As Charles Clarke's recent statements made clear, the search for knowledge through contemplation as an end in itself is under threat. If it is lost, argues Andrew Louth, our very notion of civilisation will be undermined.
The medieval university was a place that made possible a life of thought, of contemplation. It emerged in the 12th century from the monastic and cathedral schools of the early Middle Ages where the purpose of learning was to allow monks to fulfil their vocation, which fundamentally meant to come to know God. Although knowledge of God might be useful in various ways, it was sought as an end in itself. Such knowledge was called contemplation, a kind of prayerful attention.
The evolution of the university took the pattern of learning that characterised monastic life - reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation - out of the immediate context of the monastery. But it did not fundamentally alter it. At its heart was the search for knowledge and, ultimately, knowledge of God, for its own sake. It was an exercise of freedom on the part of human beings, and the disciplines involved were to enable one to think freely and creatively. These were the liberal arts, or free arts, as opposed to the servile arts to which a man is bound if he has in mind a limited task.
In other words, in the medieval university, contemplation was knowledge of reality itself, as opposed to that involved in getting things done. It corresponded to a distinction in our understanding of what it is to be human, between reason conceived as puzzling things out and that conceived as receptive of truth. This understanding of learning has a history that goes back to the roots of western culture. Now, this is under serious threat, and with it our notion of civilisation.
Somewhere in the more recent history of the West, the understanding of what is involved in knowledge began to change. Immanuel Kant, who spoke of reason "constraining nature to give answers to questions of reason's own determining", must have had something to do with it, though he was likely a symptom of wider changes rather than their cause. Another nail in the coffin of these traditional ideas of contemplation was provided by Karl Marx, who commented: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it." Philosophy is precisely not the contemplation of reality; it is to be participation in revolutionary struggle. It is certainly in the Marxist notion of the "intellectual worker" that the classical idea of thinking as contemplation is finally overthrown.
It might seem strange to evoke the ideals of Marxism more than a decade after the collapse of communism. But it is odd how ideas linger in what might seem the strangest quarters. One would never have thought of Universities UK as a hotbed of Marxism, yet it is in university management that the doctrine of perpetual revolution seems to hold sway. It is also in such quarters that the idea of the academic as an intellectual worker seems tenacious, though in a consumerist rather than a Marxist version. But the effect is much the same, so far as the undermining of the idea of the university as a place for the pursuit of the intellectual virtue of contemplation is concerned.
If we academics are workers, then there should be a product and it had better be saleable, or at least subject to quality control. This is the rationale of the Quality Assurance Agency and of the research assessment exercise: we produce education, which is consumed by students, and research, which is consumed by our peers - things that can be quantified and assessed. If our arts departments are going to be rated 5 or 5*, then each member must produce, say, a book and three weighty articles in each assessment period. In the case of teaching, the next stage has already been reached: an assessment of procedures.
If it were simply a matter of the way in which turning universities into educational businesses is making the job of being an academic miserable, then perhaps we could batten down the hatches and wait for the madness to pass, or take early retirement. But I fear it is more serious than that.
Western culture, as we have known it from the time of classical Greece onwards, has always recognised that there is more to human life than a productive, well-run society. If that were not the case, then, as Plato sourly suggests, we might just as well be communities of ants or bees. But there is more than that, a life in which the human mind glimpses something beyond what it can achieve. This kind of human activity needs time in which to be undistracted and open to ideas.
Universities and academies make this possible: and that needs no other justification. As academics, our role should not be to turn out students with transferable skills of comprehension, analysis and an ability to communicate intelligibly - if that is taken as the reason for our existence, I fear we shall cease to achieve even that. Our justification must be that academics are people paid to have time to think. We do other things, too, and do them well, but if that principle is no longer conceded, society has lost something essential - it is no longer civilised in the sense in which we speak of western civilisation.
The situation now is, if anything, worse: the principle of leisure to contemplate is not only not conceded, it is no longer even understood. It has been eliminated by government policy that, first, industrialises universities (turning them into some sort of intellectual factory), then seeks to employ the principle of the supermarket: pile them high and sell them cheap. There have been too few voices from within the academy that have pointed out the fundamental threat posed by this policy.
And it is a fundamental threat, not only to the nearly 900-year tradition of the university, but to civilisation itself. That might seem extreme, but let me complete my jeremiad. Acknowledgment of the supreme value of contemplation, and the need for those who may devote their time to it, has long been linked to acknowledgment that human beings are not simply earth-bound entities. In contemplation, Aristotle believed, humans glimpsed what was divine in them and realised an affinity with the gods. This insight was transposed into Christian terms, where in virtue of being in the image of God human beings could find through contemplation a kinship with God in which they genuinely transcended themselves.
We might put this in a more modern idiom. Martin Heidegger made a distinction between the world that we have increasingly shaped to our purposes and the earth that lay behind all this, beyond human fashioning.
The world is something we know our way around. But if we lose sight of the realm of the earth, then we have lost touch with reality. It was, for Heidegger, the role of the poet to preserve a sense of the earth, to break down our sense of security arising from familiarity with the world. We might think of contemplation, the dispassionate beholding of reality, in a similar way, preventing us from mistaking the familiar tangle of assumption and custom for reality, a tangle that modern technology and the insistent demands of modern consumerist society can easily bind into a tight web.
This whole tradition of contemplative leisure is criticised as "elitist", which is a terrible thing nowadays. But it must be defended as elitist, although we must be sure we know what we are defending. It must not be a social elitism. "Contemplation" is free from such crude caricature.
We should not be surprised if there is some correlation between being intellectually gifted and given to contemplation. If the fact that only a minority of people are likely to become adept at exercise of the contemplative faculty is to be called "elitist", then so be it: they have truly been chosen, which is what an "elite" is. We need elites in that sense, in the way we need gifted pianists and singers, poets and artists, who also constitute "elites".
But other factors in our society militate against acceptance of a contemplative elite, especially in an academy, the most important of which is the way non-productive time is no longer publicly valued. Non-productive time is now thought of as what is left over from work: a time for rest so that we may return to work refreshed. More insidiously, it is when we become consumers. The positive valuing of non-productive time was encouraged in the not-too-distant past by the provision of holidays - Sundays and other religious feast days. First, Protestantism reduced sharply their number, then an odd alliance of consumerism and impatience with the tiresome variability of the feasts dependent on Easter sought to sever the link between holidays and the holy.
The principle of public religious feasts involving freedom from work was contemplative, to give all a glimpse of the divine realm that transcends us. As that principle has been lost to our society, it is perhaps not surprising that other ways of valuing the contemplative, for instance, in the institution of universities, has ceased even to be understood.
Originally, the university would have recognised its purpose in the psalm verse "Be still and know that I am God". It would also have recognised that the ultimate fulfilment of that verse was to be found only in the kingdom of God. In a way, the university itself was a preparation for heaven.
Nowadays, we experience it as a rehearsal for purgatory.
Andrew Louth is professor of Patristic and Byzantine studies, University of Durham. The text is adapted from his inaugural lecture.