Why study the arts? Some politicians ask the question as a joke, mocking this or that discipline as impractical. Those who defend the arts and humanities answer in economic terms, arguing for the rich and versatile skills one learns in the humanities classroom. I have made that economic case myself. As far as it goes, it is true. But it is not the only argument, and it does not go far enough.
We need the humanities because we are human. We need the arts because we are mortal. We need art and poetry because everyone we love will some day die.
We are human, and so we have problems that we cannot solve. That is not pessimism. Life is also full of beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. But even the best life includes the certainty of pain and loss. They are sure to come, and there is no "practical" solution for them.
Medicine can cure disease, it can ease suffering, it can extend life. It cannot banish death. Medicine does remarkable things, and I am grateful for it. But the larger problem remains.
Human ingenuity and practicality and industry can do wonders, and I am lucky for everything technology has done for me. But technology does not end the problems of the human spirit: loss and loneliness, wounded hearts and broken souls. We will never have a technological fix for these problems. There is not an app for that.
Right now, somewhere in California, some of the richest men alive are trying to find a technological solution to the problem of death. They have come to believe, or at least to hope, that money and technology will buy them immortality. What does this teach us? That people like Larry Ellison, Sergei Brin, and Peter Thiel, for all their fabulous wealth and admirable math skills, can be complete idiots. This problem is not to be solved in the way they hope. (The idea that immortality would come out of Silicon Valley, whose products are not built to last even a single decade, is hilarious.) The problem that they want to overcome is called "thermodynamics." It is part of the nature of all things. Silicon Valley's riches do not change that. They only fuel the hubris that lets billionaires mislead themselves.
None of us, personally or as a society, are ready to look straight ahead at problems like death, or to think about them too long. We have built marvelous toys to distract ourselves, like children putting off bedtime. The old folk saying about only using ten percent of our brainpower is not quite true; the truth is we use ninety percent of our brain power to trick ourselves out of dealing with the truths we can't face.
But we will all find ourselves, sooner or later, dealing with problems that money and technology cannot solve:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.
(In the middle of our road of life,
I found myself in a darkened wood
Where the right path was lost.)
When that happens, and it will happen to all of us, we will be stuck with it. We will not be able to write a check. We will not be able to take a pill. We will not be able to ask Siri for the answers. The new car won't save us, because we'll already be off the road.
For these moments, humankind has invented the many arts and disciplines called "the humanities." Philosophy, art, literature, history, religion, theater. These disciplines do not solve the fundamental problems in the sense that those problems go away. No poem will keep you from dying. But all of these arts search for ways to deal with those problems, to come to grips with them honestly. Technology solves the problems that can be solved. Art faces the problems that cannot be solved.
Those problems do not go away. But the accumulated human wisdom of a few millennia does often help. Sometimes, what you need most is perspective, and sometimes, alas, there is nothing to give you but perspective. Philosophy, literature, and art are tools for broadening and deepening your perspective. You are a thinking soul in a difficult and transient material world. When there is nothing for you to do except to think, nothing you can change but your own thoughts, Tolstoy and Milton and Yeats are there to help.
And when all else fails, as eventually it must fail, the arts provide consolation. When the matter fails you, you will be forced to seek the comfort of self-deception or to reach for the hard-won consolation of difficult truths. For some, that consolation is philosophy, for others faith, for still others art. But I would humbly suggest that you rely on everything you can.
If nothing else, the arts and humanities give us something durable to think about in our fleeting, temporary world: things that, if not eternal exactly, are at least durable. When the world changes under your feet, the thought of something that came long before you and will remain long after you are gone is a kind of comfort. At least, it has been for me. And then I am like the poet Keats, who could no longer deceive himself about his death), looking at the ancient Greek pottery which would outlive him:
When old age shall this generation waste,Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woeThan ours, a friend to man ...