Translated by Pedro Sette Câmara
The general understanding of the term ‘higher education’ is that it basically means the training for the well-paid professions. From this concept we may conclude, without the slightest chance for error, that every normal human being is able to receive it and that any elitism whatsoever would be unjust, even when the case is not one of intentional discrimination but of unequal distribution of luck. However, if we are to understand by the name of ‘higher education’ the overcoming of the intellectual limitations of the environment, the access to a universal perspective of things, and the realisation of the highest spiritual qualities a human being possesses, then we will find that many candidates have a personal impairment that, sooner or later, will end up excluding them and assuring that ‘higher education’ – in the strong and not in the administrative sense – continues to be, by their own right, a privilege of few.
This impairment, thanks be to God, is not of economic, social, ethnic or biological order. It is one of those human evils which, like cancer and matrimonial quarrels, is more or less fairly and equally distributed among classes, races, and genders. It is the only kind of imperfection that could justly be invoked as the cornerstone of an elitist selection. Anyway, that would be totally unnecessary, because it makes a selection by itself, and in such a natural and spontaneous way that the excluded cannot even imagine what they have lost, and are actually quite happy about their situation. Thus, perfect harmony reigns among the happy few and the unhappy many, safeguarded by the impassable distance which separates them.
The impairment to which I refer is not material, nor is it quantifiable. Statistics do not include it in their calculations, and the government completely ignores it. Nonetheless it exists, has a name and has been known for more than two millennia. A competent mind can recognise its presence immediately, by an intuitive act of perception as simple as differentiating day and night.
The Greeks called it apeirokalia. It means simply ‘the lack of experience of the most beautiful things’. By this term it was understood that the individual who, in certain stages of his development, had been deprived of certain interior experiences that woke on him the desire for beauty, goodness, and truth, would never be able to understand the conversations of the sages, no matter how much effort he put in learning Sciences, Letters and Rhetoric. Plato, for instance, would say that this man is a prisoner of the cave. Aristotle, in a more technical language, would say that rites are not intended for the transmission of specific teachings to men, but to cause on their soul a deep impression. Anyone who is aware of the importance Aristotle gives to the imaginative impressions will understand the extreme seriousness of what he means: these impressions performed upon the soul an illuminating and structuring impact. In their absence, intelligence obscurely drifts about the multitude of sensible data, without grasping the symbolic nexus which, bridging the gap between abstractions and reality, prevents our reasoning from dissolving into a maddening combinatory of empty syllogisms – the pedant expressions of the impotence to know.
Of course, the inner experiences which Aristotle refers to are not exclusively granted by ‘rites’ in the strict and technical understanding of the term. Theatre and poetry also can open souls to an inflow of the above. To music – to certain music – we cannot deny the power to generate a similar effect. The simple contemplation of nature, a providential happening, or, for more sensitive souls, even certain states of loving rapture, when associated with a strong moral appeal (remember Raskolnikov, before Sonia, in Crime and Punishment), can put the soul in a certain state of bliss that frees it from the cave and from apeirokalia.
However, it is much more likely that the most intense experiences a man may have during his life will drive him away from what Aristotle had in mind. For what characterises the life-giving impression the philosopher mentions is precisely the impossibility to separate, in their content, truth, goodness and beauty. From Plato to Leibniz, there was not a single philosopher worthy of the name who did not most emphatically proclaim the unity of these three aspects of Being. And here begins the problem: most men never had an experience in which beauty, goodness and truth did not appear separated by tremendous abysses. Such men are the victims of apeirokalia – and among them we may count some of the most influential intellectuals in the world of today.
Unhappily, the number of these victims seems to be destined to increase. Back in 1918, Max Weber already pointed the loss of the unity of ethical-religious, aesthetical and cognitive values as prominent traces of the time. Goodness, beauty and truth became more and more distant every day, and because of that
“the most sublime values have retreated from the public life, either to the transcendent world of mystic life, or to the fraternity of personal and direct human relationships… It is not by chance that today, only in the small and intimate circles, in personal human situations, there remains something that may correspond to the prophetic spirit (pneuma) which in ancient times would sweep large communities like a fire”.
The two fortresses of the sublime that Weber mentions did not last for long: mystic life, harassed by the tide of fake esoterism that stole its language and prestige, ended up recoiling to silence, off the mainstream, in order not to be contaminated by profane babble. Intimacy, assaulted by the media, violated by the State’s interference, turned into the object of hysterical exhibitionism and sadic sneaking, disowned of its language by the commercial and ideological exploration of its symbols, simply no longer exists.
The whole of literature in the twentieth century reflects this state of affairs: first the ‘incommunicability’ of the egos, then the suppression of the ego itself – ‘character dissolution’. But many things happened since Weber. Nearing the end of the millennium, what’s understood by ‘mystic’ is a cerebralism of philologists; by love, the carnal contact people unknown to each other have through a piece of rubber. The three supreme values, at this point, are not only independent, but antagonistic. Beauty isn’t just disconnected from goodness: it is definitely bad. Goodness in its turn seems to be hypocritical, fakely sentimental and stupid. Truth is ugly, meaningless and depressing. Aesthetics celebrate vampires, the death of the soul, cruelty, the man who shoves his arm up to the elbow inside another man’s anus. Ethics is reduced to an accusatory discourse of each one against their own dislikings, sided by the most cynical self-indulgence. Truth is nothing but the statistic consensus of academe corrupted to their hearts.
Under these conditions, it is truly a miracle that an individual can escape for instants from the led dome of apeirokalia, and another miracle that, upon his return to the nightmare he calls “real life”, these instants do not seem to him like a dream that he should better not mention in public.
But nothing will prevent a writer from speaking, in his own works, to the survivors of the spiritual doom of the twentieth century, hoping that they exist and that they are not so few. Overwhelmed by the combined harassment of banality and brutality, they can still suspect that in their hidden dreams and hopes there is a truth more certain than everything the world today imposes upon us with the label of ‘reality’, guaranteed by Science and the Food and Drug Administration. It is for those that I speak, aware that they will not be found in larger numbers among the educated than among the poor and the forsaken.
Weber, Max. Org. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. Trans. Waltensir Dutra, rev. by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, 5th ed. “A ciência como vocação”. Ensaios de Sociologia. Rio de Janeiro: Guanabara, 1982. p.182