Humanism and the Humane Arts How to live the ideals of secular humanism

Wesley Cecil

Note too that a faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel.


Can one doubt that we live in a culture antithetical to humanism? The pace of modern life, the proliferation of intrusive technologies, the triumph of consumerism and fundamentalism shape a culture indifferent to, yet at odds with, a life dedicated to reason, creativity, and aesthetics—to a humane existence.

We need to be diligent both in defending and nurturing the humane arts. Often, perhaps too often, we rise to the defense of secular humanism while neglecting the work of nurturing this tradition. Happily, the task of nurturing is no great burden, for in undertaking to advance humanism, we enrich our own lives. The humanities are a living force, and it is to the degree that this ethic is lived that the success or failure of the humanist project will be determined.

Historically, the humanities have flourished in a specific, perhaps even peculiar, environment. During times when a great many persons cultivated lives receptive to reason, letters, and the plastic arts, our greatest cultural traditions have prospered. From ancient Greece to Renaissance Florence to the Bloomsbury Group, some of the activities most closely associated with the greatest efflorescence of the humanities emerged. Among them are letter writing, conversation, frequenting salons and cafés, walking, and engaging in creative activities. These pursuits have provided the soil in which the humanities flourish. This essay argues that when we cultivate them individually, our lives grow richer; when we cultivate them collectively, our civilization blossoms.

The Art of the Letter

Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls.

—John Donne

Consider first letter writing. The close association between the proliferation of the arts and sciences and the writing and sending of letters is profound. Correspondence has helped shape the thoughts and feelings of most of our greatest minds since before Marcus Aurelius’s famous letters on ethics. Hence, one of the surest ways to gain a sense of an age is to read a collection of letters from a sensitive observer of the time.

Letters provide an opportunity for reflection, exploration, and the expression of ideas and emotions. The audience is private and select, and thus an intimacy is possible that is absent from many public works. Yet the audience is there, which requires a level of craftsmanship. Centuries of letter writing attest to the significance of this common practice in the lives of our foremost thinkers. E-mail, alas, seems to have almost displaced epistolary culture. E-mail is efficient, ubiquitous, and easy: for communicating the trivial or the merely informational at high speed, it is ideally suited. It is assumed, mistakenly, that e-mail is simply a better form of the letter and that in a world dominated by e-mail, the functional role played historically by letters is intact, indeed improved upon. More people writing more words means our lives are enhanced. Once again, our societies’ love of speed and quantity has, with little reflection, displaced a one-thousand-year-old intellectual habit.

E-mail is not a replacement for the letter. Letter writing requires a series of skills and a mindset absent from e-mail. To compose a letter one must first compose oneself, and herein is much of the of the letter’s magic: the hand must be steadied, the mind quieted, thoughts focused. Then one can begin to write. Because one wishes to avoid errors of all kinds, both mechanical and stylistic, and since one can cross out but not erase, a care is required that is absent from the composition of e-mail. A certain tension and excitement comes into play when one has written three-quarters of a page of fine prose. A dead sentence, a poorly chosen word, an inapt phrase threatens to undo one’s work. In its very facility, e-mail presents no challenge to which one can rise and thus robs the writer of the sense of fulfillment that accompanies the completion of a fine epistle. One is not pressed to do one’s best, hence, the uniformly dismal quality of e-mail prose even when the sender is known to be a writer of style.

A letter is also more sensual than an e-mail. The feel of paper, particularly fine linen stationery, is a joy. The ghost of a watermark beneath the familiar script of a friend, a blotch where ink has run or coffee spilled, a torn edge, or an appended thought in a margin brings a letter to life. With a letter, it seems that one holds a piece of another person who touched the paper here, you think, who paused there. And here some time passed, for the pen has changed, the hand has steadied. Letters may also hold small treasures—illustrations, seeds, clipped articles, or the petals of a flower. Does speed and quantity so easily displace the petals of a flower?

Writing letters is both simple and, given our cultural predilections, nearly painful. Fine stationery is easy to obtain; attractive stamps, though not a specialty of the U.S. Postal Service, can be bought; pens are no great expense. However, all of this takes a bit of thought, a little reflection. And then, when all the elements are gathered, one must pause. While I have heard resistance to letter writing based on the time it takes to write a letter, I think it is really the time is takes to prepare oneself for writing a letter that causes people to balk. A pleasant, short note can be created in a few minutes; putting oneself in a pleasant, note-writing frame of mind is another matter. It is that moment of quiet in the mind that is both rare and necessary for letter writing and the cultivation of the arts more generally. The hurly-burly of contemporary society precludes this mindful quiet and renders us nearly incapable of a simple, pleasant, and enriching practice.

E-mail has permitted millions of people to send billions of messages quickly—but at a terrible price. For all of the typing and sending, I am not convinced more communication is taking place. Rather, speed and convenience may have increased human isolation. If, as I suspect, the quantity and speed of e-mail is no great compensation for the loss of quality reasoning, reflection, and writing, then e-mail is not simply an aberration or irritant but an actual threat. The ubiquity of a refined epistolary habit amongst our worthy forebears argues that it was not an incidental aspect of a humane existence but more likely a necessary component whose waning in our time is ominous. We should pause before carelessly dropping a practice that was treasured in the moments of humanity’s greatest creative outbursts.

The Art of Conversation

A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month’s study of books.

—Chinese Proverb

Consider next the conversation. Reading the diaries, letters, or memoirs of previous generations, one finds that conversation was considered an art. One’s capacity for talk was considered an important social grace and a means of creative self-expression. Unfortunately, this skill has waned. Jacques Barzun noted the precipitous decline in the quality of conversation in America more than sixty years ago. It is not that people are not talking: the annoying intrusiveness of cell-phone users indicates that people cannot be stopped from talking. Rather, it is the quality of the talk that has declined. A conversation in the classical sense is a shared pursuit of truth through dialogue. Ideas, feelings, and experiences are developed through conversation. The requirements for a fulfilling conversation are modest: some shared outlook, openness, a willingness to listen and to learn, and a sense of
ease. Unfortunately, all of these elements are in short supply in a culture that presses social conformity, egoism, and competition through a medium—television—that stresses mental passivity.

We have, in fact, lost the notion that conversation is a social grace that needs nurturing. The mere capacity for speaking has come to be mistaken for the rare capacity for conversing. The distinction between the two is subtle but profound. To converse, one must have something to contribute, requiring the faculties of observation and reflection. Observation, in this sense, is the noticing and remembering of significant details—whether these are details of color, mood, or an equation will vary with context. Reflection is the capacity to form these details into a communicable form. This requires one to consider the significance of the thing noticed, how it might be expressed best, and how it is likely to be received. Then, when one speaks, one has something to share. Sharing is the goal of conversation, not informing, convincing, or cajoling. Conversation is the shared exploration of the human experience in all its manifold guises. When all the elements are in place, the opportunity is created to exteriorize one’s own feelings and reflections, subtle moods and flashing insights, and blend them with the same from others. Cooperatively, something greater than one’s own capacity to think, feel, and imagine is brought into being, which can enrich all participants. Like a string quartet, conversation allows for an effect to be created that is substantially different from, and often superior to, the capacity of any individual. Again, our societies’ predilection for speed and shock betrays us. We have nearly lost the capacity for wonder, subtlety, and self-reflection necessary for conversation. Our culture has substituted argument and communication for the much subtler art of building small worlds through language, attentiveness, and a harmonizing of souls.

The Art of Salon and Café

The coffee-house is the place of rendezvous to all . . . who are thus turned to relish calm and ordinary life.

—Richard Steele

It follows from the consideration of the art of conversation that the exploration of ideas through dialogue needs a setting. Historically, the most influential settings have been salons and cafés. Like letter writing, the literature of salons and cafés is extensive. Conversation is greatly aided by a convivial atmosphere, and providing that atmosphere is the function of the café or salon— which one may oversimplify by seeing them as, respectively, the public and private settings of conversation. Quality salons and cafés are no small matter. Though they are likely a necessity for a humane existence, both are threatened with extinction. For while broadly honored in memory, the tradition of the salon and café as centers of intellectual life has slowly faded.

The goal of a salon is to provide a setting that makes guests feel sufficiently at ease to express themselves well and freely. The current norm for entertaining leans toward too many people, too much noise, too many drinks, and an environment hostile toward in-depth conversation. Curiously, one is thrust into a social environment and encouraged to “talk,” yet the constant stir of people, uncomfortable physical environment, and the often oppressively loud music conspire, whatever the merits of the company, to quell any opportunity for discussion. This recurrent problem, familiar to most anyone who attends social gatherings, highlights the importance of the host or hostess, who works to create the requisite physical and psychological environment. He or she must choose guests who will, in the sum of their persons, enrich the experience of each guest as an individual. Those so provided must be comfortable without being cloying, interesting without being overwhelming. The setting must make the guests feel as if they, not the home of the host, are important. Refreshments or a light repast should soothe but not stupefy with richness or excess. Interruptions from phones, television, and distracting noises should be minimized. All of these elements must be achieved with effortless grace so that guests do not feel the host or hostess straining—and hence feel strained themselves. These are subtle yet simple requirements that have become scarce in an age that values neither the simple nor the subtle. A few hours of easy conversation in a pleasant social gathering is a rare thing of great value that deserves to be more assiduously cultivated, lest we lose a proven aid to intellectual and artistic growth.

The café is a related, yet quite different, sort of social gathering. I use café in its broadest sense to indicate wine bars, teahouses, and coffeehouses used as gathering places for conversation. Sometimes seen as a more democratic version of the private and often exclusive salon culture, anyone familiar with history cannot but note the importance of café society in movements as diverse as Vienna’s music culture, Budapest’s mathematical triumphs, and San Francisco’s Beat poets. Precisely how much of a contribution cafés have made to the artistic, political, and scientific achievements of humankind is hard to measure—but the close association of the café, in all its incarnations, with many of our finest cultural achievements is beyond question.

Unlike the salon, the café’s recent revival seems a hopeful sign of renewal. The cancerous spread of Starbucks speaks to the desire, however poorly incarnated, of people to inhabit cafés. Unfortunately, our cultures’ emphasis on speed and convenience has revived the café as a coffee-to-go place rather than a social space. Still, one can find an increasing number of quality coffeehouses that permit and even encourage conversation. As a hosting place of conversation, the requirements of a fine coffeehouse are not dissimilar to a quality salon. The general noise level cannot overwhelm speaking voices, and hence music, if present at all, must be kept at a low level. Space must be available for groups to gather impromptu, and it follows that tables and chairs should be somewhat mobile for ease of rearrangement. It must be sufficiently comfortable to put one at ease despite our bias against lingering. The influential business model that stresses customer turnover rather than customer ease makes relaxing cafés a rarity. Yet they exist, and they seem to be making a comeback.

Both the salon and the café present a challenge to our society’s impulse to do more, see more, be seen more. Why talk to two or three people when you could shake hands with ten or fifteen? Why sit for hours in one coffeehouse when you could do so many other things? There is no answer, only a trade-off. Whatever we gain in the more we do, we are losing one of the distinguishing elements of the lives of our most eminent predecessors.

The Art of the Walk

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Perhaps the most overlooked contributor to a humane life is walking. From the wandering poet-monks of China, to Aristotle’s peripatetic academy, to Einstein’s and Schrödinger’s daily strolls, walking has been cited as salutary to reflection, creativity, and thought by a truly astonishing collection of artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers. This should not surprise; bipedalism is as distinctly human as language. Indeed, given that our brains evolved with our capacity for walking upright, it seems likely that our ways of thinking and moving in the world are inextricably linked. Generally overlooked, the evidence for the benefits of walking—aside from physical health—are so prominently cited that one is forced to conclude that it is a key part of humane living. Lest it be argued that walking was in the past necessary but is now increasingly optional, I should like to point out that the greater part of walking described in letters, memoirs, and biographies is of a purely elective nature.

For all its benefits, the reflective stroll is threatened by our attachment to media and cars. Global media notwithstanding, the human experience is overwhelmingly local. Our “global village” is a dismemberment of our senses. We can hear a voice on the phone but not touch the person with whom we are speaking. We can see and hear a bustling Paris market but cannot move amongst the stalls or smell a breeze coming off the Seine. Media technology does not allow all of our senses to be engaged simultaneously and thus betrays the full potential of human experience. Similarly, our car-dominated culture imposes an inhuman scale on many of our experiences. Scenery passes too quickly to be absorbed, distance is distorted, and what we hear or feel in a car rarely has any connection with what we see outside. One cannot pause at a picturesque scene to more fully absorb a unique moment of lighting, color, or happy juxtaposition of elements. Both telecommunications and cars rob us of our sense of place from which so much of the quality of human experience arises.

Walking gives our experiences immediacy and a human scale. Our senses are engaged and our bodies active. Yet, as one walks the mind seems often to clear, allowing images, thoughts, and emotions to rise with a particular clarity. Walking has been esteemed for this seemingly contradictory combination of physical stimulation and mental acuity. When shared, walking also serves as a spur to conversation. Unfortunately, our habits and environment mitigate the pleasures of walking. Our notion of exercise has accelerated the reflective stroll to a pace damaging to either reflection or conversation. The noise pollution of our cities and the sterility of our suburbs often present a less-than-inviting environment for a stroll. Most damning, our near obsession with using one’s time “wisely” leads us away from the congenial and toward the merely productive. A quiet walk through a pleasant neighborhood with an insightful companion seems a nearly lost pastime, for we are losing quiet, pleasant neighborhoods, insightfulness, and the notion that such strolls are worth taking.

The Art of the Creative

All men dream; but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act out their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.

—T.E. Lawrence

Creativity is innate, yet the horrifying uniformity of American suburbs speaks to the millions of souls in whom the desire to create, to express oneself and one’s feelings, has been almost completely obliterated. How does this happen when children are presented with an infinite variety of art-related courses; when young people have bands, writing classes, and drama clubs; and colleges are filled with thousands of art students? A major reason is due to the consistent pressure to succeed and thence to follow the modes of the successful in all things. This pervasive pressure produces our suburban deserts in the midst of an unparalleled opportunity to be creative. Subtly yet powerfully, we receive the message that spending time in ways that do not advance one’s opportunity to make money is foolish. Creative pursuits thus take time away from more remunerative activities and, simultaneously, open one up to suspicion. Idiosyncrasies are seen as career liabilities, an odd-style house or strange garden as possible roadblocks to promotion. The normal citizen locked into the pursuit of success represses a rich imaginative, and hence aesthetic, life.

A related evil is the professionalization of creativity—creativity as career. One does not play music; one is a musician. One does not paint; one is a painter. To paint, play music, or pursue any myriad activities for the pleasure of being creative is considered frivolous. Music students are forced to give recitals. The proliferation of astonishingly poor paintings, photographs, and sculptures that adorn almost every public space derives in part from the feeling that if one is to paint, one should exhibit. It is not the painting but the exhibiting that matters, not the creating but the selling. The threats of this approach to creativity are manifold. Creativity, like surgery or welding, is seen to be the domain of a specific class—in this case the artist. It follows that individuals seeking to fill the perfectly natural desire to be creative feel they must become artists or abandon such interests. Thus, some are discouraged from exercising an innate human trait while, perversely, others are pushed to an unhealthy attempt to exploit it. A talented musician is told, for instance, that one must either become a professional or give up music for other pursuits—as if the joy of playing music were not reward enough for the effort involved in learning an instrument. Most important, much of the joy of the creative act is pinched off under pressures to produce, conform, understand, promote. Hustle displaces joy. It is important to remember that creativity is not a thing done but a way of doing things.

For all this, it remains that creativity is an innate and difficult-to-repress faculty. The free expression of the creative impulse in flower arranging, decorating, writing, painting, gardening, dancing, and sketching—in activities too diverse to list—presents a constant enticement to the desire sleeping in most every human heart. The muses may be kept at bay but they can never be entirely defeated, living as they do even in our dreams.

Humanism and the Humane Arts

The sum of the whole matter is this, that our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually.

—Woodrow Wilson

In the end, humanism is a way of living; it is both what we do and how we do it. The accumulated actions and mindsets of individuals—not laws, rules, or religion—will be the determining elements in the thriving or fading of our values. If we do not live lives that embody our ideals, who will? The saving of a humane civilization, if there is one left to save, depends on the diligent pursuit of the humane arts.

Wesley Cecil

Wesley Cecil is on the adjunct faculty at Peninsula College in Port Townsend, Washington. When not teaching English and philosophy, he tends his garden and chickens.

Note too that a faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel. —Ovid Can one doubt that we live in a culture antithetical to humanism? The pace of modern life, the proliferation of intrusive technologies, the triumph of consumerism and fundamentalism shape a culture indifferent to, yet at …

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