Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
My dad would have been 65 today. So, I thought I’d take a moment away from the campaign (more on the campaign, next column; more on distractions from it, below), to try to work out what the point of his life was. I’ve always puzzled over this. As a small child, when my friends asked me what he did, I used to answer, “He’s working out what time is.”
You see, this man – the cleverest, in many ways best, person I’ve known – was a philosopher, and neither my then-seven-year-old friends, nor the then-seven-year-old I, knew what that meant. Yes, Jonathan Lowe was a philosopher. No, actually – Jonathan Lowe is a philosopher. Because I’m pretty sure he’s great enough to warrant this – as in, Handel is a composer, and Lord Liverpool is a British prime minister.
Anyway, increasingly, we only ever use the present tense. Indeed, the other day, I’m thinking this, whilst I’m driving back from Stockton South? Oh, and I’m eating dim sum for lunch tomorrow.
But the difficulty is that the philosophy my dad did doesn’t have much practical application. He spent his time on metaphysics – sorting out a systematic way to consider the most fundamental basics of everything – rather than ‘useful’ problems, such as whether we should criminalise abortion, or how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
And I often used to wish he would switch to the latter: hell, if anyone was brilliant enough to unravel this stuff, he was. One of the results of his dying, however, is that I spend more time thinking (obviously he would have disagreed with the validity of this statement). So, it’s only recently that I’ve realised quite how myopic my wish was.
When did we become such consequentialists that short-term material gains eclipsed the wonders of intrinsic value? We’re consumers: we want results, and we want them to afford us value for money. We want to make ourselves more employable. To be paid more. To be able to buy bigger and better things. And, whilst none of these desires is inherently wrong, it shouldn’t be for them that we learn, work, and live.
We don’t encourage primary schools to improve standards of literacy and numeracy in order to help them to perform better in Ofsted examinations; the purpose of Ofsted is to improve standards such as these. And reducing hospital waiting times is only relevant when you’re curing more people. Targets can obscure our reasons for making them.
Education isn’t just about getting a job, and working isn’t just about earning money. Rather, these things – education and work – are valuable in themselves. (Although this, itself, does have constructive consequences: a reason to want to keep living, and a reason to want to ensure the continuing existence of the human race.)
We live in a surfeit of information. The internet freely and indiscriminately hands us almost everything we want to know; the answers that, even five years ago, used to take us hours to search out, we can find on our phones in seconds. And the better the education that our schools and universities offer, the greater the number of people who might be inspired to exploit this – this new easy access – for personal intellectual gain.
Which is why, whilst we must continue improving opportunities for vocational study, we need to keep Keats on the curriculum, and counter the “disparition du Latin“. Because, surely, being able to appreciate Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Locke, Mozart, Arnold Bennett, Augustus John, Bertrand Russell, Philip Larkin, Orhan Pamuk, and Kevin Spacey (or any person, thing, or idea that you can value regardless of tangible reward) not only makes life bearable. It’s wonderful in itself.
I worry that I’m sounding incredibly idealistic, though. That you might be thinking: it’s all very well for you to say this, with your presumably middle-class upbringing, your clever dad, and your Oxbridge degree. How can you talk about education being more than just a means to an end, when an HE qualification is still essential for most top jobs, and a university’s success is judged on the social ‘Impact’ of its academics’ research?
And how can you talk about a job meaning more than just money, when there are still people who are unemployed and struggling? Or that all work should be intrinsically satisfying, whilst the party you represent is forcing people to take any old post, no matter what? And why on earth do you assume that everyone wants to enjoy listening to Liszt?
You’d be wrong. It’s invertedly snobbish to suggest that a love of learning, and the desire to find satisfaction in work (or a job that offers satisfaction) are dependent on socio-economic privilege. Apologising for intrinsic value is not only the fastest way to prevent people discovering its life-changing worth, it also impedes essential efforts to attain equality at the point of opportunity, rather than merely forcing outcomes.
As rational, intelligent beings we have a natural – albeit sometimes suppressed – craving to learn. I went to some talks at a philosophy conference here in Durham last week, and someone said to me, “Taking time off the campaign?” No, actually. Well, yes, in the sense that I’m aware it’s metaphysically impossible to be in the Institute of Advanced Study on Palace Green listening to someone speak about emergence and free will, at the same time as pushing leaflets through doors in Belmont. And, yes, it did physically keep me from the immense busyness that comes from running for parliament, supporting the local target seats, and trying to keep work and everything else ticking over.
Still, no: learning is surely the principal part of any political campaign. Not just learning about essential practical things – like the environmental benefits of communal bins, about which was I was enlightened during a police walkabout the other day. But also continuing to learn about abstract, seemingly useless (but never pointless) things. Things that might well include: why we shouldn’t conflate truthmakers with application conditions, whether supervenience can help us to understand reductionism, and how tomatoes pretty much definitely exist…
The more I learn, and the more I think, the better a parliamentary candidate I’ll be – and the better and happier a person, too. Sure, politics – unlike metaphysics – is all about practical application, but that doesn’t mean that we should focus solely on immediate material consequences.
And all this offers a roundabout answer to my original question. Clearly, I feel compelled to work out a point to my dad’s life because I’m more impressionable than he was – because sometimes, like most of us, I forget to recognise things as ends in themselves. Whilst he may have never definitively worked out what time is, he did inspire thousands of others (including, somewhat belatedly, me) to realise the value in thinking about this kind of problem. The importance he set by this, and the encompassing satisfaction he gained from it, meant that, if he had lived until his sixty-fifth birthday today, he wouldn’t have considered retirement.
My dad’s way of life furthered humanity, but it also – just as significantly – furthered him, too. And this is great, just because it is. Intrinsic value, I love it. And him (present tense).