Newton and Shakespeare, and the Two Dimensions of the Human Good

This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed in March, 2023.


Forty years ago, in my first book, I wrote:

“Part of the power of reason lies in its public, objective nature. Its contributions are like building blocks capable of being absorbed into mighty edifices.”

Then I drew a contrast:

“No matter how great a poem is, it is not so structured as to make it suitable for intellectual system-building. Newton could “stand on the shoulders of giants,” but who could ever stand on Shakespeare’s? Bricks may be no better than roses, but they are better suited for monumental works.”

That contrast between Newton’s work (in a field where achievements accumulate, where progress gets made) and Shakespeare’s (where the achievement is a purely individual thing and progress is not the name of the game) corresponded to an issue that Western culture wrestled with for years after the 1959 publication of a book titled Two Cultures, which lamented that a gulf had developed between the sciences and the humanities. It seemed dangerous for a culture to get divided into mutually uncomprehending, and sometimes hostile, ways of comprehending our reality.

Since then, although there’s less talk about that division, it’s not because the culture has succeeded in “bridging” that divide. Rather, it seems that the “Newton side” has pretty well driven the “Shakespeare side” from the field.

This triumph of the cumulative sort of achievement is illustrated by the way American universities have placed growing emphasis on STEM studies –Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics — while the Humanities are struggling to survive.

I see a better way – than the defeat of one by the other – to resolve that “Two Cultures” divide: By recognizing that these two approaches are not competitors, but manifestations of different forms of achievement dedicated to providing different but equally essential dimensions of the human good.

The “human good” has both an outer and an inner dimension.

  • The outer dimension involves the effort to survive in the external world.
  • The inner dimension involves enhancing what’s within human being. Which takes two forms: 1) enriching people’s inner experience and 2) shaping people into forms that contribute to the good of the human world.

1) Regarding the world outside of ourselves, the human good is served by good “maps.” Such achievements can accumulate because good maps can be useful to anyone.

The insights of Newton’s “giants” (Galileo, Kepler, and Brache)  into the motions of the stars (their “objective  understandings were available for Newton to build on. Astronomy progressed.

The “building blocks” nature of the STEM disciplines means building on the contributions of a great multiplicity of talented people, as in the fields of particle physics and evolutionary biology, as well as the internal combustion engine and the smart phone.

This form of achievement – accurate pictures, effective techniques – has always been part of how humans have worked to get what they want from the world. People always needed to understand about how the world around them worked, and to develop techniques (like for making tools and preparing food).

(It’s not just the STEM fields: designing human institutions – like the Fire Department, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Court System – can also involve cumulative building blocks formed by people thinking rationally about how to make the world work better for them.)

2) Then there is the other set of achievements, those that don’t build cumulatively — because their pay-off for the human world is not about fortifying our mastery of the external world but about both enhancing people’s experience and improving them as people.

The ability to create beauty is one of those non-cumulative forms of achievement. Others include the achievement of wisdom, and the development of good character.

Others can be inspired to follow in the footsteps of people who demonstrate such qualities. But creativity and good character are both properties of the human mind or spirit, and each person must begin at their own starting place.

Such personal achievements, too, have been part of the human project since we became human—because developing the inner person is essential for realizing the human good. Painting on cave walls, telling stories, dancing — because the Good inevitably must register in the realm of the experience of creatures to which there is a “better” and a “worse”; and because the Good requires that people develop so that they, collectively, will make their world better and not worse.

Such goods are just as important as developing power over the world around us.

The cultivation of the inner person needs to be taken as seriously as those cumulative achievements (STEM) that increase human mastery over the outside world.

(Such cultivation — enhancing the human good through experiential enrichment, and through shaping people so they’ll contribute positively to the world around them – is ideally what education in “the Humanities” would do.)

A society that respects only what confers external mastery without also cultivating the inner human being should ask, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8: 36)

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