That not to know at large of things remote
From use, obscure and suttle, but to know
That which before us lies in daily life,
Is the prime Wisdom, what is more, is fume,
Or emptiness, or fond impertinence,
And renders us in things that most concerne
Unpractis’d, unprepar’d, and stillto seek.
Paradise Lost, book VIII, l.191-7
As an excerpt, this bit sounds a lot like it is rehearsing many of the arguments we’ve been reading about the perceived uselessness of the humanities- how can you get more “remote/From use” than something like Byzantine art history, Romantic poetry, or, well, Paradise Lost? However, in the context of thinking about the contemporary study of the humanities, the peculiar thing about this excerpt (leaving aside all the other little peculiarities that are so common in Milton) is that the “fume/Or emptiness, or fond impertinence” that Adam and Raphael have just been discussing is… the structure of the universe. I’m not sure if we would call it astronomy, cosmology, or perhaps even physics. The thing that they move onto after this conversation is using narrative to organize one’s priorities. (Ultimately, the priorities Raphael is advocating fail, but, well, Satan.)
Obviously, our priorities as a society have turned almost 180 degrees since the seventeenth century. I remember the things people said to me and my best friend when we disclosed our college majors. Her: “Oh, physics? You must be smart!” Me: “Oh, English? So you’re going to teach?” Quite frankly, I wonder what it would be like to live in a society where stories- the things I love, the things that sustain me- are taken as self-evidently valuable, where I wouldn’t have to justify examining how they work. But on the other hand, I don’t love the sentiment embodied here; that somehow the way the universe works is irrelevant to us. Seems self-evident in our current time, but use (like objectivity in the Epistemology of the Eye essay) is culturally constructed, or at least culturally dependent. In Milton’s time, of course things like poetry and theology were important, and of course those silly men looking through tubes and breeding pea plants* were pursuing an eccentric, intriguing, but ultimately futile hobby.
I don’t think- or at least, I don’t want to think- that intellectual value is a zero-sum game between art/literature/history/etc. and the sciences. I think a good university (in a perfect world where funding is unlimited, students are self-motivated, the economy doesn’t suck so horribly, etc. etc. etc.) would cultivate a mutually reinforcing relationship between the sciences and the humanities- encouraging literacy in a variety of subjects, supporting interdisciplinary work. I’m tempted to say that a great university would try to break down the distinctions between the sciences and the humanities. I’m not sure what that would look like, or how we could get there, or even if it’s possible. But I’m not convinced that any form of knowledge is useless, even if I can’t quite explain the objective use of what I do- insert scare quotes as necessary.
*POSSIBLY NOT CONTEMPORARY TO MILTON.