What Words Are Worth

In defense of the humanities

HUMANITIES, May/June 2009, Volume 30, Number 3

Some say that the humanities are in trouble. The claim is not easy to dismiss. The loss of a generally acknowledged canon of great works, the disappearance of a core humanities curriculum at major universities, the devaluation of the humanities against what seems like the superior truth of the social, biological, and physical sciences, the slowness and vastness of the humanities against the seductive speed and clean capacity of the new technologies—all contribute to a belief that the humanities are somehow less real, tangible, or useful than other ways of being, doing, and making in the world. Economics plays some part in the shift of interest away from the humanities. Funding has tilted toward the sciences and social sciences, and as the cost of college tuition has risen, students and parents understandably want a decent return on an investment of between $100,000 per child at public universities and $200,000 at the private ones.

And then there are larger trends beyond anyone’s control, least of all the humanists who observe the ebb and flow of letters and arts at various moments in the history of the West—a rise in fifth-century BCE Greece of the city-state, a fall in fourth- and fifth-century CE Rome at the time of the Northern invasions, a brief rise in the late eighth century at the Carolingian court, a decline until the reawakening of the twelfth century, then steady progress from the Renaissance of the sixteenth century through the Enlightenment and, eventually, the development of the humanistic disciplines in universities of the middle to late 1800s.

There was, of course, a time when the humanities did not need to be defended, the time, say, between the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the gradual erosion of enlightenment faith in the value of knowledge for its own sake in the aftermath of World War II. No one had to justify the worth of a gymnasium or lycée education, which included the study of classic works of literature, history, and philosophy in the original Greek and Latin, in prewar Germany or France; and no one up to, say, 1968 had to argue for the goodness of such study in English in the United States. Humanistic training was taken for granted as an important ingredient of even the most worldly ambition.

Certain great works have changed the world: the Old and New Testaments, Aristotle’s Organon and Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God, the Koran, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, René Descartes’s Discourse on the Method, Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Émile Zola’s journalistic essay “J’accuse.” Others have had the capacity to capture and to shape a language and to define a culture or an age: Plato’s dialogues, the love lyrics of the troubadours, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Montaigne’s Essays, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, James Joyce’s Ulysses. But all great and enduring works offer a privileged view of the human condition—our passions and vices, the objects of our desire and the strategies for obtaining them, our illusions and truest insights, our basest emotions and noblest ideals. Registering the elementary laws of human experience and behavior, they are the most fertile terrain available for practical knowledge of how to understand and to negotiate the world. I’ll give one example, but one so deep that to learn it fully is to know nearly all one can about the way we behave in love, in our social arrangements, in the economic marketplace, and in the public sphere.

Marcel Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time is the story of a man who passes through the temptations of the world—love, money, social life, and distinction—before retiring to write the narrative of his journey and salvation through art. Writers of the early twentieth century are still seduced by a conversion narrative in the tradition of Augustine’s late fourth-century Confessions. One of the lessons learned along the way has to do with how little what we love or desire is a function of the intrinsic qualities of the thing itself and how much it is a function of what we perceive to be the love and desire of others: The more we think others want something or someone, the more desirable that thing or person becomes for us. René Girard captures this phenomenon in the term “mimetic desire.” All love triangles function according to the principle of mimetic desire, as do most social groupings in which one senses hierarchies of belonging and exclusion to which one aspires or which one seeks to avoid. Auctions and financial markets work by mimetic desire, as values rise and fall in proportion to how much we think potential buyers will want—that is, pay for—the stock, commodity, or other vehicle at some time in the future. Mimetic desire is the bread and butter of marketing, the advertising industry that came into being around the time of Proust’s writing. Now, Proust knew that few manage to escape such a general psychological rule, which also entails something we all know—that as soon as we begin to want something too strongly, our perceptions become distorted, our judgment suspended. Understanding this mechanism of human desire, recognizing it, and, most of all, detaching rationally from its heady grip offers at least the beginning of independent agency in a world of unworthy entrapments and unwise investments.

Proust, an asthmatic who spent eighteen years in a bed in a cork-lined room, sleeping in the day and writing at night, is the most aestheticizing of writers. Nonetheless, the lesson to be learned from In Search of Lost Time, which Proust in part derived from that energetic demon Friedrich Nietzsche, is one of the great active principles of effective maneuver in the world. It works regardless of gender or sexual orientation, religious affiliation, economic status, or ethnic origin. The Proustian guide to living, like so many contained in the great works of literature, history, philosophy, the visual arts, and even music, is universally and directly applicable to the lowliest task, or to plotting a path to what the medievals called the summum bonum, the “highest good.”

Such directly applicable knowledge of the world is only a part of what the humanities have to offer. At high schools and colleges the humanities provide training in what the world of late antiquity called “the language arts,” that is, in the modes of grammatical, rhetorical, and logical inquiry essential to understanding written texts, in the modes of reasoning needed to make crucial distinctions and to formulate concise thought, and in the precise modes of expression necessary to articulate and communicate new ideas, regardless of the field. Language is not a transparent vessel through which thought merely passes unimpeded. It is the very stuff of thinking. And it is the sine qua non for the effective transformation of ideas, no matter how good, into action. Humanities courses, reading- and writing-intensive courses and foreign language courses in particular, are the only place where many students learn the verbal skills necessary to whatever career path they may eventually choose.

Humanists are specialists in an activity upon which we daily depend, consciously or not, in everything we do: the making and assessment of meaning. The making of such meaning shapes the world of the arts; it is the operating principle of politics and understandings of the law; it rules our religious belief; it lies at the core of higher education and the development and spread of new knowledge.

Those who belong to the university community know that such knowledge often arrives in unassimilated forms that are unintelligible, unusable, or inapplicable to the purposes for which it was sought and that must, sooner or later, be rendered communicable. Science observes and compiles raw data that may predict the way the body or the universe behaves, yet the meaning and especially the ethical uses of such information depend upon verbal understandings and logical sequences that are the stuff of humanistic interpretation. The neurologist may locate the places where synapses fire in the brain of a subject pronouncing a particular word, looking at a painting, or listening to a piece of music, but the physiological event is mute. The experimenter cannot make it meaningful without the interpretative skills of the linguist, art historian, or music theorist. The old debate over creation and evolution is now defined by “intelligent design,” an idea which itself has expanded the borders of science to accommodate what historically has belonged to the realm of religion or the supernatural. The origin of life, in other words, has been transformed into a question that neither theologians nor scientists can parse without the help of semanticists and students of natural theology from Plato’s “demiurge,” to Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s “unmoved mover,” to the natural theology of the nineteenth century, which eventually led to Darwin.

Even on the “hard” end of the humanities, the cliometric historian may compile the figures related to caloric intake, rates of literacy and book production, levels of strontium in the teeth of migratory peoples, coin hoards buried in the ground, the light spectrometry of ancient textiles, neutron-activation analysis of fragments of stone. The social scientist may compute election patterns by race, religion, or gender over long periods of time, may create political experiments and postulate modes of rational decision, may analyze markets with computer models and algorithms. Yet both the scientist and the social scientist rely upon the fundamentally humanistic art of interpretation to make meaning of even the most reliable data.

The humanities, encountered primarily in the high school and college years, teach students to recognize a significant question, to make crucial distinctions in the articulation of its terms, to draw consequential conclusions, to assess conclusions in human terms, and to communicate the procedures and results of inquiry. These are all elements necessary for the making of right meaning, and meaning is a singularly powerful shaper of deeds.

The humanities also have the power to shape the human community. Offering a vision of that which is common to mankind, the humanities at their best capture the shared elements of human experience. In an increasingly globalized world, they have the potential to bring diverse cultures together through that which the great works have in common. We read Homer, the Canon of Songs, the Analects of Confucius, the Pancatantra, the AeneidThe Ring of the Dove, the Heike monogatari, the Divine ComedyThe Dream of the Red ChamberFaustPride and PrejudiceThe Prelude, Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, War and Peace, To the Lighthouse not only for information about the ancient Greek or Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Japanese, or medieval Italian, Victorian, Russian, English, or American world. We read them for what they continue to reveal about the enduring questions of war and peace, love and marriage, anger and forgiveness, wandering and homecoming, loyalty and betrayal, nature and nurture, good and evil, the limits and consequences of overarching pride and ambition, the enticements and constraints even of literary creation. These are but a very few of the many literary works that are part of an expanded canon of the humanities around which culture itself is constituted by the global community of readers, who may converge nowhere else but in the shared experience of the written page.

On the model of our common humanity, a common humanities holds the promise of uniting the diverse cultures of a globalized world. Leaving aside the very real differences of language and culture, history and tradition, in favor of what is shared by all, one could imagine a humanities oriented around a set of common questions and forms, not present at all times everywhere, but sufficiently enduring to constitute a core of common inquiry and concern. Almost every culture shares in musical forms that include collective and individual instrumental performance, lament, song, and dance; visual artifacts that include two-dimensional representation, sculpture, and architecture; literature that includes some version of lyric, epic, novel/romance, and theatrical performance. What we consider to be philosophic speculation is somewhat more problematic in that it may be a function of systems of broad and efficient social organization, but the place and questions of philosophy may be taken up elsewhere by the matter of religion, in which case the intersection of the two becomes its own interesting question. There is no culture that does not have some way of recounting its past, whether that be oral or written, legend or chronicle, universal history or local record, official charter or journal entry account.

With common humanity comes some version of what it is to be humane. The word “common” joins the Latin prefix “com-,” meaning “together,” and “munis,” meaning “bound” or “under obligation,” to yield “under obligation to each other.” A common humanities offers the widest window imaginable upon our own and more remote worlds. Books, visual objects and performance, music, and the new forms of expression of the new technologies all produce a distancing from the self, and such distancing can serve as the warrant for ethical action. At the very least, the humanities provide the terrain and the terms by which our intentions, interests, passions, and commitments are to be understood and weighed. The time has never been better, the need greater, now that belief in rational choice, which has dominated social science, on the model of economics, has been weakened.

One notices it might have been beneficial had more of the players in our irrational markets read their Homer, Dante, Dickens, or Balzac. There are no guarantees, of course, but greed and appetite have been exposed in literature and moral philosophy since the ancient Greeks. Nor has modern thought neglected this important subject. More education via Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, or John Stuart Mill, or a serious course of Gibbon, Marx, or Tocqueville, could have helped some particular individuals and their institutions gain some purchase upon the consequences—or at least the feasibility—of their actions. It is doubtful whether the greediest would have taken the time to read great works of literature, philosophy, or history, but that is another question. For they might have learned from the philosophers about our obligations to each other or the necessity for external regulation of limitless human appetite. From the litany of lost fortunes and illusions to be found in fiction, they might have discovered the tools necessary for assessing one’s own motivations and character along with the motivations and character of others. From historians, they might have recognized the unlikely chances of beating certain historical cycles and odds.

Ever since the world did not end, as theologians thought it would, in the year 1000, the study of history, which is to some degree a defining component of the humanities, has been taken to be of intrinsic value. “The recollection of the past is the promise of the future,” in the phrase of Abbot Suger, the man who built the first Gothic cathedral at the dawn of the Renaissance of the twelfth century. Suger’s words are still alive in the old adage that those who do not take history seriously are condemned to repeat it, a phrase as true for the average citizen as it is for leaders of state.

The common humanities are wrapped in an ethics of what unites us in something like a common creature feeling belonging to the poetry of almost every tradition, but nowhere more poignantly captured than in Wordsworth’s “Old Cumberland Beggar.” Withered, silent, seated by the roadside to eat the meager crumbs bestowed by village ladies, leaving no mark upon the road he walks, the aged beggar serves as a reminder of the good that dwells even in “the meanest of created things,” of the extent to which “we have all of us one human heart”; and of our common humanity in the face of nature and the fragility of life itself. Wordsworth prescribes an ethics of tolerance: “As in the eye of Nature he has lived,/ So in the eye of Nature let him die!” Yet he goes further in his admonition, seeing in the old beggar the binding thread of human community:

But deem not this Man useless.—Statesmen! ye
Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
Who have a broom still ready in your hands
To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,
Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not
A burthen of the earth! ‘Tis Nature's law
That none, the meanest of created things,
Or forms created the most vile and brute,
The dullest or most noxious, should exist
Divorced from good—a spirit and pulse of good,
A life and soul, to every mode of being
Inseparably linked.

Wordsworth’s beggar is a prime metaphor not only for the human condition, but for the great works of the human tradition. Like him, enduring artifacts that transcend a particular place and that continue to move listeners, viewers, and readers through time are the centripetal points around which a human community coalesces and through which it recognizes that which is most explicitly human.

This recognition, along with the practical insight and understanding of others that literature, history, philosophy, and the arts uniquely provide, means that it is time to think of the humanities not as a supplement to a more profitable course of high school and college study, a luxury, or a pleasure without virtue, but as an applied and universally applicable discipline, a way of acquiring the most essential tools for understanding the world in which we act and move.