A Defense of Dilettantes

One of the pitfalls of thinking of yourself as “a person who knows things” is that you sometimes don’t have a clear sense of just what it is you know.  I’ve been a teacher for the last fifty years or so and when my attempts to ensnare the students’ curiosity fail, I wind up standing at the front of the room giving the answers to questions very few of the students have asked.  Or, on other days—particularly in lower division university classes—thundering away about some aspect of politics that has agitated me and that could, with some generosity of spirit, be thought to belong within the course I am teaching at the moment.

That much to introduce the idea that when my subscription to A-Word-A-Day popped dilettante up on my screen, I deleted it and went on to more pressing matters.  Fortunately, my brother John knows of my interest in the word and forwarded it to me.  Not, I hasten to say, as an accusation; just as an affirmation that this word has interest for me and that the thought of me when he saw it.  Here is what it said:


noun: One who takes up an activity or interest in a superficial or casual way. adjective: Superficial; amateurish.


From Italian dilettante (amateur), from Latin delectare (to delight). Earliest documented use: 1733.


“I long ago came to realize that I am a putterer, a grazer, a dilettante. I create the impression of getting a lot done by dabbling through my days: I read two pages of a book, write half a letter, paint a portion of the front porch, bake half a tin of muffins, teach a class, wash a window.” Robert Klose; Confessions of a Dedicated Dilettante; The Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Massachusetts); May 10, 2004.

Not very attractive, is it?  Obviously, I don’t feel that way about the word or I would not have tattooed it, metaphorically speaking, on my forehead.  Also, it’s not like I feel the word can be refurbished.  It is what it has become.  This post will have abundant illustrations of what it has become.  You get the illustrations by googling dilettante and choosing “images.”

I do think the word could be given a little more fiber, though.  Maybe furbished up a little.  I have two approaches in mind.  The second will be etymological.  I suppose that won’t surprise anyone.  But let’s start with an approach that is, for  lack of a better word, “temporal.”  Robert Klose, in the quote above, has a very short span of time in mind: “two pages of a book” and “half a tin of muffins” and washing a single window.  This is puttering, certainly, but there is no delight in it and I hate to see a line of words deriving from delectare, “to delight,” stoop to simple puttering.

Mr. Klose believes, apparently, that one cannot delight in projects that take longer than washing one window.  A man could not, in this usage, take delight in the times he spent with his children when they were small or the confidences he exchanges with them now that they are large.[1]  He could not take delight in the strength and warmth of his own marriage.  He could not delight in the steady endurance of friends who have hung around in times when that was not easy to do.  He could not delight in the fruits of his own work; neither the slow but growing readiness his students show to question common assumptions or the eruption of new insights.  I’m a teacher, remember.

Someone who wanted to defend the most common notions of what dilettante means would be almost certain to say that words like satisfaction or approval are used to indicate our response to outcomes like those, and he would be right.  But, first, those words don’t mean any more what they have meant over most of their histories and second, those words don’t specify what my own response to those outcomes must be.  Is there any reason, for instance, that I cannot find satisfaction with the way I have parented my children and stepchildren today and take delight in it tomorrow?  I don’t think so.

And if delight is restricted to the first spoonful of the hot fudge sundae or to the reaction to an author’s first page or to the first paragraph (only) of a blogpost, then I can see why “putterer” would be an adequate synonym for dilettanteBut, of course, I don’t see any reason why it should be limited like that.  What shall we do, for instance, if we are “ensnared?”

When I make a reference to the origins of dilettante, I usually stop at delectare, “to delight,” but in a quest for “fiber,” I want to look a little further up the tree today.  The Latin delectare is a frequentative (happens over and over, like the “sparkle,” which is a frequentative of “spark.”) of the Old Latin delicere, itself a combination of de-, “from,” and lacere, “to entice.”  Or, my dictionary says, “literally, to ensnare.”  Now there’s a notion with a little grit in it.

It is not only what I delight in, as a putterer might, but what I am ensnared by.  A snare, let me remind you, is a device for catching and holding; for not allowing to escape.  If we are looking at being ensnared in the context of being delighted, we are looking at something from which one does not wish to escape.  The question of whether I could escape if I wanted to is moot; I don’t want to.

Being enticed and consequently ensnared and consequently delighted sounds pretty substantial to me.  Let’s just say that if you have been really ensnared, you aren’t puttering.  The students I introduced in the first paragraph may or may not have had puttering in mind when they registered for my course, but if I have been able to ensnare their curiosity, to fix and hold it, they are on their way to being dilettantes and I say, “Welcome, there is room for you all.”

[1] These examples are all male examples because I am reflecting on my own life.  I do not mean to imply that women could not take the same kind of delight; only that if it is different from men, I wouldn’t know enough about it to write about it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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4 Responses to A Defense of Dilettantes

  1. rdfeinman says:

    The meaning of words is in the usage. Haven’t gone back to track originals but when one of the famous physicists came to work with Niels Bohr, Bohr told him “you know I’m a dilettante.” Einstein once said that he never understood how Bohr could come up with atomic orbitals by looking at spectra. If Einstein looks up to you, that’s good. That’s how I am comfortable being a dilettante. One of the reader’s of my blog called me a renaissance man but it was too late. I’ve already made peace with dilettante.
    Richard David Feinman (http://rdfeinman.wordpress.com).

  2. hessd says:

    I think you nailed it! Once you make your peace with “dilettante,” it a lot of needless fuss to try to think of yourself as anything else. So that you and me…and Einstein, right?

  3. I came to your blog for this post, so I felt it the most reasonable to comment on, though it is old and might not draw your attention. I have read elsewhere, including your most recent post and find your writing style engaging and our interests linear enough to continue and pursue this dialogue.

    I am responding to this post because I discovered your blog the same night I discovered Mr. Klose’s description of his dilettante-ism and, I must say, you didn’t give him a fair shake. In fact, based on your quotes alone, I would dare say that you didn’t even read the full article. It’s somewhat excusable; everyone in this conversation is a dilettante after all, a word which, to me, means one with many interests of which there isn’t one of that has claimed any particular focus. As you were directed to the article, it is no surprise that you were struck by the first paragraph and compelled to go and reflect on what you immediately perceived as an unfair treatment of a word you already believed to be misperceived, if not misused entirely. Puttering may have been a poor choice of words, but I think you would’ve found that Mr. Klose is quite delighted, even enrapt by the peregrinations of his daily matters and the demands for his attention. He doesn’t say that a full tin of muffins isn’t worth baking, rather he rejoices in the fact that he was able to create half that many in between painting part of his porch and that day’s lecture. To be honest, if anything, there’s a level of industry in his dilettantism that I quite admire. Did I mention that you’re both teachers? While you seemed to have found his message dismissive, I thought it was refreshing, a paean to an un-regimented existence, in an over-scheduled world. Your response seemed over-focused on delight, in an almost hedonistic way. My feelings about the word lie somewhere in between.
    Suffice to say, I came in search of the topic and was satisfied enough with my findings to elicit a response to the ‘conversation’ I found therein, even if it is almost two years old. I look forward to delving further into your blog and also keeping up with your posts. Cheers! – TM

    • hessd says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Reading about the particular way you came to this word makes me more conscious of my own particular route. It is true that I focus on the “delight” part of the meaning and Klose on the scattershot part. I think you are exactly right that he is set up to oppose an over-regimented life. That really hasn’t been my concern. Especially now, in my retirement, I am trying to pay attention to the things I take delight in. For me, it is easy to go through the motions and not really pay attention. I would say then, in reply to your admiration for Klose’s “industry” that I have been as industrious as he, but my industry goes in a different direction. I would imagine that your own industry illustrates yet a third choice..

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