We communicate more today than at any time in history. Social media platforms, online fora, video chats, conference calls, and text messaging promise us unprecedented connection. And yet we’re growing more isolated. Technological progress has diminished the tangible—just when we need it most. To know what it means to live right and love well requires face-to-face contact. It requires human collision. The Russians have a saying: “Truth is born of discussion.” This means that the truths of life are discoverable through our searching with one another.
This searching is best accomplished through our common pursuit of the humanistic disciplines. Liberal Arts. The classics. Literature. The great books. Wisdom of the ages. (There are many names for it.) These disciplines are the repository of our common aspirations and a call to something higher. We strengthen communities through the practice of public humanities. This works in three ways, outlined below.
Aristotle said it first: The humanities foster community and dialogue. By nature, the philosopher declared, human beings are social animals who desire to know. These two characteristics reinforce each other. Understanding is both rational and relational.
But what keeps us social animals together in practice? Is it religion, shared values, a common story, collective memory, mutual obligation? All these are crucial. But the quest for knowledge, inspiration, and discovery likewise brings people together. Folks talking with folks. This proximate interaction between souls is the glue of society.
Friendship can deepen across our differences when we search together for the good, the true, and the beautiful. As Martha Nussbaum has written, “Democracy needs to learn from, and practice, philosophical dialogue, a way of conversing—and differing—about important issues that substitutes respect for arrogance, and patient probing for overconfident boasting.”
Second, the humanities provide a meeting ground for secular and religious people. Neither politics, nor business, nor religion, nor sports, nor the academy quite does this. All those pursuits either guard their territory too closely or claim no territory at all. But the humanities offer a broad spectrum of ideas, from which anyone may partake. The humanities are not meant to be totalistic or relativistic, not meant to have the certainty of religion or the transience of culture. But they provide tools for people to complement their worldviews and bolster their value systems. The proper metaphor for the humanities is not a church, but a banquet available to anyone who is hungry. The fruit of the humanities nourishes and enriches all our other pursuits.
I’ve participated in seminars on the works of Maimonides, Dante, Rumi, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, and more—all imbued with religious ideas. And seldom did my interlocutors, who spanned the spectrum of religiosity, put up barriers between the religious and the secular. Rather, we engaged the texts on their own terms, without regard to our metaphysical camps. The humanities gave us a common language and frame of reference for discussing the import of ethics, morality, and rights. In de-conflicting the religious and the secular, the humanities serve as one of the few common tables at which our society may sit down and explore the questions that are above us and below us.
Third, the humanities hedge against the certainties of ideology. Thomas Aquinas might have been addressing the ideological strictness of our own day when he wrote: “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.” Ideology—whether right or left, political or philosophical—is powerful because it harnesses simple truths in the service of complex tasks. But the “slender” knowledge deriving from the exploratory mode of the liberal arts can blunt the dogmas of tribal identities and partisan competition.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that poets—not politicians—“are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” A poetic sensibility is both flower and soil of civic engagement. The heart is the real arena of society. Immersing ourselves in the humanities expands the quality of our feeling and enriches our capacity for sympathy. The world then comes to look less certain, but more beautiful; less neat, but friendlier. The accumulating wisdom of humanity gives us tools to bond with people outside our ideological cliques.
Dialogue requires a third party, some insight that breaks the back-and-forth gridlock. Social trust is gained when parties stop looking only at themselves and each other and focus instead on something beyond them. Through the inspiration and profundity of human thought, we can see ourselves and our imagined adversaries more clearly. When people believe they can bring the complexity of their internal lives to a fuller, more nuanced hearing, community then becomes possible.
Nathan Nielson is founder of Books & Bridges, a community institute of ideas and conversations.