I collect articles lamenting the decline of the humanities. One day I may read them. It was perhaps a lapse of judgment that placed the latest entry in the genre before my eyes rather than upon the amassing pile. “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.” So the article states. The assertion can be put even more bluntly: to be human is to need the humanities. This is both true and false.
The Axial Age did not unfold as neatly as Karl Jaspers told it, but at various times, and in various ways the great reflective turn that he described did occur. Human beings began to wonder, as they had not previously, what it was to be human. The exploration and study that attended this wonder were the humanities. No longer given by mere existence, now an object of intense rumination, humanity became a possibility of inward and outward realization. Humans need the humanities not because we are human, but only in so far as we rise to conceive of humanity as a possibility.
Reflection is not the mentation we presently tend to value. Instead we prize the fitting of means to ends, especially when those ends are comfort, convenience, and distraction. The humanities belonged to burdened men of solitude who wished not to be taken by shallows and illusions.
Better than asking why we need the humanities, we should ask instead what we forget by abandoning them. The humanities rightly understood are less about knowing well-read texts than about the dispositions impressed by reading texts well. The texts will remain, distributed, indeed, more widely than ever. But they will not be read well. They will be distracting idles, picked up, pieced through, and put down without impression.
Man will not degrade into an unintelligent being without the humanities. No, he will continue contriving ever more clever means to ever more commodious ends. He might even be happy, as the incognizant usually are. Were we to abandon the humanities, we would no longer strive to be human in the way that our best progenitors strove to be human. Humanity will degrade to the given, but we will not perceive the degradation because we will have forgotten that men once aspired to anything more.
Is the Age of Humanities at an end? If it is, then perhaps we need the humanities only to provide that someone remembers to note its passing and to deliver its unheard eulogy. Or is it merely in eclipse? In that case, then perhaps we need the humanities to ensure that someone still remembers enough to ask “Are we?” whenever another purports that we are human.