The New York Times’ David Brooks is just the latest to discuss how a liberal arts education prepares people, not just for something as simple as a job, but for something greater: To love. In this weekend’s column, he writes of Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova sharing a night in 1945’s Soviet Union:
By 4 in the morning, they were talking about the greats. They agreed about Pushkin and Chekhov. Berlin liked the light intelligence of Turgenev, while Akhmatova preferred the dark intensity of Dostoyevsky.
Deeper and deeper they talked, baring their souls. Akhmatova confessed her loneliness, expressed her passions, spoke about literature and art. Berlin had to go to the bathroom but didn’t dare break the spell. They had read all the same things, knew what the other knew, understood each other’s longings. That night, Ignatieff writes, Berlin’s life “came as close as it ever did to the still perfection of art.” He finally pulled himself away and returned to his hotel. It was 11 a.m. He flung himself on the bed and exclaimed, “I am in love; I am in love.”
Today we live in a utilitarian moment. We’re surrounded by data and fast-flowing information. “Our reason has become an instrumental reason,” as Leon Wieseltier once put it, to be used to solve practical problems.
The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a different sort of communication. It’s communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.
Image by Miller Center.