then comes to dominate the writing culture. The same occurs in every profession. In law, a very middle-brow elite is created to administer justice and to thwart it; thus the Augean stables are never properly cleaned because there can be no Hercules to accomplish the task. That is, there may be men of great minds capable of the job, but they are immersed in the constraining gelatin that is the overall condition. They end up being Sisyphus’.

The sad fact is people have very little idea of how thin their wisdom is, how thick their reactions to adverse experiences (childhood), and how strong their defenses against a greater perception of truth.

posted by Mark Butterworth | 1:51 PM |