Well, there you have it. Milan Kundera has one of his characters, Paul, say that Europeans will never be able to fight another war because they don’t believe in anything anymore. That is, the French can’t and won’t fight for the French way of life because they don’t believe in it (at least against other nations; I’m not saying anything about torching their neighbors’ businesses and bashing the windshields out of tante Yvette’s car, an altogether understandable way to preserve one’s way of life). Nor can perhaps the most-listened-to (or heard) of the humanists in the U.S. today make a case for the humanities that is anything else than a French temper-tantrum at his friends losing their jobs.
But let me put it to you: why would you do anything else—if you didn’t believe in it?
This is what has been slowly choking the life out of the humanities. Once the Gradgrind argument became vogue—that is, once we bought the idea that facts, numbers, etc., should determine the good of the humanities—it was only a matter of time.
Ironically, the humanities have in some sense been a millennia-long protest against a view of the world that is “just the facts, ma’am.” Their very existence, their very own articulation of their raison d’être, is that they give access to some other non-quantifiable, qualitative dimension of human life: that of the soul, that mysterious thing we all know we have but whose existence we cannot prove by empirical measure.
Humanism, in fact, and Wittenberg humanism in particular, prizes this unproven thing, this thing whose existence has no demonstrable measure, as the center of human life, as the definitional element of humans. Luther defines the human being by his aristotelian potential in his Disputatio de homine: hominem posse justificari—man has the ability to be justified. Here he lays a theological finger on the distinctive element of human beings as overagainst all other creatures. Humans have the ability either (failingly) to justify their own existence before God, or to receive from God the justification for their existence. All other things have their account. It is humans alone who seek—and either make up or blessedly receive—an account. In other words, it is humans alone who are possessed of a soul, a soul caught in immeasurable existential Anfechtung or temptatio. And that’s why we need the humanities—to help us live in this strange place, between God and the animals, between good and evil, between infinite beauty and unspeakable horror amidst the truths and deceptions, the scant justices and barbarous injustices involved in human life.
That’s what we think. But if that account makes no sense to you, at least the humanities keep a few of Stanley Fish’s friends employed.