Last month, I attended a lecture by former US Supreme Court Justice David Souter about the importance of the humanities. There was an article in the Times Union that was factually accurate. Still, I’m going to muse on what I got out of the talk.
Justice Souter assumed everyone in the room was his ally in the fight to save the arts, music, civics, and the like, so it was not his intention to persuade those of us who were already convinced of its efficacy. Instead, he spoke of poetry and its fundamental importance. Noting the famous poem, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, Souter said he got to see the poet recite without reading it; Souter did the same with this audience. The justice said that the cursory reading of the poem would suggest that we ought to take “the road less traveled by.” Yet, a study of the poem, its context, its history, would reveal that it was meant ironically, as it was a parody of an indecisive friend who always was uncomfortable with whatever choice he made.
Justice Souter’s observation is that our best thinking may in fact take us to the wrong conclusion. This sounds like an influence of one of his heroes, and predecessors on the Supreme Court, Learned Hand, who wrote in 1951: “‘I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.’ I should like to have that written over the portals of every church, every school, and every courthouse, and, may I say, of every legislative body in the United States. I should like to have every court begin, ‘I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, I think we may be mistaken.'” Hand is quoting Oliver Cromwell’s letter of August 1650 to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland. Moreover, that lack of certainty, Souter opined, is a good thing.
A book that has had a profound effect on Justice Souter is The Education of Henry Adams, something he has read thrice through already, and hopes for another read. It’s about, among other things, the constant need for an education that adapts to a changing world, which most certainly would include the humanities.
A demand for saving art, keeping music, teaching civics in the schools is not asking for favors, Justice Souter proclaimed. Rather, it is vital for the stability, even the very survival of the United States, which is hampered by a voting citizenry that is grossly unaware of how the government of the country is supposed to work.
In the question and answer period, Souter acknowledged his own limitations. He could not answer the question – OK, my question – about whether the instant Internet news cycle was interfering with rational thought because he’s not on the Internet, and doesn’t even have e-mail, though his secretary does. He’s also a man who would not miss the music post-Bach. This may mean that, in the Henry Adams context, he is the imperfect messenger, but aren’t we all?
I found the talk to be personally engaging, and more inspiring than I would have assumed from the plain-spoken man from New England.
The week I wrote this, Berowne used this in his weekly quiz.