Soul on an Ice-Bound Sea

Shalom Carmy Tradition Online | February 20, 2022

TRADITION’s esteemed editor emeritus joins our ongoing conversation about the state of humanities, considering ways that religious life benefits from studying secular liberal arts. His reflections here pick up from an earlier essay in our pages, “As We Are Now is Not the Only Way to Be: On the Place of the Humanities in Contemporary Religious Culture” (Summer 2012).

Is it earthshaking when Louis Menand notes that spending one’s life as tenured faculty at an elite university does not make one a guide to living the good life? The “great books” may or may not yield important moral and psychological insights, but the type of research cranked out by most professors and intellectuals is not more edifying or profound than that of other credentialed folk.

In his volume of interviews with R. Haim Sabato, my revered mentor R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l lists some of the literary works he valued. In commending Samuel Johnson’s work, he refers to the writer’s engagement in hesed; when he waxes eloquent about Paradise Lost and Crime and Punishment, he focuses on the content, saying nothing about Milton or Dostoevsky as moral exemplars. Not every great writer, not every writer who has produced magnificent work, certainly not every professor of literature or other subjects, is a model for emulation in life. Not Milton, not Dostoevsky, not even Dr. Johnson.

I have learned much of moral and religious value from my study of the humanities, from writers whose humanity I largely admire and from those I don’t. That study has been valuable to the degree that it has been discriminating. If I am more trusting of some of my teachers and colleagues in Torah, it is not only because they subordinate themselves to Torat Hashem and not only because they and I are passionately committed to the same principles of belief but because the dedication to God of these mentors and friends has brought with it a capacious humility and an indomitable measure of wisdom. Even in their presence, and in large part due to their influence and example, I want to be an intellectual gavra, not a heftza.

Menand’s reputation as a spokesman for the humanities—based on his books, for example, his much-admired Metaphysical Club, which uncovered interesting material about New England intellectuals of the late 19th century, or his recent encyclopedic though highly selective survey of post-war culture, The Free World—testifies that he is a skilled academic researcher, not that he, or his department mates, have a claim to wisdom in guiding young men and women, or anyone else. Such pedagogic powers, as Menand admits, could just as readily belong to a professor of social psychology (or to a properly formed though uncredentialed soul), as to a teacher of great books.

The last time I heard R. Lichtenstein pronounce on the value of a liberal arts education, he recognized that much of today’s literature-teaching industry is about scientific-sounding research and in class about politically correct ideology that is indifferent or hostile to traditional religion. If the universities did not offer what we needed, he concluded, students would simply have to read on their own. On occasion he asked me, and no doubt others, about the nature of student interest in the humanities, but this was about his concern for students rather than preoccupation with the professorial job market.

Menand further makes an invidious comparison between the humanities and the sciences. Why should the votaries of the humanities privilege novels, poems, and other literary productions? These works represent the inner world of a small number of atypical people, most of them imaginary characters. Having rightly attacked the pretense of humanities professors to special qualifications as educators, he adds the related but different objection that so-called literary masterpieces do not deserve to be set on an educational pedestal.

This is not the place to discuss in detail the arguments for the distinctive value of studying the “great books,” and the arguments against them. I will restrict myself to three interconnected points: First, however useful the knowledge and information obtained from the social sciences, these investigations as a rule do not make human reality real or vivid. They rarely move us. Great works of art, works presenting philosophical struggle and argument, powerful historical narrative and the like communicate the joy and pain, the sense of moral crisis, the terrible glory of individuality, the humor of our finitude, the tragedy and ignominy of failure and waste. Johnson’s put-down—“life must be seen before it can be known” —was the protest of a man schooled in poverty and hunger and humiliation against the abstractions of well-heeled theodicy. Science, even well-executed, disciplined science, leaves out too much.

Second, science, especially when it deals with human beings, is vulnerable to the one-sided hypothesizing and professional deformation that bedevils human endeavors. Thinkers who can question accepted ideas, imaginative writers who attempt to capture reality, be it personal or social, often put their fingers on weaknesses, often fatal weaknesses in dominant assumptions. Menand, for example, knows that pro-literature scholars justify the humanities as a way of inculcating empathy (à la George Eliot), and he knows scholarship debunking that view. By reducing the debate to this one empirical question, as defined by the academic elites, Menand and company ignore other virtues and moral excellences that fall outside the production of empathy, such as self-perfection, sanctity, self-examination, etc. The Greeks, Jews, and Christians knew life better. Even John Stuart Mill, the great apostle of utilitarianism who was raised to champion the cause of Jeremy Bentham, conceded that Bentham’s plans for social engineering were flawed because he could not imagine human goals broader than his interpersonal calculus. In the face of modern conformism, we desperately need more critical humanistic thinking.

Third, humanists also propagate dangerous distortions. Sometimes their excesses and deficits are mitigated through empirical investigation, although, as we just noted, the assumptions and jargon of social science texts can also be misleading and fallacious. More often the strongest corrective is critical thinking and reading. Do not treat creative writers, philosophers, and other humanistic paladins as infallible oracles whose reputed genius exempts them from critical examination. Discern instead the ways in which they, like the scientific establishment, succumb to erroneous perceptions and reasoning. It is unsettling but salutary to realize that the insight and rhetoric that make a writer powerfully attractive and enormously valuable are inseparable from their ethical or intellectual or aesthetic faults. In this respect renowned artists and thinkers are very much like the rest of us, only that their extraordinary talent and application make them more rewarding for our critical attention.

My remarks so far have strayed from one kind of encomium for the humanities because I have emphasized critical analysis and evaluation, where enthusiastic liberal arts advocates often highlight the insight and pleasure while downplaying the need for careful and critical attention. I am also reluctant to equate the value of a work with its putative “greatness.” Surely some intellectual efforts are superior; to stand the test of time is a criterion of merit. Nonetheless, greatness is not a simple attribute and works that excel in one way may not be superior in another. Moreover, the value of a work for the reader intent on moral, psychological, and spiritual insight, and personal growth, depends not only on the inherent quality of the work but often benefits from and requires consideration of other factors—for example, how a book reflects or challenges the mores of its time, how it expresses the problems and crises of the author and so on.

Let me end with two random examples from my current reading and thinking. Lately, I have pondered the career of Charles Dickens, on the one hand enjoying his linguistic pyrotechnics and his unique ability to create exaggerated fictional characters who are yet instantly recognizable as real people. On the other hand, one is scandalized by the enormous gap between his social ideals and his behavior towards his wife. I am familiar with the biographical approaches to Dickens, from Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow to A.N. Wilson’s recent Mystery of Charles Dickens, which trace the impact of perceived childhood trauma through his 35 years as a famous author. I am aware of the interplay between the biography and the body of work, and the dark spirit that suffuses the later novels. 

One observes Dickens’ increasingly critical and self-conscious appraisal of his heroes’ inclination to social climbing, their feeling of shame in acknowledging the people who cared for them earlier in life and their shame about that shame: think of the progression in self-awareness and self-criticism from Nicholas Nickleby to David Copperfield to Pip in Great Expectations. Reading the fiction in light of the life, one can’t help but see Dickens’ increasing and laudable willingness to confront this tendency in himself. Likewise, his depictions of feckless fathers and cold mothers echoes his perception of his parents, and one notices how these portraits become harsher after his parents’ demise: Micawber is amusing and ends up well where Mr. Dorrit is funny but embarrassing and finally heartbreakingly tragic; Dickens’ inability to create mature and admirable women culminates in monster mothers like Mrs. Clennam. One may analyze these points with reference to Dickens’ craft and limitations as a storyteller. One may also contemplate the demonic streak in Dickens himself and what we can learn from him about human nature and even about ourselves. This critical perspective, the shock of recognition, that we can gain from studying Dickens in his aesthetic and biographical context—could we learn it as vividly and as pertinently from an academic paper in psychology or sociology? 

Not long ago, Edward Mendelson published Eight Moral Agents, a collection of essays on American men of letters, most of whom did not live up to their ideals, though some were able to diagnose the shortcomings of their conduct and literary achievement. Of these accounts, the one that left the saddest impression on me was that of Lionel Trilling. The author of The Liberal Imagination, among other volumes, was an icon of urbanity and intellectually balanced judgment in the golden age of influential literary criticism, he was an object of emulation for his students. By now Trilling’s all too human side is well known, the lifelong fealty to then au courant Freudian therapy, the drunken rages when he blamed his wife for his not having become a major novelist. What Mendelson reveals, and I had not known, is that the aging Trilling tired of performing his cultured façade, that he became annoyed with the students who idealized his simulacra of wisdom and that his pleasure in the literature and culture he exemplified faded. I don’t think this vitiates one’s enjoyment or esteem for his brilliant essays, but it makes Trilling a more interesting and more instructive human being. More important, the conjunction of his fine work and sad biography provides more food for moral reflection and self-knowledge than either alone. Again, there is an eloquence and an insight that run-of-the-mill social studies would not bring to life with the same accuracy and haunting richness.

Kafka famously wrote that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” For what it’s worth, the best Orthodox students today are not inferior in intellect and literacy to their counterparts fifty years ago. Of course, when measured by the number of Orthodox students in North America who undertake, and make use of, advanced degrees in the humanities, or the literacy of the average congregational rabbi or high school Gemara teacher, the humanities are not flourishing in the gilded enclaves of Orthodoxy. Not because of professors’ salaries. I fear that the Orthodox community, like the secular world it too often resembles, avoids serious engagement with the humanities, for other reasons. The heavy hand of social conformity robs individuals of solitude and independence. And one salient marker of that conformism is a profound unease and distaste for individual or communal self-examination and soul-searching. For those individuals who are up to it, Kafka is partially right about books shattering the frozen sea within us. To the degree that we are part of a community, linked to a larger society, we must also be concerned about the frozen sea around us.

Rabbi Shalom Carmy, editor emeritus of TRADITION, teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is a Contributing Editor at First Things. “Divrei Shalom,” his collected Editor’s Columns, are available as a free e-book at


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