“Nor can I do better, in conclusion, than impress upon you the study of Greek literature, which not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument.”
Few clearer proofs of the instrumentalization of knowledge can be given than the question, routinely posed to all students of the liberal arts, “What are you going to do with that?” This reification of knowledge as a discrete entity (a ‘skill set’) represents a fundamental error in the conception of knowledge on the part of those who see its primary value as an instrument.
Since the revival of learning (i.e. the Renaissance), the study of antiquity has never been practical in the sense of yielding concrete and tangible products in the world, yet it did nevertheless confer immense practical advantages on those who had studied it. From the Renaissance through at least the end of the 19th century, classical learning was the key to both civil and ecclesiastical preferment. Amidst the debates about the purpose and accessibility of classics today, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the regression away from an open and democratized classics is in effect simply a return to the discipline’s status quo – a return to classics reserved for the elite as a ticket to social advancement.
For many people, majoring in classics or any of the humanities at less than maximally prestigious schools is not an indulgence in idle caprice, but a seizure at what may be their only opportunity to truly study these subjects before being broken upon the wheel of relentless employment. Some students may be fortunate enough to attend public or private schools which offer instruction in Latin. But often, the halls of the university are the first and only place in which young students have the opportunity to study such recondite subjects. Formal university study thus serves a much more practical purpose than its detractors would concede by providing the basic civic and human education for people who are never able to acquire it earlier in life. Paradoxically, the study of the humanities becomes more practical and, indeed, more necessary as opportunities to explore them are more severely curtailed in elementary and secondary schools. In an age when students could be expected to have received a thoroughgoing humanistic education, the study of antiquity at university may have indeed been little more than the rarefaction and refinement of one’s literary and aesthetic sensibilities. Rich elites with access to educational opportunity may feel that the humanities are an idle indulgence because they are now (or still?) the only ones allowed to enjoy them from an early age. Consequently, humanistic study will continue to become more practical in the way that it has always been ‘practical’ – as a social marker granted to and recognized by an elite class, which paves the golden avenue to social and economic advancement. Benjamin Rush and Thomas Paine both campaigned actively against the primacy of classical language instruction:
The study of the Latin and Greek languages is improper in the present state of society and government in United States. While Greek and Latin are the only avenues to science, education will always be confined to a few people. It is only by rendering knowledge universal, that a republican form of government can be preserved in our country. [Benjamin Rush, Essays Moral, Literary, and Political]
No more Latin should be learned in these schools than is necessary to translate that language into English, and no more Greek than is necessary to read the Greek Testament. One half or two-thirds of the time now misspent in learning more of those two languages should be employed in learning Hebrew and in studying Jewish antiquities. Eastern customs. Eastern geography, ecclesiastical and natural history, and astronomy, all of which are calculated to discover the meaning and establish the truth of many parts of the Scriptures. No one of the Latin nor Greek poets nor historians should be read in these schools, by which means a pious ignorance will be preserved of the crimes of heathen gods and men related not only without censure but often with praise. [Benjamin Rush, Letter to Ashbel Green May 22, 1807]
The study, therefore, of the Greek language (and in the same manner for the Latin) was no other than the drudgery business of a linguist; and the language thus obtained, was no other than the means, as it were the tools, employed to obtain the learning the Greeks had. It made no part of the learning itself, and was so distinct from it, as to make it exceedingly probable that the persons who had studied Greek sufficiently to translate those works, such, for instance, as Euclid’s Elements, did not understand any of the learning the works contained. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
The peculiarity of Benjamin Rush’s crusade against the classics is that it demonstrated just how useful they were in colonial American society – not, indeed, in the sense of producing anything, but as a mode of communication and exchange, a common intellectual currency. Rush himself could inveigh against the classics because he had at least been granted sufficient education in them. His engineered assault on the classics is a testament to their strength in his day. In our own time, the development of more narrowly technical education has rendered the classics (and the humanities more generally) obsolete as anything but markers of class and wealth (or, for those of us outside the privileged echelons, as markers of foolhardy impracticality). Yet, we have lost something valuable in that common intellectual and cultural currency, and it is not clear that it will ever be replaced as culture becomes increasingly fragmented and ephemeral. The dominant technical and scientific modes of discourse have given birth to this exaggerated ephemerality, but the increasing speed with which cultural products gain currency and lose relevance also poses a significant question about who (i.e. what demographic) ought to be the arbiter of that relevance. I once had a friend who dismissed everything written or produced before the 20th century as irrelevant. Yet, for many of my students, the period of one day is enough to make something feel played-out, hackneyed, and irrelevant. (A meme which is widely circulated in the morning may be dead and overdone by the evening.)
The educational project of Rush and Paine has largely been achieved through the organic process of classics becoming apparently irrelevant to modern life. Yet, this demotion of classics from its primacy in education has increased what Rush and Paine saw as the most pernicious aspect of classical study – its tendency, as an ‘irrelevant’ study, to create a class distinction between those with sufficient wealth and leisure to study dead languages and those who must ply themselves to some more apparently practical study. The liberal arts have once again reclaimed and justified their designation, but only at the expense of much of society submitting to the servitude of purely commercial interest.
The humanities as formalized university study are undoubtedly in peril, but the reasons for and nature of this peril are matters of contention. Where Jordan Peterson might see the humanities as threatened by Theory, a more data-driven analyst might note that English departments thrived under the early heady days of Theory in the second half of the 20th century, when lecture halls were packed by students enjoying a new and exciting mode of engaging with old texts. Reactionaries have long been attracted to the idea that the collapse of the humanities can be attributed to one or two pernicious intellectual trends, but this gross oversimplification masquerading as dispassionate analysis is in itself just the promotion of a particular conservative theoretical framework for understanding humanistic disciplines. Yet another faction attempts to circumvent the political altogether by arguing that the humanities are peculiarly ennobling and thus ought to be studied for their own sake. But this argument is both untenable and wholly ahistorical, resting on rhetoric which has never gone out of fashion since antiquity.
At some point in the ancient world, literature was just literature. In the centuries following Homer, however, literature began to reflect back upon itself in a self-conscious and meaningful way, which may be seen as the seminal form of scholarship as we know it today. By the time of Plato, at least, it is clear that many thinkers were engaged in what we would recognize as humanistic and literary study: poetry is cited and analyzed for linguistic content, its bearing on history and morality, and even its relation to other literary exempla. Plato’s dialogues, taken as cultural records, suggest that these were pleasant and salutary pastimes for the leisured class as well as a way to achieve some measure of practical success in the world. The Sophists with whom Socrates speaks do not study literature for its own sake. Rather, poetry it studied for the utilitarian purpose of moral improvement or the weaponized use to which it may be put in disputation. Even Plato himself views literature as something instrumental or utilitarian, a part of a broader educational program designed to form the complete human.
The Greeks were keen on rhetoric, and their literary studies were often made to serve that enthusiasm, but the Romans went a step farther in institutionalizing rhetoric as the primary branch of education. Though it seems strange to modern sensibilities, a well-educated Roman would have received years of rhetorical training as the basis and aim of education, and may have finished off the larger project with ‘ornamental’ studies like astronomy, mathematics, and others science such as it then was. Literary study was an important part of their program, but not because it was the window to the human soul – rather, a knowledge of the best literature was meant to carry one’s point in debate in addition to forming the character through moral exempla – creating the ideal vir bonus dicendi peritus.
The educational institution of the trivium and quadrivium formalized by Martianus Capella gives primacy to what are thought of as the humanities, but this is an inheritance of the Greco-Roman traditions which made these subjects out to be supremely practical modes for political and personal advancement.
Despite their primacy in the trivium, the humanities experienced some decline during the Middle Ages due to the ambivalence toward pagan authors manifested by Christians such as Augustine, Jerome, and Tertullian. Consider Jerome’s nightmare of being denied access to heaven on the basis of his fondness for Cicero. Augustine laments that in spending so much time reading about Dido’s tears, he was ‘fornicating away from God.’ A certain amount of this ambivalence was retained by Christians of later centuries, but many continued studying pagan authors for two reasons: knowledge of pagan literature could be weaponized to counter the arguments of the irreligious, and the language of pagan authors could serve to improve the eloquence of the Christian message.
Petrarch is given credit for inaugurating the Renaissance not only because of his manuscript hunting, but because we sense in him a genuine enthusiast who was enamoured with antiquity for its own sake. Yet, for all of Petrarch’s ardent enthusiasm, the humanities as reconceived by him were not aimed at studying literature ‘for its own sake’. For Petrarch, Leonaro Bruni, Coluccio Salutati, and others, the study of literature and history may have been pleasing in and of itself, but underlying their progress was the support of money and political interest. Few of the important humanists of the Renaissance did their work independent of temporal power – indeed, they began to revive the old Ciceronian ideal of the active scholar/politician.
Of all historical periods, the Renaissance contributed most to our own sense of the humanities as a distinct arena of study, as well as to the conception of the study of literature as singularly ennobling or worthwhile for its own sake, yet it was also a period during which the study of literature was instrumentalized in an exceptionally striking degree, both for the attainment of tangible political ends as well as being the object of conspicuous consumption and lavish display on the part of wealthy and powerful patrons. In his essay in the Cambridge Companion to the Renaissance, James Hankins notes that much of the intellectual energy of 14th and 15th century humanism was channeled into the broad project of reforming and improving humanity because “Politically, the Renaissance was an age of tyrants and oligarchs, rulers with often questionable titles to legitimacy.” As such, attempts at reforming political systems, or even political theory itself, were of limited value in such an entrenched political climate. The only hope for governmental improvement lay in cultivating the character of the tyrants and oligarchs internally. This represents a revival of the old Platonic ideal of the philosopher king, and accounts for the apparent upswing in rapturous encomia on the study of polite letters. The entire humanist project could, through harnessing the moral-exemplar mode of education borrowed directly from antiquity and combining it with a renewed emphasis on cultivating politesse – especially in the form of refined Latin expression – serve the aim of bringing about a more peaceful, just, and refined society. Who could doubt the value of literary and historical study at a time when it promised the surest route to the improvement of civilization itself?
Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, wrote in his educational treatise de Liberorum Educatione: “The study of literature offers a great aid to attaining virtue, and this befits no one more than a king. […] Once learning was abandoned, all virtues fell into decay, because the strength of the military and the imperial office was weakened as though cut at the root.” Piccolomini outlines here the importance of learning and study as a prop to virtue, which is seen as the foundation of political strength and viability. He does not see the decline of ancient Rome’s political fortunes as originating from economic or military problems. Rather, the relative prosperity of the early empire is attributed to the learning of the early emperors, and all later social and military setbacks coincided with the decline in learning among the rulers. He then adds that all who attain temporal power “should strive with the utmost effort that they perform their public duties and engage in philosophy.” In his educational treatise On Studies and Letters, Leonardo Bruni makes effectively the same point about the conjunction of humanist study and action when he speaks of “a real liberal understanding, which joins experience in literature with knowledge of the world.”
This conception of humanistic study as practical training survived the Renaissance and continued unabated into the 18th century, where we read John Adams advising his son John Quincy to ply himself to his classical learning: ‘In company with Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus, and Livy, you will learn wisdom and virtue. […] You will remember that the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.” Among the Founders, there were few of what we might consider pure intellectuals. Though in their own provincial way they were possessed of a certain erudition, they were for the most part hard-headed utilitarians who in literary study appear as Philistines when set against their contemporaries in Europe.
John Marshall claimed that Cicero’s de Officiis was “a salutary discourse on the duties and qualities proper to a republican gentlemen.” There were, however, cracks forming in the traditional system. Benjamin Rush was initially a supporter of the old classical language curriculum, but in 1789 he began to campaign against the study of the ancient languages, arguing that “the human understanding was fettered by prejudice in favor of the Latin and Greek languages.” Yet it is important to note that Rush’s crusade was not meant to displace the humanities from the educational curriculum. It was, rather, supposed to make the study of the humanities more efficient by freeing time for learning modern languages and helping to eliminate class distinctions which were fostered by the classical education system. Even for the study of religion, Rush argued that time would be more profitably employed in the study of eastern languages and history. Rush was a man of applied science and made the most forceful and revolutionary attacks on the traditional humanist-fostered mode of education in early America, but importantly, he did not intend to jettison what we would think of as “the humanities” more generally – all of these were still seen to have practical value in forming the character and contributing to civic prosperity.
As classical language study declined in the mid to late 19th century America, a new set of “humanities” not requiring Latin and Greek began to emerge as electives were first offered on campuses and the concept of a college “major” was created. Early American reformers like Franklin and Rush would no doubt have been well pleased by the development of university courses in history, art, philosophy, and literature which did not require years of preliminary grammar grinding in dead languages as a prerequisite. Yet, in our contemporary culture, the study of these subjects is commonly considered just as frivolous as the ancient languages which preceded them. During this period of curricular expansion in the 19th century, there was simultaneously a shift away from the utilitarian justification rhetoric employed so often in the early days of the republic, toward a new conception of the study of literature as a mode of spiritual self-improvement.
Notwithstanding the shifts in the rhetoric used to advocate for their study, the reasons for pursuing the humanities have not actually changed over the millennia. Rather, our conception of what constitutes utility itself has changed. Where once it was possible to see the formation of mind and character – the creation of a complete and responsible citizen – as supremely useful, our society has begun to opt for a more narrowly mechanistic and industrial definition of utility. It would be easy to ascribe this to something depraved in the character of our times or the rapid and astonishing success of physical science in the past two centuries, but the shift in thought about utility and education did not occur accidentally. The managerial mindset which took over in the administration of both higher education and grade school in this country can be traced back to a readily understood urge within the capitalist framework: the urge to make money. It has long been supposed that America has no class system because social distinction is not strictly inherited. But I remember being told from the earliest stage of my education that the primary benefit of education was to ensure that you did not end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s. The elimination of mandatory classical language study can hardly be said to have democratized education if the only actual effect was to imbue children with the belief that certain ways of life (such as burger flipping) constitute personal failure, and that the chief value of education lies in helping the student to avoid relegation to an undesirable socioeconomic class.
In this way, the actual structure and purpose of education (and higher education in particular) has not changed through the ages. It is meant to serve as an entry point to higher classes and privilege, though now it is devoid of the antiquarian and mystical self-improvement baggage. Who orchestrated this shift in subject matter? Corporate executives. Where the university previously served as the training ground for clerics, ministers, and civil servants angling for a sinecure, it is now a glorified vocational school designed to generate a class of new technologists who will both produce and consume a supply of even more rapidly obsolescent gizmos. One need only look at the emphasis of outreach for STEM education to see the way in which business leaders have convinced the university to prostitute itself for material gain. When students are encouraged to pursue STEM, the goal is not to increase enrollment in classical biology, paleontology, or pure mathematics. The hope, rather, is to maximize the supply of engineers and technicians, understanding that a glut on the market of technical wizards will reduce their cost. The university was intended to be largely immune to this type of pressure, but the ominous shadow of the ‘business community’ has long been cast over the groves of Academus, and – as though business did not already have the loudest voice in this country – administrators hasten to peddle the propaganda of technical education as a way of advocating for the interests of CEOs.
I do not mean to deny that technical education has its import, and I hope that it is clear that I am not arguing for a wholly anti-utilitarian pursuit of the humanities. For more than two millennia, what may be termed “humanistic study” has been deemed eminently useful. But as our knowledge of the world has expanded and the pace of commercial culture has outstripped all else, we have adopted a radically restricted notion of utility – one that cannot see anything useful in the intangible, the immaterial, the human.
Dismissal of the humanities as useless reflects, however, a kind of cognitive dissonance, because the humanities still loom large in contemporary culture. In recent years, classical antiquity has been the focus of an intense proxy battle in the culture wars. The far right and various reactionary monsters see it as a justification for racism and misogyny, while others see the potential for revolutionary improvement in the study of antiquity. The revolutionary power of the Classics was noted by Hobbes: “Hobbes calumniated the Classicks, because they filled young Mens heads with Ideas of Liberty, and excited them to rebellion against Leviathan.” [John Adams to Benjamin Rush, October 13 1810]
For all of the hostility directed against the humanities in popular discourse, people take ancient history and narrative seriously, and regularly employ it to justify systems and actions today. When Trump stole the election, we were assured by the media of Steve Bannon’s intellectual seriousness on the basis of his reading Thucydides. One may detect in the puffery of Steve Bannon’s reading a hearkening back to the time when classical attainment automatically conveyed a kind of social distinction. As access to opportunity to engage in classical reading becomes more restricted, its power to serve as a marker of social and intellectual distinction is increased. Classics, and the humanities more generally, are no less useful than they have ever been. Today’s harnessing of classical antiquity for social ends does not differ materially from the Colonial American habit of employing classical pen names, or the Renaissance compilation of commonplace books to weaponize ancient authority, or the support of Christian messages by repurposing pagan learning. Rather, our conception of utility has changed, and has prepared us for a new age of pure mechanization and exaggerated class distinction. Much is made of the appropriation of classics for evil ends, but this is not unique to our discipline. Any study can be productive of evil when profit is its primary aim.