The Poet as Boss of the Universe

“The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

Few things warm the hearts of poets and philosophers more than when a scientist of Einstein’s stature shows an appreciation for liberal learning. He was not alone in expressing this sentiment. Enlightened people in both camps see the arts and the sciences as complementary, pursuing noble — if distinct — purposes. It is science that tells us how life functions; it is the humanities that tell us why life matters. From the quote above, we hear Einstein asserting that the liberally trained mind is specially groomed to think “out of the box,” not just draw facts out of a dusty textbook.

But are these profoundly different worlds concerned with different problems? Do they have different jobs to do? In his ambitiously titled The Meaning of Human Existence, Edward O. Wilson argues that the liberal arts and sciences should do a lot more than just respect one another — they should merge: “The time has come, I believe, to make a proposal about the possibility of unification of the two great branches of learning. Would the humanities care to colonize the sciences? Maybe use a little help doing that?”

Wilson believes that fusing the two disciplines would get the humanities to begin asking the right questions and to cease running down the tired old paths of fairy tales (i.e., religion) and unsolvable dilemmas. Science benefits from a marriage to the humanities by getting an injection of creativity and a much-needed broadening of its perspective. Ultimately, Wilson feels that it is the poets and philosophers who should hold sway since the cultural evolution they produce will be more important to civilization than science, which is already “doing very well” and sharing its knowledge around the globe.

Uncovering the meaning of human existence is a tall order, but I know there is no group more qualified to give it a go than Great Books Chicago attendees. See you there!


By John Riley