(Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch’d But to fine issues; nor Nature never lends The smallest scruple of her excellence But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines Herself the glory of a creditor, Both thanks and use.—Measure for Measure, I.i.32-41)
More than a few of us stumble upon rich underground veins and deposits of precious ore, but only a tiny handful of us cultivate the digging, extracting, and refining techniques that are required to move this potential wealth up into the light where it can be purified and introduced into the agora, or marketplace. Only there is it able to enrich the lives of those who are in a position to earn and to profit from this wealth that is brought into ‘circulation.’ Then, of course, there is a more or less permanent ‘underclass’ which consists of torpid souls who are neither extractor-refiner-producers nor disciplined laborers-assimilators who can make profitable use of this spiritual capital. If and when a member of this mass underclass receives a portion of this collectively accessible treasure, he typically misuses it so that its worth is wasted upon him. The reason for this is simple enough: he is ignorant—or contemptuous—of the higher or nobler uses to which such wealth can be put.
Those relatively rare souls on the mining-extracting end often produce far, far more wealth than they could ever use for their personal wants and needs—no matter how extravagant their spending habits happen to be. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, Croesus and Crassus, are such figures in the analogous realm of monetary wealth. Exceptional cultural wealth-producers seem to have been destined, from birth, to put new spiritual riches into circulation where they can be earned by, and distributed throughout, the ‘second tier.’ The larger and more stable this second tier is, the stronger and healthier the culture will be. The institutions of higher learning and of the fine arts are usually administered and supervised by this second tier. They are endowed with the wealth and the prestige that serve as attractive magnets and galvanizers for the noble potentials and yearnings of the young who are inspired by the loftiest exemplars. It is the acquisition and re-investment of our cultural capital, from generation to generation, which is responsible for the preservation of our inherited wealth. All it takes is for a few generations of careless and reckless spendthrifts to squander this precious capital to bring about an extended ‘Dark Age’—from which recovery is slow and difficult under even the best conditions. This is why stewardship of the liberal arts, of religious and ethical thought, of philosophy, history, and poetry is so urgently important to humanity’s general welfare. Even if all or most of the answers are not to be found ready to hand in this treasure house of traditional wisdom and knowledge, at least the well-formulated questions are to be found there—the very questions that can be relied upon to open a path towards those answers.
But what about those rare birds, the discoverer-suppliers—the crude and mundane shadows of which are Crassus and John D. Rockefeller? How may we justly characterize their preternaturally generative souls? I’m thinking of the likes of Plato, Socrates, Jesus, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. There is something, it would seem, that is so insatiable and inextinguishable about the fire that blazes within the almost superhuman souls of such miners of wisdom—we can only behold them with the awe that is ordinarily reserved for deities and demigods. Such spirits shoot like meteors through our dark firmament, blazing into nothingness as they emit their mysterious light—by which we can chart their fleeting trajectories. And yet, as ephemeral as these trajectories are, they comprise the most enduring treasures that we so precariously possess down here in the cave.