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Oedipus, at the end of Sophocles’ play, cuts out his eyes and with his daughter Antigone as a guide wanders the countryside. Once king, he becomes a stranger in a strange country. He dies, in Antigone’s words, “in a foreign land, but one he yearned for.”
William Shakespeare in “King Lear” plays on the same theme of sight and sightlessness. Those with eyes in “King Lear” are unable to see. Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out, finds in his blindness a revealed truth. “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes,” Gloucester says after he is blinded. “I stumbled when I saw.” When Lear banishes his only loyal daughter, Cordelia, whom he accuses of not loving him enough, he shouts: “Out of my sight!” To which Kent replies:
See better, Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.
The story of Lear, like the story of Oedipus, is about the attainment of this inner vision. It is about morality and intellect that are blinded by empiricism and sight. It is about understanding that the human imagination is, as William Blake saw, our manifestation of Eternity. “Love without imagination is eternal death.”
The Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard wrote: “The imagination is not a faculty for the creation of illusion; it is the faculty by which alone man apprehends reality. The ‘illusion’ turns out to be truth.” “Let faith oust fact,” Starbuck says in “Moby-Dick.”
“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide. They cannot see.
“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,” Shakespeare wrote, “Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” Human imagination, the capacity to have vision, to build a life of meaning rather than utilitarianism, is as delicate as a flower. And if it is crushed, if a Shakespeare or a Sophocles is no longer deemed useful in the empirical world of business, careerism and corporate power, if universities think a Milton Friedman or a Friedrich Hayekis more important to its students than a Virginia Woolf or an Anton Chekhov, then we become barbarians. We assure our own extinction. Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think.
To think, we must, as Epicurus understood, “live in hiding.” We must build walls to keep out the cant and noise of the crowd. We must retreat into a print-based culture where ideas are not deformed into sound bites and thought-terminating clichés. Thinking is, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “a soundless dialogue between me and myself.” But thinking, she wrote, always presupposes the human condition of plurality. It has no utilitarian function. It is not an end or an aim outside of itself. It is different from logical reasoning, which is focused on a finite and identifiable goal. Logical reason, acts of cognition, serve the efficiency of a system, including corporate power, which is usually morally neutral at best, and often evil. The inability to think, Arendt wrote, “is not a failing of the many who lack brain power but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded.”