The Gospel of the Useful
"Even the words that could voice a hope for something besides the fruits of success have been pressed into this service. ... The idea of happiness has been reduced to a banality to coincide with leading the kind of normal life that serious religious thought has often criticized. The very idea of truth has been reduced to the purpose of a useful tool in the control of nature, and the realization of the infinite potentialities inherent in man has been relegated to the status of a luxury. Thought that does not serve the interests of any established group or is not pertinent to the business of industry has no place, is considered vain or superfluous. Paradoxically, a society that, in the face of starvation in great areas of the world, allows part of its machinery to stand idle, that shelves many important inventions, and that devotes innumerable working hours to moronic advertising and to the production of instruments of destruction--a society in which these luxuries are inherent has made usefulness its gospel."
--Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, "Rise and Decline of the Individual" 1947.
Two experiences confirm the ongoing relevancy of these words, which were written in difficult times.
The first, today, was a chance meeting with a former logic student and senior history major who informed me that he has decided to put these talents to use as a political strategist, advising in the creation of political attack ads. When I told him that despite my efforts to make him a philosopher, he chose sophistry, he laughed. I laughed too. What else can you do?
The second is my wider experience as an academic adviser. The "gospel of the useful" is used straightfowardly and directly to justify self-destruction, narrowness of vision, lack of imagination, and bald power-grasping. In my conversations with advisees and their parents, the meaning of "useful" when it is applied to the value of education is "that which preserves class privilege, that which does not challenge me to change, that which accepts quite blindly the situation as it is, even when that situation directly opposes my own capacities, strengths, passions, and vision as an individual."
Anyone who chooses to see the true meaning of the word "useful" need only look to the fear that the word strikes in the heart of young people. There is no greater threat that can be uttered to a person involved in the arduous task of self-realization than this: "Make yourself useful."
I've said this before, and I will say it again: one of the best reasons to run is its utter uselessness as an activity. Horkheimer makes the meaning of this clearer. The fact that a run has no exchange value on the open market is a mark that it, as an experience, cannot be exchanged. Its value, like that of life itself, is inherent and singular.