Reasoning Not the Need


O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. 
—King Lear, Act II, Scene 4

So says King Lear when his daughters are trying to strip away his retinue—the 100 knights who accompany him wherever he goes and whose maintenance was the only thing he asked of Goneril and Regan when he divided his kingdom among them. He doesn’t need any knights, they say, he is safe enough in their care. But he wants them because, well, it is the sort of thing that kings are supposed to have, and he is a king, isn’t he? Reason not the need!

I often find myself quoting these lines when talking to students and their parents about why a liberal arts education is a good thing. Liberal arts (so the story goes) is all about getting things that you don’t need. Seneca, who is the first person we know of to talk about “liberal arts” used the word “liberal” to describe an education worth of a “liber,” or “free man.” We get our English word “liberty” from the same root, but also “library.” And the two things—freedom and knowledge—have always been related.

But they aren’t related the way that we sometimes think they are related. Not for Seneca, anyway. In his world, “free man” was almost synonymous with “rich man,” and so the “liberal arts” were the sorts of things that people would study if they didn’t ever have to worry about making a living. For him, this largely meant poetry, music, mathematics, and astronomy—still a good list. These are things that are inherently valuable simply because learning stuff is cool.

Like any good academic administrator, I spend a lot of time talking about the Return on Investment (ROI) of a liberal arts education: it helps students learn how to learn new things, it prepares them for jobs that don’t exist yet, it teaches them the things like critical thinking and communication that employers are really looking for. All of this is true.

And yet, that’s really not what is important in the long run. Most of us don’t live in the kind of world that Seneca lived in, where family wealth was inherited and rich people don’t have to ever worry about finding a job. (Well, actually we do live in that world; it’s just that most of us aren’t the rich people). Work is important. Money isn’t the only thing in the world, but it is way ahead of whatever comes in second. Or something like that.

I believe that Americans are pretty good at work. Our secondary schools and universities do a good job of mapping students onto the current job market. Most people find jobs that make a reasonable use of their skill set. And most people make enough money in their jobs to spend most of their lives not dying of starvation or exposure.

But we suck at leisure. We are terrible at not working and still doing things. Many of us have been raised with a profound aversion to expending effort without reward. This produces a false dichotomy in our minds between, on the one end, “useful” (which means that it results in money or advancement) and, on the other end, “completely and utterly without any semblance of value,” which almost always involves reality TV, binge-watching stuff on Netflix, and about six hours a day commenting on social media threads.

What gets lost in this shuffle is recreation in its original sense of re-creation, or of remaking ourselves as something better. There are lots of ways to do this—poetry, music, mathematics, and astronomy are all good starts—but they all involve expending real effort without getting anything material in return. But the intellectual and spiritual dividends of actual re-creation are immense.

Re-creation–or continuous creation–strikes me as an imperative that cannot be separated from Mormonism’s deepest claims. “Learning new stuff all the time” is the exact definition of “eternal progression,” and “not learning anything else” is precisely what we mean by “damnation.” As Latter-day Saints, whose primary objective in this life is to one day become like God, we have a very easy test to determine whether or not it is worthwhile to learn something: is this the kind of thing God knows. If it is, then it is both inaccurate and heretical to call it “useless.”

But even that is more of a carrot than we should ever need to learn new things and new skills. In his masterful book The Idea of a University (1852), Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote that, “such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.” That is a tough concept to get one’s mind around, since we barely know how to think of expending any kind of effort without the possibility of a reward. But Newman’s point is important: like goodness, knowledge is a reward that doesn’t have to be defended on any grounds other than its inherent goodness.

Or, in other words, reason not the need.


  1. This is great. I’ve come to believe that some of us (self included) are simply wired to learn all that we can; we’re insatiable when it comes to soaking up knowledge. We may not always be structured about it, but we absorb things and go out of our ways to expand what we know. (It makes us awesome Trivial Pursuit players, if anyone still plays Trivial Pursuit.) As I tell my wife, I’m a mile wide and a foot deep, with some significant sinkholes.

    That’s been useful, professionally. There isn’t much I can’t learn, at least in contextual terms, well enough to navigate it. Not, like, electrical engineering or nuclear physics, but I can understand basics well enough to work on projects with people like that. A lot of the people I work with are the same way, or even more flexible. That’s made a mid-life career change possible and even enjoyable.

    And I’ve always simply liked to know things – it really is its own reward.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Where were you 51 years ago when I needed this? I wanted to pursue a liberal education, because I just liked to learn things. Everybody said, “Oh no, you must get a skill to earn a living.” So I got married instead. At the age of 48 I started taking classes at my husband’s insistence “because you will enjoy learning” (he knows me well.) I still can’t earn my living but I still use some of the things I learned just because it was fun.

  3. Nitpicker says:

    I hate to nitpick, but the roots of ‘library’ and ‘liberty’ are two different (but similar-looking) Latin words which each go back to different Indo-European roots. Latin liber ‘book’ is a noun, while liber ‘free’ is an adjective, and the similar form is only due to collapse of aspirated voiced stops in Italic. Otherwise a fine post.

  4. Nitpicker says

    “I hate to nitpick.”

    This seems like a deep existential problem, if you ask me. Self-hatred is a terrible thing. Makes me glad that the only problem I have is bad Latin ;-)

  5. Love this, Michael.

  6. “…any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.”

    I thought we all had it on good authority that “[s]ome things that are true are not very useful.”

  7. This is excellent, Michael. Thanks for articulating it. You put your finger very nicely on this point that I struggle with, of finding recreation that actually benefits me, and isn’t simply a break from work. Great post.

  8. I needed this today. I’ve felt burned out, like my resilience is being sucked away through the grind of the day to day, and having it added to by trying to find relief in the trivia of social media which seems to compound my disenchantment with life. Time to unwind in some poetry. Bless you your wisdom. And thanks for the Lear quote.

  9. “continuous creation . . . an imperative that cannot be separated from Mormonism’s deepest claims”
    My more than a quibble is that “learning new stuff” is just one form of continuous creation. Completely predictable from a champion of the liberal arts, and the one I learned at my father’s table. But still just one form. For myself, I add movement (e.g., climbing, hatha yoga, dance (needs another lifetime)), and making (e.g., a song, a chair, a straight furrow, an essay), and problem solving, and relationships. I’m sure others have more.
    I know there’s a way to synthesize that it’s all about continuous learning in the end. But that’s sort of a cheat because that’s not what (my father, at least) meant by the life of the mind.

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