A Rational Defense of the Humanities

If all literature is essentially bound by its historical period, then studying the “great books” of Western civilization has little value. But if there are certain eternal questions that are essential to human existence, such a study is invaluable.

In an insightful City Journal essay, Heather Mac Donald defends the idea of the traditional English literature curriculum, in which the study of authors such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton is considered indispensable to the attainment of basic competence. By contrast, Rebecca Schuman, who criticizes Mac Donald’s essay in a response at Slate, argues that the structure of English literature curricula should reflect the centrality of concepts such as race, gender, and class. Schuman refers to this approach as the “contemporary critique” approach to literature.

Articulating the fundamental assumption of her position, Schuman writes: “No literature, if it’s any good, is timeless. Ever. It is of its time.” In asserting this, she evidently intends to show why the approach recommended by Mac Donald is not merely undesirable but also impossible.

In reflecting on Schuman’s position, I was reminded of what Allan Bloom wrote near the end of the The Closing of the American Mind. “Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time,” he observes, “because then they are participating in essential being and forgetting their accidental lives.” By this I believe Bloom meant that the thought of Plato and Shakespeare, among others of their rank, is essential to man’s self-understanding—that such writing articulates the problems that man must necessarily face if he is to gain a clearer understanding of his own nature. Since these problems are a permanent part of human nature, the humanistic works that most deeply and fully articulate these problems necessarily teach man something that is true for man as man, everywhere and always.

This view is based on the notion that man has an unchanging nature that is rationally intelligible: the idea that human reason can, in principle, see the truth about human things. By this, I do not mean to claim that reason can necessarily arrive at a definitive answer to the eternal problems of man’s humanity. I only argue that our reason can recognize what the eternal problems are. If this is true, the study of the eternal problems as expressed in literature may indeed be described as the study of timeless truths. If the great books really are great, then they are not merely of their time.

This view, which represents the rational defense of humanistic thought, may be understood in contrast to the historicist position. On the basis of the historicist position, it is argued that humanistic thought (and in its most radical version, even scientific thought) is essentially historical—which is to say, bound by the horizon of its time—and thus lacks the ability to ask questions that transcend its particular historical circumstances.

If this is the case, then no literary work could ever express teachings that are simply true, meaning true always and everywhere, but only teachings true relative to their time—truths that cannot guide man as man but only man as he exists at a given time and place. As the historical contexts in which any such truths originate disappear, so too does the value of such truths for the succeeding historical contexts.

By this line of reasoning, Macbeth, for example, cannot guide us with respect to the problem of tyranny. Macbeth cannot teach us what is always true concerning the problem of tyranny as it is found in disparate moments across human history, but only what was true relative to a particular moment in history, i.e., Shakespeare’s moment.

On the basis of this view, the study of Macbeth should indeed be neglected in favor of more contemporary works. Or, if it is to be read, it should be studied in light of the recognition that the value of what it has to teach is obsolete.

We may radicalize the historicist argument even further: if humanistic thought cannot transcend its time, then we, living in our time, cannot possibly understand Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton as those in the authors’ time understood them, to say nothing of how the authors themselves understood their work. Living in our time and thinking in terms of our time, we are bound to understand these authors in light of the fundamental concepts and presuppositions of our time. On this basis we cannot, as Mac Donald recommends, “engage with the genius and radical difference of the past,” but only engage with the genius and radical difference of the past as it is reflected through our necessarily historical, and hence historically subjective, understanding of the genius and radical difference of the past.

More than being simply obsolete, the thought of previous times is thus seen as unintelligible and hence inaccessible in any meaningful way; only the thought of the present, of our time and our concerns, is intelligible and hence only the thought of the present can be studied seriously. In other words, the study of humanistic thought is ideological by definition.

In this vein, it makes perfect sense for Schuman to think that present-day ideological categories are the most adequate way to engage with humanistic thought. If the greatest works of literature cannot emancipate man from his historical parochialism, then the greatest works of literature are merely the greatest statements of historical parochialism. Rather than study literature in order to acquire breadth of perspective, and so learn to distinguish the ephemeral problems that concern certain men at certain places from the fundamental problems that concern man everywhere and always, we would study literature to become further confirmed in the views to which our particular time has predisposed us. It would then make sense for the literature of our time to take precedence over the literature of previous times, and for the categories and concepts of the literature of our time to supply the measure for judging the literature of previous times.

Through these paths, we arrive at the “contemporary critique” approach to literature, which is ultimately the replacement of the study of literature with the study of present-day ideology. Far from being an education in any genuine sense, it is an indoctrination. For rather than teach students to look for and lovingly contemplate the permanent questions, the contemporary approach teaches them to understand all potentially meaningful questions in light of the ready-made present-day answers. Ultimately, it teaches them to forget that there are permanent questions.

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