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How the Liberal Arts Lost Its Happiness Groove

“The liberal arts are a luxury we just can’t afford.”

You’ve probably heard some variation of that line before. I hear it all the time—from politicians, pundits, business leaders, the parents of my students, and (occasionally) from students themselves. With belt tightening and concerns about resources and employability in the new global economy, the sentiment is certainly understandable. But it leaves out something central about the liberal arts. At their core, they are about living the good life—a flourishing and happy life in the fullest sense of the words.

Liberal arts are about what it means to be a human

Let me explain. What we call the “liberal arts”—broadly speaking, subjects such as history, literature, foreign languages, philosophy, natural philosophy (science), and mathematics—derive from the classical artes liberales, those subjects that the Greeks and Romans believed were essential to making human beings fit for dignity and freedom (the Latin word liber means free). They frequently overlapped with the studia humanitates—what we call the “humanities”—essentially the study of what it means to be a human being.

Great thinkers pondered happiness throughout history

This was the foundational question of philosophy, whose central aim from Socrates forward was the investigation of happiness or human flourishing. It remained the question of philosophy for many centuries to come. Aristotle asked it. So did the Stoics and the Epicureans. In late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, St. Augustine, Boethius, and St. Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the question, as did Erasmus and Thomas Moore, among many others, in the Renaissance.

In the 18th century, the great philosophers of the Enlightenment tended to agree with Voltaire, who declared that the “the great and only concern is to be happy.” And leading lights such John Stuart Mill continued to grapple with that concern well into the 19th century.

The 20th Century decides: Happiness isn't cool

But then something happened. In the 20th century, philosophers for the most part turned their back on the good life. They analyzed language; they thought about nothingness; they worried about alienation and nihilism. And centuries of thought about living well were largely dismissed, forgotten or ignored.

A similar forgetting occurred in the study of literature, which had existed since its inception to provide pleasure to readers and enhance life with insights about the human condition. But in the 20th century, in the shadow of the Holocaust and two world wars, the study of literature was transformed into a negative affair. In such a climate, the positive seemed glib. Convinced that pain alone was profound and positive emotion somehow superficial and trite, academics across the world took the joy out of the novel, play, and poem, forgetting in the process to stress the themes that were always there between the pages: optimism and resilience, hope and forgiveness, gratitude and altruism, kindness, laughter, wonder and just plain fun.

The dismal science

It would be easy to trace this negative turn in other disciplines in the liberal arts and the humanities. Economics, which emerged in the 18th century to maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number, became in the hands of its descendants the “dismal science,” devoted to maximizing profits. Politics, too, got caught up in the pursuit of power at the expense of the pursuit of happiness.

Even the venerable discipline of history, whose very first document—The History of Herodotus—begins with an inquiry about the happiest man in the world, was transformed into a long chronicle of cruelty, oppression, injustice and not much else. “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” the influential critic Walter Benjamin declared. Not much room for happiness in that.

A new look at the positive humanities

Fortunately, with the dawn of the 21st century, things have begun to change, with students of the liberal arts and humanities today actively reclaiming their historic mission to examine and cultivate the good life. Similar to the shift in psychology in recent years toward a positive psychology that seeks to understand well-being and not simply disease, humanists are moving toward a “positive humanities,” which would draw out and focus on those aspects of the liberal arts that are of benefit to human flourishing and provide insight and guidance about how to live.

Philosophers have begun to re-engage with the question of happiness and well-being. Students of literature are studying the great novels and poems of the world through the lens of happiness, drawing out themes that reckon not only with tragedy but with triumph and joy. For some time now, leading scholars in economics and politics have been pursuing gross national happiness in their works. And even historians have begun to write histories of happiness and positive emotion, making clear that the record of human achievement can inspire more than just despair.  

Optimism, hope and imagination

The aim of this collective work is not to ignore suffering, as if life were just one big bowl of cherries, but rather to balance out the negative by drawing attention to the positive. The liberal arts provide a vast repository of wisdom about human well-being, and the positive humanities aim to bring its treasures back into view. Thus a recent anthology On Human Flourishing gathers classics of the world’s poetic heritage around themes such as insight, pride, self-love and resilience, ecstasy, elevation and rapture, consciousness expansion and growth, inspiration and imagination, optimism, idealism, and hope, wonder and awe, vitality and mindfulness, compassion, serenity, justice, and self-determination. The poets of the world have had deep and inspiring things to say about all these matters, and much besides. It is hardly barbaric to read their work with wonder and a smile.

If the liberal arts can continue to return to its core mission of helping human beings to live well, then surely the richest civilization in the history of humanity can afford them. Happiness may be a luxury, but it is one that we all deserve.

Darrin M. McMahon is a historian, author, and public speaker, who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and is a Professor of History at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Happiness: A History, which has been translated into 12 languages and was awarded Best Books of the Year honors for 2006 by the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Library Journal, and Slate Magazine.

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