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Beyond the practical: The value of “useless” knowledge


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Daniel Esparza - published on 05/11/24

Most people are drawn to clear purpose and application in everything they do. And still, there’s power in “useless” knowledge.

“What am I going to use this for?” That’s the question that I invariably get from at least a couple of students, year after year, as they end up in my mandatory philosophy class. My answer is always the same: “For nothing. Or everything. Who knows. It’s up to you.” Granted, it’s not an entirely satisfactory answer. Most people are drawn to clear purpose and application in everything they do.

Still, there’s power in “useless” knowledge (and especially in philosophy) that can enrich our lives in unsuspected ways. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) True happiness isn’t just about acquiring things or achieving worldly success.

Why spend your time on “useless” pursuits?

Philosophy, often seen as an impractical pursuit, offers us the opportunity to consider deeper questions about meaning, existence, and the good life. It helps us to see the world not just through a utilitarian lens, but also with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the beauty and complexity of creation — and for the depth of the human spirit.

In more ways than one, a proper philosophical attitude echoes the awe with which the Psalms describe God’s handiwork (Psalm 19:1).

Consider the countless hours saints and scholars dedicated to theology, a seemingly “useless” pursuit in the eyes of some. Yet, their tireless exploration of faith’s mysteries has brought us not only closer to understanding God’s love and nature, but also to the very ways in which our own minds work. That’s no small achievement at all.  

Anemone flowers (a.k.a. Lillies of the field)
Anemone flowers (a.k.a. Lilies of the field)

Lillies of the field

Consider the example of the lilies of the field, Jesus tells us: “They neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29).  These simple flowers, devoid of any practical purpose, are a testament to the inherent beauty found in existence itself.

Philosophy allows us to appreciate such beauty, not just in nature, but in the complexities of human thought, ethical dilemmas, and the vastness of the universe. Philosophy is not a job skill, but a lens through which we can approach life’s big questions and appreciate the world around us with a deeper understanding. It’s a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, a reflection of our inherent human curiosity and desire to understand.

Like the gift of music or art, apparently useless things enrich our souls and broadens our perspectives.

The benefits of a philosophical foundation

As we navigate the complexities of life, a strong philosophical foundation equips us to grapple with moral challenges, fostering discernment and helping us live according to Gospel values. It teaches us to find joy not just in stuff, but in the pursuit of wisdom, virtue, and awe.

In short, by embracing the “useless” pursuit of philosophy, or of any other seemingly impractical activity, we may cultivate a richer way of being – one that aligns with the Gospel’s message of seeking the Kingdom of God first (Matthew 6:33).

Catholic LifestylePersonal GrowthPhilosophy
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