Seeking Transcendentals

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Why Did I Order a Two-Volume History of Economic Thought?

Fun, improvement, and volunteerism. That’s how we might use current catchwords to answer the primordial question, “How ought we to live our lives?”

That question hit me hard a few summers ago when I opened up a mail package that contained Murray Rothbard’s two-volume set, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. “Am I really going to read these 1,000 pages?” I asked myself. “Why? How much time will it take?”

Every pursuit has an opportunity cost. That’s one reason wise men don’t become obsessed with things like golf, gardening, and fantasy football. “If I obsess on D, I forego A, B, C.”

And if A, B, and C consist of fun things, self-improvement, and volunteerism, D takes on qualities of sin because D starts to hinder what philosophers and theologians refer to as the three “transcendentals”: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. “Fun” is our contemporary way of pursuing beauty, “self-improvement” the contemporary counterpart of truth, and “volunteerism” today’s goodness.

I’m aware that defining Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as “fun,” “self-improvement,” and “volunteerism” is imperfect, imprecise, a bit immature, and maybe even irreverent.

Still, when writing for a contemporary audience, I need to use contemporary terms. And in our culture, the word “Goodness” is never used earnestly, “Truth” is used to connote relativity, and “Beauty” is reserved for naked women. If I want the average reader to appreciate the transcendentals, I need to refer to their watered-down offspring.

The thing to understand about the transcendentals is that they are things we pursue for their own sakes. We don’t play frisbee because it makes us cool, we don’t read because chicks dig it. Such things are ends in themselves.

Not everything we do for itself is a transcendental offspring, of course. Smoking dope and cavorting with hookers aren’t transcendental pursuits. But if a thing is not immoral, and it’s a thing done for itself, you’re probably dealing with a transcendental.

Plato observed that we “should spend one’s days playing at certain games — sacrificing, singing, and dancing.” He also approved of philosophizing and conversation. Such things are lofty because they’re not done for the sake of anything else. If a person fills his earthly plate with such things, he can’t go too wrong.

As of this writing, I’m almost done with that history of economic thought. I haven’t resented a second spent. It’s the pursuit of truth, a type of self-improvement. It is good and, in a way, beautiful. And even a bit fun.