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Flourishing humanities; flourishing economy

By John Armstrong - posted Tuesday, 11 November 2008

What do the humanities have to do with the growing economic difficulties of the world? At first sight, perhaps nothing at all. What could be further apart than the selling of sub-prime credit on the one hand and, on the other, the scholarly investigation of the speeches of Cicero or the date of a drawing by Antoine Watteau?

There is, however, a deep underlying connection. The long-term health of the economy depends on the flourishing of the humanities: an important factor in our present troubles is their self-imposed weakness.

The dependency is hard to see because the standard ways in which we think about capitalism and the humanities are misleading. To discover the crucial connections here we need to ask fundamental questions: What is capitalism? What are the humanities?


Capitalism is the economic expression of individual liberty. The humanities are the roots of social and personal maturity. To flourish individually and collectively, we need economic liberty; but economic liberty on its own is not sufficient and can be disastrous. Freedom is good only when it is accompanied by maturity and wisdom.

The deep sources of wisdom and maturity lie in the humanities. These sources have all but dried up. Wisdom and maturity have not been flowing from the humanities into the wider fields of society; that is why economic freedom has turned toxic. It is of the greatest significance for our cultural and economic future - for the future of our civilisation - that we understand what has gone wrong and put in place the conditions of our renaissance.

Under capitalism the market says: tell me what you want and are prepared to pay for. If I can extract a profit, I will supply this to you very efficiently. I don't judge what you want. You are the expert in your desires. I want to tap into your longings, but I don't care what those longings are, so long as I can make money from them.

Ease of access to capital, through borrowing, increases the scope of most people's choices. Until about five minutes ago we could borrow not only against whatever assets we might have, but against potential earnings and assets projected far into the future. This is an enormous opportunity but also an enormous risk. In other words, capitalism essentially puts great freedom as well as great risk into the hands of individuals. Do what you like, it's your life.

Capitalism depends for its success on high levels of individual maturity. We can understand why this is so by considering a personal analogy. I would not let my young children make central decisions about their purchases (where to live, whether to buy a car); and it would be insane to give them large sums of money or to allow them to borrow. It's obvious that they lack the maturity to use these opportunities well or to make these decisions. It is pervasive, socially distributed maturity that is required for the flourishing of liberal capitalism.

In advanced democratic capitalist societies we get the economy we deserve. The economy tracks the goods and services that many people want and are willing to pay for. Anti-capitalist sentiment is often no more than revulsion at the preferences and attitudes of a great many people, expressed in their economic choices.


Capitalism is the economic counterpart of the political doctrine of rights (although there can be marginal clashes, for example on minimum wages). Rights essentially secure freedom of action for individuals. They protect individual decision-making and preferences from authoritarian interference. But rights do not guide you to a good life; they don't positively indicate what you should do, except in minimalist ways: don't trample on the rights of others.

Further, cultural democracy is the social version of the capitalist spirit: you can choose whatever style of entertainment you like; it's up to you what you watch and consume, and how you find relaxation and entertainment. No one has any business telling you that your preferences are unworthy, base or vulgar.

Rights, cultural democracy and capitalism are all aspects of the great project of spiritual freedom. The origins of this project lie in the development of Christianity and were dramatically renewed with the advent of certain kinds of Protestant Christianity. Faith and love, it was argued, are immensely precious spiritual goods but they cannot be forced, they cannot be imposed or demanded. They must be assented to in the private depths of the individual soul.

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First published in The Australian on November 5, 2008 as "Decline reflects poorly on the arts".

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About the Author

John Armstrong is Senior Advisor, Office of the Vice-Chancellor, at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of several books on art, love and beauty, including most recently In Search of Civilisation (Penguin, 2009).

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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