Exploring the therapeutic potential of the humanities.
Of the power of art, history, and philosophy to change us there are few instances more straightforward than Rilke’s sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in which a confrontation with classical sculpture ends with the injunction, “You must change your life.” It might seem, at first, a short step from that stern command to branding Rilke’s collected letters as The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, as the Modern Library did in 2005. Self-transformation has always been part of the promise of the humanities, after all.
But it’s also clear that advocacy for the humanities has moved beyond self-transformation. Majoring in English, the sales pitch now goes, will help you craft your soul. The humanities can not only change how we think but also provide extractable and consumable advice on better living.
Books arguing this case often use the author’s own inspirational story as evidence for the transformative power of the humanities. Witness William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, Joseph Luzzi’s In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me about Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Life, or Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. Similarly, A.O. Scott’s new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, frames interpretation as a means to life enhancement, an approach to winning friends and influencing people. Self-transformation is being rebranded as self-help.
And why not? Ours is the age of kale shakes, CrossFit, and mindfulness meditation, at least for certain highly educated and affluent circles. On one level, bibliotherapy of the kind Deresiewicz offers is merely the more cerebral counterpart to a host of contemporary wellness regimes. Although they may not be tasty or cheap, books about the value of the humanities promise to make self-improvement convenient. Is it any wonder that they would be created and marketed as commodities?
The humanities are also under serious pressure, even by historical standards. Politicians from Scott Walker to President Barack Obama counsel college students to opt for majors that will lead to jobs (meaning, as Obama specified, majors other than art history). Educators at all levels are obsessed with building up STEM programs. And, finally, with new media threatening the old media, the time seems right for playing up the life-changing potential of traditional humanities study while downplaying its difficulty.
And yet—jokes about kale aside—the current enthusiasm for the humanities as self-help connects with very old traditions. The notion that literature or art can heal and transfigure extends back to the Greeks, whose admirers in the Renaissance era revived and celebrated the idea. But it was later humanists, particularly German neo-humanists in the eighteenth century, who gave the ideal of secular soul-making through humanistic study its mature expression, developing it into a theoretical principle in works such as Friedrich Schiller’s Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Mankind (1794), and institutionalizing it in the school reforms they helped design.
Inspired by the democratic spirit of the times, they even invented a new genre, the bildungsroman, in which middle-class protagonists struggled to arrange their lives with respect to love, friendship, and the things that really matter. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the original self-development novel, was published in 1795. Goethe and Schiller thought that anyone could remake himself through an aesthetic education. But this democratizing tendency also encouraged people to believe that a better self was within reach. They just had to try a bit harder.
Indeed, it didn’t take too long for the popularizing—and marketing—to begin. Within a few decades, German presses were publishing inexpensive editions of classics under the slogan “Bildung macht frei” (“Culture will set you free”). Although the phrase now sounds sinister, at the time it suggested that if readers made a modest investment of money and effort, they could have the best of what the humanities had to offer. Stefan Zweig, the top-selling German-language author of the 1920s, owed his success—according to his detractors at least—to an uncanny ability to make the middlebrow seem highbrow. He specialized in writing accessible and inspiring biographies of great artists. He turned culture, one contemporary complained, into an elevator: “In you step, and up you go.”
In embracing the therapeutic potential of the humanities, its new champions obscure its other, less welcoming aspects: discipline, authority, and submission. Whether it was the Renaissance humanists or their modern German successors, those devoted to the humanities long assumed that books could change lives only if readers submitted to them. The possibility of transformation required those seeking it to trust a teacher, a canon, a tradition—something beyond the self. In ways that went beyond popularizing efforts and marketing ploys, the democratic demands of modernity strained the link between humanistic self-transformation and subordination.
No one recognized this basic tension better than Friedrich Nietzsche, who began his academic career in Basel in the late 1860s as a philologist and, thus, a guardian of ancient texts and traditions. For Nietzsche, those texts could indeed set students free, but students first had to submit themselves to the authority of the texts. Germany’s progressive educational reformers had, to Nietzsche’s dismay, convinced themselves otherwise.
In 1872, Nietzsche took aim at the educational problems of his day in a series of lectures, On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. One of the most pernicious beliefs, he claimed, was that teachers could develop every student’s “so-called free individual personality” by encouraging students to express freely their views of classic texts.
Nietzsche strongly disagreed, contending that young minds should not sit in judgment on great works because such works were the very resource that might, with the right sort of study, equip students to make their own judgments in the future. Any lasting form of freedom and better living required discipline and, at least initially, an attitude of submission toward trusted and authoritative models—you need help to change your life, and not the kind that promises convenience.
Nietzsche’s critique has elements of the conservative humanism that characterized such contemporaneous writings as Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869). And yet Nietzsche was concerned less with a simple opposition between modern vulgarity and the classics and more with the profound difficulty of tapping into the transformative power of the latter. Why, he wondered, was it so hard for modern readers to have access to the Greeks?
Almost a century after Nietzsche delivered his lectures, the German émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt would echo his concerns in “The Crisis in Education” (1958). “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child,” she wrote, “education must be conservative.” Rather than “instructing in the art of living,” the misguided method of her American colleagues, teachers of the humanities should lead young minds to a formative awareness of their place in the “old world” in which they find themselves, a journey requiring rigorous learning about that world. An education, especially in the modern world, that forgoes “either authority or tradition” does its students a grave disservice.
As the American critic Lionel Trilling correctly understood, the German ideal of Bildung entailed “strict sanctions and required submission.” It signified fashioning, forming, and cultivating but also being fashioned, formed, and cultivated. Writing in the 1970s, Trilling had come to think that what stood in the way of Bildung in America was not only a native attachment to autonomy but also an unwillingness to commit to just one self and its development. Americans, he claimed, wanted to have multiple selves and the attendant feelings of possibility.
As Trilling foresaw, we have moved even farther from the practice of subordinating ourselves to the authority of texts and traditions. We have arrived at a point when it makes sense to package books of criticism, in some cases quite intelligent ones, in the language of solicitous guides to self-improvement. We offer a humanities that promises to give much in the way of practical advice while asking little, a humanities that exists only to help you make your life better in the here and now—and only in terms that can be understood in the language of self-help.