Politics and the Humanities01-09-2021
In a podcast conversation with Ben Klutsey of Discourse Magazine, Roger Berkowitz speaks about pluralism, citizen assemblies, and liberalism. He also explains why the humanities are so important for politics.
If politics, as you were just saying and I’ve been trying to say, is the task of finding what unites us as different people—I think it was Aristotle who says that the polis is a unity of a multitude. E pluribus unum is actually a translation of Aristotle, although I don’t know if it’s direct, but fine.
The politician is the person who stands in the middle and speaks and gathers the multitude around them so that they realize what they share without giving up what is different. That’s how I understand politics. Why is the humanities absolutely essential to politics? And I think it is. It’s because the humanities is the study of what we share. It’s the study of what we as human beings share amidst our many differences.
At the end of her essay “Crisis in Culture,” Arendt quotes Cicero, who says, “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents.” She says that this quotation, this line, this insight of Cicero’s is at the core of the humanities. Why? Because it says that the humanities are about what I share with my friends, those I recognize as my friends. Plato. And I’d rather recognize and be with my friends than go hold true views with opponents.
The humanities, she says, is not about truth. In the humanities, we don’t talk about truth and we shouldn’t. Some people do, but we shouldn’t. Why not? Because what we talk about in the humanities is the beautiful. You can’t argue to somebody, this painting is beautiful. You can’t. There’s no true beauty.
Like art, which is about judgments of tastes, and here’s one of the most insightful arguments Arendt will make. Like art, which is about judgments of taste, politics is about judgments of taste. Politics is about deciding who are our friends in the broadest way we can, and then figuring out how to live with our friends so that we respect them and they respect us.
How do we unite with our friends who we are, whether we’re Americans or New Yorkers or academics or whatever? How do we create a community of our friends that allows us all to be part of that community? That is a judgment of taste. It’s about, how do we determine that this painting of the trial of Socrates is different from a piece of poop on a podium? That’s a matter of taste. There’s no argument we can make for it. How do we determine that the Gettysburg Address is different from tweets telling us that someone is a jerk or this? That’s a matter of taste. How do we determine that an argument is different from canceling somebody? How do we determine that while lies may be part of politics, repeatedly lying and denying reality is not?
These are matters of taste, and what they require is that all of us, despite our differences, share some common sense, share some common standards. And that’s what the humanities teaches. The humanities teaches that you can love the Aeneid and you can love Derek Walcott’s Omeros. You can love Sappho, and you can love Virginia Woolf, and you can love Plato.
The point is, the beauty of the humanities is that the texts are lovable because they’re good. I can’t argue to it; I can only teach you. I can only, through conversation and teaching with you, point to you and show you why certain things have a quality to them and other things don’t. That determination of quality, which is a matter of taste, is at the heart of art and culture and is at the heart of politics. That’s why I think the humanities is central to politics.