Ode to the Humanities

In a recent conversation with my granddaughter, she told me she’s reading Gary Chapman, The Five Languages of Love. I’m struck by the sense that she’s learning how to be human, learning the range of human response to life, including some values that lead in a good direction.

In the “wasteland” of modern society, traditional sources of learning about meaning, value, and purpose have ceased functioning. And yet the need for (and actually the inevitability of human learning about these things – for better and for worse) remains. It seems that each day we learn again that relativistic chaos is very different from the democratic pluralism we cherish, and that cultish authoritarianism is not an acceptable alternative.

Even more than our dogs, we are learning beings, beings imprinted with the values of those with whom we grew up, and their extensions in education and community. The question is not whether or not we have an ethic, but only which one, and whether or not we are conscious of this fact. Are we living and moving in the world through the ethic that was impressed upon us as the unconscious given of childhood, or one that we have freely chosen as an adult?

A complete and healthy human being does not simply unfold out of the natural process, as seems to be the case with other forms of life. Humans require a cultivation, a practice which energizes a transformative process – roughly speaking, from an ego-centered to a reality-centered self. Traditional cultures, for all their faults and limitations, knew this and applied their own versions of transformative practice to at least their elites. But the seductions of the machine age caused people to forget and even belittle this most basic function of culture. So now we have the barbarism Martin Luther King described in terms of “guided missiles and misguided men [sic].”

In the West, the most basic and general transformative practice was called “the Humanities.” It grew to be a very big tent, including arts, performances, artifacts, discourses, and a wide diversity of role models – all focused on questions of meaning, value, and purpose in human life. After several centuries of expansion, critique, and liberation, that tent is now in such disarray we might not recognize it. Or we might see it as the decaying remains of a previous civilization, a ruin.

As one of the most urgent of the many impossible tasks facing us today, we must now reappropriate and create the humanities – before humanity itself is lost; before it drifts into a form of life with which we would not want to identify.

These considerations bring us back to what is known as “Meno’s Paradox” in Plato: “… a man [sic] cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows – since he knows it, there is no need to search – nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for” (Plato, Meno, 80e).

But how is it possible to live with this paradox, stuck between the insufficiency of what we know and not knowing what to look for? And how can I tell what forms of practice in the riot of contemporary culture are authentic, and discern which could be most effective for me in particular? We get little help with these very important life questions, ones that can so confuse that they distract us from practice altogether.

In some societies, like China when I first started working there, there was so much deference to authority that people could be easily manipulated and deprived of their moral and spiritual agency (like some parts of America now). But within the paradox, the opposite pertains as well: in an environment of relativism and nihilism, chaos and brute force reign. As Dostoevsky said, “If god does not exist everything is permitted.”

Socrates taught great modesty in terms of what humans can claim to know. He also engaged practice of democratic discourse within an “examined life,” sharing what we think we know with both vigor and humility, open to more clear picturing of the the common good we seek, open to persuasion from others with whom we “disagree,” as well as to my own ongoing efforts to describe our shared ideal. It is through this practice – one later referred to as “liberal education” – -that we engage a form of education distinguished not only by its subject matter – as in “the Humanities,” but also by its “Socratic method,” the method of asking and addressing questions about the big issues in life, like love, justice, beauty, goodness, and truth. Further, liberal education has envisioned Socratic teaching working its benefits – in problem-solving as well as personal development — through inquiry or conversation, or what we today sometimes call “dialogue.” This art form involves working with a variety of partially correct answers, as we learn how to navigate between solipsism and authoritarianism, weaving a shared culture of mutual support and delight in each others’ presence. It moves toward answers (and askings) that are ever more effective and compassionate. Hence Socrates cultivated a certain kind of “through inquiry” relationship as the most fruitful context in which to continuously gather and refine commitments and life purposes.

So what of my granddaughter and her generation of emerging adults? Some might call her Chapman books “pop psych,” or dismiss them on other terms of contemporary disagreement. I would not do this, and certainly support what she is reading now, see no evil embedded in those books, and trust the ever-greater refinement of her choices going forward. I also stand by with my own, also evolving, list of “Great Books” and art (in case anyone asks!), as well as my stockpile of articulations of that ineffable and quintessentially human activity we call the humanities, plus some awareness of institutions which are distinctly in pursuit of ideal practice and embodiment in several forms of liberal education.

Maybe ours is a time in which the experience of coming to know gradually, through a process of inquiry and conversation (as distinct from revelation and command), is just beginning to dawn. Perhaps we are at a point of renaissance and fresh affirmation of the gift quality of life and the variety of its expressions. Perhaps an age of polarization between ideologies and authoritarianisms, either-or conflicting assertions of the binary, curiously mixed with chaos and nihilism, is beginning to pass. My granddaughter herself may be evidence that at a deeper level we are waking up to the more mature human enactment of “knowing,” and to the realization that love has several languages. Let’s start with basics.

Stephen C. Rowe is professor emeritus of philosophy at Grand Valley State University. A second, “From Pandemic,” edition of his Overcoming America / America Overcoming will be published this summer.

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