Why I Study the Humanities

Tuesday, May 2, 2017 - 12:00 pm

Why I Study the Humanities

When I was in college, I read Cicero and Petrarch for the first time. I learned that both suffered great tragedy in their lives; Cicero lost his beloved daughter Tullia, and Petrarch was overcome with sorrow when his amore, Laura, fell victim to the plague. For both, violence and upheaval were constant companions. Both were humanists who studied the past in order to heal the wounds of the present. And Petrarch would turn often to the writings of Cicero in times of grief.

My college mentor taught me to appreciate the liberal arts as a tradition that is much older than the Enlightenment. I still return to a passage in Petrarch’s Epistolae familiares. In these personal letters, Petrarch describes how the writings of Cicero and the ancients “are fixed not only in my memory but also in the marrow of my bones, and have so become one with my mind.” For Petrarch, reading the ancients had a soothing, therapeutic effect. He would let their words sink deep within himself and move his soul.

Petrarch’s sense of inwardness and personal selfhood is our inheritance today. But it is Cicero and the ancient Greeks who offer us a way forward.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that something is amiss in the world. Hindus call it the kali yuga; Buddhists, dukkha.

Dukkha is often translated as “suffering,” but perhaps “dislocation” would capture more fully the moment in which we find ourselves.

As in the Renaissance, our era is one of rapid change and unbridled technological advance. As in the Renaissance, science has revealed new horizons and closed others. As in the Renaissance, networks of communication have brought people together and heightened the sense of alienation that we feel when traditional markers of identity are threatened or disrupted. As in the Renaissance, citizens feel rooted and unmoored at the same time — a tension that populists readily exploit.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written eloquently about our modern search for meaning. He also warns of three malaises:

An individualism that turns toward subjectivism,
Recognizing no higher meaning
The Self is flattened and pulled
From the Great Chain of Being,
Instrumental reason that eclipses our ends
Projecting outwards from an “iron cage”
The mind tallies costs and benefits
When it means to engage
And a soft despotism that arises
In every human heart
When we fail to live the word citizen
The self becomes the whole, not a part

Modernity is liberating. Pico della Mirandola assured us that we could fly as high as the angels. Descartes claimed that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained.” Kant urged us to “Dare to know.” Rousseau wrote of le sentiment de l’existence and Herder enjoined us to find our “true” selves.

On our path to authentic living, we discovered fairness. We extended rights. We pushed the boundaries of scientific discovery and reason. There is much we have gained.

But do we not also feel a sense of loss, a sense of despair, a sense of dukkha – the “melancholy of freedom”?

Petrarch is a modern par excellence. We can be moved by him, but we cannot model him. He is one of us. He leads us not beyond ourselves, but deep within ourselves.

Cicero and the ancients offer a different perspective. For Cicero and the Greeks, we are a part of the whole. For Petrarch and we moderns, the self is the whole.

For Cicero and the Greeks, the experience of beauty leads one without. For Petrarch and we moderns, beauty leads one within.

For Cicero and the Greeks, the cosmos is finite, ordered, and everywhere enchanted. For Petrarch and we moderns, space is potentially infinite, mechanical, and shorn of its magic.

To study the humanities is to see how the Greeks and Romans formed part of an educational and cultural tradition that enriches our lives, deepens our commitment to nature and community, and enables us to sit with tragedy, wonder, and paradox.

After I graduated from college, my mentor became my friend, and we have since had many more conversations about Petrarch and the relevance of the ancients. As I read over my correspondence with him, one passage from early modern philosopher Giambattista Vico leaps out. We of the modern age, he writes, “have discovered many things of which the Ancients were entirely ignorant; the Ancients, on the other hand, knew much that is still unknown to us.”

We study the past to rediscover a part of ourselves. We find beauty there. And, who knows, like Petrarch, we may find healing there, too.

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majored in the humanities as an undergraduate and most recently served in the Obama Administration as a speechwriter to Secretary of State John Kerry. He previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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  • Gabby

    In my career in education as well as in my life outside of work, I have seldom heard a case that studying humanities is not important. The subject is required, in fact, throughout lower education and by every college and university, including the “tech schools.”
    I have heard, rather, two questions that go beyond that easier question.
    One is whether it is a problem (other than for universities themselves) that fewer students now choose to “major” in humanities. Many thoughtful people argue that students may major in, say, biology, but will still as part of their required studies work with writing and take a collection of courses in humanities and social studies. Is that sort of program inferior to a program more heavily concentrated in humanities but with less science or social science?
    The second question is whether schools need to be more prescriptive in the courses they put forward as satisfying the humanities requirements for a well-educated person. Should a philosophy course be a requirement, in addition to the almost universal writing requirements, or should a student be able to choose instead a course in film, a course in the history of art, and two in music?

  • Kendall F. Person

    I submitted a quora question, asking “Why do we – as a general rule – race to the familiar, rarely stepping beyond the parameter?” Why only Fox News or just CNN? Why always vote down party line, regardless of the candidate? And when we are able to see both sides, we are somehow indecisive as opposed to clear headed or open minded. The answers provided were very well stated, and I appreciated the time and effort, but no ground breaking points, just clarity. ‘Safety in the familiar’ was the running storyline, which gave way, however, to an epiphany. Getting to know and understand all of society is an interest of mine, but for some, they need a reason, that directly affects or changes their life, then most will step outside the box. So, I try to give ‘them’ a reason when I write.

    Sociology major here (close enough I hope – big smile). Thank you for drawing me in, as well as, the invitation to share my thoughts in a forum not my own. You are appreciated.

  • Halley

    What a lovely piece! A great break from the quotidian material we slog through every day and a reminder to search for beauty within and without. Thank you for the excellent write-up!

  • flowerplough

    Isn’t studying the humanities basically just reading old, interesting books and talking and writing about them, and can’t almost anyone do that at almost any time, without paying the academia patronizers $40,000 per year?

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