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The War and the Humanities

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

Supreme in man’s felicity

Is Wisdom; and the wise in awe Bow them beneath God’s ancient law. Vain-glorious lips and vanity In heavy stripes their payment earn, And men grow old before they learn.

—sophocles, the “Antigone”

THERE must have been a good many professors of the humanities who, in the days immediately following the Japanese attack in the Pacific, faced their classes in American colleges with a terrifying sense of futility. Some of us, certainly, had begun long since to wonder how our teaching of literature could have any meaningful significance for young men and women who would shortly try their fortunes in a world dominated by the fear of barbaric aggression or the frantic attempt to defend against it. Our courses had already become a kind of aesthetic opiate, to be elected in the spare moments of an already overcrowded plan of study, by students largely bent upon the study of such “practical” things as political economy or business administration. And this despite all our efforts to disguise the study of humane letters as a science in which the great techniques of classification and induction might be mastered as well as in history or the sciences proper. We had been warned more than forty years ago, by such lonely spirits as Irving Babbitt, that we were doomed to gradual extinction if we continued to try to adjust the study of the humanities to the demands of commerce and science, that our only hope was a constant and vigorous insistence that the world’s need for character, for moral responsibility and high standards of conduct, had not diminished and that this was the appropriate concern of literature and the arts. But we were content to scoff at such pessimistic sermonizing; and we were slowly engulfed. We have now to face the issue whether we like it or not.

According to Plato, the affairs of men are not important, but it is necessary to pretend that they are. The truth of the observation must be clear in these days to more people than ever before. The second clause of the admonition, indeed, has always been accepted with enthusiasm; we have not lacked pretense. But we have wholly neglected the implications of the first clause. The principal error of our time (if one wishes to invoke a religious context the proper word is “sin”) has been a growing arrogance. We have tried to counterbalance what Henry Adams called “the two thousand years failure of Christianity” by a heavy reliance upon the method of science, upon the usefulness of such disciplines as political economy, upon the values of keeping busy, and more recently, upon the detailed analysis of language and discourse. And our arrogance has now brought about our downfall. The professors of the humanities are no less overwhelmed than the statesmen, the business men, or the professors of the social and natural sciences.

Indeed, the burden of responsibility is heavier upon us than upon our colleagues. And justly so. It is not our place now to attack the social scientists. Their nearly irretrievable error has been too great confidence in the therapeutic value of their proper study: the discovery, analysis, and exposition of the laws by which society moves. That they have, despite terrible signs that they were mistaken, encouraged young men and women to think of graduation from college as entrance into “the business world,” and so encouraged them to develop an orientation towards an ephemeral past rather than an abiding continuity; that they have done these things is a considerable part of the great failure of higher education both here and abroad. But they were responding to the encouragement of the world; and they remained largely within their appropriate domain.

The natural scientists have had, over the years, even more irresistible temptation. They have been tempted, often far beyond their own claims, to believe that the great problem of humane living could be solved by steady progress in the field of knowledge appropriate to them: the discovery, analysis, and exposition of the laws by which nature moves. When the struggle for mastery over the impulses of the human spirit was given up, it was logical enough that men should try to compensate for their failure by achieving mastery over nature. The natural scientists could, and for the most part did, remain within their proper domain in the pursuit of this high purpose.

But the arrogance of the professors of the humanities was of a different sort. We have valiantly believed that we could construct a new discipline, a science of literature, which would replace the older discipline of critical understanding. We have sometimes admitted that we were bored with the tradition of humane learning; and some of us, especially some professors of American literature, have frankly said that so many works of literature are simply uninteresting that it is necessary to establish a new method of “investigation” in order that the study of letters be not entirely lost. The arrogance involved here is of a twofold nature. It must mean that we no longer feel the need of what the great books of the world have to teach us, and that we have such an “excess of the subsidized self-assurance typical of English professors” (as Time Magazine puts it) that we do not doubt our ability to replace critical study of them to advantage. From another point of view, one might venture to suggest that there is a certain arrogance implicit in the whole business of dismissing as dull or uninteresting books which countless persons in other times have found enormously valuable. In any case, we have acted upon our assumptions and contributed solidly to the universal catastrophe.

For more than two generations now the professors of the humanities have laboriously worked out scientific methods for the study of literary history, linguistic history, musicol-ogy, or the history of the arts. Having lost interest in our proper domain we have encroached upon other fields and assimilated to our own the special arrogances to be found in them. We have accepted without reservation the postulate that human and social salvation is to be found through the methods of science. And we have set up our courses of study accordingly. Thus we present “King Lear” to our students in terms of its sources, analogues, dates of composition and production, and its relation to the biography of its author. We have made exhaustive studies of the anthropological mysteries which lie behind Sophocles’s “Oedipus Tyrannus,” and we have painstakingly analyzed it from a linguistic point of view; and so to our students it becomes a document in primitive religion or a case study in Greek linguistics (though of course most of them will know it only in translation) . It is one of the minor mysteries of higher education that the professors of foreign languages have been able to maintain their pride intact in the face of their reduction to the status of academic serf. In that field we have been content to accept the view that our work is to be confined to the development of “tools” with which young men and women may more effectively pursue their important studies. We no longer expect students to elect our advanced courses in Racine and Moliere, or Goethe, or Dante. We satisfy ourselves that the languages we teach will help to oil the wheels of business or government, or, at the best, meet the requirements of the graduate professional schools. The students who do continue their studies in foreign languages beyond an elementary level are treated to the same sort of scientific discipline that we offer in English or American literature. Somehow it has either escaped our attention, or seemed to us inconsequential in the context of our modern world, that nowhere in the history of mankind is the terrible and inevitable downfall of overweening human arrogance so clearly and so movingly set forth as in the very books we teach: “Oedipus,” “Lear,” or “Faust.”

And so, mingled with our sense of futility, there must have come to many of us in these recent days the dreadful realization that we have all the while been reading and studying and teaching prophecies of our own doom. It was later than we thought. Our excuse may be that we did not think of ourselves as heroes, and so did not see the point. But heroic or not, we have not escaped the tragic catastrophe. We can no longer pretend to deserve attention in the name of our science of literature, when both the natural and social sciences are themselves called to account. There is not time now to prepare elaborate apologies for our folly. We have lost the past; the point now is to win the future.


Only a very foolish man would undertake to describe the kind of world that will emerge from the universal war now raging. No doubt our social scientists are already at work gathering, examining, and classifying data from which to induce new laws for the prediction of the inevitable future. But this time the world is not likely to listen so uncritically; and perhaps they will proceed with greater caution. It may be that the natural scientists will now discover more violent anti-toxins for the violent toxins now at loose in the world, and that war will be reduced to an impractical means of solving the human problem. According to Archbishop William Temple and many other men of culture and insight, the world will have to return to the central tenets of the Christian faith and to reconstruct itself in terms of the teachings of Christ. But whatever solutions we may reach, whether we try to organize a socialist democracy, or return to an agrarian or distributist society, or once more undertake to build a world upon the principles of free business enterprise, our solutions will have to be reached and put into practice by men who act in freedom under the discipline of reason. We shall have to take our bearings from the central facts of human nature. We shall have, this is to say, to re-study and to re-learn the great imaginative writings of the race. It is just here that the professors of the humanities may seek absolution for their sins. We may account ourselves fortunate that we shall have another chance.

And it will be a real chance. The failure of the sciences to provide a substitute for character cannot be concealed in such times as these. Indeed, in all fairness it must be granted that most scientists never supposed that they were engaged upon so impossible an undertaking. Their solid achievement in the collection of verified fact remains an invaluable foundation upon which men of character and vision may build. As the need for humane discipline becomes more and more painfully apparent, both in the prosecution of a long war and in the reconstruction of a new world, there will be a reaction among undergraduate students away from the sciences and towards the humanities. The students will come to us. What matters is what we do with them.

We shall have, in large measure, to discard the paraphernalia of literary science. Our need now is not for quiet investigations of the minutiae of sixteenth century bibliography or the stemmae of medieval manuscripts. From the vantage point of the present moment it is hard to see how such studies could ever have pretended to significance as scientific ends in themselves; yet the members of a great society of scholars are still favored at their annual convention with reports upon the current condition of the comma. It is no longer possible, in the name of sanity, to offer such things to our students in place of the serious study of the great books of the world. According to “Ecclesiastes” there is “a time for war and a time for peace.” Fortunately there is also a time to learn.

Eventually there will have to be a thorough overhauling of the curriculum of the American college. The humanities will have to be restored to their central position in education in order that education may become once more liberal. But such things come slowly at best, and meanwhile the professors of the humanities cannot sit idly by to watch the conflagration. We must take up our books once more, this time really to discover what is in them. We shall find that the terrible evils of our time are not new in the world, not any of them. We shall see again how men of lawlessness have unleashed them countless times before this, and how men of courage and discipline met and overcame them. And we shall see that the beginning of such conquest has always been in the individual human spirit. We shall find that the great lesson which men of genius have put into their imaginative constructions of the human situation has always been the lesson of humility. And all these things we must unashamedly put before our students. Some of them will be stirred by these things as they never were by our pompous literary science. And some of them will carry what they learn into the building of the new world.

The President of the United States was not ashamed to say, in an address some years ago, that he had “sat at the feet of a great teacher,” Josiah Royce. So much the less ought we to hesitate to ask our students to learn from a great book, which, according to Milton, “is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalmed and treasured up on purpose to a Life beyond Life.” The humanities in themselves are not enough to solve the problems we now face; it would be only a greater arrogance to make such a claim. They do not solve problems; rather they exemplify and illustrate. They contain the stored-up experience of mankind, and they indicate a path of wisdom. It may be an inadequate wisdom. But, beyond dogmatic and revealed religion, there is no other.


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