Well, there’s nothing wrong with concentrating on the “uses” of something. The difficulty comes when we operate with too narrow a definition of “use.” At some point, we have to consider the ultimate goals toward which our life’s actions are directed. What makes for a genuinely meaningful human life? Of what “use” are things that fail to promote that end? If you’re so rich, we must ask, why aren’t you wise—or happy?
And that brings me to a characteristically humanistic way to relate a truth: by telling a story. The tale begins with a tourist on holiday, wandering through the back alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he comes upon a little antique shop, filled with curious pieces of bric-a-brac and art objects. What especially catches his eye is a beautifully wrought, life-size bronze statue of a rat. He asks the elderly shopkeeper the price. “The rat costs $12,” says the shopkeeper, “and it will be $1,000 more for the story behind it.” “Well, you can keep your story, old man,” responds the tourist, “But I’ll take the statue.”
Read the rest of the story in Wilfred M. McClay's essay in The Wilson Quarterly on the burden of the humanities.