For now, let us be candid, in a society that remains addicted to suffocating reality shows, complete with their openly vulgar dedications to Schadenfreude (taking joy in the suffering of others), the so-called life of the American mind continues to atrophy. In this now literally mind-numbing nation, true wisdom normally takes a willing back seat to shamelessly disjointed political platforms and to smugly empty witticisms.
Unsurprisingly, we Americans continue to accept, as inevitable corollary, a stunningly banal and perilous national politics. How, for example, do we plan to deal effectively with an almost-nuclear and potentially irrational leadership in North Korea? Are we prepared, intellectually, to figure out what to do next? The answer should be obvious.
Back in the 1950s, Harvard historian Perry Miller published a book titled The Life of the Mind in America. Then, thoughtful references to a vital literary tradition rooted primarily in Emerson, Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists were instantly recognizable to the average citizen reader. Not today. Now, any work offered with a similar title would need to be a very short book indeed. More than likely, because virtually no Americans are even willing to challenge themselves beyond the flagrantly manufactured demands of moment-to-moment social networking, it would have to be marketed as a relentlessly biting satire, or even as a grotesque caricature of America's frenetic civilizational descent.
In Praise of Folly, written by the renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus in 1509, the narrator, dressed conspicuously in the garb of a court jester, claims that she is humankind's greatest benefactor. Nursed, says Folly, by Drunkenness and Ignorance, her closest followers naturally include Self-Love, Pleasure, Flattery, and Sound Sleep. Later, in Chapter 31, the long parade of blemished people upon whom she gleefully confers her special "benefits" moves dramatically from the young and hot-blooded, to the pitiful and grotesque.
Now, as all remaining human illusions are finally stripped away, mercilessly, Folly still offers unreservedly high praise to Ignorance and Lunacy. And ultimately, as the ironic and satiric banter turn to acid, Folly concisely sums up her contrived frivolity with an approving citation to words of Sophocles: "For ignorance," recalls Folly," always provides the happiest life."
Why do we Americans continue to engage in futile wars? In the final analysis, Erasmus would have had the best answer. So long as we insistently prefer Folly to Wisdom - because "ignorance always provides the happiest life" - there will never be a compassionate or prudent national military policy.