At Harvard, faculty independence has gradually been undermined; we are all worker bees now, serving the monstrous regiment of bureaucrats. We have in the latest version of our General Education curriculum what is essentially a glorified distribution requirement. The message sent to students is that an educated person is somebody who knows some things unrelated to his or her pre-professional program. This extraneous knowledge makes you a more interesting dinner companion and broadens your outlook. You are not only taking a pre-med course, but you know some cool stuff about Tibetan Buddhism or Mexican labor unions. As a university we take no position on what cool stuff you should pick up before turning to the serious business of making money or ruling the world. We have no serious vision for what a liberal education should do. The exhortation of Gen Ed is that we should study “urgent problems and enduring questions.” Thanks for the clarification!

At Harvard, faculty independence has gradually been undermined; we are all worker bees now, serving the monstrous regiment of bureaucrats.


This, I think, is a common malady of American elite education. At Yale liberal education has been pushed into a kind of academic ghetto called Directed Studies, and other universities have “honors colleges” where the less vocationally minded can read their Homer and Aristotle if they so choose. But few universities now require their students to read Homer and Aristotle, or tell them that Homer and Aristotle are authors that educated people should have read. In most schools the liberal arts have survived, up to now, simply as part of the à la carte menu of American university education. They are increasingly regarded as luxury entrées that can be dropped in moments of perceived budgetary crisis. Few universities still have the courage to say that this is what you should study to be an educated person. They know only what a university is: a machine for producing credentials and stamping individuals as bona fide members of the elite. They are unable to articulate a clear vision of what liberal education is for. In particular they are unable to say what the term “liberal” in the phrase “liberal education” means.

In most schools the liberal arts have survived, up to now, simply as part of the à la carte menu of American university education. They are increasingly regarded as luxury entrées that can be dropped in moments of perceived budgetary crisis.


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That is what I want to discuss today. To lay my cards on the table a bit, I’m going to argue that the kind of liberal justifications of liberal education I grew up with are no longer effective, and that teachers of humanities need a different way of defending the value of what we do and love. I think we can find such a way if we go back to the very beginning of the humanities in the mid-fourteenth century, which is also the beginning of the Renaissance. The Renaissance can teach us how to make a case for the study of old books that is compatible with the values of a pluralist society. The humanist literati of the Renaissance, beginning with Petrarch, taught that the humanities can provide the moral discipline or soulcraft that is needed to produce the kind of rulers and citizens necessary for successful government. The humanities—rightly understood, taught, and practiced as a way of life—can cultivate human moral and intellectual excellence, the qualities our tradition refers to as virtue.

Many people now are beginning to see that virtue is precisely what is needed in the crisis of contemporary civilizations that stretches from North and South America and Europe into India and China. That crisis, as I see it, is caused by a paralysis of moral leadership and the inability of demoralized, globalized elites and elite culture generally to command the respect of non-elite citizens in nation-states. It is a crisis that bears a remarkable resemblance to the civilizational crisis of the fourteenth century that brought the humanities into existence in the first place. It also resembles in some respects the crisis of the communist elite in China, where there has been for some years a movement to revive the Confucian tradition, in part with the hope of providing a more acceptable moral basis for governance.

Liberal Defenses of Liberal Learning

But I want to go back to the kinds of justification that are still used today of Great Books programs, and the liberal arts in general, to less and less effect. I want to explain why I think they are inadequate in the current climate. While I was at Columbia teaching Contemporary Civilization in the early 1980s, the rationale for teaching the course still drew heavily on a progressive and liberal consensus about what education was for. It also relied, less obviously, on a kind of expressive individualism characteristic of the 1960s. What we were said to be doing was freeing minds from their unexamined prepossessions, forcing student to face fundamental life questions, with a view to deepening their worldviews. The resulting worldview would be a self-chosen thing, coming from rational conviction, formed in the heat of serious debate with the greatest minds of the past. The worldviews that students took from this process would be theirs as individuals, and not those of their parents or of society as a whole. The project, in other words, was deeply Socratic—or so we believed.

There were vulgar and sophisticated versions of this liberal defense of Great Books. The vulgar version was expressed by one of my contemporaries on the Contemporary Civilization staff, senior to me, who explained that what we were doing was shaking Columbia boys out of their stupid religious beliefs and ensuring that they would never vote Republican again. The assumption was that rational inspection of one’s ideas would ineluctably lead to embrace of political liberalism. There was also in the air a nobler version of the liberal defense, best expressed I believe by Leon Kass in a beautiful speech to incoming Chicago undergraduates in 1981. In Kass’s view, what liberal education at Chicago taught was what he called “thoughtfulness,” defined as “thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good.” It sought, “[n]ot the adding of new truths to the world, nor the transmission of old truths to the young, but the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own.”

Thoughtfulness built on the natural desire to know, but cultivated a kind of skepticism that was not purely negative, not driven merely by the desire to tear down received beliefs. It sought to reconstruct our true beliefs on a sounder basis, to fulfill the promise of the desire to know by finding truth. In other words, Kass accepted Plato’s revision of Socrates’ mission and believed that the promise of the philosophical life, the claim to love wisdom, would be empty unless some wisdom were actually attainable. What liberal education did was to make you open to conviction by rational argument. It had good moral effects, too, being “antithetical to intolerance, self-righteousness, smugness.” Seeking truth about the great life-questions made you a better citizen, able to assess political issues in deep moral terms. It also improved your relationships by giving you sympathy and deep understanding of others. Kass even hinted that “there would seem to be a connection between thoughtfulness and character,” that the thoughtfulness engendered by a liberal education would make you considerate, kindly, and able to form the best kind of friendships.

The New Left and the Conservative Response

Kass’s liberal defense of liberal education was one that many of us can still accept, but we all know what happened next to weaken and subvert it. The New Left with its hermeneutics of suspicion set about unmasking Great Books programs—and liberal education in general—as bastions of privilege. The real purpose of the liberal arts, it claimed, was to erect class barriers between the moneyed elites and the rest of society, or to provide ideological indoctrination in the corrupt values of the American empire. Some New Leftists asserted, with magnificent indifference to an enormous weight of historical evidence, that the whole Western tradition was nothing but an ideological construct made up by regime intellectuals in the service of power.

New Left historians devoted themselves to exposing the racism and sexism of the Western past with a view to undermining its authority. The aim was to cripple our capacity to praise noble ancestors, which Rémi Brague has described as the condition of all civilization. Any aspirational ideals found in old authors were nothing but window dressing, designed to cloak concrete political and economic interests in fine language. To the extent that the authors were intended to transmit ideals, they were discredited by the failure of earlier societies to achieve those ideals. Once the Western past had been exposed as racist and sexist and the great Western authors denounced as tools of privilege and oppression, the logical conclusion was that young people should be protected from reading them lest they be seduced by their glamour to perpetuate the evils of the past.

Liberal education has been increasingly politicized ever since the New Left’s critique began to bite sometime in the 1980s. One result, regrettable in my view, is that liberal arts education is increasingly defended in the main by cultural conservatives, who see Great Books programs as islands of traditionalism in a sea of progressive indoctrination. This is of course a caricature of what actually goes on in universities, which remain for the most part much saner than they are portrayed in conservative media. But some new developments in higher education give it the color of truth. One example is the introduction in many colleges of mandatory course evaluations, that invite students to report on deviations from the dogma of Diversity and Inclusion that their professors commit. Free speech and the free play of the intellect can hardly be expected to flourish in a culture of surveillance and ideological regulation, and it is appalling that our bureaucratic masters seem unaware or unconcerned about the collateral damage they are causing to the life of the mind, whose medium is freedom. If the Devil is allowed no advocate, even a court of angels will turn into a Star Chamber. That much is obvious, or should be.

But turning Great Books programs into redoubts of cultural conservatism—as is happening in dozens of honors colleges and sectarian universities across the country—can also lead to an ideological distortion of their purpose. I have seen Great Books curricula in conservative colleges and programs that interlard Aristotle’s Ethics and the Federalist Papers with contemporary “conservative classics,” like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Dinesh D’Souza’s polemical Hillary’s America. If this is not a debasement of Great Books education, I don’t know what is. The threat that Great Books programs, while claiming to be liberal, become tools of conservative ideologues is a deeply worrying one, at least to me. It can only further marginalize the study of the Western canon.

Renaissance Humanism and Education

Let me now sketch the alternative justification of humanistic education that I have in mind, inspired by my studies of Renaissance humanism and the Confucian tradition in imperial China. Italian Renaissance humanism, the direct ancestor of the humanities as we have them today, was born in the midst of a massive civilizational crisis in the mid-fourteenth century. Among other things, this was a crisis of legitimacy, in which the great universal authorities of the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy, were both unable to command the allegiance of Christendom—the former because it was weak and the latter because it was corrupt. Northern Italy was ruled by tyrants; the few surviving city republics were diseased with hyperpartisan quarrels between elite and popular factions; and the Kingdom of Southern Italy was continually contested between the houses of Aragon and Anjou. The whole of Europe seemed to lie under God’s curse, suffering as it did from famine, continual war, and worst of all, the Black Death. This was the situation in the second half of Petrarch’s life, when the humanities or the studia humanitatis were born.

Italian Renaissance humanism, the direct ancestor of the humanities as we have them today, was born in the midst of a massive civilizational crisis in the mid-fourteenth century.


After supporting for a while the failed revolution of Cola di Rienzo, Petrarch decided that any straightforward political reform was not going to solve the problems of the day. His idea was that the real problem Italy and Europe faced was the poor quality of the human material that went into the building of contemporary governments and armies. Italians had somehow lost the superexcellent virtue and practical wisdom that had built the Roman Empire long ago. The problem with Italy was at root a moral one, and the solution had to be a moral one. Ancient soulcraft had to be revived to corroborate statecraft. Petrarch’s long-term plan to reform Christendom was to recover ancient virtue and wisdom by reviving the paideia of antiquity—not just the pieces of it that late ancient Christians found useful when they assembled the Seven Liberal Arts, not just the Aristotle of the scholastics, but the whole culture, customs and mores of antiquity that had gone into making the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome. The key to this culture was recovering command of ancient languages and literatures. Reviving those could revive the spirit of Greece and Rome.

Eventually Petrarch and his many followers forged a new educational program which they variously referred to as the studia humanitatis, bonae litterae, litterae humaniores: literature that stimulated zeal for humanity, letters that made you good and more human. The core meaning of humanitas, according to many Renaissance literati, was a capacity to overcome natural human selfishness and to care for others. This new paideia aimed at producing humanitas grew in part from the conviction that the old scholastic education was too much vitiated by venality and vocationalism to be morally effective. It taught men how to be lawyers and doctors, but didn’t make them any better. The education Petrarch and his disciples created was designed to do just that. It called for study of the very ancient texts left out of scholastic education, especially poetry, biography, history, and oratory. Poetry, biography, and history were supposed to supply the student with inspiring examples of ancient men and women performing virtuous deeds. History taught practical wisdom, especially how to rule states and command armies. Eloquence would teach political leaders communication skills: how to persuade their followers to do what was right. It was the trumpet of virtue, and you could not be a political leader without being a both good man and skilled in speaking, Quintilian’s vir bonus dicendi peritus.

The key move that separated the new humanities from ancient liberal arts was the addition of moral philosophy to the curriculum. Seneca, Epictetus and other ancient philosophers had criticized literary education in antiquity for excessive concern with trivial philological questions. Grammatica, mere philology, lacked the power to transform lives. Only philosophy had that power. The liberal arts as reconfigured by Christian authorities in late antiquity also omitted philosophy, no doubt because it had the potential to challenge the transformative power of Christian revelation. The early humanists, however, held that moral philosophy, especially the moral philosophy of the Greeks, was key to the effectiveness of their new program in moral education, or character education as it might be called today.

The study of humanity was carefully delimited in ways that are important for my argument about Renaissance humanism’s contemporary relevance. The humanists constructed their curriculum in the cultural space between the professional education offered by the universities and the religious education offered by the Church and its mendicant orders. However anti-clerical they could be at times, the humanists as a rule were careful not to challenge the primacy of the Christian religion in the spiritual realm. It was of incalculable importance to the success of the movement that Petrarch was able to convince his contemporaries that the study of pagan authors did not represent a threat to Christian faith, as had often been charged in the past. Indeed, it could even serve as kind of preparation for the gospel, a training in virtue and wisdom that might open hearts to true piety.

In this life, humane studies offered a way to reform and ennoble individuals, states, and societies. Petrarch distinguished between what belongs to our time and is oriented to the temporary ends of this life—the secular—and what belongs to the realm of eternity, where immortal human souls are destined either for hell and punishment or heaven and the enjoyment of God. Understood in this sense, there was no need for conflict, at least on the face of it, between humane studies and Christianity. The studia humanitatis had to do with the edification of human beings in this life and the reform of human states and societies. It was what Grotius and Lipsius later called a civil prudence, bedrock public values common to all societies, even those otherwise divided by warring religious dogmas. The humanists’ civil prudence had nothing directly to do with the salvation of souls. The next life could be left in the care of priests, and ultimate questions could be bracketed for treatment by theologians.

Humanistic soulcraft was also studiously non-partisan. It was not an ideological product of any one regime type and was compatible with all. The politics it advocated was what I call Virtue Politics. This was a kind of politics inspired by Plato and Aristotle’s shared belief that the test of a good statesman and a good polity was whether it produced a virtuous citizenry. Humanists claimed that only those governments were legitimate that were led by men of virtue and practical wisdom who cared for the common good. It did not much matter whether the regime was led by one, few, or many, or a mixture of all three. What truly mattered was the virtue of their rulers and citizens.

Humanistic education in the Renaissance was also intentionally non-partisan, supra partes, because the pursuit of political power, ambitio, represented a danger to character. Partisanship was an ugly thing and diminished you as person. It was for his partisanship that Petrarch denounced Cicero in his famous letter addressed to the ancient orator. It was for partisanship that Boccaccio blamed Dante in his otherwise admiring life of the great poet. As professional rhetoricians, humanists might sometimes be called upon to praise their prince or their republic’s form of government, but they ordinarily did so in non-exclusive ways. They did not claim, as modern theorists often do, that only one kind of regime is legitimate and all others illegitimate.

Thus in its aspect as a political reform movement humanists asked the question, “What sort of people do we want to govern us?” Their answer was similar to that of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoic, and mutatis mutandis of the Confucian schools of imperial China: We want people to govern us who display moral excellence and have prudentia (phronesis), practical wisdom, and are thus able to make good decisions for their communities. These virtues are not innate but acquired through study.

And herein lies the greatest difference between the humanists and the ancient philosophers. Moral excellence and practical wisdom are not acquired by following the teachings of any philosophical school—a strategy foreclosed by the position of Christianity in Renaissance society—but by literary study of the humanities, which included moral philosophy in its curriculum. It also included eloquence, the skill of creating consensus in societies divided by interests and warring passions. Study of the humanities also had as its purpose affiliating those with zeal for humanity into a great tradition, a tradition laid down by the ancients and cultivated by devoted souls over many centuries. That tradition inculcated the love of civilization and hatred of barbarism. This meant a deep preference for education, fine behavior, civil conversation, a common culture, and peace. It meant deep opposition to ignorance, moral corruption and selfishness, factionalism, cultural fragmentation, and violence. The humanities were more than a curriculum of studies: they taught a way of life.

It is only by pursuing this way of life, this “zeal for humanity” behind the studia humanitatis, that one fulfills all the potentialities of the human species. That is why, in the conception of Renaissance humanists, zeal for humanity is a source of true nobility—nobility based on virtue and not heredity. Humanity in this sense elevates one above the common herd. Whereas humanitas in the basic sense of care for others links all human beings together, humanitas in the widest sense permits those with zeal for humanity to distinguish themselves, become humaniores than other men and women. This outstanding merit justifies them in holding authority over others. The zeal for humanistic study provides an alternative route to nobility for those lacking nobility of birth.

It will sound to most modern ears that humanitas in the widest sense of an education meant to bring out our full human potential, intellectual and moral, is quite distinct from its narrower, basic sense of benevolence or good will towards others. But, crucially, for Renaissance humanists, as for the ancient literary-rhetorical tradition running from Isocrates to Quintilian, the two senses are tightly linked. What binds them together is the belief that certain forms of study—the study of languages, literature, history, eloquence, and above all philosophy—are tools inherited from our revered ancestors that enable us to improve ourselves and the quality of human beings generally. There is a cure for corruption and the downward moral spiral of human government and institutions. Humanity in this sense has a civic dimension, since humanists believed that reversing the downward spiral, improving the moral and intellectual quality of the social and political elite, would benefit the whole state and indeed the cosmopolis.

Most people today find it difficult to believe that study of the humanities could make you better morally. This is in part because of the way we privilege research over teaching in universities, and in part because we no longer stress, as the Renaissance did, that teachers of the humanities should be persons of high moral character. The Renaissance, however, believed fervently that the study of the humanities was deeply transformative, and would lead the student to virtue and give cities good leadership and good citizens. But how could literary and philosophical study, in practice, impart humanitas? How could “zeal for humanity” (another translation of studia humanitatis) transform and enlarge our moral sentiments?

Humanist literati believed that young men and women who read good literature (bonae litterae), above all epic poetry and oratory, would see what nobility and virtue looked like in action. They would be motivated to imitate the finest behavior when they saw it forever celebrated in tradition and in memory; they would seek lasting glory for themselves. By imitating the ancients’ speech in their own compositions, they would absorb their values and outlook. The study of history would enlarge their moral vocabularies by showing them the variety of customs in the world. It would give them sympathy and imaginative understanding of other times and places, and it would school them in prudence by vastly extending their natural memories. They would be less inclined to fanaticism because they would better understand the inevitable fate of all human projects. Moral philosophy would challenge them to acquire virtue, and the self-awareness that comes from a serious effort to be good would make them less, not more censorious of others. The study of Plutarch or moral philosophy in the vein of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca would cultivate an awareness that one, oneself, might not be a perfect specimen of moral goodness, and this awareness might give one a certain reserve in criticizing others. The morally self-aware would understand uncomfortably well the point of Shakespeare’s line: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” The enlargement of human sympathy, the humanitas taught by the humanities, would extend to religion and piety as well, for the well-lettered person, even an outright atheist, could not fail but be aware of the part played by religion in the lives of the vast majority of mankind, the persons for whom he or she has a duty of care.

Humanities Today

This brings me to the final part of my essay: my thoughts about the reform of the humanities in modern times. It will not escape anyone’s notice how different modern humanism, and the modern study of the humanities, is from the way humanitas was conceived in the Renaissance and how it was translated into a program of education. And one has to grant, on the negative side, that the scope of the humanities in the Renaissance was intolerably narrow from the modern point of view, focused as it was on a relatively small core of classical texts. The pedagogic method of the Renaissance too was, undeniably, pedantic and laborious. It was rule-bound, heavily reliant on memorization, and led to a certain fragmentation in the student’s point of view. It encouraged a student to accumulate knowledge for concrete purposes and roles, but not to seek the integration of the self proposed by ancient philosophy. To modern eyes, Renaissance humanistic education lacked the kind of unified vision Leon Kass praised in the speech I mentioned above.

In particular the humanists did not embrace the Socratic project of self-knowledge, of gnothi seauton, formulating a philosophical conception of the good for oneself, the project that has been at the center of humanistic and Great Books education. There was a good reason for this in the Renaissance, namely the sovereign position claimed by Christianity in the formation of the self. What the humanistic education of the Renaissance did do in its finest expressions was to inspire students with a love of learning, moral excellence, refinement of manners, and unselfish service to the community. Perhaps these are more reasonable and attractive goals for today’s humanities than the Socratic ideal of self-realization and moral autonomy. They are certainly preferable, to my mind at least, to the goals of the humanities in modern universities, insofar as they exist at all: vague “enrichment,” provision of “critical skills” in a moral vacuum, or partisan indoctrination.

My thoughts about how to reform the humanities in a way that would restore the missing virtues of humanitas are far from being fully worked out, and my remarks here are meant more as a provocation than a detailed argument. I have two main recommendations, or observations. One is my belief that humanism took a wrong turn when it tried to turn itself into a religion of humanity in the nineteenth century, above all in the work of Auguste Comte. The religion of humanity has made itself into a comprehensive doctrine, in John Rawls’s sense: a set of specific and interconnected beliefs about nature, virtue, religion, the state, social norms, family life, and personal values. Rawls himself worried that such comprehensive beliefs threaten liberty and pluralism in modern societies and make it hard for those who do not share those comprehensive beliefs to accept public authority. In recent times this kind of humanism, merging with progressive politics, has become increasingly imperialistic and destructive. It is driven by an increasingly fanatical ideal of egalitarianism without possessing, in my opinion, any rich understanding of human character or prudent political judgment.

My great teacher at Columbia, Paul Oskar Kristeller, was concerned throughout his career to distinguish modern humanisms—humanisms that try to replace religion—from Renaissance humanism, which he understood as an educational program and a cycle of disciplines. He was surely right that it is an historical mistake to confuse the two humanisms. I have no intention of challenging that fundamental insight. My point is rather that the Renaissance conception of humanitas, a set of human qualities produced by the studia humanitatis, is still a valid one. Suitably adapted to modern conditions, it still can have positive moral effects in our world. The humanities as the Renaissance conceived them were compatible with the dominant religion of the time, Christianity, not a substitute for it. They offered a culture that was universal but not “comprehensive” in the Rawlsian sense. It was a culture that laid a foundation for common meanings, values, and purposes in civil life, but left the higher ends of human life, and the next life, to religion. To put this in Thomistic terms, the Renaissance educational program concerned itself primarily with the natural end of humanity, its temporal ends, while leaving the supernatural end to religion.

That is why I believe that the Renaissance conception of humanism is compatible with modern pluralistic societies that may include many religions and sects, as well as persons living a non-religious or secular life. A common humanistic culture offers resources for moral reflection at a high level, but not dogmas or sacred texts. Humanistic texts are not holy writ but authorities in the sense of respected voices in our tradition whose words deserve careful consideration. They provide a common orientation for social and political life, that is rooted in our cultural tradition inherited from the Greeks and the Romans, as well as from medieval and modern Western civilization. They exist at some remove from contemporary politics, which allows us to meditate on their teachings in a calmer spirit of detachment and discuss them without setting aboil our partisan passions.

This leads to the second recommendation in my proposal: hermeneutics. If our zeal for humanity is to lead to a positive change in our moral sentiments, we need to read the authors not merely as “texts,” but as writings that convey the voices of fellow human beings. We must hear them again as the voices of great poets, historians, and orators, identified by our tradition as unique transmitters of humanitas. We must be able to open ourselves to them, receive what they have to give us, convinced of their value for our lives.

But the hermeneutical practices of our day can stand in the way of hearing the ancient voices. One problem is what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” the tendency of politicized interpreters of texts to “see through” the authors and expose their “real” (meaning their least noble) intentions. Our hyper-sophistication as critics leads us to assume that everything the authors say cannot be taken at face value. Our status within the academy as critics depends on our ability to wrest unintended meanings from a text. The way we often read authors today tends to reduce them to their socio-economic positioning, or use them to prove non-intentional, often pseudo-scientific theories. Their works are interpreted as language games or rhetorical strategies, whose intent, whether conscious or unconscious, by definition must be otherwise than, or even opposite to, the meaning they were explicitly trying to convey. Many modern schools of hermeneutics even deny the possibility of understanding or conveying the intentionality of authors.

This must change if the young are ever to be moved again by the eloquence of our authors. This is why the kind of reading promoted in Great Books courses is still vital today. It is the kind of reading that takes seriously the wisdom that the old authors have to give us, the kind of reading that attunes us to the beauty of ideals, beautifully and memorably expressed. It is the kind of reading that nurtures our humanity. It is only by exercising our own humanitas as readers, practicing a hermeneutics of humility and charity, that we can hope to find in our authors the authentic moral wisdom our world so desperately needs.

This essay is adapted from an address to a faculty colloquium held by the Morningside Institute, “The Great Books at 100,” in honor of the centennial of Columbia University’s course “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West.”