Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cultivated Interest: Its Demands and Necessity

I was recently called to task on my lack of "good taste" in the area of video games.  This was made to be seen as hypocritical given my high-mindedness when it comes to movies.  I felt the attacks were most unfair, to some extent for reasons I won't go into now and to some extent for reasons I will.  The idea was that a cultivated interest in one area should mean to a cultivated interest in every area.  This is truly impossible!  All human beings must specialize, in work, in hobbies, in life choices, etc.  There is neither time nor energy for everything.  There are three main levels of interest in a knowledge area: non-interest, uncultivated interest and cultivated interest.  Each of these has differing value.  The final questions become what is a proper level of cultivated interest in a given thing and what things must all men aspire to.

Having a cultivated interest in anything takes time and effort.  Between God, family, work, relationships, other responsibilities, other interests, time constraints and the finite and exhaustible nature of the human brain and the human body, a person absolutely can't do it all.  Only God can know and do everything.  Each hobby or interest area, from the intellectual to the athletic and everywhere in between, makes different demands and has different rewards.  Alternating the demands makes for a more feasible mix that is less likely to lead to exhaustion.  Even in the case of movies which, on the surface, just involves a lot of watching television, there is the discipline of sitting through the entire, potentially hours-long continuum of a movie, and there is the refining of your tastes and the submission of your will in trying new things.  I have found that it is worth it but it is an obstacle for many.  The impossibility of doing it all necessarily demands a choosing process, based on our abilities, desires, enjoyments and sense of calling.  Certain things must be filtered out.

In any given category of thing, there are three main levels of interest.  The first is non-interest.  It is a complete ignorance on a subject, to barely even or not even know it exists.  I am all but completely ignorant on the subject of paleoenzymology which I just randomly found on Wikipedia.  A non-interest implies ignoring a thing all together.  In the case of movies, I greatly respect someone who can completely disengage from modern entertainment media if they feel that is somehow their calling in life, but that is definitely not where I am coming from. 

The second level of interest is uncultivated interest.  This certainly includes the way most Americans relate to movies.  We are obviously a society very concerned with entertainment media, celebrity, etc., but at the same time, people seem to not have very thoughtful taste in this area or to be connoisseurs.  An uncultivated interest naturally gravitates toward the mainstream in nearly any category.  It virtually is the mainstream.  The mainstream got where it is because it is easily "digestible."  Also, I think the main reason is that it is what is there.  It is nearly omnipresent.  In the case of cinema, we are constantly bombarded with mainstream Hollywood to the point where you actually have to go out of your way to avoid it rather than pursue it.  It seems that many people are ignorant or apathetic towards a lack of cultivation.  This is the worst interest level because it means that a large amount of good time and energy is being thrown towards waste.  The problem isn't so much that people don't like good movies, but that they do like bad ones.  It would usually be better to have a non-interest in a given category.

The third level of interest is of course cultivated interest.  As I have already noted, this takes time and effort, even for seemingly more passive hobbies.  The rewards of any given interest area are too manifold to list hear and often are based on each individual person's experience, but I imagine increased happiness would be high on most people's lists.  Many people believe that a cultivated interest leads one to be too "picky."  The opposite is usually the case.  Those with a cultivated interest are more open-minded.  Take food, for instance.  Who are the world's pickiest eaters?  Children.  But do children have good taste in food?  Often uncultivated interest is more picky than cultivated taste.  This merely goes unnoticed in an environment where it is catered to.  For every mainstream movie I don't like, there is an art house movie that a mainstream moviegoer doesn't like or wouldn't like if they even gave it a chance.  A cultivated interest can potentially bring with it problems, though.  Obsessive interest can lead to the death of the Renaissance man.  It can distance us from others by causing us to be lost in our own knowledge world and uncomfortable elsewhere.  This can lead to a form of self-absorption where we no longer care so much about said thing as we do about being someone who knows about said thing, the image it brings us.  This also leads to pedantry and a lack of respect for others talents.  All of these problems are amplified by today's internet world of hyper-specialized chat rooms and indulgent media.

What is a proper level of cultivated interest in any given thing?  As has already been noted, it is impossible to have a serious cultivated interest in everything.  Is there a general rule for everything?  I think one rule, although I often fail at this myself in different categories, is that cultivation should be roughly equal to interest.  This leaves room for a lack of cultivation in many things, but the things we do devote ourselves to should be done well.  Even the things on the periphery of our lives still deserve some level of cultivation.  You don't have to be a foodie to know you shouldn't gorge on candy every day.  Our wise restraint should also lead to humility and knowing what we don't know as Plato says.  This will lead to respecting others' expertise when it comes our way.  Respecting the expertise of others is the obvious rightful viewpoint when it comes to the sciences which are very objective.  Nevertheless, we should still respect expertise in the arts despite their more subjective nature and never use this as an excuse for relativism.  Sometimes a high interest can blind people from their lack of cultivation.  Cultivation should also follow the demands of one's time and place.  I know more about U.S. politics than French politics.  A certain level of reasonable bending to fit in with those around us helps us to grow as people and relationship building is one of the highest values of life.  People also need to be cultivated in things involving man's nature, final end and other universal truths.  All humanity, regardless of personality or culture should turn their eyes to God.  A.G. Sertillanges, in his book The Intellectual Life: It's Spirit, Methods, Conditions suggests that all intellectuals should start their training by reading Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, possibly the most comprehensive philosophy book of all time.  This seems a little intense for most people, but the Bible is also a good starting point.

A cultivated interest is not something easily attained, but it can bring much fulfillment.  It is important as human beings that we understand the demands and necessity of cultivated interest in different areas of our lives.

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