On Plumbers and Philosophers

The quote below offers me a chance to give tribute to one of the great unsung intellectuals of the 20th century — and given the great disdain heaped upon the intellect in that century, the unsung no doubt outnumber the sung. More’s the pity; the state of the world today is a testament to the disrespect we have shown to the mind.

An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water. –John Gardner

I know little about John Gardner, but the man who brought the quote to my attention — Richard Mitchell — is a hero of mine who can teach us more than we ever imagined we needed to know about the connection between writing and thinking, and about how to educate our children. His ability to pull meaning not only out of a passage of writing, but also out of its errors and failings, can be instructive to even the loftiest among us. And his moral fire has bolstered me on more than one occasion when I felt discouraged. Reading through his newsletters — I have read them all — shows his development from covert mockery, sniping at his nemeses from underground, to a stature so elevated that it became an indignity even to take notice of them. I consider it a poverty that I will never have the honor of meeting him.

If the title of his newsletter — The Underground Grammarian — doesn’t grab you, then please go read it and see for yourself the depth of thought and wit the man was capable of. If it does grab you, then you need no more encouragement from me.

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