For years I have heard people who are quite successful in their professional fields asking the same question: “What is the use of Latin?” And for years I have kept the most reasonable reply to myself, out of politeness: “What is the use of people who don’t know what the use of Latin is?” The key to both questions, however, is: what is the use? In our modern digital economy, everything must serve a purpose or end up in the trash. To societies under the yoke of scientism, the humanities seem useless or, at very best, something that was once useful, like the telegraph. And today no one buys a telegraph on Wallapop, except to decorate a hipster coffee shop.
The humorist Dave Barry wrote: “The Romans spent the next 200 years using their great engineering skill to construct ruins all over Europe.” And the truth is that, thanks to this, they bequeathed us Roman law, architecture, the calendar, and Christianity. On the other hand, when reading the newspaper, we often regret that they also bequeathed us the Senate and the Assemblies, but that is another matter.
The humanities safeguard the most valuable aspects of our civilization. But they are much more than a vestige of the past, and of course, much more than a place to park students who feel unable or unwilling to engage in a scientific degree. For decades private companies have scorned the humanities while deifying economic subjects, like marketing, technology, or any pseudoscience dreamt up any number of days earlier. Well, I’ve got news for the private sector: they got it completely wrong. Years ago, our much-missed P.J. O’Rourke warned that maybe people had dedicated too much time to studying the wrong work from the founder of capitalism: “Adam Smith is misread as being amoral precisely because people don’t read his first book, because they don’t read The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”
Indeed, Christopher Dawson was right, as usual. “European culture has been undergoing a process of secularization and materialization which not only has destroyed its unity but ultimately,” he wrote, led to a “reduction of democracy to mass-dictatorship and of science to a kind of utilitarian magic.”
The world is not a mathematical formula
The logic of capitalism makes it that in each era companies resemble their society. During the digital boom, companies have experienced this. But social behaviors cannot be explained by a mathematical equation alone, nor is the flood of data that companies handle useful if there are no professionals capable of offering a qualitative dimension to this information, something that requires analytical capability, human knowledge, synthesis, and many other qualities provided by the humanities. Some companies have begun to understand this unexpected turn of events.
If you take a look at large corporations, you will see that they are investing heavily in things that have nothing to do with their business: solidarity initiatives, environmentalism, campaigns to promote the woke universe, and a growing obsession with so-called corporate social responsibility policies—whatever that means. The company of tomorrow looks a lot like a new corporate church, which is obliged to contribute towards society an added value aside from its own business. And that added value responds almost exclusively to the progressive virtues of the moment, the only ones capable of making a multinational meat seller recommend its vegan products far more visibly than their actual sales would warrant.
But efforts to promote wokeness, in many cases, are backfiring. If the employees involved in these decisions had training in the humanities, they would likely not waste their time promoting things that simply do not fit with our humanistic heritage and code of values, generating negative responses in broad sectors of society.
On the other hand, if we are going to invest in initiatives to receive the ovations of public opinion, the promotion of the humanities, patronage of the arts and literature, or at least the preservation of artistic heritage, would be universally applauded and would benefit society as a whole. It is what the trite now call a win-win.
We already know about the high demand for technology professionals. All of them have guaranteed employment, but the facts show that they also have a guaranteed ceiling. On the other hand, we observe another unexpected fact: if the humanities are dead, why do we find more and more professionals from the humanities in management positions? A few examples: Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard studied Medieval History and Philosophy; Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube studied History and Literature; Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal together with Elon Musk, is a philosopher, while Frederic Mazzela, CEO and founder of BlaBlaCar, is a musician. These are people who are probably more qualified than scientists to understand what Plato said: “Looking for the good in our fellow men will help us find the good in ourselves.”
Humanities belong to the government
Our biggest mistake has been to leave the humanities exclusively in the hands of governments, which guard them like they were a museum piece. Thus, the professional opportunities for those who study Philosophy, Literature, or History depend almost exclusively on the public offer for schools, universities, or cultural institutions. The private sector, for the most part, has remained on the sidelines, and has not involved philosophers, historians, linguists, or experts in the classical world in its decision making. All those who in Ancient Greece were considered the wise men, those who set in motion the enormous civilization that we are today, would all be taking their places in our modern dole queues. This should be enough to make us think hard about whether we are focusing on the right things. Personally, I don’t see much difference between a world led by computer engineers and a world led by Alexa.
Europe finds itself before a historic opportunity to reverse this trend. First, because no one can teach employees to think better than a philosopher could, no one knows more about language than a philologist, and very few can contribute better ideas to a creative team than an expert in art history. And second, because the commitment of corporations to the preservation of historical heritage and the dissemination of classical culture is a vein yet to be exploited in those brainy departments of corporate social responsibility, where they believe that plastering everything with slogans about recycled materials is the beginning and end of their raison d’être. A growing number of entrepreneurs are beginning to wonder whether it is the CSR equipment itself that should be recycled first.
Case in point: Western civilization’s most important institution is the family. The private sector has teamed up with progressive governments to spread the most harmful ideas against the family. Despite everything, the family continues to be society’s greatest institution, the best teacher, the transmitter of values, and the ultimate channeler of our way of life, which is incidentally what makes the capitalist model that companies need for their survival possible. So why are there so few campaigns and initiatives in support of the family or family reconciliation? Perhaps because there are no professionals in CSR departments capable of reading society across the board, of delving into the roots of ideologies, or of understanding the heart of man.
We are nothing without philosophers
If a fast-food multinational can invest its money in promoting Gay Pride, or the repopulation of the Amazon, or the responsible consumption of water or energy, why couldn’t it be equally successful in artistic patronage, or the preservation of historical heritage in danger of disappearing, or promoting the history of philosophy? The same person who asks me what Latin is for, will now be wondering “what is Philosophy for?” This is the kind of person that will never be ready to step outside his accounting department or his cubicle-grid crammed with programmers.
The biggest prevailing mistake in relation to the humanities is the general disdain for the history of philosophy. For years, progressive governments have been working to displace this subject and job opportunities for philosophers are limited almost exclusively to teaching. The truth is that philosophy is not something obsolete and useless; it is useful to teach how to think properly—which is why many governments fear it—and to have a mind that is better prepared to practically face everyday problems. If it has always been said that Latin helps to put students’ heads in order; philosophy helps to mess them up—but in the best possible way. I am particularly suspicious of any creative person who does not have a solid philosophical background and who lives outside the history of art, just as I am suspicious of any businessman who lacks the most elementary notions of history. Only by understanding the intellectual baggage we have, right from the start, can we avoid stumbling upon the mistakes of the past and in turn advance along the same path that our forebears started.
When people reach managerial positions and have others under them, they are given an office, a cell phone, perhaps a company car, and often a book on how to herd cattle efficiently. For some strange reason no one hands them The Histories by Herodotus, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, The Republic by Plato, or the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. And I don’t think anyone needs these classical works more than they do. What’s more, they are not at all incompatible with contemporary manuals such as How to Fool Every Customer, How to Get Someone to Do What You Want, or The Little Book of Clickbait.
Humanities and ethics
As technology becomes more decentralized, innovation falls into the hands of anyone, with no regard as to whether or not they have the minimum ethical training necessary to carry out their projects with guarantees. Technology companies are also realizing that engineers program very well, but are unaware of the deeper implications of ethics, privacy, the existence of evil in the world, or the raison d’être of freedom in the context of a democracy, as we have seen with the controversial censorship of Twitter and the scandal caused by the arrival of Elon Musk promoting freedom. Not so long ago what scandalized us was cancellation, now we are afraid of freedom. But that also gives you a taste of how necessary are the humanities. Incredible as it may seem to you, there are a lot of engineers making important decisions about our lives who don’t know that democracy dies when freedoms are cancelled. And worse: they have no idea what happens when a democracy dies. They think Hitler is a brand of beer.
We cannot let technology, however advanced, replace humanity with all its sensitivities, its appreciations of love, beauty and nature, its need for affection, sympathy and purpose, its hopes and fears, intuitions, imagination and leaps of faith. Technology, even AI, in all its possibilities, can never replicate these… Yet for many others, the freedom is illusory, the humanity is absent, the unmet need to belong to something, anything, is painful. Half of our populations feel they are missing out—hence the populism and the anger. Those wanting to leave the future in the hands of GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) and NATU (Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla, Uber) should think again. These new data-led organizations have many devoted followers but produce little tangible wealth and themselves employ few people. They cannot be the answer.
So declared veteran management guru Charles Handy during his speech at the 9th Global Peter Druker Forum. Some European universities have begun to offer university degrees in ‘Science, Technology and Humanities’ in order to train professionals capable of responding to complex problems that can only be addressed in an interdisciplinary way. The future of large corporations lies in incorporating the culture of the humanities throughout the company.
It is possible that other great powers will once again overtake Europeans in this renaissance of the humanities. But if any should the pioneer in this, it ought to be Europe, which after all is the cradle of Western civilization and of all that the First World has become. The frontiers of the globalized cosmos are increasingly blurred, but it is still easier to understand Michelangelo Buonarroti in Rome than in Beijing, Don Quixote in Madrid than in South Korea, Aristotle in Athens than in Cape Town, and St. Augustine in Zadar than in Nom Pen. In the face of this challenge, it is worth remembering that Europe will not be saved in Strasbourg, but by a handful of intelligent business people who are able to read a fat book without fainting.