Image

Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature?

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
—Sir Francis Bacon

Leisure without human letters amounts to death, the entombment of a living man.
—Saint William Fermat

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 money-based economy, businessmen and businesswomen wield great power and are frequently called into roles of civic and political leadership. This fact makes the question that heads this essay 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 were, as a lot, more inhumane, mean, or cruel than the average bank clerk, school teacher, or construction worker. But he was persuaded that businessmen were “deficient in the disciplines which nurture sound imagination and strong moral character,” and he argued that this is not good for America.

Kirk lamented the turn to business education in our colleges and universities, which, he argued, was contributing to the cultural illiteracy of the business class. That trend has accelerated through the concluding decades of the twentieth century, leaving fewer and fewer of those engaged in business educated in the liberal arts. This is significant, and it is a determining factor as to why businessmen so often do not read great literature. So this is where I shall also begin.

Imagining Larger Possibilities and Purposes

Kirk was right. By the 1950s, higher education in North America had begun to buy into business education (pun intended) and replace liberal arts 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 sums up the scandal and hints 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.”

I teach core curriculum courses in ethics, literature, and theology at a college in which a third of the students are business majors. And I have seen over the past twenty years how business “training” sucks these students dry of idealism and replaces it with the crudest forms of pragmatism, utilitarianism, and fatalism. The light in their eyes has already begun to dim before they have finished four years. This is a dreadful thing to witness. Despite the efforts of myself and other teachers in the humanities, many men and women depart Loyola College with no sense of the meaning or value of a liberal arts education. Nor have they acquired the habits of reading that are historically associated with such an education.

This lack is debilitating in ways that appear wholly overlooked by much of society, including the parents of my students. For if these young men and women had 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 through 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 were not encouraged in college (or even permitted, in many cases) to read and to 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 wrote an essay titled “On the Choice of a Profession” that 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 satirical 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 introduces 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 further, 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 my duty” ignores this and displays 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 is one’s duty to be a banker. Banking may be a 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. This is why Stevenson wonders: “Is he sure that banks are a good thing?” For never can it 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. Yet nothing in the friend’s statements suggests that he has thought through these matters or that he 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 know why he is a banker. The principal reason for this, 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 one’s 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 scribing. Thus it is, that out of men, we make bankers.

I don’t know much about the banker of Stevenson’s day. But I am familiar with his counterparts of our day. I see them already “broken in” in college. I see them riding on the East Coast Metroliner. On the Metroliner, 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-suited men and women don’t 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. But 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 despair and anxiousness that renders its captives unable to be alone with 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 self to business and work.

One need not follow these businessmen and businesswomen to their beach vacations at the Hamptons or 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 the opportunity to read a good book, they turn on their cell phones and feverishly dial up anyone they might 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’ (as Winston Churchill has reminded us). 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 them to you to read 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 emphasizes 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 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.

What to Read?

“If we take literature in the widest sense, so as to include the literature of both 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 (University of Notre Dame Press) is an excellent and eclectic anthology of brief readings edited by Gilbert Meilaender. Witold Rybczynski’s Waiting for the Weekend (Penguin) tracks leisure’s historical development and transformation by modern commercial culture. Leisure the Basis of Culture (Liberty Fund) 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 read actual stories about real leaders. Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life (Henry Holt) is the best one-volume biography of one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century; Lord Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (Madison Books), of the nineteenth; and David McCullough’s John Adams (Simon and Schuster), of the eighteenth.

“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 (Baker Book House), edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, forms one indispensable (and lifelong) reading list.

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. 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 toward directing all of youth’s energy into the pursuit of a career. We accord professionalism and careerism a standing that far outshadows learning the human condition and cultivating 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.

This year one young fellow, a senior who had “escaped the business school,” as he put it, to pursue a political science major, came to my office early in the spring to tell me that lots of his friends who were graduating as business majors were gloomy and listless because they were leaving Loyola 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 life 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 will punctuate your every day, and you will attract good company.

One evening last week, my son, now 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. What is of much greater importance is that 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. They talked about the great authors whom in college they read and learned to love—especially, in this instance, Charles Dickens. This real-life scene, more real than any “real-life” television 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 businesswomen read the classics? The answer is simple: to be free, and in that freedom to grow into fuller, more complete, virtuous, and interesting human beings who share with each other a living and life-giving culture. If Stevenson’s imaginary banker friend 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—such as to earn an adequate income to support a family, or perhaps for another reason.

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 [and does] supplement and elevate such worldly wisdom,” says Russell Kirk wisely. Great literature has the power to ennoble our lives by showing us how and inspiring us to put ourselves in the other person’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 to 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.