Why should businessmen read great literature?
December 2, 2012
Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
— Sir Francis Bacon
Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library.
— Sir Winston Churchill
In every society, power must be humanized and used morally in order that free and civilized life might prosper. And in a commercial society, businessmen and businesswomen wield especially great power and are frequently called into roles of civic and political leadership. This fact makes the question that serves as this essay’s title especially significant. A half-century ago, Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, penned an article titled “The Inhumane Businessman.” Kirk did not argue that businessmen are, as a lot, more inhumane, mean, or cruel than the average bank clerk, schoolteacher, or construction worker. But he was persuaded that businessmen are “deficient in the disciplines which nurture sound imagination and strong moral character,” and that this does not augur well for the nation.
Kirk lamented the turn to business education in our colleges and universities, which, he argued, contributes to the cultural illiteracy of the business class. This trend toward specialized business education accelerated during the concluding decades of the twentieth century, leaving fewer and fewer of those engaged in business educated in the liberal arts. That is a principal reason why businessmen so often do not read great literature. So this is where I shall begin.
Imagining larger possibilities and purposes
Kirk was right. By the 1950s, higher education in North America had begun to buy into business education, so to speak, and replace liberal studies with this glamorized version of vocational training. Colleges certainly did not heed C. S. Lewis’s admonition that “if education is beaten by training, civilization dies.” Even earlier in the century, G. K. Chesterton published an article in the London Illustrated Times, titled simply enough “On Business Education,” in which, in his acerbic manner, he summed up the scandal and hinted at its consequences: “Modern educators begin by stuffing the child, not with the sense of justice by which he can judge the world, but with the sense of inevitable doom or dedication by which he must accept that particular very worldly aspect of the world.”
For many years, I taught core curriculum courses in ethics, literature, and theology at a college in which more than a third of the students were business majors. And I saw over more than twenty years how business “training” sucked these students dry of idealism and replaced it with the crudest forms of pragmatism, utilitarianism, and fatalism. The light in their eyes had already begun to dim and flicker before they had finished their fourth year, a dreadful thing to witness. Despite my efforts and those of other teachers in the humanities, many men and women departed the college with no sense of the meaning or value of a liberal arts education. Nor had they acquired the habits of reading that are historically associated with such an education. I have reason to believe that this is not an isolated phenomenon; experience elsewhere since then suggests that it is equally true of business school students around the nation.
This deficiency is debilitating in ways that are wholly overlooked by much of society, including the parents of my students. For if these young men and women learned the meaning and value of the liberal arts, they would leave college with the answers to two questions that, as it turns out, they hardly know how to ask, let alone answer. First, “Why should I read great literature throughout the rest of my life?” Second, “Why am I choosing to spend my life in business?”
They cannot answer the second question satisfactorily because they are not encouraged in college (or even permitted, in many cases) to read and love the great literary masters. Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Eliot teach us to imagine larger possibilities and purposes for our lives. They test our decisions with the moral wisdom of humankind. They ask us to move through the world with discernment. They show us that we possess the freedom to make of our lives what we will and not what others choose for us, what the fates decide, or what historical forces dictate.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay “On the Choice of a Profession” gets to the crux of these concerns. The essay is composed in the form of a letter to a young man who is seeking advice on a career. It has a sharp critical edge worthy of Pope or Swift. At one point, Stevenson introduces an imaginary conversation with a banker friend.
“My good fellow,” I say, “give me a moment.”
“I have not a moment to spare,” says he.
“Why?” I enquire.
“I must be banking,” he replies.
“And what,” I continue my interrogatory, “is banking?”
“Sir,” says he, “it is my business.”
“Your business?” I repeat. “And what is a man’s business?”
“Why,” cries the banker, “a man’s business is his duty.”
Stevenson then offers these observations about the conversation:
But this is a sort of answer that provokes reflection. Is a man’s business his duty? Or perhaps should not his duty be his business? If it is not my duty to conduct a bank (and I contend that it is not) is it the duty of my friend the banker? Who told him it was? Is it in the Bible? Is he sure that banks are a good thing? Might it not be his duty to stand aside and let some one else conduct the bank? Or perhaps ought he not to have been a ship-captain instead? All these perplexing queries may be summed up under one head: the grave problem which my friend offers to the world: Why is he a Banker?
The loss of leisure and the dragon of despair
Through the back door, Stevenson has introduced the ancient tradition of the man of virtuous character. This tradition says that the virtues are not the same as the skills needed to perform work—and furthermore, that duty, which is most certainly related to the virtues, carries moral weight. Duty is related to conscience and a higher law. To say that “business is duty” ignores this fact and reveals ignorance of what duty and virtue really are. That is why Stevenson quips: “Who told him it was [his duty]? Is it in the Bible?” Of course the Bible did not instruct his friend (nor does it instruct anyone else) that it was his duty to be a banker. Banking may be man’s choice of work, but duty impinges upon work as the transcendent obligation to do what is morally right in every location or vocation.
Duty is the “business” of being a virtuous human being. Doing business is not a duty, although it may be one’s duty to behave virtuously in business. That is why Stevenson wonders: “Is he sure that banks are a good thing?” For it can never be one’s duty to do evil. A contractual agreement or a compelling love for making financial transactions may persuade a person to be a banker, but it may be a person’s duty to foreswear an unscrupulous bank dealing or even to leave one’s position in the bank altogether. Nothing in Stevenson’s friend’s statements suggests that he has thought through these matters or that he even knows how to begin to evaluate his position morally. He is a man with a shrunken moral imagination, though we do not know how precisely he got that way.
Finally, Stevenson’s friend does not even now why he is a banker. The main reason, Stevenson speculates, is that he “was trapped” by a form of education that “harnesses a fellow” with the best of intentions but makes him a slave before he has had a chance to become a free man. The fellow was kept in the shadows of Plato’s cave—kept in the dark, as we say. He chose to become a banker because, presumably, he could not imagine doing any other work. He had been fed innumerable facts about how to conduct the business of banking but was not challenged to ask the “why” questions about how to conduct his life. Stevenson continues:
The fellow was hardly in trousers before they whipped him into school; hardly done with school before they smuggled him into an office . . . and all this before he has had time so much as to imagine that there may be any other practical course. Drum, drum, drum. . . . The trick is performed…; the wild ass’s colt is broken in; and now sits diligently scribbling. Thus it is, that out of men, we make bankers.
I do not know much about the banker of Stevenson’s time. But I am familiar with today’s counterpart. I have seen them already “broken in” in college. I have seen them riding the East Coast Metroliner, where I have watched young men and women who not only exhibit all the signs of not knowing the difference between duty and work, but also of not knowing how to leave work behind for genuine leisure. Not that these well-dressed men and women do not change into sports clothes and take vacations. They pursue recreation with a vengeance and make sure to dress in the best recreational attire. They work hard at taking a “break” from work, at getting good R&R, so that they are ready to go back to work. This is a state of mind that never leaves work. These businessmen and businesswomen, young and old, are overcome by what the philosopher Josef Pieper has called acedia, a form of lethargy not to be confused with idleness. (Acedia, you will remember, is another name for sloth, traditionally reckoned among the seven capital sins.) At the bottom of acedia’s pit is the dragon of anxiousness and despair that renders its captives unable to be alone themselves.
In other words, the lethargy of acedia is a loss of the capacity to be with oneself and to live reflectively rather than reflexively. Ironically, this incapacitation is manifested as unceasing restlessness and a flight from freedom and the self to business and work.
One need not follow these businessmen and businesswomen to beach vacations at the Hamptons or their ski weekends in the Poconos to reach this diagnosis. Watch them in their extra-roomy Metroliner seats with no work to do and no one to be with but themselves. Instead of embracing this freedom as true leisure or an opportunity to read a good book, they turn on their cell phones and feverishly punch up anyone they have the slightest excuse to call.
I have often been tempted to call across the aisle, “Good fellow” (or “Hey guy,” to be up to date), “think of the wonderful tales that have been told and will be told, which you will never know. Read Eliot and Auden, Henry James and Graham Greene. They will help you get a grip on the life that is being sapped from you minute by minute by the dragon. I am sorry my colleagues did not assign such authors to you in college or inspire a love for them so that you would return to them often. And I am sorry that they never cultivated within you those habits of reading and reflection that make a person a free and full human being.”
The only amateur animal
In a masterful defense of liberal learning titled “Our English Syllabus,” C.S. Lewis emphasized that we are distinguished from the rest of God’s creatures not by our capacity for work—all animals are workers and professionals at what they do—but by the fact that we alone may be amateurs in an infinite variety of activities at our leisure. He writes:
You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk—in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb he saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop.
Yet I have seen that business education treats young men and women precisely as if they were destined to be at shop and to talk shop all day long. Even the liberal arts have been influenced by this slavish and utilitarian view of human nature. We prepare young people to become cows and mules rather than men and women. We expend great energy and dedicate vast sums of money towards directing all of youth’s energy into the pursuit of a career. We are more concerned that our students learn to be professionals and prepare themselves for careers than we are that they learn about the human condition and cultivate the moral imagination. My guild has sent out into society far too many souls whose imaginations are starved, who do not know what to do with themselves when they are not at work other than to feed appetites that will never be satisfied and to pursue pleasures that will never bring happiness.
One young fellow, a senior who had “escaped the business school,” as he put it, in order to pursue a political science major, came to my office once to tell me that many of his friends who were graduating as business majors were gloomy and listless because they were leaving college without jobs. Most had become business majors solely because they were told that they would have a job when it was all over. Few really enjoyed their studies. “Now they haven’t the foggiest notion of why they spent four years of their lives in college or what to do with themselves after graduation,” he said. “It’s grim, really depressing, to be around them.”
But it is never too late to become a free man, to become “a full man,” as Bacon said, by reading the masters. Read them, and the desire for perfection will take hold of you, love and not lust will rule your life, confidence in living today and not anxiety for finishing tomorrow’s work punctuate your every day, and you will attract good company.
One evening, my son, then a year out of college, got together with three of his high school classmates, another young man and two young women, at a singles’ establishment in Baltimore. My son works in the brave new world of computer technologies, in which he does technical tasks, teaches, and writes for computer gaming magazines. I did not ask what kind of work his friends are doing. But all of them majored in English, so that when this opportunity arrived to spend some leisure time together all four brought something to share and talk about other than shop or the season finale of Friends or Sex and the City.
They talked about the great authors whom in college they read and learned to love—especially Charles Dickens. This real-life scene, more real than any reality TV show, is a microcosm of the birth and rebirth of genuine culture. This is where leisure lends meaning to all the rest of one’s life, including work. This is as it should be for that one creature that God made to be an amateur (Latin: amare, amator) rather than a professional. We are created to be principally lovers, not laborers.
We have come full circle. Why should businessmen and women read the classics? The answer is simple: to be free, and in that freedom to grow into fuller, more complete, more virtuous, and more interesting human beings who share with each other a living and life-giving culture. If Stevenson’s imaginary banker had understood this, he would not have called business his duty and would have been able to give a quite sufficient explanation as to why he was a banker.
Vital moral maps of this world
Great literature, whether it is history, biography, humane letters, poetry, or fiction, “cannot substitute for native shrewdness and familiarity with worldly wisdom, but it can supplement and elevate such worldly wisdom,” says Russell Kirk, wisely. Great literature has the power to ennoble our lives by helping us to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It teaches us much about the hopes and motivations of our fellow human beings that our everyday experience may not provide. And it draws for us vital moral maps of this world with its exemplary stories of evil and good character tested and forged in the furnace of the human comedy. The result ought be “the cultivation,” as Kirk says, “of tastes … [and] disciplines … that enable the pleasures of humane consciousness to make their way naturally and gracefully into even the busiest career.” In his estimate and also mine, this should lead not only to greater longevity, but, more importantly, to a life better lived.
What to read?
“If we take literature in the widest sense, so as to include the literature of the knowledge and power, the question ‘What is the good of reading what anyone writes?’ is very like the question ‘What is the good of listening to what anyone says?,” writes C. S. Lewis. “Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke, and merriment you want, the answer is obvious.” There are myriad such sources. Here are just a few.
Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits is an excellent and eclectic anthology of brief readings edited by Gilbert Meilaender. Witold Rybczynski’s Waiting for the Weekend tracks leisure’s historical development and transformation by modern commercial culture. Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper is a recognized classic, presenting an apologia for the practice of contemplation in the midst of activity.
So-called leadership studies is a popular genre, but it is better to actual stories about real leaders. Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life is the best one-volume biography of one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century; Lord Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln: A Biography is the best of the greatest nineteenth-century leader; and David McCullough’s John Adams is the best biography of one of the eighteenth century’s most impressive men.
“To ask and then to answer these questions as far as one can, one needs above all a priceless and taxing involvement with truth and beauty,” the novelist Mark Helprin writes. “Nowhere do they run together with such complexity and power as in the gracefully written word.” Some novels of particular interest to those engaged in the active life include Walker Percy’s Moviegoer, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, William Shakespeare’s Tempest, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov. There are, of course, many others; Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, provides one indispensable reading list that would take a lifetime to complete.
Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is also a member of the Clarion’s editorial advisory board.
This essay was first published in Religion and Liberty in the summer of 2002 and was reprinted in Prof. Guroian’s Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature, and Everyday Life (2005, ISI Books).