Humanities, Freedom and Education

Inaugural Lecture

byJohn Bremer

Elizabeth J. McCormack Professor of Humanities

Copyright © 2006 John Bremer

This is an expanded version of the Inaugural Lecture given by John Bremer upon his appointment as Elizabeth J. McCormack Professor in the Humanities, Cambridge College, on Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


§ 1.      The subject matter of the Humanities                                      page 4

§ 2.      An example from Literature                                                    8

§ 3.      An example from History                                                       11

§ 4.      An example from Philosophy                                                 15

§ 5.      An example from Science                                                        19

§ 6.      Conclusion                                                                              24

§1.  The subject matter of the Humanities

In 1756, when Edward Gibbon presented the second volume of his classic A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to his patron, that nincompoop Duke, whose title I choose to forget, said:

Another damned thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh! Mr. Gibbon

These days scholars are not usually dependent upon individual patrons but are supported by institutions. The institutions themselves are, of course, partially supported by generous donors, by patrons, who usually designate the general area of scholarship they wish to support and leave it to the institution to carry out their wishes in a responsible manner.

The scholarly institutions—colleges and universities—monitor the use of donated funds, so that discriminating donors are assured that their gifts are used as they intended, and so that the individual scholar is protected from undue interference or personal humiliation by accusations of scribbling.

The role of the institution is critical and this fact brings us back to Gibbon’s great work, for its main theme, it seems to me, is that institutions, human organizations founded with a mission or purpose, are always in danger of allowing  that mission to be superseded by the demands of the organization. Unless strict safeguards are taken, the original mission is gradually eroded, overlaid with procedures, protocols, and forms of bureaucracy, and the institution becomes an end in itself. The purpose of the Roman Empire then becomes the maintenance and expansion of the Roman Empire. This ensures a twofold ‘decline and fall’ or  failure—first, a failure to maintain the original ideal mission and, second, the collapse of the corrupt institution because it over-reaches itself and can no longer command the loyalty of its members as the ideal mission did. If the institution becomes ‘self-serving,’ so do its members and they work for themselves.

A more radical view than Gibbon’s was, I believe, held by the ancient poet of Rome’s destiny. Virgil (70-19 B.C.E) composed his Aeneid during the last eleven years of his life but regarded it as unfinished and, on his deathbed, ordered that it be destroyed. By specific command of the Emperor, his order was not carried out and the Aeneid came to be regarded as Virgil’s masterpiece. Why did he order it destroyed?  Because it suggests that Rome had betrayed its mission (perhaps by ceasing to be a Republic and by becoming an Empire), and indeed, that the betrayal was embedded in the very foundation of Rome. The first Emperor, Augustus, would not have forgiven Virgil if that were the suspected interpretation—even after death, he would have incurred amicitiam renuntiare or the Emperor’s Displeasure, as Ovid did shortly thereafter.

It will be recalled that Aeneas goes to the underworld and receives from his father’s ghost the mission decreed for Rome:

Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento;/Hae tibi erunt artes: pacisque imponere morem,/Parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos. (VI. ll.851-3)

Roman, remember by your strength to rule/Earth’s peoples—for your arts are to be these:/To pacify, to impose the rule of law,/To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.

These are fine and memorable words, but when Aeneas leaves the underworld he departs through the Gate of Ivory, the portal of false dreams. That is the first hint of the failure, but the betrayal is made clear in the final scene of the whole poem. Aeneas, having beaten down and wounded his enemy Turnus, is enraged on seeing the sword-belt which Turnus had taken from Aeneas’ young friend and ally, Pallas, after he had killed him. Although Turnus asks for mercy, Aeneas, forgetful of the mission of Rome “to spare the conquered,” kills him in vengeful anger.

Presumably, Virgil saw that Rome was failing in its noble mission and drew attention to the fact by showing that even Aeneas had been guilty of a similar lapse in the very moment of foundation.

With a few shining exceptions, education—especially higher education—in the United States is in grave danger of falling prey to the fate of the Roman Empire. It is time for schools, colleges, and universities to set on one side the intricate and complex administrative and political structures they have made for themselves and to create anew the mission and function which is their peculiar contribution to our society, to humanity. The pressing need for such a renewal, such a reaffirmation of purpose, is exemplified by the current debate in higher education circles and elsewhere of the sheer utility of the Humanities. Of what use, or of what good are they? What place, if any, do they have in education?

It is the intent of this lecture to offer for consideration a view of the Humanities, or, if it is not too presumptuous, a philosophy of the Humanities, which might commend itself to educational institutions, to those who support the institutions—donors, taxpayers, and politicians—and to the young, to students.

A cursory examination of the offerings of colleges and universities reveals that, for the most part, the Humanities are not defined but are simply taken to include literature, history, and philosophy, with perhaps some other conventional subjects thrown in, presumably on the basis of an undefined local or accidental factor—such as the presence of a tenured faculty member or a tradition of including art or music or whatever. One will look in vain for any definition of the Humanities and is left wondering what literature, history, and philosophy have in common that they should all be categorized as “Humanities.”

It seems to me that what they have in common—but not exclusively so—is that they all originate in expressions of human freedom and that the true subject matter of the Humanities is precisely that, freedom, human freedom.

Now, freedom takes many forms—political freedom, social freedom, economic freedom, and so forth—but all forms of freedom depend on the idea of freedom itself, and the essence of human freedom is not doing whatever one likes but liking to do what is good and true, and then doing it. But what is good and true? That is what we need to learn, and to learn that is the true function of education in the Humanities.

The word “education,” however, is used in many different ways, the vast majority of which can be reduced, very simply, to being told or, to use a harsher word, to indoctrination. The knowledge needed by a printer or a plumber is already established and the student only needs to become acquainted with what is currently known. The same is true of classical Greek and contemporary Arabic, of celestial mechanics and auto mechanics, of counting and accounting.

If we regard all this as knowledge—which may be a doubtful usage, since it is inert—then it is stored in some way, so that it is available to society at large, and especially to the student. The storage is in terms of a system of signs (commonly ordinary language), but systems of signs—like institutions—have a habit of taking on a life of their own and there is the constant danger that the successful repetition of a formula will be mistaken for knowledge. We need to know the formula, but we also need to understand it, to know what it means.

To guard against enslavement to incantations, the traditional antidotes are necessary, namely, the arts of signification or the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. These arts liberate us from the thralldom of language, specifically of mistaking a sign for what it signifies. Or, in these days when rhetoric is everything, when it is supposed that the signs, the words, do not mean anything—indeed, do not need to mean anything, so that, in accordance with McLuhan’s dictum, “The medium is the message.”

In terms of the kind of education that is essentially imposed (because its knowledge pre-exists the student) the task facing both teacher and learner is of a peculiar kind. It would be easy for any of us to be simply overwhelmed by the past knowledge as it slowly emerges from its cold storage; it cannot and must not be ignored for it is like an inheritance, a valuable condensation of what mankind has discovered, and we would be forced to re-invent the wheel, as it were, if we ignored it. But to become a passive receptacle of past knowledge is not a recipe for freedom, so the problem becomes how to use the inheritance as a way of freedom, how to master it and not be mastered by it.

The successful professional mastery of a subject does not automatically entail a mastery of its significance, its meaning. The technicalities, the mechanics can be taught and learned, they can be repeated or carried out, but the meaning does not come with the mechanics. The meaning is not conveyed, cannot be conveyed, but is created by the learner.

This brings us to the second kind of education, a kind that has almost been forgotten. If the first kind of education is characterized by passivity, by a taking in, by memorization, by submission, then this second kind is characterized by activity, by a generous giving out, and by a creativity which shows, for example, the moral purposes that the acquired knowledge might serve.

But, it may well be asked, how do we carry out this second kind of education? And the answer is, we don’t. It is not something that teachers can do; only learners can do it, and they must do it for themselves. All that the teacher can do is, first, to help the students understand what has happened to them in their prior  education and, secondly, to clear away the obstacles and impediments to the freedom of creativity. We do not give students their creative power—nature has done that by giving them what may be called a soul. But, whether intended or not, the soul has been systematically hidden from itself; in varying degrees it glimpses itself but in the face of all the conventional instruction it has undergone, of the first kind of education with its obvious power, rewards, and social approval, it is confused and doubtful, lacking confidence in itself. It needs a teacher’s support and encouragement.

What only the soul can do, what its creativity alone can accomplish, is to endow knowledge with meaning, it can recognize the kind and degree of truth that is in it, it can evaluate and establish the morality of the professed knowledge, it can make it live, an active principle in human affairs. Of course, part of conventional education is to tell us the meaning of what we learn (although that is done mostly by implication, and is seldom stated), but then the meaning merely becomes another subject matter, imposed upon us from without.

If we simply believe or accept what we are told—and being told a vast quantity of things is inevitable—then it might be said that our ideas are inert, but, in truth, an “inert idea” is an oxymoron. If it is an idea, then it lives, has power and energy, and if it is inert then it is not an idea but a lifeless formula, a ritualistic incantation, a mere repetition, a re-playing of a recording.

It was, I think, considerations such as these that led Alfred North Whitehead to write:

Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge. This is an art very difficult to impart. Whenever a textbook is written of real educational worth, you may be quite certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult to teach from it. Of course it will be difficult to teach from it. If it were easy, the books ought to be burned; for it cannot be educational. In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place.

Notice that, in this view, education is not concerned with knowledge acquisition—it presupposes that—and instead concerns itself with how to use knowledge. That “utilization” is the business of the soul, and ultimately of the Humanities, for the utilization depends upon the meaning, a large part of which is morality showing itself in purpose.

In brief, education presupposes the imposition of subject matter and consists in helping the soul—the student—to recognize its freedom in how to use that subject matter and how to extend it. The student has usually been so well trained that the freedom of the soul has been systematically obscured; the purpose of the Humanities is to strengthen the soul’s knowledge of itself as the creator of meaning. The soul is dimly aware of this, perhaps, although it is more common for it to be dissatisfied with what convention has imposed upon it rather than to feel confidence in meaning that it has created or is able to create.

If imposing meaning on students’ souls defeats the purpose of helping them become what they naturally are, creators of meaning, what can we, as teachers, do? We can help students see that others—the best of our forebears—have used their freedom in the creation of their works—usually, but not exclusively, written—and by witnessing them to recognize the power in their own souls to do, in their own measure, the same. That is all that the Humanities can do, and it is everything.


§2.    An example from Literature

Although what has been said is, I believe, true, it must be admitted that, because of its universality, it may seem somewhat lofty, remote and abstract. Some examples—one from each of the four conventional fields of literature, history, philosophy, and science— will bring it down to earth and show how it applies in specific cases.

As an example from literature, consider the first six lines of the poem by Robert Frost, “After Apple-Picking.”

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree/Toward heaven still,/And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill/Beside it, and there may be two or three/Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough,//But I am done with apple-picking now.

Those of us not familiar with apple-picking in Frost’s Vermont—or anywhere else, for that matter—might ask an expert in fruit growing, a pomologist, whether this little scene is true to life. And we will be told that, as far as it goes, it is.

We may get more information. The apple-picking season is late September and early October so that we can locate the poem in the time of year even if we cannot determine the year itself. Yet the poem is in the present tense, so presumably it is this year—whenever the poem is read—which means that it is any and every year. It is now.

At this point, our trusty biographer tells us that the poem was published in 1914 but, strangely enough, it was published in England. However, it was published again, in the US, in a volume of poems, North of Boston, by Henry Holt the following year.

This is irresistible to our psychologist who inquires about what had been going on in Frost’s psyche or soul that would have prompted such a poem and he begins searching the letters and other documents of the period for any hint or clue. Of course, his Freudian colleague jumps to the conclusion that the poem is highly sexual in nature, with the erect ladder poking around, looking for apples, that is, for women to pluck. But now, he claims, the speaker is jaded or impotent and has given up his womanizing—he is done with apple-picking now.

The resident theologian vociferously disagrees, pointing out that it was the picking of the apple that occasioned and signified the fall of man from grace. And ironically enough, it was that Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden that caused humans to have to “labor in the sweat of their brow,” that is, to do work such as apple-picking. Moreover, we are told, the season of apple-picking is the Fall, the double meaning of which directs our attention to the Original Fall.

The literary critic then intervenes to observe that there is no indication of who the speaker is. If it is the poet himself, then searching for biographical data would be justified, but if the poet has just assumed the role for the purposes of the poem then it would not be. Where, then, should we look for the origin of the poem? It might be worth noting that the poem was first published when Frost was close to forty years old; he was not done with “apple-picking” for he lived almost another fifty years.

From the point of view of the economist, the poem portrays the way in which man lives and makes a living by responding to and partially controlling the fecund cycle of nature. It also suggests a labor theory of value since the apples only take on value when they have been picked and harvested by man, and then marketed. This small portion of the whole poem suggests, but certainly does not state, that the apple tree is part of an orchard—a prelude to agri-business.

Our literary critic returns to point out that the language of the poem, the actual words, are very matter-of-fact and earthy with no ethereal or metaphysical overtones. It is a celebration of man’s cooperation with nature, a co-operation in which man, an individual man, tires and, unlike nature, is eventually incapable of self-renewal.

But having heard all of these and other similar statements from the experts, those with technical knowledge of one kind or another, do we feel that we have understood the poem?

The answer is negative. While the technical or specialist knowledge may possibly point us in a certain direction, it can never reveal the significance of the poem, the meaning of what is written. That can only be supplied by what I have called the human soul. There is something over and above what these experts have to say—important though that might be—and what that is constitutes the domain of the Humanities.

We could ask the poet himself what he meant by the poem, and if he knew and made that clear perhaps we could try to judge whether his attempt was successful or not. But supposing we did that—and even found that the poet had been successful—it would not follow that the meaning to the poet is the same as the meaning to us. In all probability it cannot be for the very simple reason that the words of the poem are like a potentiality that can only be made actual by a human soul, and the present conditions of our souls differ from one another because of our different lives.

To think otherwise is to assume that what a word means to you is always and for ever exactly the same as what it means to me. That there is some overlap is highly probable, but that there is identity is impossible.

The words of this or any other poem or piece of writing are capable of bearing many meanings and it is our part to contribute those meanings, to explore them, and to connect them with the arts of the soul, but only after we have created them. The meaning is, as it were, waiting to be created.

Reading the lines of the poem again and trusting in our own knowledge of ourselves, we may wonder why the ladder “sticking through a tree” is “toward heaven still.” What does heaven have to do with apple-picking?  Literally, nothing. But as soon as I have said “literally” another word comes into my mind—I don’t look for it, I don’t even want it, but with a life of its own it suddenly manifests itself and presents itself to me. That word is “metaphorically.” The poem may well be understood literally, but as soon as we see that it may also be understood metaphorically vast universes of possibility open up to us.

Immediately, we can begin to see that the ladder that helps us climb into apple trees is also the ladder we have climbed up in life. Climbing the ladder of life has consumed much of our energy and we are tired. Heaven stands for our ambitions, aspirations and fulfillment, what we worked for, the aim we pointed at. It is still there because our aspirations have not vanished, even while our ability to achieve them has faded. But that also helps us understand why the ladder is two-pointed—a fact which make little or no difference to the actual picking of apples. Could it not be that our aspirations are always double, both of this world and of some other world, both material and spiritual?

The answer to this does not matter for my purposes. All that needs to be realized is that words, whether in Robert Frost’s poem or elsewhere, signify something other than themselves and the arts of signification, the time-honored liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric and logic, are the domain of the Humanities.

A simpler and not so far-reaching a statement could be that the Humanities are concerned with metaphor, the ways in which one thing is always capable of standing for something else as well as for itself. This capability is always there, waiting, silently but invitingly, for us to create the connection. And the curious thing is that while all of the specialist or technical or professional subjects employ metaphor all the time, they all take the existence of metaphor for granted and do not inquire into its nature and its effect upon the knowledge they claim to have. Again, that is the work of the Humanities.

To put this another way, only in the Humanities is metaphor examined as itself a metaphor. To see that “After Apple-Picking” can be understood as a meditation on a life’s work is to bring a second universe into being, but having done that we must recognize that, in fact, we have brought a third universe into being as well: there is apple-picking, there is a life’s work, and there is another universe, that of metaphor. That universe, the realm of meaning and of ideas, is the realm of the Humanities.

While considering this, it is salutary to bear in mind Robert Frost’s own grumpy rejoinder when asked the meaning of the poem: “It’s just about apples.”


§3.     An example from History

The second example is taken from the subject of history, and who could be more authoritative than the man Cicero called “the Father of History,” namely, Herodotus. He lived from about 484 to 425 B.C. and was famous for a work that has come to be called “The History of the Persian Wars.” This is how that great work begins:

This is the exposition of the inquiry of Herodotus the Halikarnassian so that the events do not come, in time, to be forgotten by men, nor the great and wonderful deeds displayed by both Hellenes and Barbarians be without fame and, besides these, (to state) what (was) the cause of (their) fighting each other.

This is quite remarkable. First note that there is no mention of “history;” the word that degenerated into “history” is the Greek word hIstorie which means simply an inquiry, and that is how I have translated it. It also means “to learn by inquiry,” and presumably it is possible to learn without inquiry; this could be done by a gift from the gods, by accident, or by a gratuitous presentation by someone, even by a lecture. Those familiar with Aristotle’s works will recall a book called “The History of Animals,” but it will be searched in vain for a history of animals; it contains Aristotle’s inquiries or researches into the anatomy and physiology of animals, their ways of generating, their classification, and so on. The vestige of this usage is still to be found in the name of the local Natural History Museum.

Herodotus conducts an inquiry and reports the results. He is ever conscious of the fact that he is inquiring and not that he is stating, in some objective way, what actually happened or what was actually said.   hIstorie—our “history”—is an activity, not a final explanation or account. For Herodotus, his writings are the report of his inquiry—so that, in order to understand, we need to know the questions he asked, the inquiries he made and the answers he got and recorded.

We can then ask what would have been said if he had asked some other question, or asked it of some other person. At that point, if we are serious, we ourselves become ‘historians’—that is, we become inquirers.

Herodotus tells us that he has three purposes: one, so that great events do not get forgotten; two, so that the great deeds of both Hellenes and Barbarians—or non-Hellenes—are accorded their proper share of glory; and three, to state what the causes of the war were. There is a strong Homeric tinge to all this, a highly romantic tinge, in which events and people are to be wondered at, marveled at; but they are described and not judged. That is left to the reader or hearer.
The story that is the outcome of the inquiry of Herodotus, however, does tell of the free and freedom-loving Hellenes and their final victory over the slavish and subservient Barbarians. (He ignores the role of Greek women, for the most part, and also the existence of slaves.) This view of Herodotus is not only clear from the events (such as the battles of Salamis and Plataea, where the Barbarians are roundly defeated), and from the way in which Herodotus describes them, but it is also manifest in the very structure of the work.

It is possible to divide the work into parts, or sub-units, and Herodotus is very careful to arrange these parts in what may be called, using an architectural term, a pedimental structure. The front of a Greek temple has, usually, six or eight columns, above which there is a triangular structure, called a pediment and within which some story or celebration is recorded in statuary. Thus, the eastern pediment of the Parthenon, a supreme example, tells the story of the birth of Athena, full-grown and fully-armed, from the head of Zeus. As might be expected, Zeus and Athena would have been at the center of this pediment—the largest and most prominent statues—and other gods, being of lesser importance, would have been smaller, trailing off to each end of the triangle.

This way of thinking about events—Olympian or mortal—is deeply ingrained in the Hellenic style of thought, and is quite contrary to our modern view that, on the whole, the climax should come at the end—there should be a conclusion. One advantage of the pedimental structure is that it preserves and emphasizes a sense of balance, of symmetry, about a central point which is, in sculpture and elsewhere, the most significant. A crude reflection of this way of thought is found in the pattern so common in text-books—there are causes, then an event, and finally results. The event, presumed to be important, comes in the middle but the thinking is chronological: it is temporal and neither theological nor philosophical.

Herodotus arranges his episodes in this pedimental structure over and over again, and, of course, we want to know what he puts in the center of each literary pediment. The answer is easy. He puts at each center an occasion when a man has to make a choice. What is significant to Herodotus is that man is necessarily faced with choices, and they constitute the critical turning-points of human affairs. Man has the ability to make choices—not that he always makes a good choice, but simply that he has a choice. This is the mark of a free man. And, being free, he is responsible, so that the cause of the war is clear; it is not the will of Zeus, not some inexorable and impersonal law, not accident, but the choice of man.

Thus, the very structure of Herodotus’ work exhibits and emphasizes the role of freedom in human affairs. For him, the struggle between freedom and slavery is never over; it is an eternal struggle, but in his time, at least in relation to the Persian armies, freedom had won the battle. But the struggle would go on; it is the everlasting condition of man—freedom fighting slavery.

What is curious about all this is that the purposes of Herodotus and the structure he gives his work are not, in our sense of the term, historical. They are the principles in terms of which he inquires and writes but they are not part of the inquiry itself; they are not, as we would say, historical. They constitute the basis of the inquiry or, if you prefer it, they are the presuppositions upon which the inquiry is built. Human events do not, in any obvious way, fall into triangular or pedimental patterns—that is how Herodotus chooses to arrange them.

This exhibits the freedom of Herodotus and, therefore, falls properly in the domain of the Humanities for it gives meaning to the events and the events themselves perhaps do not matter so very much, but their significance does, and their significance is another way of speaking of their meaning.

How different this is from the younger contemporary of Herodotus, Thucydides, whose dates may be taken as 460 to 400 B.C.E., making him about twenty-five years junior, and who writes:

Thucydides of Athens wrote (this description of the course of) the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. He embarked on it at the outbreak of hostilities, because he foresaw that the conflict would be widespread in character and far more notable than any that had previously occurred. His reasons for so thinking were not only that both sides entered the war at the height of their strength but that he observed the rest of the Greek states already supporting one side or the other, either openly or in intention. This war was in fact the greatest upheaval ever to affect the Greeks, as well as portions of the non-Greek world—indeed, one had almost said, the majority of mankind.

Thucydides does not call his work an inquiry nor does he deal with events that happened many years before he was born, as Herodotus does. Thucydides is a contemporary, an eye-witness to much of what he describes, and even when he is not an eye-witness, he lived through the whole of what has come to be called the Peloponnesian War and he could and did consult the participants. In 424 he was given command of an Athenian expeditionary force, which failed in its objective (through no fault of his), and consequently he was banished from Athens for twenty years. Exile, however, made him relatively free to travel and to talk.

There was no romantic nonsense about free men fighting barbarians. This war was essentially Athens against Sparta—two supposedly free Hellenic states, and Thucydides is absolutely ruthless in his description and analysis. This war is not about freedom, it is about power, about who is going to control whom. He is interested in the interplay of political forces not only between two well-armed states, buoyed up by their nationalism, but also within each state, as rival politicians sought power through new policies and demagoguery. The back-drop to all this was the transformation of the Delian Confederacy formed to combat Persia into the Athenian Empire formed to enrich Athens, a lesson for us all.

Thucydides saw that political forces can be calculated and he set out to demonstrate this; in the course of his analysis, he showed that the defeat of Athens was due to the rise of factions within Athens itself and not to the strength of Sparta. It was due to the abandonment of Pericles’ prudent moderation and the advent of new extreme and radical policies. This, as Thucydides clearly saw, was due in large measure to the interdependence of democracy and Athenian naval power. The unbridled freedom of the democracy virtually destroyed itself.

It became clear that moral sensitivity and inherited traditions could not sustain a state. The survival of states depended solely on power and its skilful employment.

Inquiries could still be made in the style of Herodotus, but Thucydides rejected outright the “pleasing narratives” of his predecessor and, in the face of urgent and imminent destruction, tried to make intelligible the ways in which power, naked or disguised, operates. He does not invite us to an inquiry, but to be a witness to the self-destruction of power without morality.

If Herodotus has a triangular or pedimental principle of organization for his work, a principle that Thucydides regards as an artifice, Thucydides himself has two principles of organization. One is the natural alternation of summer and winter, for campaigning took place only in the former; the other is the alternating rhythm of action and speech or conference, of deeds and words. It is in the speeches that we learn what Thucydides believed went on in the hearts and minds of the participants. Sad to say, as the war goes on it becomes increasingly clear that the words mean less and less, or they mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, or that they are simply irrelevant. Language gets debased, and with it so do the souls of men. The first casualty of war is the purity of the language.

It is worth noting that Thucydides was strongly influenced by the methodology of the medical writers following Hippocrates. This is another example of metaphor, for it is possible to record and analyze political affairs as if the state were a human body.

The two historians bring their assumptions, their principles, their intent, to their study. These can be seen operating in their respective writings, but primarily because they wrote with them in mind and not because they found them empirically in what they studied. Which is correct? Which is true?

Neither and both. The discipline of the Humanities certainly examines and analyzes the written texts that we have inherited, but primarily in order to see what the two authors here have brought to their respective tasks. What they have brought is an expression of their own freedom, they have chosen to understand human affairs in a certain way. Are they true?  Yes and no. And the task of the Humanities is to explore both the “yes” and the “no” and to see the ways in which they are and are not true.


§4.        An example from Philosophy

Two examples from the conventional subject matters of literature and history have been offered in an attempt to make clear in specific terms the proper study of the Humanities. A third will be drawn from philosophy, and there could be no better example than the first sentence of the first—in the sense of finest—work of the first philosopher, namely, Plato.

It was an English philosopher and mathematician, already quoted, Alfred North Whitehead, who lived and taught here in Cambridge, who wrote:

the safest general characterization of the European

philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of

footnotes to Plato.

This is sufficient justification for my calling him the first philosopher.

His first work—philosophically if not historically—is the POLITEIA, the Polity or Constitution, a work we know under the misleading title of The Republic. It got this dubious name because Cicero made a Latin version of it and recognized that, among other things, Plato is discussing what is properly the concern of the state, De Republica, and what is not, or what may be called “the public things,” or, in Latin, res publicae. I find no fault with Cicero for drawing attention to the proper limits of state action, that is, to those things that the state should concern itself with, to what is public, but I regret that he did not pay more attention to what is private, namely, the soul.

The opening sentence of Plato’s greatest work has been famous since ancient times because the story arose that when Plato died the opening lines—actually, the first eight words—were found among his belongings written on a wax tablet in several different ways. It is hard to resist the thought that, if this were so, the way the sentence was published (that is, written down and read aloud) must have been the right way, the best way. What is remarkable about these eight words?

Bearing in mind that this example is to help clarify the study of the Humanities, the best beginning is, obviously, to quote the words:

katevbhn cqe;” eij” Peiraia’ meta; Glauvkwno” tou’ !Arivstwno”

Since this is all Greek to most of us, we immediately have to call in the classical scholar, who translates it for us:

I went down yesterday to the Peiraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston . . .

We soon learn if we continue to read the text that the “I” who went down was, to nobody’s surprise, Socrates.

We now turn to the geographer and ask “Where and what is the Peiraeus?” and the geographer obliges by telling us that the Peiraeus is the port or harbor of Athens and is about five miles southwest of the city. The philologist observes that eij” Peiraia’  should have a definite article before the name, but offers no explanation as to why it doesn’t.

The sociologist and economist then hasten to add that the port is the center of commerce, of importing and exporting, and that it is a typically rough seaport town and the home of those connected with the sea, especially of those citizens who rowed the triremes—or, in other words, that it is the home of rabid democracy. The political scientist then adds a few words about the nature of that local democracy and its political effects on the whole of Athenian democracy of which it was a part.

We next turn to the genealogist who informs us that Glaucon was indeed the son of Ariston and that he had two brothers one of whom, the older, we meet as we read further into the dialogue. His name was Adeimantus. The other brother, the youngest, is never named. He was Plato.

The etymologist then breaks in to point out that Adeimantus means “intrepid” and that Glaucon is derived from glaukov”, meaning “bright” or “gleaming.” While enjoying his translation of the names, he cannot help but add that the father’s name in Greek is connected to the adjective, a[risto” which means “best” or “noblest.”

The philologist then observes that the eight words have a musical or rhythmical quality about them and that they are neatly divided into two phrases or commata:

katevbhn cqe;” eij” Peiraia’     and      meta; Glauvkwno” tou’ !Arivstwno”

He might also point out that the first word is a compound verb, made up of a preposition linked to a root verb. The order of the Greek word really conveys “down-went-I,” the “I” being determined by the ending of the verb.

So, we have reports from several specialists—the classical scholar, the geographer, the sociologist, the economist, the genealogist, the etymologist, the philologist, and, we may add, the historian who might be concerned about when the ‘going down’ occurred.

With so much information from the specialists, or from the disciplines, if you prefer it, have we now exhausted the content of this verbal handful, of these eight words?

By no means. All our accumulated information tells us little or nothing about their meaning. An astute reader might ask “I wonder why Plato chose to begin this major work, his masterpiece, with such a seemingly simple, innocent statement?” This formulation gives us a clue for the reader says “I wonder why . . .” Now, as Plato himself tells us—and Aristotle repeats it—all philosophy begins in wonder.

Our wondering liberates the imagination and we begin to suggest to ourselves what Plato meant to indicate by these relatively ordinary words. If Socrates reports that he “went down,” that means that he is now “back up.” Up where? Geographically, that must mean Athens, but the highest place in Athens is, of course, the Acropolis which literally means “the high city.” But the Acropolis is the holiest place in Athens; are we to suppose that Socrates belongs there? Is he almost like a god? Is there something divine about him or his life? To continue wondering in our own idiom, the Athenians who were bombarded with Socratic questions certainly thought him uppity and tried to put him down. All they managed to do was to make him immortal.

I wonder why we are told that he went down “yesterday”? And suddenly it becomes clear that if he tells us—and any reader or hearer of the dialogue—that he went down yesterday, he must be telling us today. Whatever the Polity says, it claims to belong to all time; what it says is eternally true, outside of time. We then may wonder “Well, why doesn’t Plato just come out and say that his dialogue is a statement that is true for ever?” Thucydides did just that, claiming that his account was kth’ma ajeivv, a possession forever.

And as we wonder about that, it may come home to us that what Plato has done in those eight opening words is to give us a chance to educate ourselves; he has been a perfect teacher in that he has not made an authoritative statement ex cathedra but has given us something to wonder about, that is something that is philosophical, if we choose to respond to it.

One consequence of that is that I feel able to trust him. He is not dogmatically telling me what to think but is laying out, in its simplest terms, something worth thinking about. He is inviting me to philosophize with him.

The explication of these eight words would take a lecture—more than a lecture—in itself and so I will content myself by remarking that the preposition “with” conveys Socrates’ affectionate relationship with Plato’s brother Glaucon—and there is a sense that without Glaucon Socrates would not have gone to the Peiraeus at all. This suggests that philosophy—love of wisdom—properly proceeds along with a love of man.

Glaucon’s name is dependent upon glau’x meaning “owl,” the bird sacred to Athena and hence to Athens. It has already been remarked that it is also connected with glaukov” meaning “bright” or “gleaming,” the quality of the owl’s eyes in the dark. This suggests—but does not say—that the ensuing dialogue must be associated with Glaucon, with Athena, and with Athens itself.

A great deal more could be said, but this is sufficient for our purposes, and the question arises “Did Plato deliberately build these meanings into his words?”  One way to answer that question is to engage in a biographical or psychological enterprise—but it becomes very frustrating simply because all the evidence we have is in the words.

It is possible to ask another more fruitful question. Not “Did Plato deliberately build these meanings into his words?” but “Are these meanings in these words?” without any regard at all for Plato’s intention.

The answer to this latter question may be equally frustrating for it is “Both yes and no.” The answer must be “no” because the words are merely black marks on white paper, if they are printed, and mouthfuls of air if they are spoken. No careful dissection of the marks or analysis of the air will ever yield anything we might call meaning. It is simply not there. But the answer must also be “yes” because, in the simplest sense, we do understand the words—but only because we give them meaning. The words do not have meanings but they are capable of bearing meaning. The meanings that these—or any other words—have are supplied by ourselves, hearers or readers. We create the meanings. We impose the meanings on the words, but not simply as an act of will, because although a word is not univocal (as Aristotle vainly imagined) it does not mean anything we want. Its meaning is like an area and our imposed meaning is like a spotlight illuminating one part of that area.

There is the writer, in this case Plato, and there is the reader, in this case ourselves. But we are not alone. There is a third sharer in the enterprise, one that precedes all of us, and will succeed all of us, namely, language. Ignoring the difference in languages between Plato’s Greek and our English, the fact is that the writer brings to his task of writing some knowledge of the language; he is like a steward, a custodian, a caretaker of some part, great or small, of the language. Similarly, the reader brings some knowledge of the language—some of it overlapping some of the knowledge of the writer, and some not. Where they do overlap is the part of the language they have in common, or share.

Now, the key to understanding Plato’s POLITEIA is, I believe, the ancient proverb koina; ta; tw’n fivlwn (which he quotes at St. 424), the things of friends are common, friends share. Indeed, it may be true that, according to another proverb, tiv ejsti fivlo”_ a[llo” ejgwv: a friend is a second self, but it is certainly true that friends speak a common language.

But the language is not an indifferent and relatively passive thing. Quite the contrary, for it has, as it were, a life of its own. Although it gets manifest only when used—written and read, or spoken and heard—it is like a deep and profound reservoir or resource that may be drawn upon or that may suddenly and unexpectedly appear, unheralded and uninvited.

As one example, how might we understand Plato’s single word of “yesterday”?  Consider two native English speakers. If one has read Shakespeare’s

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death . . .

and the other has not, they will understand the word differently. The Shakespearean, let us say, may have met several other contexts in which the word was used, so it comes with a matrix of meanings and associations for him.

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as

yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

The words come to us—their past meanings and usages in our experience come to us—as we meet them anew. But we must humbly acknowledge that whatever our knowledge of the language, its living history, the accumulated meaning it may carry, is always greater.

Indeed, one eminent poet, literary critic, and philosopher, I.A. Richards,

puts the responsibility for composing poetry on

the language, not on the intellect, feelings, wisdom

and the rest of it of the poet.

We start a poem or a sentence or a Platonic dialogue and before we know it our knowledge of the language, as living, begins to determine what comes next, and sometimes we can say where that influence comes from and sometimes it just seems to follow in the life of the language as lived and spoken but we cannot say anything precise about it. I.A. Richards himself suggested that he was bringing the oldest of the theories of poetry up to date by substituting THE LANGUAGE for Apollo and the Muses. It is the source of inspiration.

When we consider the way meaning arises, and when we consider the matrix of language, and learn the arts by which it can be ordered, when we see the role of creation in that learning, we are dealing with the subject of the Humanities.


§5.    An example from Science

The fourth and final example is taken from science.

In the world of night, without the lights of cities polluting the view, the glory of the starry heavens, the spangled darkness of the firmament, has always been a source of wonder.

The countries of the ancient world—meaning Babylonia (including modern Iraq) and the Mediterranean countries (like Greece and Egypt)—all were taken with that wonder and studied the heavens both as useful timekeepers and as magnificent and beautiful displays. Keen observation led to record-keeping and attempts to reduce the motion of the stars to order, or, in other words, to scientific prediction.

The Babylonians, long before the Greeks, based their science purely on arithmetic and we have, written on clay tablets, the remnants of their knowledge, which has all the appearance of row after row of tabulated numbers. We also still have the cultural remnants for the Babylonians used a sexagesimal number system which is preserved in our time and angular measurement units—degrees, minutes, and seconds, all based on sixty.

The Greeks thought in a different way, and while numbers were obviously involved in recording observations, their astronomy—for that is what it was—was geometric. A comparison between a digital and an analog watch comes to mind.

The two astronomies were different ways of recording the structure of the heavens so that prediction was possible, and they were equally successful. On what basis could one choose between the Babylonian arithmetical model and the Greek geometrical model? This is a fit question for the Humanities to study.

Reducing the stars to order was known, among the Greeks, as “saving the appearances”—swvzein ta; faivnomena—and it was Plato who first defined the problem:

What are the uniform and ordered movements by the                                                                        assumption of which the apparent movements of the

planets can be accounted for?

He also suggested that the geometry of the circle would most likely be of the greatest use. This suggestion led to a fundamental postulate of ancient mathematical astronomy, namely, that celestial movement was always a circular motion, uniform with respect to the center of its circle; this was the natural motion of the heavenly bodies. This may be taken as the counterpart of Newton’s famous First Law, the Law of Inertia:

Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform

motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change

that state by forces impressed upon it.

The choice of postulate or law—Plato’s uniform circular motion or Newton’s uniform rest/straight line motion—is precisely that, a choice. There is nothing available in observation to help decide, simply because we shall never see a body moving solely under the law of inertia. Such a body with such a motion is a fiction, an abstraction, if you will, and the only reason for preference is the simplicity and elegance resulting from the adoption of one rather than the other. But elegance is not an astronomical term, it is the creation of the human intellect and thus the proper concern of the Humanities. And, incidentally, the observed motion of the stars strongly suggests a principle of circular motion so that empirically it should be preferred.

Ptolemy, who lived in Egypt near Alexandria between 100 and 175 A.D. compiled the fullest account of the heavens, based on his own understanding and that of his predecessors (to whom he gives ample credit) and their observations. He wrote on geography as well as astronomy (seeing them connected in a number of ways) but his fame rests on what has come to be called The Almagest. Originally it was called hJ megavlh suntavxi” or The Great Composition, but at some time the word “great” got transformed into “greatest”—the Greek being mevgisth—and when the highly skilled Arab scientists discovered the work they added the Arabic definite article al and so it became al-megiste, which it has been ever since.

While many heavenly bodies traverse their orbits in short periods of time (short by human standards, at least)—such as the sun and moon which rise and set so frequently that they define our short periods of day and month and solar year—other circular orbits take much longer periods. The period of Mars is nearly two years, Jupiter’s is nearly twelve, and Saturn’s is more than twenty-nine. To observe two circuits of Saturn would take up best part of a normal lifetime. The ancients knew nothing of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto because they are not visible to the naked eye, but their periods are approximately 84, 165, and 248 years respectively.

The ancients did know of another motion which is called the Precession of the Equinox; without going into details, let it just be said that this motion is cyclical or circular and takes close to 26,000 years to complete. It was known from some observations and calculations, but obviously no astronomer observed the whole cycle and, indeed, it depended on observations over many hundreds of years. Astronomers needed the history of their science—it was an essential part of their subject.

The dependence was astronomically necessary, but the way astronomers recorded their indebtedness was not. Ptolemy, however, in The Almagest, was at great pains to acknowledge his indebtedness to Hipparchus who lived about three hundred years before him. Ptolemy clearly regarded him as his teacher or master and lovingly referred to him as “that enthusiastic worker and lover of truth.”

Now the quality of that relationship has nothing to do with the technical aspects of astronomy, but it can be understood and appreciated and its influence on the astronomer’s work may be estimated. Science is only concerned with the recording of the observations of predecessors and their theories about them; when the mere record is transformed by the civility of the more modern astronomer, or when, as in Ptolemy’s case, it is transmuted by deep affection and respect, we are dealing with freedom in cooperation, with what John Dewey called ‘social intelligence.’ That is the subject of the Humanities. We are dealing with morality.

In Book III of The Almagest it becomes clear that there are two mathematical models which can account equally well for the motion of the Sun (and, hence, of all the other planets).

If the Earth is taken as fixed (as sensibly it is) and at the center of the cosmos, and the Sun is taken as revolving round it with uniform motion, then the four seasons would be equal (see diagram 1). But Ptolemy knows that they are not equal but are different in duration of time. He can give an account of this (to advert to the time-honored phrase didovnai lovgon) by adjusting the center of the Sun’s orbit so that it is no longer in the Earth but is eccentric to it (see diagram 2).

Now, if certain conditions are met (see Table 1), the path of the Sun on the eccentric hypothesis is identical with its path if the sun is understood to move on an epicycle, which itself revolves around the Earth as its center on a circle called the deferent (see diagrams 3 and 4). In other words, mathematically speaking, the eccentric and epicyclic hypotheses are equivalent if the proper conditions are met. On what grounds could one be preferred over the other?

This equivalence runs all the way through The Almagest and relates to all the planets, and not only the Sun. Clearly, without some additional non-mathematical evidence, one is as good as the other, mathematically speaking. Although Ptolemy never states this in words, the mathematical account raises questions about the physical account that may be given, not least about the fixity of the Earth; for it is clear the mathematical description of any motion can only be done by taking something as fixed. But taking something as fixed is not the same as it’s being fixed—it is fixed only for the mathematical purpose of the description.

Ptolemy is well aware that if the Sun’s motion around the Earth can be described by two equivalent mathematical models, it is equally possible, mathematically speaking, to describe the Earth’s motion round the Sun


Diagrams and Table:

Diagram 1.

Shows the equality of the four seasons if the         winter                                    spring

Earth is at the center of the orbit of the Sun

which travels with a uniform motion.

autumn                           summer

Diagrams 2 and 3.

Show the equivalence of the eccentric and

epicyclic hypotheses, provided that the

following conditions are met:

Table I.

Geometric (or Spatial): the ratio (in

diagram 2) between the radius of the epicycle

(AH) and the radius of the deferent (its circle)

(AE) is the same (in diagram 3) as the ratio

between the amount of eccentricity (EF) and

the radius of the eccentric circle (FG).

Speeds: the angular velocity of the star on the

epicycle (traveling clockwise) is equal to the

angular velocity of the epicycle’s center on the

deferent but moving in the opposite direction

(i.e., traveling  counterclockwise); that is, they

both complete one circuit in the same amount

of time.

These speeds on epicycle and deferent are

the same as the speed of the star on the eccentric



Without the introduction of some third fixed element the two descriptions are equivalent. Later astronomers were not as sophisticated as Ptolemy, were not as skilled in the Humanities to grasp this fact, and so what was mathematical in The Almagest became physical in their writings.

The conventional interpretations about Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy are totally misleading. Scientifically, Copernicus was not in advance of Ptolemy, and indeed, except for one correlation inexplicable in Ptolemaic terms which the Copernican view made clear, he is less successful. In the first place, Copernicus does not hold, as is usually believed, to a heliocentric or Sun-centered theory; the Sun is not at the center of his universe because that is occupied by a cloud of mathematical dots. The sun is nearby but certainly not at the center. In the second place, Copernicus naively accepts certain reports of alleged observations that could never have taken place, but, in his ignorance, he feels obliged to account for them. They relate to the Precession of the Equinox which Copernicus takes to be not based on uniform circular motion, and, adopting the spurious observations, he develops a mathematical account which is called The Twisted Garland—an intricate and beautiful mathematical account, but one which is totally unnecessary and superfluous.

The Copernican Revolution, so-called, took place, not because of any scientific advance—no new or more careful observations—but because of a change in the stance, the non-scientific assumptions and attitudes, of a small number of scientists, notably Kepler and Galileo. The Revolution transformed the intellectual life of the western world, but it was a revolution in the Humanistic aspects of thought not in the hard science.

The Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, like the eccentric and epicyclic hypotheses, are mathematically equivalent. Another system, proposed by Tycho Brahe, was also mathematically equivalent. This third model had the planets rotating round the sun, and the sun itself rotating round the earth. All three models could, in principle, predict planetary movements equally well; no scientific choice was possible within the realm of mathematics.

Later, Isaac Newton made space and time absolute—although there was no way to demonstrate that they were—and it remained for Einstein to re-instate the mathematical sophistication of Ptolemy. In all of this, the freedom of the intellect to choose, to accept or reject, fixed principles is what is really at work.

The mathematical equivalence of the eccentric and epicyclic hypotheses has an interesting modern variant. In the ancient case, two mathematical models are equally able to account for one set of phenomena (the motion of a planet or star); in the modern instance, some aspects of one set of phenomena (namely, light) can be accounted for by one hypothesis (Newton’s corpuscular model) and other aspects of the same phenomena can be accounted for by a different and irreconcilable model (the wave model of Huygens and Thomas Young). Since the difficulty is not in the phenomena, the light, it must be in the models or metaphors devised to describe the phenomena; a different kind of model is needed—it needs to be created, an insight for which the Humanities are a most useful if not necessary preparation.

Another version of Thomas Young’s famous two-slit interference experiment is also critical in particle and sub-particle physics, for it demonstrates that the activities of the world of quantum mechanics cannot be represented by a “classical” model; they cannot be pictured. Again, a new model is needed—an enterprise in the Humanities.

Finally, and this connects up with what was said earlier about civility and affection, Ptolemy has left us an epigram which displays his attitude towards his search for knowledge. It is not the knowledge he sought, but the pre-condition of it and the spirit which, in him, infused his search.

Oi\d’ !o[ti qnato;” e[gw kai; ejfavmero”: ajll! o[tan a[strwn

masteuvw pukina;” ajmfidrovmou” e{liko”,

oujkevt           ! ejpifauvw gaivh” posivn, ajlla; par! aujtw/’

Zani; qeotrefevo” pivmplamai ajmbrosivh”.

I know that I am mortal, and live but for a day;

but when I search into the encompassing, well-ordered

circling of the stars,

my feet no longer touch the earth, but side by side

with Zeus himself, I take my fill of ambrosia, the food

of the gods.

This is not astronomy, but the expression of a creative spirit. It is a true subject for the Humanities. And so is the response of Anaxagoras who, on being asked the reason for his birth, replied “So that I may wonder at the sun, the moon, and the heavens . . . ” Dedication to wonder and to beauty, although too rare nowadays, is not confined to the ancient world. Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) wrote:

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful;

he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights

in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful,

it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not

worth knowing, life would not be worth living.

Beauty is not a concept of science but of the Humanities.


§6.  Conclusion

It is now possible to draw together some strands from what has been said into a statement about the Humanities.

The subject of the Humanities is the freedom inherent in the human soul, by which I mean the source and origin of creativity present in all of us, by our very nature, in every human being no matter of what age, gender, race, or culture. This freedom, when exercised, gives meaning to what would otherwise be purely mechanical or physical acts, events, and, above all, it gives meaning to words.

In acts and events, their meaning consists in the functions we make them fulfill and the values we make them serve, that is to say, we endow them with ideas and moral principles. And because we so endow them, we are responsible—that is, we must acknowledge ourselves as causes, as agents; it is because of us that things happen or do not happen in this world. If there is injustice, ugliness, and deceit in the world and in our lives, it is because we have allowed them to be there—perhaps not deliberately, for they can be there by accident or inertia, because we did not realize their presence, or because we did not know what to do to eradicate them, and, most commonly, because we did not know we could eradicate them.

The study of the Humanities helps us learn who we are. And who are we? We, the humans, are the principle of creativity and meaning in the world, and there is no other; we have souls. This was expressed, long ago, by Plato in his inimitable way:

As concerning the sovereign part of the soul within

us, that which we say, and truly say, dwells at the

top of the body and raises us from earth towards

our heavenly kindred, for  as much as we are a

heavenly and not an earthly plant

,(futovn oujk e[ggeion,

ajll@ oujravnion) we ought to believe that god has given

it to each of us as a daimon. (Timaeus, St.90a)

This sovereign part of the soul, the intellect, is our daimon, and its peculiar capacity is to seek and know the Good, of which, to begin with it is only dimly aware. Although puzzled, the soul still seeks it, for it is in terms of the Good that soul governs the physical world. In other words, the soul’s function is to look after, to take care of, to be the steward of the physical world and to order it in terms of the Good. We do not own the world, we just cherish it. The soul is the great conservator.

It is, of course, unfashionable to use the word ‘soul’ but I know of no other term that denotes the creative principle within us, and although attempts have been made to capture it, to make it the exclusive property of some sect or other, and even to deny its existence, the fact is that the term ‘soul’ or yuchv in Greek), our psyche,  or anima (in Latin) all have a long and distinguished history in western thought and I, for one, refuse to surrender them. As used here, soul is a philosophical not a theological term.

To those who deny the existence of the soul, I would only say, “What is it in you that enables you to formulate or consider a proposition—‘The soul exists’—and then to deny it?” Whatever it is, and you can call it what you will, I call that ‘soul.’

Having said something about actions and events, it is now necessary to speak of words, of language. The very existence of language—particularly their own language—was a constant source of pride and wonder to the Greeks. Attic Greek was a highly flexible medium, both elegant and exact, and its powers of expression were unsurpassed in the western world. In the east, of course, there was its more ancient Indo-European “more perfect” sister, Sanskrit. As Greek or Hellenic culture moved away from its purely oral origins and writing assumed an increasing importance in the affairs of men, a new ‘philosophy of language’ was required and this was provided by Plato and what has come to be called his Theory of Ideas.

It is clear that language has meaning—we try to make sense when we speak and we understand in some measure what is said to us—but the meaning of individual words is not clear and precise; rather, to repeat what was said earlier, it is more like an area which has unclear boundaries depending on the accumulated usage of the word in the history of the language, primarily written, and the experience with it of those engaged in the ‘conversation.’ There is also a Humpty Dumpty element through which a speaker can, on occasion, extend the boundaries of meaning and, mastering the word’s usage for the moment, make it mean what he wants.

We need to address the question “What is the meaning of meaning?” But clearly this is a self-reflecting question, for in order to address it we must first know the meaning of ‘meaning.’ This, then, is an image of the soul, defined by Plato as that which moves itself, for this tantalizing question must also move itself. It is a sobering and humbling thought that we do not need a theory of learning in order to learn something; and those who claim to have formulated learning theories must face the astonishing fact that they learned their own theory before they knew how to learn anything, before they had their own theory at their disposal. We learn before we know how to do it.

Not only is the meaning of individual words in question here, but so is the syntax, the rules of grammar by which they are put together into sentences. This adds another component because meaning then exists not only in the individual words but also between the words, in the relationships between them.

From these puzzling words I can now draw a conclusion which is so startling in its import that it is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

The meaning of actions and events, the meanings of words and language, the values and purposes, the ideas, the soul itself, all enjoy existence but that existence for us is never a separate or isolated one. They always exist, for us, embodied in something, something palpable, something sensible, some physical things, they are embodied in an appearance. We can all recognize an act of courage, for example, but we see only the act and understand the courage.

There are, as it were, two ways of looking at our world and everything that is in it. There is the world of the senses—what we might call the seen world—and then there is the unseen world—the world of ideas, values, meaning. These two worlds correspond in us to body and soul.

The Humanities give us disciplined and orderly access to that unseen world, the world to which the soul has access, and to the soul itself.

Words written or words spoken are physical events. Their meanings are not. Yet the physical elements carry the meaning or the opportunity for meaning to us, to whoever reads or hears them, and without them the meaning would not reach us. Hence they are priceless. As the Psalmist writes:

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

And yet the fitness can only be conveyed by using other words; it cannot be conveyed directly. Here we have a well-known figure of speech, a simile; but metaphor is not far away. As the Greek philosopher, Democritus, said:

A word is a shadow of a deed.

It is because we do not have direct access to the unseen world, the world of ideas, that similes and metaphors are so important—and, indeed, so popular. We try to convey meaning, our meaning, by means of images—by means of likenesses and identities, by metaphors.

For example, I want to convey the meaning, my understanding of Achilles, so I put it into words. That is the first metaphor—the meaning has, if I am skillful, been translated into language. If my meaning is not grasped, I say Achilles is like a god or Achilles is like a hare—but similes are often not powerful enough and so I have recourse to metaphor—Achilles is a lion or Achilles is death and he has man-slaughtering hands. This kind of exchange goes on between us all the time. One thing standing for another.

Most of the exchange of ideas and information between people is carried out with language and we all know that the language stands for something other than itself. It’s not the words but the meaning of the words that interest us—in other words, we treat the words as metaphors, as signs. Of course, the language itself has an existence quite apart from any meanings it might be used to convey and so the question arises as to whether the structure of the language corresponds to the structure of the things it talks about. Such a question is, again like the soul, self-referring, that is, language is investigated by means of language.

This inquiry is made more complex by the existence of different languages. Since they each have a different vocabulary and a different syntax, they must image the world differently—and yet, it is the same world. One reason for studying other cultures and their languages is to see the many ways in which human creativity, whatever it may be called, finds its place; there is not just one way.

For these reasons, one central concern of the Humanities is the study of language, of signs and how they can and do carry meaning. Traditionally, this study is carried on through an examination of arts, in the sense of skills, the ordered processes by which speech and text are framed. The skills do not exist in and of themselves, but exist, insofar as they exist at all, in the written works we read which have been composed in accordance with them. If a text were framed in accordance with the rules of an art or skill, those arts must have been operating principles in the author. So they also exist in the soul of the writer. And if we read and understand what we read, it must be because the arts—or their counterparts—exist in us.

These skills or arts have already been alluded to for they are the traditional arts of signification, the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric and logic. Some discussion of these arts—arts of imposition and arts of intention—can be found in the description of the study of the Humanities at Cambridge College.

The very name of these arts, however, arouses in us the questions “How do they liberate us?” and “From what do they liberate us?”  The purely verbal answer is simple. If we need to be freed, we must in some sense be bound; if we need to be liberated, we must in some sense be enslaved. But what is the meaning of “in some sense”?

Aristotle, in the Politics, discusses slavery, and, in his usual orderly and matter-of-fact manner, he distinguishes legal slavery from natural slavery.

The abomination of legal slavery—the lawful possession of one human being by another—is almost universally condemned, which does not mean that it does not exist, for it most certainly does, but even where it does exist there is a strong tendency not to advertise the fact. It exists de facto, not de jure. Although it is no credit to the human race, I must admit that I know of no race, nation, or culture that has not, at some point in its history, admitted legal slavery in some form or other.

A legal slave belongs to another person by law; he or she is a chattel, a piece of property, no different from an article of furniture or a domestic animal which the ‘master’ or ‘mistress’ can dispose of at will.

The inclination of one human being to use another for his own advantage takes many forms and the power exercised by a ‘master’ over another may be absolute, as in legal slavery, or it may be modified so that ultimately the underling is controlled but yet retains some minor degree of freedom. For example, the medieval serf was tied to the soil; he could not move to another location, he could not choose to serve another lord, he could not choose to serve no lord at all, his wage was fixed, and, in any case, he was powerless to challenge his lord—if he did any of these things he became an out-law. That is called serfdom not slavery, but it is not freedom as we understand it. Incidentally, the connection between language and liberty is no more clearly expressed than in the fact that the medieval serf or peasant had a vocabulary of less than six hundred words. Shakespeare had one of close to thirty thousand words.

After his discussion of legal slavery, Aristotle turns to what he calls ‘natural slavery.’  “Anybody who by his nature is not his own man, but another’s, is by nature a slave,” Aristotle says; and again “for he who can be, and therefore is, another’s, and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature.”

Whether considering legal slaves or natural slaves, they are both “instruments of action, separable from the possessor.” Some instruments of action, like a hammer or an automobile, do not move themselves but need to be in the hands of the owner; if separated from him they are immobile and useless. But slaves, if properly controlled and ruled, carry out their owner’s wishes even when they are not in his presence; they are separable but still useful. They do this because they “participate in rational principle” which, at rock bottom, means they understand and obey orders.

Legal slaves, regardless of their nature, carry out somebody else’s purposes under the force of law and its penalties. Natural slaves, who “participate in rational principle enough to apprehend,” do the same thing but for a different reason; they do it because they are not their own men, that is, they have been denied the opportunity or have not had the ability to make their souls their own. They have been educated—yes, educated, or indoctrinated, if you wish—to believe that they either cannot or should not be ends in themselves. They can only be means to some one else’s ends.

This denies their humanity, and a study of the Humanities, when properly understood, re-instates the human soul as the end, in the sense of aim and purpose, of our lives and of the good society, not only for ourselves but for all humankind.

Thirty years ago, I observed that while law schools taught law, medical schools taught medicine, and engineering schools taught engineering, public schools did not teach “the public.”  Quite the reverse, for what they taught and still teach is in fact subservience to private ends and the means for meeting them. Students, treated like natural slaves, are subjected to a curriculum which, although outdated, intends to fit them for service in the existing, privately controlled socio-economic structure of society; there is no thought that they might transform it, improve it, or beautify it and thereby fulfill themselves. And the reward for succeeding in school and university is private, an advantage to the individual. It is implicitly held out to be an economic one; students who succeed, who, perhaps unknowingly, accept their role as a means, get better jobs—but ‘better’ means ‘higher paid.’ Education itself is presented as a means, whereas it should be seen as a creation of ends, above all, the end of the self-improvement of the soul of each individual learner and the greater contribution to the good of society and the human race, to service.

This servile way of thinking is epitomized in the copy-writer’s slogan: “Children are America’s greatest resource.” They are not a resource; they are America.

Political and economic moguls suppose that by exercising more controls over teachers and students they can improve education. They do not seem to understand what education is—for them it is essentially a means to achieving their ends, their bottom line—nor do they seem to understand that their ‘improvement’ is no improvement at all, for it moves further and further away from respect for the soul of every learner. Rather than having “No Child Left Behind” as a slogan, we should realize that, in our present conception of public schooling, “Every Child is Left Behind.” We underestimate—seriously underestimate—the nature and capacities of our children, and, quite often, of ourselves.

An understanding of the Humanities could transform this.

It has been pointed out already that the subject matter of the Humanities, human freedom, human creativity, belongs in an unseen yet powerful world. All that is important and human in our lives is expressed in terms that are universal, or, to put it the other way round, are never concrete. The meaning of the terms—ideas, values, ethics, virtues, meanings, thought itself—are all unseen in themselves and they only become apparent to us and capable of analysis when they are made concrete, that is, when they are exemplified.  So, we can examine a book, a text, and analyze it in terms of the liberal arts; we can inquire into actions of men and women and seek a definition of courage; we can consider our international affairs and try to evaluate them in terms of justice—or even in terms of prudence; but all the time we are viewing the seen world, the world of appearances, in the light of the unseen world, the world of ideas.

When we do this, when we think of the meaning of things, it is difficult not to think of what it is in us that is doing the thinking. It is a beautiful and mysterious activity for it is essentially the soul thinking about itself, or, if you prefer it, it is the intellect in the soul thinking about what it means to know something. This requires great discipline and we have to learn to live with the beauty and the mystery, but if, with great courage, we persist, it becomes apparent that human knowledge is not absolute. It consists in Socrates’ famous dictum that he knew that he did not know. Human knowledge, it seems to me, is always dialectical, by which I mean, that if you ask this kind of question, then you get this kind of answer; but if you ask, of the same topic, another kind of question, then you will get another kind of answer. While some questions may be more fruitful than others, and similarly their answers, the fact is that there is no one question and no one answer that will reveal the total meaning of anything. Our knowledge is always partial, limited.

We are so anxious for certainty and we are so lacking in patience that in ordinary everyday usage we suppress the questions—so much so that we are usually not even aware of them. Those who lack courage and patience and humility want a definite and precise answer, and they want it now. This is the origin of the fanatic and the ideologue, who is not only certain that he is right, but requires—demands—that everyone else agrees. And, if they do not, then they must be harassed and even compelled—all, of course, for their own good (which the fanatic infallibly claims to know). History bears testimony to the cruelty and oppression of those who are quite sure they are right.

The remedy for this is to be found in the Humanities which take for their starting-point the creativity of the individual human soul. There are those who claim to teach creativity, but I do not believe that this can be done. The soul is creative by its very nature and nobody but nature can give it that power. What then does education consist in? It consists in clearing away all the accretions that have led the learner to lose sight of his or her own creativity. All the conventions, the accumulated knowledge of the past, obscure the learner’s view; those conventions and that inherited knowledge are indispensable and unavoidable; indeed, they are critical, but they are not everything. The problem for all of us, but especially the young, is how to make the necessary inheritance live, how to make it vital, how to make it true and beautiful. As Goethe wrote:

That which your fathers have bequeathed to you, earn it

anew if you would possess it..

We can do much to assist the creativity of the soul as long as we recognize that we do not provide the creativity. We can feed it with healthy nutrients—the classics, for example—we can diminish the weeds—false and unworthy opinions and attitudes, for example—we can let the soul be bathed in light as it begins to realize its likeness to the sun (that is, its own creative and energizing power)—we can, on occasions, give a supportive opinion or interpretation, making sure that it is tentative—we can make provisions for studying simpler (in the sense of more fundamental) things before proceeding or rushing to conclusions. Above all, perhaps, we can show in ourselves what a more mature and humble soul might be like, at least in certain respects.

I would like to welcome you to the unseen world, which, in fact, we all already inhabit. We can learn to live in it more fully, that is, we can make our ideas and principles increasingly influential in the world, if we so choose, and the Humanities, as I understand them, reveal to us the true democracy, for the worth of an idea is not diminished no matter how many people understand it; we can all share in it and in relation to it we are all equal. In the unseen world there are not rich and poor, nor black and white, nor bond and free, there are only souls striving to fulfill themselves by creating some vision of the Good and sharing it with others, for, as Plato reminds us, friends have things in common. Koina; ta; tw`n filw`n.