Finding Life Affirmation in Troubled Times: Humanities as Practice Toward Maturity

No sensible man [sic] would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belief – for the risk is a noble one – that this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling places, since the soul is evidently immortal, and a man should repeat this to himself as if it were an incantation… Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo, 114d.


Seems like humanity has become a mostly unhealthy infection on the planet, and that Earth may now be in the process of throwing us off. There is no need to repeat the list of potentially lethal and intersecting problems, many of which we create and have to face each day. I have become convinced that contributing to and fueling those problems is the fairly recent and virulent disparagement of the humanities and the corresponding loss of the notion that the humanities are an important aid in the process of understanding and living, as Socrates said, “a life worth living.”

Why are the humanities under attack? There are several reasons, which I will touch on below. But before discussing these it is important to point out that in our attempts to defend the humanities we often follow our reflexes and get lost in arguments about what constitutes the “stuff” of the humanities (i.e. is it the “ten foot shelf,” Harvard or Chicago versions, or a revised canon that is not comprised entirely of “dead white men”?). Moving in a different direction, I want to argue that the humanities first and most essentially should be understood as a practice, an activity, and a way of living, and these in service of the developmental process that leads to mature humanity (including the joy of it!) – as both different and the same across space and time and peoples, reflecting the genius of human diversity.

I want to suggest a most basic generalization about human cultures of the traditional period (roughly 600 BCE (the Axial Age) to sometime in the Twentieth Century, often August 6, 1945): they are concerned about humans (at least some humans) maturing beyond purely social behavior to a larger wisdom that sets them apart as a more highly developed (not to say “better”) form of humanity. The transformation has often been envisioned as a passage from ego orientation to a centering in something more like reality. Here I am bold to identify a world-wide consensus about the magnificent experience of diversity as mediating a harmony between difference and commonality when they stand in synergetic relation. This, of course, is a highly discussable claim, especially so since it is grounded in experience far more than established doctrine. It is a claim which seems to suffer most, in the raucous conversation of the present, not so much by blunt blows to vital parts as by smug turning away, non-responsiveness, and a kind of cold wind.

In light of the horrendous issues of our time, and their manifestations in all realms of life, we must ask again: What are the humanities? In today’s avaricious and weaponized climate, can we once again come to understand and evaluate them – not as means to job opportunity, but as resources for living with meaning, compassion, and sustainable values? Are the humanities a necessary component to a well-educated and vibrant populace? And with Artificial Intelligence bearing down on us from all sides, do we need them at all, or perhaps only need them as decoration and a medium through which the wealthy can project their privilege and superiority?

The following pages are my attempt to address the relationship between the humanities and the status of human life under contemporary circumstances. In this attempt, I want to describe three outcomes of approaching the humanities as practice, including their study and enjoyment. This needs to include awareness of their implications for a very necessary and across the board resuscitation of education – after the devastating storms of Covid and Trump, climate change and worldwide authoritarianism.


Before going ahead with this daunting assignment, I want to say something about a new life-orientation which is emerging in our time. It is one which is neither the passivity, negativity, or giving up that is so prevalent, nor the “toxic positivity” which also abounds. Rather, it contains the mindset sometimes referred to in the discourse of today as “hopeful pessimism,” as Jane Goodall’s “hope in dark times,” as the profound experience William James was pointing to when he spoke of “new ranges of life succeeding upon our most despairing moments.”

They show us that it is possible to live well, remaining attuned to the gift quality of life, even in “impossible” circumstances. Like that species of bird which is prohibited from flying by the laws of physics and yet somehow flies nevertheless, the people I am talking about live with dignity, awareness, and compassion – right in the midst of disaster. How do they do that?!

Recalling the Hebrew warning that “Where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18), we can say that the life-orientation to which I am pointing requires that we sustain belief in the existence of what used to be called “soul,” a quality of the person deeper than “self-actualization” and closer to the essence of who they are. We are speaking of a connection within the person with a reality beyond the scope of ordinary human experience, something universal and sacred, a point of contact and even identity with an agency which is the source of right action and healthy living, one which is paradoxically both beyond what any person could do or be on their own and at the same time the most authentic identity of that person. In Hinduism, and with variations in the other great traditions, the ultimate realization is contained in the simple (though not easy) phrase Atman is Brahman (self is God). Phrases like this, of course, are very frustrating to the data-driven mindset of today, with its impatience and even animosity toward matters qualitative and particular and complex.

Socrates indicates in the epigraph above that human life on Earth is so ordered that realities like “soul” – and the other ineffables of human life, including love, justice, truth, goodness, beauty – are dependent on human belief in them as a prerequisite for their being active in the world and in our lives. Humans are challenged to be co-creators by the very structure of life.

It is hard for us to adopt such a belief because it is in the essence of our post modern circumstance that matters of meaning and value as they have been expressed in traditional cultures, the axiological dimension, have been “cancelled,” deconstructed, critiqued and dismissed. This has happened, in large part, because of the contamination of culture by values which are racist, sexist, classist, etc., as well as by their association with the struggle to find atonement for atrocities of the past which are found in all traditions – in America with annihilation of native cultures and peoples, and with slavery. Plus, especially in the West, there is the problematic heritage of heavily negative and escapist understanding of freedom. So alongside and mixed ambiguously with intuitions and gestures toward a new life-orientation, we share the negative solidarity of a problematic past – inevitably with both cultural and personal aspects.

This discouraging realization is not at odds with Socrates’ statement, since “risk[ing] the belief” entails the simple affirmation which we share with all other life, the joie de vivre that makes the world go round. The risking is large, that life is good, redemptive, and with broader horizons than we (or the robots) can know.

Believing in the existence of soul means moving beyond brittle intellectualist and doctrinal ways of knowing that were prevalent in our past, and also beyond the shallow and materialist empiricisms and scientisms of modernity, with their insistence that all must be known from the bottom up, from the simple to the complex. It also means that we must outgrow the ancient need to always occupy a position of certainty and always being right (even more highly than being truthful — whether by idealist, empiricist, or fascist epistemologies), knowing Plato demonstrates to be about as reliable as flickering shadows on the wall of a cave.

Outgrowing old ways occurs as we become able to receive assurance from deep down in the inner territory of soul (sometimes “conscience,” or at the root of “self-respect”), or in our attunement with the natural world, that deepest source of our lives which is both similar to and different from that of other life forms. This sounds frightening at first, but growth and reintegration in a new lifeway actually turns out to be genuinely liberating. With new awareness of these realities it becomes possible to get some perspective on our ego, some distance on that raging drama which refuses to be “fixed” by the popular psychologies and pharmaceuticals so widely prescribed for the malaise of our time.

With the new awareness – so fragile, so vulnerable, so improbable — we are able to exercise a much broader range of choice as to emotional state and the general direction of our lives, rather than always chasing from one impulse to another, without moral compass, repose, or culture. We are liberated from the tyranny of our own ego, from our “whim and caprice,” as John Dewey puts it.

For in the atmosphere of ego it is impossible (hedonism notwithstanding) to live well. And it is even more difficult to engage the hard and necessary cultural work of sorting that which is important to save from that which we must let go in our mixed inheritance. This is a big problem (a “wicked problem”) because in the absence of this work we are stuck in the quagmire of moral disease, arising like a noxious gas from now-dry lake that had once been culture. Now we must cope with the absence of culture — with ever more disturbing incivility, non-regard for others, and reduction of persons to their financial, use-for-me potential, and/or demographic characteristics.

Indeed, passage from an old way in collapse to new life-orientation emerging may be the most ambitious ever undertaken by the human race. As in previous times of rapid growth, that which had been unconscious and involuntary becomes both conscious and voluntary, and hence a matter of choice and responsibility. With the surge of growth our time requires and exhibits to some degree, culture becomes self-aware, no longer dependent on unconscious processes of socialization and acculturation for its perpetuation; now culture must be chosen. So much of the drama of culture wars, “angertainment,” etc, can be seen as a process of finding out whether humans are able to live with the responsibility that comes with the democratization of culture – actually, whether we have the heart to even try.

This is not as mysterious as it may sound. There are many people and resources out there available to support and guide us. Certainly there are also those who wish to exploit and manipulate, preying on the extreme vulnerability of humans in this historical moment.

The developmental journey which is so crucial yet fragile begins and gathers strength with basic emotional intelligence, the “know thyself” capacity to sustain a more or less friendly relationship between “me” and “myself,” which is like other healthy relationships in being both critical and caring – and willing to reside together in creative tension. Development also entails refinement of critical thinking, beyond reductive “critical theory” and “deconstruction,” into of appreciative mindfulness, as the ability to discern value, and focus attention in the full particularity of the present. Development in these capacities progresses with coming to be more fully able to live in the zone of simultaneity between acknowledging limitations (without self-hatred and unworthiness) and accessing wisdom (without arrogance and misplaced privilege).

So on many days it looks like our problem may be plain old human sluggishness, more a failure of willing than knowing – like the proverbial frog who does not notice ever-increasing water temperature in the pot on the stove in which it sits as it is poached! Perhaps the frog is frozen in the momentousness of her circumstance.


With that brief attempt to describe the context of the humanities and our commonly shared condition in the present, as well as a new vision of both personhood and culture which is struggling to emerge from the ruins of traditional (including modern) cultures, here are the three outcomes I want to advocate in terms of the role of the humanities going forward. I think they can say a lot more to questions about how to engage, study, and practice – and evaluate — the humanities than most of the more theoretically-framed discussions of “innovative pedagogy” in recent decades, often beginning with a creative notion but then veering off into the weeds of disconnected methodology.

The first must be Healthy Soul:

A well-cultivated and conscious soul has been unusual in the human past. But it might be even more improbable in late modern societies like ours, despite unimaginable physical advantages. The situation of these societies is characterized by their failure to sustain even belief in the existence of soul, let alone its immortality, sacredness, etc. Let alone also the understanding implicit in “soul” that each person is unique and valuable, a potential source of creativity, wisdom, and the insight needed to solve problems in the particular moment (chief among which would be how to live well).

In the pathological condition of our transitional moment into either a new way or oblivion, persons are treated — and treat themselves — in ways exclusively physical and psychological, by objectification (as in thing-making), and on the modern push-pull model of transaction (you’ve got apples, I’ve got oranges…). We now live in a world of human construction (physical, psychological, cultural, even spiritual…) in which interests and power and their common denominator in money are bottom line. We relate as animals or machines, but not very often as humans.

It might be sufficient to say that having a healthy soul is essential to moving from grimness to vital living, that its maintenance is a necessary and ever ongoing project — a hygiene, and that this has obviously become extremely challenging.

The humanities, at the very least, remind us in these matters – that being human is very different from being a machine (a person rather than a thing, a subject rather than object, a thou rather than an it – that most basic distinction at the root of traditional Western and other ethics); that the astonishing permutations possible with AI are nevertheless wholly different from real creativity; that a “soul” is different from mechanism, no matter how well lubricated the machine may be.

The second outcome is Sense of Possibility:

A developed sense of possibility is the first prerequisite and the first practice in nurturing the healthy soul. It involves the adult form of return to childhood wonder, and a reclaiming of that point of departure indicated by “philosophy begins in wonder” (could a robot wonder, experience aporia?). A developed sense of possibility (and the accompanying ability to tolerate not knowing, aporia) also involves emergence of that specific capacity to distinguish authentic creativity from the sensationalism echoing off of every wall and from increasingly desperate people trying to prove to themselves that they are alive. Along with this sense comes recognition of truth as it emerges from the dialogue of similarity and difference, whether it be that between you and me, me and myself, or between us and the most singular other.

Some speak of this essential outcome of engagement with the humanities as the ability to recognize quality and integrity, as distinct from flim flam and the broad array of manipulations which roam freely among us. Sometimes engagement is spoken of as the ability to identify and appreciate a fully developed human being, not only those who are old, but also “old souls.” Other times it is evident in attempts to describe “practical wisdom,” judgment and graceful movement in the midst of the full particularity of life, rather than insisting on detached abstraction and pronouncement from a place of superiority and mere application of preset rules. This same recognition has also been associated with fresh appreciation of the significance of art, including awareness of what Alfred North Whitehead called “the most austere of all mental qualities,” “style,” the ability to act decisively, cleanly, with as little extraneous movement or exertion as possible, as with Chuang Tzu butchering an ox with one, continuous, apparently effortless movement.

Third is Humanities as Valve:

A third outcome is more political and cultural. It is the developed capacity to be persuasive in the world (including within oneself) on behalf of a lifeway compatible with the pluralism and democratic sentiments necessary to a future other than that of tyranny and autocracy. Though it is nearly impossible to say this in our present environment of suspicion, relativism, and degraded relationship with the ineffables, the humanities are known by their ability to evoke and motivate our common humanity, beyond ever-changing consumer preference, private wishes, tribalisms, and the quirks of society and culture.

Development of this crucial and inclusive capacity of discernment involves activation of a love of the world, an Amor Mundi, an active love of mortal, ever ambiguous, embodied life on Earth. It involves a finely honed appreciation of that most magnificent American affirmation of an equality of difference, grounded in the understanding that all persons are unique possible sources of revelation and inflowing of ultimate reality.

Like great religions, the humanities can lead us out of the life we have received through the enormous contingency of our origins in traditional cultures or their still-somewhat alive remnants, as well as through always-flawed families and local communities, and into centering awareness of how to live and die well. The communication of this awareness is beyond any one articulation, heard in and through and under the vast symphony of individual stories of life affirmation. The humanities return us to the world and care for others as the locus of true enlightenment.


So maybe the most important distinction here is that between open and closed. Machines are subject to entropy, eventually running down into non-functioning. They are closed systems. Now AI introduces the claim that machines will be able to program themselves to function indefinitely (talk about feeling hot breath on the back of our necks!). But AI, as distinct from full human presence, is still not “open” in the cosmological sense of being a space or an activity through which new energy comes into the world, fresh vitality from as deep as the wellspring of life itself – what humans and other life-forms most basically need in order to thrive. Like sunshine.

Humanities can be understood as the great ventilator, the very lungs of human life. One might even say that all other good things for both person and community flow from them – as do bad things flow from their absence or denial, as the way in which entropy is manifest in human life.

An old song comes to mind: “Anything you can do I can do better.” Yes, certainly this is true about robots, operating by objectification in all functions. Robots can command huge swaths of all kinds of data and do better than humans with it. But only as they are programmed to do. Eventually, it is claimed, they may have the capacity to program themselves. To what end? –if this is still a relevant question. Or are we now completely engulfed in technological determinism?

As we still love and aspire, there remains the dimension of meaning and value, always overlapping the dimension of objectification. Sometimes this meaning and value dimension is called “the spiritual.” It is very hard to know how to characterize or describe it from our current position far out in the outer space of social media and high tech, as distinct from the previous descriptions by our all too local ancestors generalizing from what was under their noses into peculiar, often charming, sometimes dangerous ontologies. Indeed, identification of and being tuned to sources of vitality – through descriptions and interpretations, yes, but also through ritual and certain art. These are essential to the ongoing, creative adventure of life on this planet. We know by now that, in the absence of the axiological and the spiritual dimensions, both especially susceptible to the contemporary disbelief, humans are lost and become dangerous.


Meanwhile in higher education, a critical bellwether of American society and what Fareed Zakaria once called “America’s best industry,” students are choosing not to attend college. They do this in part because of the cost, in part because they are recruited for well-paying jobs that do not require a college education, in part because they do not see the long-term rewards in areas other than medicine, law, and technology. Others around them do not see either, so the prevailing advice they may hear is to get an associates degree and skip the humanities because they will never “use them.” (Here I must interject, appealing to no credential other than my age: it can take many decades in “the school of hard knocks” for human beings to learn that the only “use of use” is creation of a world of love, justice, and beauty.)

I am suggesting the opposite of the prevailing understanding: that the humanities can be of very high use value, in both public and private life, both short-run and long. How ironic and profoundly sad that they are rejected today, in acts of cultural self-hatred and perverse forms of atonement.

I do not have easy solutions, but suggest we begin a new conversation with the hypothesis as to what the humanities are not. Humanities are not primarily or essentially an established subject matter or body of work, or a universalizable canon. Rather, they first and most essentially indicate a transformative practice that is essential to healthy human life – and in the absence of which our very plastic species drifts off into something else. In the course of such practice surely some works and artifacts would come to stand out and even as a kind of canon. But that definition, with its generosity toward what is effective in specific times and places, is very different from the urge to formulate and legislate a once-and-for-all master list of great works.

In the modern democratization of culture humans move from a secondary to a primary relationship to cultural commitments, clearly a development that comes with great dangers, including that of persons who are too overwhelmed to respond with their own agency, broadcasting instead the panic of their ego, and fascist assertion as to what is going on. It is possible, though, that this development might not be as dangerous as it seems. (Possibly the face of that which is passing is more vivid at this time than that which endures and is emerging.)

Let us at least experiment with this way of thinking – and beginning a fresh conversation: that the humanities can be identified as practices guided and shaped by outcomes associated with their efficacy in eliciting mature humanity –an aspiration which energizes many disciplines (as those disciplines had energized cultures in the past, usually through the medium of hierarchical patriarchy). Further, any compassionate and reasonable response to the question of what it means to be life-affirming will lead us to see that the humanities are inherently democratic, not only pluralistic in nature, but also dependent on ongoing and vigorous conversation which turns on our relationship with the ineffables, those mysterious and elusive energies on which our lives depend.

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