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Passion and the Pursuit of Truth

January 17, 2011

James Matthew Wilson in Big Questions Online:

Intellectual historians recall the 18th century as a golden age of public philosophers and men of letters, of discussion and speculation, but also, significantly, of experimentation in the physical sciences and in the art of statecraft. As an age of Enlightenment, it was an era of ideas, but one in which ideas had real consequences in action. Perhaps for this reason, the virtue its citizens held up for greatest praise appears nowhere in the Ethics of Aristotle or in the morality of any prior age — that of disinterestedness.

One finds the word frequently in private letters, public newspapers, and on crooked headstones in churchyards from the period. To judge without prejudice, to observe without inclination, to weigh the “facts” (another 18th century word) without placing a thumb on the scale — this was a measure of greatness.

One seldom hears open nostalgia for that time of couplets and courts, cabinet wars and musket duels, periwigs and knickers. And yet, whenever we lament the “bias” of the media, the politicization of the classroom, the manipulation of science for political ends, we are in effect observing problems that the Enlightenment bequeathed to us, and we are implicitly longing for the solution to these ills that the Enlightenment recommended: the virtue of disinterest.

In the Victorian age, the English poet and social critic Matthew Arnold looked upon the all-consuming materialism of his contemporaries — their thoughtless dynamism of making, selling, and getting — and longed for a realm of disinterested contemplation. Could the English sustain a place in their lives, where the best that had been thought and said could be contemplated for its own sake, free of considerations for its market value? [More]

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