The disconnect between ‘great thinkers’ and living better

There is a strange disconnect we never talk about, between the great ideas of the past, and living better day to day. For example, I remember the moment when reading Thomas Aquinas finally clarified for me the concept of ‘art’. ‘Art’ is such a vague idea, and obviously made even more confusing by developments in art in the 20th century, and I had never really pinned down what it meant. I can now say I understand art to be the capacity to produce some good out of some external material. ‘An art’, like the art of carpentry, is the set of skills required to produce good form in wood. Thus the ‘art of friendship’ is about how to bring out what is good in another person, your friend, and vice versa from them to you. The art of painting has a lot of attention because, historically, people have been ambitious about what you can do with paint and canvas. But we might equally have great arts of drawing in a sandbox, or video making, or gardening.

So I finally have a definition of art which is as flexible as the concept appears to be. Yes, ‘art’ can apply to anything, but the essence of the idea is that someone is acting to bring about some form or pattern in some material. When we get ambitious about what forms we can produce from particular kinds of matter (paint, MP3 files, skywriting, film), then we build up a set of skills, habits and insights into the possibilities of the material – then we have a recognised practice, an art, with great examples, experiments, and new insights into ‘good’, exciting, alluring things that can be achieved. Yet figuring all this out makes basically zero difference to my life. I say ‘thank you Thomas Aquinas’ – for what? We never think about how little difference knowing this kind of stuff makes to our actual day to day lives: worrying about some small work thing that is due, getting continually distracted by online chess, feeling that my life is trickling away, trying to work out why I feel frustrated…

Has any idea ever helped me live better? There must be some, but not a whole lot. It seems kind of random to have dedicated a decade or so to reading and thinking, for the payoff of a couple of ideas which have helped me a little bit, around the edges of my life, and which I can’t even remember right now. I should have just spent the time going to seminars about relationships – or better, just enjoying myself outdoors. Listening to a good, cathartic pop song has a more beneficial effect in my life than having figured out a clear and insightful definition of art. Perhaps there are plenty of good ideas out there, produced over time, that I just haven’t absorbed properly yet. Perhaps our whole approach to reading and thinking is actually terrible and basically a waste of time. Probably both. But it seems criminal that I have spent so much time around things that I have absorbed so little from. Something is fundamentally wrong here.

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