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Life Arts

Not For Profit, Eh? Hold on There, Martha Nussbaum!

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) April 2, 2010 The estimable Martha Nussbaum's forthcoming new book is titled NOT FOR PROFIT: WHY DEMOCRACY NEEDS THE HUMANITIES. Of course we are familiar with non-profit organizations (a.k.a. non-profits), so we should understand that not all worthwhile human activities have to be for monetary profit. As a result, we can speak of non-monetary profit or value. But "non-monetary profit" is a very cumbersome expression, so I'd prefer not to use it.

So I want to raise the following questions: How does one profit from studying the humanities (where the term "profit" refers to non-monetary profit)? What is the payoff and thus the profit of studying the humanities, if any?

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Of course for a small percentage of people such as Nussbaum herself studying the humanities can lead to a career in teaching the humanities. So humanities teachers profit from the study of the humanities by the salaries they receive. But what about all the other people who might study the humanities in a series of core courses, but who do not go on to become humanities teachers?

At times in the United States, people thought that they should pursue a liberal arts education (which I use here as a rough equivalent for the humanities) so that they could develop a philosophy of life, whatever that is. Whatever this expression may have encompassed in their imaginations, it frequently did move them to take some philosophy courses, which are the core courses in the liberal arts and humanities. In my case I took six philosophy courses as the core courses in my undergraduate liberal arts education, in which I majored in English. By developing a philosophy of life, the college graduates would then be equipped for life, even if they happened to modify their acquired philosophy of life over the course of their lives. But today very few students enter college with the goal in mind of developing a philosophy of life. For them, a philosophy of life is evidently not a prerequisite for setting forth on their future adult lives.

But this brings us to Socrates' claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. By his standard, billions of people in the world in the past and in the present have lived lives that are not worth living. By his standard, the examined life is the only kind of life worth living.

Given his standard, Socrates could readily claim, "What would it profit someone to gain all the material wealth in the world if in the process of doing so he or she loses his or her soul?" In short, the purpose of the examined life is to find one's soul, not to lose it. This is the profit of the examined life. In other words, the examined life is for profit, the profit being to find one's soul, not to lose it.

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Put differently, the unexamined life leads one to lose one's soul and not find it even if one gains all the wealth in the world.

Thus liberal arts education, or humanities education, is for profit. Its benefit is to learn how to live an examined life, instead of living an unexamined life.

Next, I want to discuss a certain point that Walter J. Ong, S.J (1912-2003) liked to make. He repeatedly made the point that we need both closeness (proximity) and distance to understand something, including presumably understanding ourselves.

By virtue of growing up in American culture today, we Americans bring our American cultural conditioning with us wherever we go. We might liken our American cultural conditioning to a portable prison-cage in which we move around wherever we may happen to go. Our American cultural conditioning is thus the closeness dimension of our lives.

Liberal arts education, or humanities education, provides us with the distance dimension that we need for understanding our cultural heritage and our cultural conditioning.

So 2 + 2 = 4 (in a decimal-based system of counting). According to Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. But the examined life depends on understanding that which we are examining. According to Ong, we need both closeness (proximity) and distance to understand something, including our lives and our cultural conditioning. We have the closeness dimension by virtue of our American cultural conditioning. But liberal arts education, or humanities education, provides us with the distance dimension, so we need such education to lead an examined life.

Ah, but there remains the lure of the unexamined life, which is easily attained but at the price of losing our souls. But what profit is there, if any, of not losing our souls?

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The profit of not losing one's soul is finding one's soul through living an examined life. The alternative to finding one's soul through living an examined life is to live one's life as a drifter drifting through life.

Arguably one of the most famous stories about someone drifting through life for about ten years of his adult life is the Homeric epic the ODYSSEY. But Odysseus is not happy about all his drifting. But does he live an examined life, or an unexamined life? In a certain sense he does examine his life because he recounts parts of his life on his journey. Yes, but does he profit from examining his life, and if he does, what exactly is the profit? He profits from recounting parts of his life because in the process of recounting his life he self-consciously appropriates his own life and thereby "owns" it as we say today. Thus the profit of the examined life is self-appropriation.

In a famous episode, Odysseus the drifter listens to a singer of tales sing the tale of the war in Troy. The singer is thereby providing the distance dimension for Odysseus. Odysseus is moved to tears of sorrow and sadness by the singer's song about Odysseus' lost comrades. Life can be like a war, and like a war, life can bring us many sorrows to grieve.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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