Xunzi I.2 starts out saying:
I once tried to spend the whole day in thought, but I found it of less value than one moment of study. I once tried standing on tiptoe and gazing into the distance, but I found I could see much farther by climbing to a high place.
Perhaps this is why at home I am enjoined to study before I speak, about anything. But now I ask, is it necessary that I have studied the learned books of that to which I question the orthodoxy of the times, or may I question society’s values straight away from interpreting the authoritative wisdom God has put in the Bible? How much energy should I put towards understanding God, and how much toward understanding what man thinks of his own condition?
How do I avoid judging by the mere appearance of what works when I am surrounded in every way by a society that always looks on the surface and believes its destructive way is the way, while any claim of mine to the reality of a universal truth it meets with a postmodern rejection of transcendent truth? Over sixty books, and these only the tomes of weighty time and authorial heft, sit on my to-read list, but I know not how this will help if society will be deaf, will be blind, but oh, never mute, only intolerably loud.
Fighting centuries-long fads is frustrating, for even they, in their inexorable consumption, have inertia. Do you call it conservatism when a society wants to conserve its nihilistic rejections of what was accomplished in its culture before its lifetime? Do you call it unquestioned, unrestrained metabolism? Perhaps you call it progress, because it is change indeed, but it may not be progress at all if it was no improvement on what was already there.
So what is it? By now it is a tradition to date and hook up promiscuously, a tradition to embrace social mobility with none of the responsibility, a tradition to have no standards because standards “lower self-esteem”. And then we dig deeper. We have long-standing, self-parodied reliance on the invisible hand rather than God’s righteousness to ensure justice, and a host of things besides.
Study? My peers believe it’s for a better life. Yes, I believe that too, but they mean a more materially and socially comfortable life, and I mean a life more abundant in grace and peace through the understanding of God and man.
But we live in a fallen society. We cannot only study and contemplate and create art. There are Jurchen invasions from Manchuria, and there are Nazi swallowings of Czechoslovakia. There is peace; there is strife. There is rich harvest; there is wretched famine. There is wisdom; there is folly. There is art; there is destruction.
Yet what study would there be of man’s corruptions if he were not corrupted? Of course we live in a fallen society. That does not negate the worth of thought beyond the petty demands of mere expediency. There is more to realism than pragmatism, because reality contains, to him who believes in the Christ the Saviour of the world, the certainty of a better country than the moon-worshipping Ur we have left. We might even call them ideals, were the thing not so real that to call them ideals would pay them dishonour.
So I can study, and all others who do can do so even without the totally incidental benefits, with only the intrinsic value. Not thinking is to be a beast, a pack animal, something that slaves for an unknown and trivialized end. But this I must do to become the right kind of person, not just one who, according to Xunzi, learns a mass of jumbled facts and becomes nothing but a vulgar pedant.