The Humanities in the Age of Loneliness

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailHOW CAN THE HUMANITIES help restore the centrality of the public good, an essential step toward the collective action necessary for combating our current constitutional and ecological crises? Like many Americans, I have been thinking a lot lately about these crises, and about how I might direct my outrage and despair productively. Reading for context and background has taken me through biographies, histories, and humanistic reflections by scientists. And I found my way to Pope Francis’s remarkable encyclical Laudato si’, in which he beautifully conjoins ecological and social justice. He argues for the reduction of the technocratic paradigm of individualistic progress that has subsumed us, replacing it with a holistic, compassionate paradigm in which we simultaneously care for each other and the earth. It is a far-reaching, comprehensive, and radical spiritual, social, and economic vision in which the pope seems to be collectively channeling Jesus, Gandhi, the Founding Fathers, Bernie Sanders, and Jane Goodall.

Climate change is not an isolated, apolitical phenomenon, but a symptom, byproduct, and intensifier of a much larger social, legal, and philosophical collapse. The erosion and deliberate attack on fundamental constitutional principles, identified by historian Jill Lepore as political equality, natural rights, and popular sovereignty, has directly contributed to the acceleration of climate change. As we abandon such egalitarian principles, we fail to protect ourselves not only politically but also ecologically.

The term Anthropocene has now become the consensus appellation for our current geological age, the age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment. An alternative was suggested a few years ago by biologist E. O. Wilson, who prefers the term Eremocene, or the Age of Loneliness (eremo coming from the Greek for lonely or bereft). His notion of loneliness refers to both the rapid decline of biodiversity on our planet, and the fact that humans, while increasing their proportion of and dominance over the Earth’s population, suffer a consequent isolation, commanding the Earth while eradicating its complexity, diversity, and natural beauty. A singular self-absorbed species, we are racing toward being, ultimately, alone and aloof in a sterile cosmos.

So how can the humanities aid us in developing a productive counter-response? For some, the question may sound ironic, since our current dilemma is generated by human dominance. But it is important to distinguish anthropocentrism from the cohesive humanistic ideas that blend social and natural ecologies. The principles grounded in the humanities — notions of character, responsibility, civility, empathy, inquiry, collaboration, the public good, the heroic, beauty, and truth — are also at the center of the revolutionary idealism which forged our Constitution. While the antidote to the Age of Loneliness is not easily conjured, it needs a political as well as scientific response — that is, it will need the lessons we can learn through the humanities. The Paris Climate Accord, near-universally accepted as a necessary, if insufficient first step, was a political agreement; leaving it was a political decision justified by weak reasoning and deceitful rhetoric.

If we assume that the public good is inextricably linked to a healthy and sustainable environment, the devastating intrusions on that good by fossil fuel and other corporate interests, and by an executive branch that is in lockstep with them, seem a clear violation of the constitutional principles on which our country was formed. They also represent a dangerous disintegration of the public sector, with nefarious consequences in a diminution of the fundamental premise of a citizenry and of citizenship, a recognition of what we share in common. Indeed, the Constitution was premised on defending the public against the excesses of a tyrannical, divisive executive. As John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1816, said, “Power always thinks it has a great Soul, and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak.” Our national Constitution was designed to keep government grounded in the self-interest and consent of its citizens, at least its white male citizens. This, of course, is its fundamental foundational flaw, the problematic nature of an economy built on slavery and the investment of many of the founders in slavery as an institution, the perpetuation of the original sin that pervaded our country, as well as the disenfranchisement of women despite the early pleas of Abigail Adams and others. However, we might agree that the principles were not a problem; the definition of personhood and equality were.

In the creation of our system of governing principles, civil society and justice were the overriding concerns. These were premised on the idea of the public good. Thomas Paine wrote, “[T]he word republic means the public good, or the good of the whole, in contradistinction to the despotic form which makes the good of the sovereign, or of one man, the only object of government.” It is important to understand that the public good privileged the whole not only over the despot but also over the individual. The concept of the Commonwealth, for which republicanism was designed, envisioned a harmonious integration of all parts of the community and a sacrifice of individual interests to the greater good. We see this concept replicated throughout our history, in Lincoln’s second inaugural address, in FDR’s fireside chats and in his call to sacrifice during World War II, and later in President Kennedy’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

This Lockean contract formed by individuals with each other sees all government officials, including the executive and the judicial, as agents of the people. “All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people,” George Mason brazenly proclaimed in his 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. Government “has of itself no rights; they are altogether duties,” wrote Thomas Paine in Rights of Man. James Madison’s system of checks and balances would result in a distinctive form of government not subject to the disintegration that had plagued previous republics. The Constitution presented a new and idealistic understanding of politics where the common good was the primary objective of government. It also, suggested Founding Father John Dickinson, protected “the worthy against the licentious,” so good character was imperative in the choice of leaders. As historian Gordon Wood points out, public sacrifice of private interests for the good of the community was paramount. The republic was thus premised on an extraordinary moral character in the people and on a radical sense of public spiritedness that minimized any sense of conflict between public and personal liberty.

The present, imminent, and long-term exacerbating catastrophes that have been, are, and will be caused by climate change require another revolutionary moment in promoting the centrality of the public good, a revolutionary moment in our collective thinking. We need to realize again the utopian ideology that spurred the formation of the United States through a constitution whereby the liberty and happiness of the people was seen as the true mission of government. We also need to replace recurring imperatives to manifest destiny and the conquest of nature with a humility about our place in the web of life. To limit the process of addressing climate change to the purview of science and policy is to risk a less comprehensive response than this crisis demands. Just as environmental research and studies have been broadened by integrating science and policy with perspectives from the humanities — which have provided focus and context in terms of place, ethics, storytelling, and culture — such sharpened and expansive means of problem-solving are needed for countering human-caused impending disasters with integrated and legacy solutions.

How can the humanities continue to help? By doing what we have always done best, but in more focused, publicly engaged venues. Too often we witness political progressives lacking a consistent and compelling story to tell, resorting to knee-jerk defensiveness or accusation. Just as the folklore in myriad cultures, including Greek and Roman and Japanese and Hindu classics, offer lessons about heroism and wickedness, about what makes a culture vibrant and what undermines it, we are charged with renewing these stories and telling them to our fellow citizens. The stories for the Eremocene must speak of the consequences of Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Bhopal, the Dust Bowl, whale and elephant slaughter, and the eradication of biodiversity on the planet. Through literature, history, art, and philosophy, we must teach the impact of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord on the sustainable liberty and happiness of our citizens. And we should return to the ideals of extraordinary moral character for both leaders and citizens, embedded in the Constitution, as the backbone of a prosperous and civil society.

Climate change can only be slowed or mitigated through a focus on the public good, by overcoming a culture and politics of blame and grievance to form a revolutionary idealism based on the collective. Any passionate renewal of our commitment to the general welfare requires that we focus on the ideals and identity we share rather than venting grievances that divide us. While remembering that complaint and blame, however necessary to critique and resistance, are also the lingua franca of contemporary charlatans and demagogues, it is incumbent upon citizen educators to embrace a renewed and cogent language that reduces their prevalence. Just as the journalists and pamphleteers fomented the toppling of the monarchy in the French Revolution and Thomas Paine’s essays and Jefferson’s Declaration spurred the American Revolution, we can create a new rhetoric of public action, a coherent moral narrative, forged from the abiding texts of our humanities disciplines, texts that eloquently address justice and higher purpose.

The stories we study, write, and teach must continue to stress responsibility as the foundation of ethics, indeed as a new vision for our time. Think of Lakota Black Elk’s vision in which he was shown all of creation and his place in it, including the past and future of his own people. Near the end of his vision, he stood on a tall mountain and looked down at the world:

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.

And we might look to Aeneas instead of Achilles as modeling behavior. In Book IX of the Iliad, Odysseus and other respected emissaries try to convince Achilles to rejoin the Trojan War for a variety of reasons (duty, glory, friendship) and he rejects their pleas — valuing his own life over all those things. In juxtaposition, one might point to Book II of the Aeneid when Aeneas insists that his father Anchises leave with the family over his father’s protests that they should leave him behind. Instead, Aeneas ends up carrying his father from the city on his back while Anchises carries the household gods. Aeneas thereby takes up the burden of both his predecessors and his family’s religious traditions.

Finally, we must rethink our educational curricula if we are to recapture and sustain the influence so necessary to shaping a better world. Just as race, class, gender, and sexuality studies came to pervade humanities research and pedagogy during the past three decades, it is imperative that ecological studies also be integrated in similarly prominent ways. All connect the individual to the collective in addressing historical and present problems and all seek solutions for wider inclusion and justice. Indeed the threat of climate change is an existential crisis, a crossroads of conviction about how we define our personal identities, not in isolation, but in recognition of the intricate web of relationships that sustain the earth we inhabit. We must understand that ecological and social concerns are in concert rather than opposition. As Laudato si’ states, “[A] true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” The linkage of the scientific with the ethical offers a radical corrective to a world out of balance that draws generously both on theological predecessors but also on the secular lessons embedded in the humanities. By grounding our own revelations in these connections, the humanities offer the most cogent and powerful possibilities for rectifying the Age of Loneliness, and it is crucial that practitioners of the humanities provide leadership for doing so.

To do so requires a paradigmatic shift and a revolutionary pedagogy. I believe this pedagogy would focus more on legacy projects wherein students are compelled to consider how their actions have impact beyond themselves and what consequences their lives have on future lives, both human and not. John Dewey told us that “[d]emocracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” I am calling for a restoration of a Deweyesque curriculum, a thoroughly integrated ecological pedagogy, one that insists on converting theory to practice, and focused on a politics of equality that extends beyond anthropocentricism. Such a pedagogy also would point to information and civic literacy, embracing constitutional principles inherent in Alexander Hamilton’s proposition in Federalist No. 1 that “good government [follows] from reflection and choice” rather than being “destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” It also must reexamine the question of what constitutes value. Restricting the definition only to economic productivity while ignoring ethical considerations and social goals presents an impoverished perspective that unravels public cohesion. Bemoaning the “rule of self-destructive financial calculation [governing] every walk of life,” the great economic theorist John Maynard Keynes lamented, “We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the un-appropriated splendors of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.”

Environmental issues cannot be solved by science or technology alone. Each issue interacts with policy, market forces, cultural and historical factors, and requires us to effectively communicate about problems, think creatively about solutions, and work collaboratively across disciplines. Complex problems are not solved with one-dimensional solutions. They require nuance, context, and nimbleness. Our digital architectures have permitted us to extend our classrooms beyond four walls and our research beyond hard and soft covers, so why not continue to extend these platforms by firmly necessitating that public engagement be a required part of our educational mission?

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in his December 19, 1776, pamphlet, The American Crisis. He goes on, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” George Washington had the essay read to his troops on Christmas 1776 on the eve of their victory at Trenton. The Hebrew term Tikkun Olam refers to healing a broken world so all could see the oneness of the creation, much like Black Elk’s vision. It goes back to the Old Testament Abraham, winds through the Kabbalah and Midrashic thought, and is made manifest in modern mitzvahs, acts of goodwill — a profound joining of mysticism with activism. Its spirit is inherent in our Constitution, in ecological thought, and in the mission of the humanities. As the heirs of Aeneas and Black Elk, Thomas Paine and Jane Goodall, it is incumbent upon us in a time that tries many of our souls to stand and promote the humanities in order to heal the Age of Loneliness.


Robert D. Newman is president and director of the National Humanities Center.