Hume and the Panhandler: The Chief Triumph of Art and Philosophy

I am directed to a quote of David Hume’s, whose 300th birthday is this week, from Robert Zaretsky in the New York Times, which for me sums up beautifully my best hopes for art, theatre, literature, and deep, considered thought. Though Hume himself (at length) expresses his “doubts” about their overall power, he still nails it:

Here then is the chief triumph of art and philosophy: It insensibly refines the temper, and it points out to us those dispositions which we should endeavor to attain, by a constant bent of mind and by repeated habit.

When folks see well-done Shakespeare or read a brilliant novel, particularly when they might not otherwise have done so, this is what I hope will be the effect. As my former boss at the American Shakespeare Center Jim Warren put it, every performance helps make the world a little bit better.

But since Hume was in fact dubious of art and philosophy’s efficacy as a whole, seeing it only as a small influence over the powerful pull of raw emotion and desire, I think my own position is best bolstered by the panhandler interviewed in Al Pacino’s wonderful Looking for Richard:

We should introduce Shakespeare into the academics. You know why? Because then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That’s why it’s easy for us to shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other, but if we were taught to feel, we wouldn’t be so violent. Does Shakespeare help us? He did more than help us. He instructed us… . If we think words are things and have no feelings in words then we say things to each other that mean nothing. But if we felt what we said, we’d say less and mean more!

So art and philosophy are not just mitigators of our baser desires, not just  helping hand, but a way to reframe, express, and refine our thoughts and feelings into something more constructive.

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