Why study English? What good does literature and art do for society? Well, that depends on who you ask. Unfortunately, the proponents of an artistic and literate life seem to have quieted in the recent decades, or, rather, are being drowned out by the sound of other media which have claimed part of the load of what it means to be literate and educated for themselves. We now have new entrants into the world of communication and entertainment in the form of television, film, podcasts, social media, online forums, etc… all of which, on the surface appear to make up a new, modern culture, or at least a “popular culture,” whose quality I am not addressing in this post. But even this new form of pop culture is trampled on constantly and methodically by the dominance, and perceived authority, of empirical thinking.
“What use is studying English? Why don’t you get a degree that can actually get you a job or do some good in the world?” If you are a modern scholar of literature, you’ve heard at least some variant of this argument against the humanities and for the various STEM
fields before, whether that be from family members, the crotchety old man you met at the grocery store, your peers in your place of education or work, or even all of the above. Well, one of many answers to this, and the one that I feel most passionately, is that English, and the humanities as a whole, make life worth living. But I will differ to a more poetic enunciation of this argument in the form of a story about a bee and a spider. And no, this is not some inexplicably contrived sexual allegory about birds and bees that I still can’t quite make sense of to this day; this is an excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books, in which we have a modernist spider squaring off against an artistic bee with Aesop acting as the referee, beginning with the argument of the spider:
“Not to disparage myself,” said he, “by the comparison with such a rascal, what art thou but a vagabond without house or home, without stock or inheritance? born to no possession of your own, but a pair of wings and a drone-pipe. Your livelihood is a universal plunder upon nature; a freebooter over fields and gardens; and, for the sake of stealing, will rob a nettle as easily as a violet. Whereas I am a domestic animal, furnished with a native stock within myself. This large castle (to show my improvements in the mathematics) is all built with my own hands, and the materials extracted altogether out of my own person.”
“I am glad,” answered the bee, “to hear you grant at least that I am come honestly by my wings and my voice; for then, it seems, I am obliged to Heaven alone for my flights and my music; and Providence would never have bestowed on me two such gifts without designing them for the noblest ends. I visit, indeed, all the flowers and blossoms of the field and garden, but whatever I collect thence enriches myself without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste. Now, for you and your skill in architecture and other mathematics, I have little to say: in that building of yours there might, for aught I know, have been labour and method enough; but, by woeful experience for us both, it is too plain the materials are naught; and I hope you will henceforth take warning, and consider duration and matter, as well as method and art. You boast, indeed, of being obliged to no other creature, but of drawing and spinning out all from yourself; that is to say, if we may judge of the liquor in the vessel by what issues out, you possess a good plentiful store of dirt and poison in your breast; and, though I would by no means lesson or disparage your genuine stock of either, yet I doubt you are somewhat obliged, for an increase of both, to a little foreign assistance. Your inherent portion of dirt does not fall of acquisitions, by sweepings exhaled from below; and one insect furnishes you with a share of poison to destroy another. So that, in short, the question comes all to this: whether is the nobler being of the two, that which, by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding, and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement and venom, producing nothing at all but flybane and a cobweb; or that which, by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax.”
Such is the argument of the spider and the bee, and the decision is handed down from Aesop as to where the value lies:
For pray, gentlemen, was ever anything so modern as the spider in his air, his turns, and his paradoxes? he argues in the behalf of you, his brethren, and himself, with many boastings of his native stock and great genius; that he spins and spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any obligation or assistance from without. Then he displays to you his great skill in architecture and improvement in the mathematics. To all this the bee, as an advocate retained by us, the Ancients, thinks fit to answer, that, if one may judge of the great genius or inventions of the Moderns by what they have produced, you will hardly have countenance to bear you out in boasting of either. Erect your schemes with as much method and skill as you please; yet, if the materials be nothing but dirt, spun out of your own entrails (the guts of modern brains), the edifice will conclude at last in a cobweb; the duration of which, like that of other spiders’ webs, may be imputed to their being forgotten, or neglected, or hid in a corner. For anything else of genuine that the Moderns may pretend to, I cannot recollect; unless it be a large vein of wrangling and satire, much of a nature and substance with the spiders’ poison; which, however they pretend to spit wholly out of themselves, is improved by the same arts, by feeding upon the insects and vermin of the age. As for us, the Ancients, we are content with the bee, to pretend to nothing of our own beyond our wings and our voice: that is to say, our flights and our language. For the rest, whatever we have got has been by infinite labour and search, and ranging through every corner of nature; the difference is, that, instead of dirt and poison, we have rather chosen to till our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”
So, in answer to “Why English?” To “[furnish] mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.” To balance the learning of scientific truths with the truths of philosophy, beauty, and art that bring all other culture and the act of being to life, and to bring these two intellectual pursuits together in the human pursuits of existence. How much more useful can a person be?
PS. The full text of The Battle of the Books can be found at Project Gutenburg.
Swift, Jonathan. 1886. The Battle Of The Books And Other Short Pieces. Ebook. 1st ed. Cassell & Company. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/623/623-h/623-h.htm.
The Battle Of The Books. 2016. Image. https://bodegonconteclado.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/battle_s.jpg?w=529.