Saving Liberalism

David Koepsell

Western liberalism is our heritage, that of modern, liberal democracies and our secular humanist philosophies. The ideals of liberalism are broader than those of democracy, but the functioning of democracy depends upon liberalism. The earliest English usage of the term liberal appears to be in Middle English, written by a scholar named Alexis who wrote that he had set out on a path of the artis liberalis (liberal arts) in order to learn what he needed to know to become a thinking man. In modern parlance, liberalism became most closely associated with the political philosophy that, during and after the Enlightenment, challenged monarchism, state religions, the notion of divine right, and hereditary hierarchy. Typified by the arguments made by Locke and others, it paved the way for the various revolutions that resulted in the first liberal democratic republics in the Americas and Europe.

Imperfect in form and expression, liberalism nonetheless remains the foundation for our modern, secular, democratic societies, even as they shift and change to accommodate new ideas. While humanists may align with a spectrum of political parties and affiliations, the values of liberalism—which embraces at a minimum free thought, free conscience, and free speech—are central to humanist philosophy and ethics.

Historically, the first “humanists” were scholars seeking ancient Greek wisdom that was being kept cloistered—secreted—in Catholic libraries. The discovery in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini of the lost epic De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) written by Lucretius, the Greek Epicurean, helped foster the emergence of Christian Humanism and inspired the reemergence of atomism. (Ancient Greek atomism, positing the existence of minuscule, indivisible things that make up all existence, was essentially rejected by Aristotle and his scholastic Christian followers and was not rehabilitated until it was revived during the Enlightenment and more or less confirmed by modern atomic science.) Early humanists embraced the liberal arts—the study of all wisdom—as the means of becoming a whole person. Stephen Greenblatt makes a nice case for the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura paving the way for modernism.

The liberal tradition depends upon the liberal arts. Alexis and Bracciolini—and others since who have understood that to be a full, freethinking human being requires embracing the humanities (whose saviors in the Renaissance were the first humanists)—have stressed that the study of the arts is as important as the study of the sciences. Literature, poetry, philosophy, history, music, anthropology, and languages are often demeaned as areas of studies unimportant to modern life and superficial to the imperative to find productive employment. They are under attack in modern universities whose missions continue to narrow. These universities now sell themselves as places for students to learn skills that will help them become employed. As more and more students are kept longer out of the job market, they become indebted and further pledged to the myth that universities are just more expensive and prestigious trade schools. Setting aside the truth or usefulness of a university or college education in finding work or the value of such an education for one’s employability, this notion undermines the foundation of liberalism. In fact, it makes students into mere cogs instead of liberating them. If only they can learn the right skill set, then yes, they will get the job of their dreams and all the shiny things that follow, fitting snugly into the marketplace.

As states attempt to move away from funding universities, and universities themselves become more corporate in their structures—amassing endowments and erecting brick-and-mortar capital investments aimed at tax depreciation, hiring presidents and administrators lured by corporate-style salaries—each financial downturn becomes ammunition for cutting the “least profitable” areas of study. Ironically, tenure helps. Because universities cannot fire tenured employees except in cases of restructuring, a financial crisis can help justify eliminating an entire department as part of a necessary change. In the past decade, the number of advertised positions in the humanities has dropped sharply. The liberal arts, the cornerstone of liberal democracy, are just not deemed valuable enough to fund or pursue. Liberals who deride the study of all those dead white men are not helping. The liberal arts are in flux, constantly changing and developing. Music, art, literature, and culture are always works in progress, and although our history has omitted minorities and women who contributed to our culture, we are also forward-leaning; liberalism creates the context for its own expansion and the gradual approach of justice.

As humanists, we need to remind ourselves about the role of the humanities in forming a full life and in developing free human beings. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Albert Einstein both have roles to play in understanding the world we live in, the human condition, and the extremely complex levels of social reality we humans have imposed upon the atomistic world of particles and processes. We need to defend the liberal arts as we defend liberalism, the matter and philosophy that helped create modernity and that enable freedom in its many domains. Being a humanist is an ongoing process, in or out of universities. Embracing the liberal arts as well as the sciences helps us to develop ourselves too. It means revisiting the classics as well as exposing ourselves to emerging forms and new ideas in the humanities. And while “malt may do more than Milton can” to justify God’s ways to man, Milton does pretty well too.

Further Reading

Greenblatt, Stephen. 2011. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

David Koepsell

David Koepsell is an author, philosopher, attorney (retired), and educator whose recent research focuses on the nexus of science, technology, ethics, and public policy. He has provided commentary regarding ethics, society, religion, and technology on numerous media outlets. He has been a tenured associate professor of philosophy at the Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management in the Netherlands, visiting professor at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Instituto de Filosoficas, and the Unidad Posgrado, Mexico, director of Research and Strategic Initiatives at Comisión Nacional De Bioética in Mexico, and asesor de rector at UAM Xochimilc.


Humanists have a special obligation to defend the humanities, in education and in society.

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