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Why study humanities?

‘An unexamined life is not worthy of a human being’: Socrates. Shutterstock

This is a revised excerpt of a talk given to students at the Inaugural Australian Youth Humanities Forum, hosted at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus.

After two days at this fine conference, you will know more than I could tell you about the humanities - about which disciplines usually go under that heading, and all you can and can’t do with a degree in the humanities. So I won’t talk about such things, or about how a degree in the humanities might help or hinder your career opportunities. I have little to offer on that last, important, concern. My experience has been very different from what yours is likely to be, in large part because I didn’t have to work for money as a student, except during the holidays.

Also I have been extraordinarily lucky at every stage of my life, from primary school, through my years at King’s College University of London until now in my present appointment at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne. I’m glad to be able to call this university my alma mater, drawing on the affectionate resonances of that expression, because I received a wonderful education here as an undergraduate in the mid to late ‘60s. A sense of the public responsibilities of academics was strong at the university at the time.

In the letter of invitation to speak today I was asked to tell you what role an education in the humanities has played in my engagement in public life. In keeping with that request, I’ll speak personally. I’m a philosopher, so I will tell you a little about what philosophy means to me and the role it has played in my life – in my life as an academic, my life as a “public intellectual” (I hate that expression) and, differently from both, my experience as the author of Romulus My Father, an elegy to my father that was made into a film starring Eric Bana and the miraculous Kodi Smit-McPhee. Some of you will have studied the book at school.

In 1989 Robert Manne asked me to write a column for Quadrant, a magazine of politics and culture that he was then editing. I wrote more than 50 columns, each approximately 2,200 words long. In them, I reflected, in the context of political life and public life more generally, on ideas developed in Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, which was directed primarily to an academic audience. Most of my book A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, first published in 1999, draws on material from those columns.

In them – and in much else I have written - I was not just applying ideas developed in a theoretical, academic context to a more practical, public one. Rather, I was rethinking those ideas in the context of public life, always mindful that though most of my readers would not be philosophers, they were, I assumed, educated people who knew how hard it is to think seriously about most things that matter in life. Indeed, the most important lesson I try to teach my students is just how hard it is to think seriously, which means, really, to think at all in the sense we try to convey when we say with exasperation, “For God’s sake, think!”. One needs more than brainpower. Among other things, one also needs humility, courage and a deep spirit of truthfulness.

To explain some of what I attempted to do in those columns and in later writings, I will restrict myself to one example. In two columns written at greater length than usual, I wrote a qualified defence of the allegation in Bringing Them Home, the report on the stolen generations, that the crime against the children who bear that name is rightly called genocide. My argument was directed primarily to (please note “to” rather than “against”) those who believed such an allegation is absurd and offensive because the Holocaust is our paradigm of genocide. Those two columns proved highly controversial. They ended my time at Quadrant and contributed to the end of Robert Manne’s editorship.

It is a remarkable fact that 63 years after genocide was established as a crime in international law, people still argue about what it is. Disagreement about this is radical and sometimes bitter. Contributions to that debate won’t be worth much unless they are thoughtful about what it means to be rooted in a particular community.

To think about that is to think about the importance to peoples of their natural language, their history, their poetry and their song. Such thought is deepest, I believe, when it is steeped in the humanities, even when it goes beyond them, as anthropology does, for example. A sensibility nourished by the humanities enabled the great Australian anthropologist W H Stanner to see in the culture of Australia’s indigenous peoples “all the beauty of song, mime, dance and art of which human beings are capable”.

The discovery by many of the Western intelligentsia of moral or spiritual depth in practices and beliefs that had previously seemed to express only the superstitions of scientifically backward savages is an achievement of the latter half of the 20th century for which we must thankful. It amounted to a new capacity to see (as Stanner saw) in black cultures an ever-deepening responsiveness to the defining facts of the human condition – our mortality, our sexuality, our vulnerability to misfortune – and therefore to see them as cultures from which the West could learn.

I shall now change tack a little because I want to talk about Socrates. Or, more accurately, I’ll talk about the character Socrates in the dialogues of the great philosopher-poet Plato. Plato was a disciple of the historical Socrates, the philosopher who lived in Athens over 2500 years ago. He was troubled by what he called “the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy”.

Many people think Plato believed that he had resolved that quarrel in favour of philosophy. In Republic, he banned poets from the ideal state. But if that expressed his final, untroubled opinion, he could not have produced the great works of art that are his dialogues and given us Socrates, fully realised as a character rather than a mouthpiece for philosophical arguments. It is the character who has haunted the Western moral and political imagination, reflection about what it means to live the life of the mind and, more generally, on why we must strive for lucidity about the meanings of what we do, think and feel.

I belong to a relatively small group of philosophers who believe that moral and political philosophy become sterile when they do not engage creatively with art, especially with literature. The form of my work as much as – indeed inseparably from - its content has expressed that belief. The English philosopher Roger Scruton described The Philosopher’s Dog as an experiment in narrative philosophy. The same could be said of After Romulus. But though I have emphasised in my academic and other work, and many times in more public fora, that philosophy is impoverished when its conception of what it is to think rigorously does not include a sensibility nourished by art, I have also stressed that art speaks to us only because it draws upon the background of a common understanding.

Obviously the discursive disciplines of the humanities contribute to that common understanding. Just as importantly, they play an indispensable role in clarifying its conceptual character. And it is the humanities, reflecting critically about the Holocaust and the brutalities of colonialism, that have probed, with sobering scepticism, the assumption that the humanities would humanise those who study them, or even make them relatively decent.

Perhaps you are already asking why I would talk to you about a philosopher who died 2500 years ago. You might think that the fact that I would even think of doing it is an example of the sterility of the humanities, evidence, indeed, that a graffitist had a point when he wrote above the paper rolls in the men’s toilets of the union of this university: “Humanities degrees. Feel free to take one.”

But to understand most of the disciplines of the humanities one needs to know that their history is not “just history”. Humanities scholars – certainly philosophers - engage critically with, and are nourished by, thinkers of the past as distant from us in time as the ancient Greeks. This has two great benefits. One is a treasure.

Firstly, reflective engagement with great thinkers and artists of the past enables one to live joyously - because one is given so much to love – in an extended continuous present. This, much more than the trappings of a reasonably successful academic career, makes me feel different from many friends who have not had the benefit of much education. Plato is my companion. So are Descartes and Kant, to name only a few great philosophers. Ditto for Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Bach. And, of course, there are others. I could not imagine my life without them.

Secondly, critical engagement with the past helps us to establish the kind of distance from the present that is necessary if we are even seriously to try, without self-deception, to resist becoming merely children of our times, in the pejorative sense of that expression. We exist in the present and hopefully we can love the world we are born into, but the present can be tyrannical unless our consciousness of it extends a long way into the past. We can dream of the future, and those dreams can sustain our struggles for a better world, but the future does not exist and no one knows how it will be. It cannot nourish us as only something real can do.

Dictators know this, which is why they rewrite history to suit their political ends and deny their subjects independent access to their past. They do it because they know that resistance to their rule will wither unless hope is nourished by trustworthy access to the past. People who fight against oppression need to know that their ideals are not mere dreams, that they have been inspired, at least in part, by something real to which sobriety requires them to be answerable.

Rather than alienating us from the times into which we are born, the past can yield to us a timeless love of the world that will protect us from cynicism if we are unfortunate to live in circumstances to which disillusionment appears to be the only truthful response. Sometimes people live in dark times.

In Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, Socrates says that there is “nothing more important in youth or old age, than to discuss how one should live”. Note that he says that it is important to this discuss rather than just think about it. Some people think that is just silly and self-indulgent. The important thing is to get on with one’s life: one must be practical to survive in this world, they might say. But often, when misfortune strikes - when for example they are told that they have only a short time to live, or when someone dear to them suffers or dies – the very same people reassess what is most important to them.

Everyone knows this. But, of course, often we know it only in our heads, and even then only at the top of our heads, rather than in our bones. And if we come to understand it in our heads and our bones when misfortune strikes, we are prone to forget it when we recover. That is one reason why Plato says that the philosophers – by which he means lovers of wisdom, or to put it less portentously, those who want to be lucid about what really matters as distinct from what only appears to matter – cling in recollection to what they had once known.

It is therefore hardly practical, Socrates would say, to spend a large part of our lives devoting ourselves to things that, were we not blinded or intoxicated by relative good fortune, would appear not worth the sacrifices we make for them. In Romulus, My Father, I say that for my father nothing mattered more than to live his life decently, and I add that when I say “nothing” I mean nothing. He would never contrast the demands of morality, as he understood them, with what is practical. For him, nothing could be more practical than to try to rise to those demands.

He would not accept that sober realism requires one to accept that morality is well and good in its place, but that sometimes, if one is practical, one will subdue its voice and perhaps silence it altogether. The philosophical significance of his point, as I have understood it, though he would not put it as I have done – he had only four years of schooling - is that we should resist the ubiquitous attempts to hijack the very concept of the practical to relatively narrow material ambitions and the pursuit of status or prestige.

I have, therefore, been deeply touched by the fact that many students have responded well to the book when they studied it at VCE and HSE. I had not expected it. In an age that seems to admire nothing quite so much as cool urbanity, I expected that most students would respond uneasily, perhaps with distaste, to my father’s unnerving moral intensity. I am grateful that I have been mistaken.

I hope you don’t think that what I have said about the abuse of the concept of the practical is merely a “semantic matter”, in the pejorative sense of the phrase. It has been central to most of my work about morality and its relation to law and to politics. I have resisted attempts to commandeer the concept of the practical into the service of a narrow conception of realism in national and international politics and of the public role of a university. It is important that you think about this when you ask yourself, or when you are asked, perhaps by your parents: Is it practical to study the humanities?

Socrates was tried and sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens by his persistent questioning of their assumptions about morality and the place it might have in their lives. At his trial, he explained to the judges who sentenced him to death, but offered him a reprieve were he to stop philosophising, that he could not do so because, as he put it, “an unexamined life is not worthy of a human being”. That is sometimes translated as “an unexamined life is not worth living”, but I think the way I have put it is truer to his thought. Our humanity, he would say, is not given to us by virtue of belonging to a biological species; it is something we must rise to.

Often it is only in times of crisis that we realise that our humanity is a gift. We honour that gift and express our gratitude for it, by trying to be lucid about the meanings of what we do and suffer. Or, as a friend once said to me: “I try to live with my eyes open.”

I hope that I have now taken you to the point where you can see why Socrates would think that the humanities honour that gift. To enable them to do it is one of the most important of the public responsibilities of a university.

Had I time, I would explain why I would be dismayed if what I have said were taken as an attempt to revive the old war about “two cultures” – a war between the humanities and the sciences. The fundamental impact of science on our understanding of what it means to be human is undeniable. It has deepened immeasurably understanding of ourselves as creatures of the earth and as material beings in the universe.

Neuroscience has altered our understanding of the mind, and evolutionary psychology has had considerable influence on moral psychology and, through it, moral and political philosophy. Recent developments in technology have affected our lives directly in dramatic ways and altered our ways of thinking about and imagining ourselves. And just as importantly, when the natural sciences express a love of the beauty of the world – when, as Simone Weil put it, they manifest the spirit of truth in love - then as much as the humanities they offer to those engaged with them the kind of treasure of which I spoke earlier. Yet only when they are engaged with the humanities are the natural sciences able to contribute to an understanding of the human meaning of their discoveries – indeed of their meaning, period.

Romulus, My Father is a short book and it its prose is simple. I have been moved by how many people who are not at all educated have been touched by it. Yet it is a book that could only have been written by a philosopher. Indeed, I say of my father, that like Socrates, he believed that it is better to suffer evil than to do it. Perhaps not so evidently, it is written by someone whose sense of life has been shaped by Greek tragedy.

The novelist John Coetzee has written: “Gaita also clearly owes a great deal to Greece – to Greek literature even more than to Greek systematic philosophy.” He is right. In fact I say in After Romulus, published a couple of years ago, that tragedy shows a calm pity for the suffering it depicts. I say that I when I wrote Romulus, My Father I hoped that I could show the same pity towards the suffering of the people I wrote about.

The tone of Romulus, My Father is inseparable from that hope. The same is true, I think, of many of the responses to it and to the film. The suffering to which I referred was that of my mother, who killed herself at the age of 29 having suffered terribly from a mental illness, of her lover, Mitru, who killed himself two years before at the age of 27, driven to desperation by her infidelities, wild spending and incapacity to look after the child that had been born to them (all symptoms of her illness) and of my father who went mad three years later. I ask you to keep in mind those facts and the fact that the book was written by someone steeped in the humanities when I tell you a story that I first told in After Romulus.

When Romulus, My Father, was first published I read from it at a refuge for homeless people, reluctantly for I was aware that they came there for lunch, not for literature. At one stage a man, obviously mentally ill, called for me to stop. He raised his head, which he had held in his hands, and exclaimed: “God is in this book!” I remembered the times when, as a student, I worked in mental hospitals and was anxious about what he would do next. “I mean,” he explained, “that it’s filled with love.”

On that same day, five or six girls, prostitutes in the area, not one of them yet 20, asked me to read, again and again, about my mother. I read to them, passages I had not read before or have since in public because it pains me to do so. In my mother’s troubled life they saw something of their own and, I think, they saw her suffering, and what she shared with them, in the light of the love that the man who spoke before them said filled the book.

I am certain they would not repeatedly have asked me to read about my mother if they had detected in my portrayal of her what one critic called “a morally bankrupt woman”. The spiritual hunger that showed in their recognition that my mother was, like them, a deeply troubled soul, and the tribute by a man destitute of all worldly goods and achievements, bereft of all status and quite mad, moved and gratified me more than all the accolades the book and the film have received.

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