By DR.MOHAMMAD MAROOF SHAH
Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty, he could no longer live because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.” (Dostoevsky)
Laotze’s and Kant’s respective remarks about beauty as “the usefulness of the useless,” and “purposiveness without purpose” are recalled in Martha Nasubaum’s choice of the title of her work “Nor for Profit: Why Democracy Needs Humanities.”
Given the modern penchant for utility and commodification that reserves only a small corner for arts in museums and seeks profit by organising art exhibitions, and impoverished modern souls not ready to live and die for beauty, the twentieth century has been the ugliest as Ananda Coomaraswamy noted. Our standard references to immortal works of art and architecture usually go to ancient or medieval times against traditional cultures that glorified God by cultivating beauty within and without,
It is imperative to take stock of arts that have been the temple of beauty and are today widely sought to partly fulfill our hunger for transcendence. We need to take note of the role of arts and humanities in the central task of fashioning humans and giving them the motivation to live soulfully or meaningfully and in the refinement of culture as against civilization, (a distinction often ignored). Cultivating beauty, which is said to be the fulfillment of religion (Ihsan is Husn paida kerden) in a famous prophetic tradition (hadith-i-Jibriel) is what has been forgotten despite a penchant for the so-called beauty industry.
According to all traditions, it is possible to reclaim the paradise whose image we harbour deep inside and it is education that involves humanities that has a role here. In an age when politicians and even universities might claim that the humanities don’t matter and we ought to steer students into science, technology, engineering and math and we find such things as the recent report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the crisis in the Humanities entitled “The Heart of the Matter” philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein has been, thus, paraphrased by a reviewer: “The humanities assert the sanctity of the individual, help us puzzle out the meaning of existence, teach us to examine our assumptions and urge us to consider others’ assumptions, she said. The study of the humanities might be under siege right now, but ‘it will prevail,’ she said.” Nietzsche, whose fascination with a sort of post-religious or supra-religious mysticism is little appreciated, didn’t fail to recognise that religion “was useful for providing meaning, community, and helping to deal with the problems of life.” His first suggestion was to “replace religion with philosophy, art, music, literature, theatre, and other parts of the humanities to provide similar benefits.” Art indeed has been central to postmodern philosophers in the task of overcoming nihilism. It is central to Nietzsche and Heidegger and we can find its contemporary articulation in “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age” by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. The role of art, of tragedy, of play, of beauty, of everything, that humanities engage with is writ large in the pages of every contemporary text that treats, in non-religious or non-theistic terms, the question of meaning. Arnold has been proved right. It is another matter how far this endeavour succeeds and whether we need to contend with it.
It is sad to note that despite realising the significance of art and beauty, they stand exiled from our midst. We have failed to take sufficient note of pleas of artists wedded to beauty. Against traditional man, we have largely forgotten beauty in our houses, in our surroundings, in cities, in villages, in souls. And that explains suffocating lives we live. It is museums that are beautiful and they are generally from ages past when man’s religion was a beauty and not utility. Today, our architecture is, generally speaking, designed for utility or vanity. And that has given us a largely ugly, homogeneous, and inhospitable world where all cities look alike and you can find suffocating monotony of banks, malls, schools, hospitals that are designed without regard for vivifying symbolism and for the dead – customers/clients/alienated individuals or hired workers. They are best for the dead.
To be true to human or better man’s divine image is the heart of humanities as traditionally conceived. Humanities are not to be reduced to sciences but taken as guardians of culture, as creators of value that others then exchange. In a country where the role of God/Sacred or religion is considered important in the framing of the constitution, humanities and their place and funding need to be a priority even if it would be led to question current framing of humanities in the dominant secularizing episteme. Humanities are central to the task of fashioning souls so should be autonomous as madrasahs have been or funded by the community. Or Madrasahs have to be integrated to universities or revitalized in the classical sense when they performed the role of humanities. A few suggestions from Manazar Ahsan Gilani and Newman regarding marrying the classical idea of university/madrassah with the modern institutions substituting them are worth considering in this context.
Beauty, as the “splendour of the Truth” and “attractive power of the Good” or perfection, is also a noetic (knowledge giving) beside an aesthetic notion and satisfies that longing to know the Real or what is considered absolute. Invoking the theology of the aesthetic and emphasising reading art as a ritual for purification and support to contemplation one could counter pervasive crisis of meaning or values in postmodernity that has impacted humanities’ construction of the human. Martin Lings’ study Shakespeare in the Light of Sacred Art and Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human may be read to retrieve the torn and forgotten image of the human, pontifical theomorphic man in the wake of the dominance of sciences at the cost of humanities in the modern world.
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philosophy, literature, religion and mysticism