What’s it worth?

Mar 21st, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

The Leaving Certificate subjects came from the school yesterday.  Only seven subjects were thought necessary; the Irish being of a good enough standard to score enough points if one of the other subjects went badly and had to be discounted from the six that scored for the points total.

The timetable allowed for eight subjects, so the eighth would be ‘recreational art’.  What a prospect, just to be able to study something for the sake of it; to do something for no reason other than itself.

In the 1970s, the reaction would have been, ‘what use is that?’ The neo-liberals measured everything in terms of cash and utility; if something had no obvious financial or practical merit, then it had no value.

Politicians across the divide bought into the philosophy; something could only have worth if it could be bought or sold; it only mattered if it could be counted or measured.  Happiness consisted in accumulation.

Yet in our heart of hearts, we knew there was more to life than money and things; that the stock markets and the exchanges were not the only measures of wealth.

The collapse of the international financial markets has compelled people to think about happiness that comes from sources other than a large bank balance, but the revolution has been on for sometime.

Bizarrely, reality television, that broadcasting format where human emotion and experience becomes a saleable commodity, points to something deep within human nature.  The millions who watch, do so because there is a fascination with ordinary human beings; the subjects are not rich or famous or powerful, they are interesting for their own sake.

The obsession with material possessions, with its concerns about the price of one’s house and the year of one’s car and the label of one’s clothes, has so alienated us from ourselves that from an unlikely quarter has come a reminder that people in themselves are of unmeasurable worth.  The very public terminal illness of a reality television personality has prompted thoughts about all those things that are about more than cash.

A century ago, WB Yeats expressed a sense that people needed more than just the material, that, if people were to soar like eagles, beauty in all its forms was important, that life was more than money.  Writing in December 1912:


You gave but will not give again
Until enough of Paudeen’s pence
By Biddy’s halfpennies have lain
To be “some sort of evidence,”
Before you’ll put your guineas down,
That things it were a pride to give
Are what the blind and ignorant town
Imagines best to make it thrive.
What cared Duke Ercole, that bid
His mummers to the market place,
What th’ onion-sellers thought or did
So that his Plautus set the pace
For the Italian comedies?
And Guidobaldo, when he made
That grammar school of courtesies
Where wit and beauty learned their trade
Upon Urbino’s windy hill,
Had sent no runners to and fro
That he might learn the shepherds’ will.
And when they drove out Cosimo,
Indifferent how the rancour ran,
He gave the hours they had set free
To Michelozzo’s latest plan
For the San Marco Library,
Whence turbulent Italy should draw
Delight in Art whose end is peace,
In logic and in natural law
By sucking at the dugs of Greece.

Your open hand but shows our loss,
For he knew better how to live.
Let Paudeens play at pitch and toss,
Look up in the sun’s eye and give
What the exultant heart calls good
That some new day may breed the best
Because you gave, not what they would
But the right twigs for an eagle’s nest!

Yeats would have delighted in the thought that students might be taught art for nothing more than ‘recreation’.  Yeats, who transformed the prosaic reality of Dublin in 1916 into a poetic heroism, might have found beauty in a regard shown by millions of people, a regard based on nothing more than a sense of human dignity, for someone they do not, and will never, know.

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  1. Indeed, there is still a practice of measuring anything and anyone based on ‘productivity’ though. I’m not sure I want to be excessively productive, it seems one of those things that is never enough, the beast must be fed continuously. I much prefer the idea of doing something for the sake of doing it, rather than for the accumulation of wealth, I wonder how many people, if they pause to think (and think hard) about it would feel the same? Still, nothing undermines your good sense like the sight of your neighbour getting rich I guess, even if the current state of affairs results in a good number re-evaluating their views on life, on the next upswing it’ll be blown away by the winds of wealth. I’ve given up looking for freedom through money, too much like hard work. I think freedom is in your own head mostly, you just have to think about it the right way, and worry less (that’s just borrowing trouble, haven’t we all borrowed enough already?)

  2. I stayed in Saint George’s House (part of Windsor Castle) for ten days back in 2007. Worship each day was in the extraordinary beauty of the Castle chapel (which is the size of a cathedral). There were parts of the medieval stonework, invisible from view, that had been carved with incredible intricacy – work done for the sake of it (I suppose, if you were a medieval stonemason, it would be assumed God was watching you). The work would not be done now.

    In Britain, Mr Blair added counting and measuring everything to Mrs Thatcher’s cash valuation of everything. We have an avalanche of statistics and not one iota more of wisdom. Ireland seems to be going down that path: policies, assessments and reports, endless paperwork in which human beings disappear. A friend mutters that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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