I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked, which is about the role of cooking in human life and possibly the evolution of our species. It is quite interesting and so far has made me wish I could roast a whole pig on a spit — that’s an activity that will probably have to wait for the One Day House! Maybe as a house-warming party sort of thing.
Cooking, itself, is not one of the glorious unnecessaries I am thinking of. Being the type of omnivores we are, and with our big energy-guzzling brains, we appear to have evolved over the past couple of million years (give or take a few hundred thousand) to be the cooking animal, to require the processing of food through heat. We do not have the digestive tracts or the teeth for diets of raw food, whether animal or vegetable. Cooking, then, is a necessity. We need tools.
But the glory comes in what we do besides the basics. We do not merely throw meat on the fire, grains in a pot, and find the odd salt lick for that mineral supplement. No. We create beauty: we make sauces: we develop international trade so the dried seeds of one plant can cross continents and oceans. I believe that local food is a hugely important thing, for our societies, the future of the world, and for good health and good cultures — but I have no intention of being so strict as to never buy olive oil or wine or spices. The Venerable Bede had peppercorns in Dark Ages England; I really don’t see why I shouldn’t, either.
Chesterton talks about how this is a fundamental part of being human, that we spend a huge amount of time — in fact, devote the majority of our time, when left to our own devices — doing completely unnecessary things. He talks about the people who choose feathers over nudity though the climate doesn’t require clothing: that’s part of this. The person who spends his hours building matchstick ships or Wikipedia or entire made-up worlds complete with languages — these are the unnecessary, the human. Our specialist society with the emphasis on work for money and consumption for leisure — well, that’s lower-order thinking. Why should I be obliged to merely consume? That’s no fun! The fun comes in creation, in action, in the doing, in the making of something that didn’t exist before for no reason than the pure joy in doing it.
I was asked at a job interview recently what I thought was the purpose of the liberal arts education. I have to say to me the question is really, what is the purpose of the liberal arts; and I am very old-fashioned in my thinking on this. I don’t think they have, or should have, a purpose — not in any utilitarian sense. Certainly critical thinking and general knowledge and so on are useful, but they can be formed in other ways, too. No, I think the purpose of the liberal arts lies in their name: they are the activities proper to freedom. That freedom is precisely from necessity, the space that we work towards in order to make life good. Work is important — of course it is. But good work involves something more. It involves the use and development of our facilities and faculties, the sense that we are helping to build something bigger and greater — and incidentally to feed ourselves and our families and pay for other necessities. A miserable job is one where we are trapped by necessity, forced to work with bad colleagues or in unpleasant conditions, not by choice but by necessity. A good job could be doing exactly the same work but with cheer in the heart.
Where does the cheer come if you’re a garbage collector? I don’t know; I’ve never been one. Probably in the paycheque … but perhaps also in the sense that the job, unpleasant as it is, is part of civilisation. I doubt people think about that every day, or even at all; but it is, nevertheless, true. It’s worthwhile to do, because it is part of a bigger thing. And what is that bigger thing? Civilisation? A glorious (if occasionally heartbreaking) unnecessary. We do not need civilisation, in any absolute sense. We need it because we are human, and we are not entirely bound by necessity. We have a certain freedom of the will and a joy in the act of creation, in the development of that complex of activities we call art, that is food for the soul.
Why study the liberal arts? Why learn to cook? Why read a novel — or write one? Why decide, however perversely, to be an artist or an architect? Why decide to learn botany and chemistry and art theory so as to design a farm that is a garden? Why do the myths point back to a time in a garden, in a golden age, in a time when we walked with gods and did not find pain in work? There is something in the human that cries out for the unnecessary. That is perhaps what it means to be human. We are not robots, not slaves, not brute animals, and we shouldn’t let the market forces we have ourselves created presume to make us so. We are human beings, we are artists, we will always choose the feathers over nudity, though it mean we have to invent engineering so as to build a bridge across the gorge to where the most beautiful birds are.
(We will also, no doubt, kill the birds and destroy a lot of other things in the process of building said bridge and adorning ourselves with said feathers. We are not perfect. We do not live in Eden, nor the Golden Age of Greece.)
U is for the unnecessary. Long may we eschew the dystopias that presume that we need only usefulness, and no beauty. The tools can be beautiful and useful, and the results of them magnificent.