“The Art of Living Well”: Comments on Gregg Lambert’s Lecture

[This post was written by Prof. George McClure of the Department of History, University of Alabama.]

Kudos to the Religious Studies Department for launching this timely and important lecture series! Some thoughts on the first lecture follow. To my mind, Lambert’s talk demonstrated or exemplified the crisis in the Humanities, rather than analyzing it. He spoke of human capital, rather than human meaning; economic value, rather than moral values; commodification of self, rather than communion with ideas . Although promising to define various terms, he never defined the Humanities, in terms either of their origin or purpose—other than to suggest that the practical usefulness of a Humanities education is to burnish one’s “brand” for economic value in a contemporary culture awash with self-promotion.

To valorize the Humanities only in this way is to capitulate to the view that a university education has purpose only for professional reasons. While proponents of this consumerist view argue that they are the only ones really acknowledging the economic crisis, they may be adding to it, as the Humanities will never successfully compete with the sciences and professional disciplines for practical usefulness. Ironically, if one wanted to affirm the Humanities’ (and universities’) economic viability, it would be by showing that they possess something found nowhere else in the culture: a reading and interpretation of texts, ideas, and human experience in rigorous exchange with scholarly experts.

We shouldn’t try to compete with television, emulate the cult of celebrity (thus Lady Gaga on the slide), and monetize the intangible. And, yes, there is an intrinsic value in the humanities: where else can you go to explore the “art of living well and happily,” proper engagement with the larger social and natural world, and a template for self-discovery. This is the “commodity” we should be “selling”; rather, the opportunity we should be offering in the Humanities. If you want simply to polish your image or commodify your labor, go to a vocational school or get a PR agent, but please don’t come to the Humanities: you would be wasting your time and mine.

4 thoughts on ““The Art of Living Well”: Comments on Gregg Lambert’s Lecture

  1. I think the push for working definitions, as you mention, is a productive move. Can you say more about what you mean, then, by ideas like “human meaning,””moral values,” and “communion with ideas”…?

    1. I used the terms “human meaning” and “moral values” in opposition to Lambert’s focus on human capital and economic values respectively. To elaborate briefly, by “meaning” I am referring to the kind of personal search that existentialism mandates: namely, the idea that “existence precedes essence” and that it is up to individuals to define that essence or meaning. Elucidating the process of that search, but not the end of it, should be one of the tasks of the humanities. A great example of this can be found in Viktor Frankl’s remarkable *Man’s Search for Meaning,* in which he recounts his experiences in Auschwitz (and other death camps) and defines his concept of “logotherapy”. This therapy of meaning draws upon existential thought to argue that meaning can be found even in suffering.
      As for “moral values,” by this I do not mean that the humanities prescribe any set of values, but that they again provide a framework to explore them in one’s own terms. One reads Cicero’s Stoic *De officiis,* for instance, not as a prescription for particular behavior, but as a template for applying ethical analysis to the various realms of experience (in Cicero’s case, the realms of politics, warfare, business).
      As for the “communion with ideas,” I mean nothing more than engaging the diverse heritage of the humanities (in the past or present) for a deeper interiority, rather than merely for a more polished persona: that is, allowing the examples and precepts of literature, moral philosophy, theology, mythology, and history to wash over you in such a way as to reveal your own possibilities and passion.