Understanding the humanities and happiness with Talbot Brewer

What are the keys to happiness? What is the meaning of life? Philosopher and University of Virginia professor Talbot Brewer will discuss how to find these answers in the humanities at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 14 in the School of Law auditorium. A specialist in ethics, political philosophy and moral psychology, Brewer will offer his take on the value of the humanities. His talk is offered as part of a $2.1 million funded grant project titled, “Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life,” which is co-directed by Carolina philosopher Jennifer Frey.

We caught up with Brewer to get a look at why and how the humanities can help unlock a deeper understanding of life.

Q: How do the humanities contribute to happiness and meaningfulness in life?

Brewer: There is at best a tenuous connection between the humanities and happiness. Serious engagement with literature and art does of course have its pleasures, and we professors would be falling down on the job if our students did not come to know these pleasures. But if you went to a production of, say, Shakespeare's “Othello” in hopes of making yourself happier, you'd be making a serious mistake. Seeing “Othello” can be, and indeed ought to be, a crushing experience. But while you probably would not walk out of the theater brimming with happiness, you might walk out with a deeper understanding of intimate love and the potentially deadly pathologies to which it exposes us. Whether such understanding makes life more meaningful is a complicated question. I think that it does. I would not wish to deny that someone who has never learned to read or write, and never learned to appreciate art, can have an extremely meaningful life, nor would I wish to rule out the possibility that someone with an advanced degree in philosophy or literature might lead a superficial existence. Still, I do think that when pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one's experience of life, and that is an enormous gift.

Q: Today, how important is it for people to reflect on the humanities’ concepts, virtues and values?

Brewer: We have devised a world in which mercenary words and images press upon us during almost every waking hour. When amid this clamor of manipulative messages we suddenly encounter something quite different, something called literature or art or philosophy, it is not easy to adjust our habits of attention and open ourselves fully to this newcomer. The cultural environment has not encouraged the traits required for proper engagement with the humanities: the habit of sustained attention and of patience and generosity in interpretation; the openness to finding camaraderie and illumination from others in the more treacherous passages of human life; the expressive conscience that cannot rest until it lights upon exactly the right words for one’s own incipient thoughts. By creating a space within which we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression.

Q: What’s the one thing you want attendees to take away?

Brewer: Some have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to economic productivity. Others have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to the health of our democratic institutions. Neither approach seems to me very convincing. What drives so many friends of the humanities to these two options, I believe, is the thought that if the humanities do not boost the economy or strengthen the polity, then their value must be an entirely individual matter, hence not a genuine public concern. This way of framing the issue trades on a mistakenly atomistic conception of human culture. The attainment of a sophisticated level of articulacy about human life both depends upon, and contributes to, a background cultural sophistication about human life. When it comes to the contest between depth and superficiality, we are in it together. At a time when our metastasizing material productivity poses a serious threat to the future of human life on this planet, perhaps we would be well advised to put less emphasis on economic growth and more emphasis on this entirely sustainable shared pursuit, to which the humanities can make an important contribution.

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