“What are we supposed to be getting out of this?” is a question that, as someone who has taught in required college core courses for the better part of two decades, I’ve heard any number of times. And I have, over the years, developed a number of answers, set-pieces,  and spiels to respond to it when it arises.

When classes are going well the question hardly comes up. The proof is, so to speak, in the activity, and students who are enjoying a book or discussion, or in the grip of an idea, don’t need to have its value explained to them. When it does come up it is usually–though not always–a sign that something has misfired, that students have begun to be bored, and fail to see any connection between their own experiences and the book or discussion in front of them.

The problem, for me, is that I am less and less able to answer them in any way I myself find convincing.  What, after all, does Hobbes’ Leviathan  have to say to a freshman business major or engineer? A student who will, in many cases, never read a book for pleasure in their lives once they graduate?

Myself, I find Leviathan remarkably beautiful, its language and argument profound, wicked, witty,  insightful, equal parts outrage and challenge. At some level that response is important–but it’s not much of an argument.  It’s like Stanley Fish lamenting that more students don’t want to be English professors–without ever asking why they should want to be English professors. Is it so self-evident that others should  be compelled to share his tastes ?

There are, of course, the old answers. The liberal arts offer the best training in reading, writing, and conversation, and classic texts are better material to cut one’s teeth on than anything else around.  This view has plenty of detractors, but so what?  It’s true. Like all defenses of the liberal arts based on their utility, however, it’s also inadequate. Ultimately, if one is going to make a serious case for them, that case has to be based in their intrinsic value. But that is the start of problems, not the end. For what is their intrinsic value?

The answer that is in one sense the most compelling is in another the most problematic– Aristotle’s, that philosophic contemplation is the best and highest human activity because it is the fullest actualization of our distinctively human capacities.

The claim has, at least, the virtue of not reducing thinking to a taste. But it brings with it a host of difficulties.

To begin with, it is an inherently undemocratic answer. For the kind of thinking that Aristotle has in mind is the province of the philosophical few, not the unphilosophic many, and it goes without saying that even the best universities have only a small number of such students.  The result is a curiously tortured (and publicly unspeakable) rationale for the liberal arts.  Are we to conceive of them as existing only for a few–who in any case do not obviously confer any benefit on their society beyond their own serenely contemplative existence? And what should we say to the chaff?  Sorry, dear fellow, you’ve been winnowed?  Be content with your silver (or bronze–or iron?) soul and meddle no more in things for which we now know you are not fit… For the time that has been lost to you unprofitably, we are sorry.  You will, however, be glad to know that your check cleared–and contributed to the support of at least three genuine philosophers…(Before one snickers too much at this elitist fantistry realize just how much of the university already is a sorting and winnowing mechanism of exactly this kind, and just how much societally useless “research” is in fact subsidized by the chaff…it’s not elitism per se we object to–just the wrong kind.)

But Aristotle’s claim is unserviceable not only because it is intolerably elitist in a democracy; it is unserviceable because it subsumes the liberal arts to philosophy too quickly.  They differ not only in degree but in kind, and much about the liberal arts declines to be treated as an insufficiently self-aware species of philosophizing. (Not all of it of course.  Literature is not obviously so different from philosophy: whatever literature and philosophy professors may say, both are ultimately world-description and inquiry carried out mimetically and dialogically. And rhetoric is, as Aristotle notes, philosophy’s antistrophe, its counter-turn in the chorus dance of reason. Even geometry, offering a paradigm of deductive reasoning, comprises a sort of propaedeutic to reflection on the first principles of the sciences.)

Still, their raison d’etre  seems different. The liberal arts–above all music–speak to the soul, its sentiments and passions, in a way that the bare speeches of dialectic (or metaphysics) do not.  There is, undoubtedly, a difference between the modern and ancient approaches to such questions. As matter for the quadrivium, the ancient approach to the musical part of the liberal arts seems predominantly concerned with the study of mathematical proportion.  It would take Plato’s Socrates to uncover the fundamentally mimetic character of the musical modes and rhythms.  And his Athenian Stranger to suggest that the truest function of law (nomos  in Greek is both “law” and “tune”) is the shaping of the sentiments and passions, its acculturation to the taking of pleasure and pain in the appropriately noble and base.

But one grasps the role of the liberal arts in modernity poorly if one does not understand how central to their self-conception is the wound inflicted on the human soul by man’s separation from the state of nature.  All of our primal natural passions, according to Hobbes, are selfish; we enter civil society only by an act of reason–which is to say, in entering civil society we are fundamentally de-racinated and denatured, fish out of water.  Our rational sense of our self-interest points one way; all of our natural passions the other. There is, in civil man, an irremediable doubleness and alienation between what he is naturally inclined to and what his reason obliges him to do, an alienation that even the most sublimely benevolent Leviathan could never ameliorate. From the moment he became civil, he needed psychotherapy.

For Rousseau, the greatest promise of the arts is the possibility of healing this doubleness.  If the sentiments could be taught to love and hate properly, the split between self and others, indeed within the self, could be healed. Instead of that uniquely modern catastrophe, the bourgeois–a man who, in thinking of others, thinks only of himself, and in thinking of himself, of others–he might become a creature who, in loving his own good, becomes good for others, authentic self and true citizen.

Key, for Rousseau, to this project of making whole is the institution of marriage.  The conjugal and paternal sentiments, he writes, are the sweetest known to man, alone making it possible for him to pursue his desires and happiness within society in a way good for both. Marriage, on Rousseau’s account, is far more than a contract; to be good in the way it needs to be, it has to be undergirded by a sentimental education. Eros, it turns out, is like one of those plants that needs a trellis to grow–both opposition and direction if it is to flourish and become vital–where mere libertinism is a universal absence of opposition, resulting in stunted feebleness.

Gender identity is central for Rousseau–though not in the way his most virulent feminist critics have believed. To the contrary, Rousseau is very far from being a gender naturalist, as his account of the development of Sophie’s and Emile’s psyches shows.  Rather, he regards gender as profoundly constructedalbeit out of biological givens.  It is formed by culture–above all stories of Romantic love. To take these away from Emile would be to remove even the possibility of his happiness, to leave him fragmented, split, alienated….

I imagine, then, that if Rousseau were in my shoes, and someone asked “what is it I am supposed to be getting out of this?” he might perhaps say this: “my dear fellow, I cannot tell you, for the simple reason that it depends less on me than on you.  What I can tell you is that the book that is currently boring you is widely regarded as one of the noblest expressions of human thought ever written, for reasons that I have been laboring mightily to show to you, and that for hundreds of years has reliably sorted its readers by the quality of their mettle.  Should you prove of the highest, you may find that this is the book that wakes you from your dogmatic slumbers to the possibilities of philosophy.  A little less, and it may help arm you against a culture which is not your friend and means you harm, to become a generous, decent and humane man, husband and citizen.  But if that is impossible, then I hope at least that neither  it nor I have done you any harm aside from the loss of a little time.  Only go! And quickly.”

But for all sorts of reasons that is no longer a speakable answer. What then is?