Symposium: Martha Nussbaum

Symposium: Martha Nussbaum

What relationship American intellectuals should have toward mass culture—television, films, mass-market books, popular music, and the Internet—will vary as much as the people themselves.

I think that it’s good if there are some intellectuals who get deeply involved with these media, because this will help intellectuals keep contact with a wider public. It’s much harder to do that now than it was formerly, given the decline of print journalism. But I hope not too many will become starry-eyed about these media and forget about the habit of slow reading, which is such a large part of good thinking. Sometimes the new media can help reading: for example, I now listen to novels on my iPod while I am running, and I “read” a lot more Trollope and Eliot than I used to. Often, though, the new media discourage people from reading books. I see this in many of my students, and it distresses me. We need to remind them that thinking is slow and rigorous, and that it does not always go well with the fast pace and the flash of popular culture.

On balance, the academy is a great help in furthering the engagement of intellectuals with American society When we think of the political philosophers of the fairly recent European past, most of them had to struggle to make ends meet, because their radical ideas made it impossible for them to hold tenured academic positions or to be protected by the deficient standards of academic freedom that then prevailed. Rousseau’s books were banned, and he was not employable in a university. Kant held a university appointment, but he always had to fear, and sometimes encounter, the suppression of his writings. Bentham and Mill published, but they were not employable in universities because of their atheism. Think of how much more Mill could have written had he not had a day job. Even the highly respectable Sidgwick had to resign his fellowship because he found that he could not support all the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. (The rule was changed, and he resumed his fellowship, but he still had to conceal his sexual orientation, as Bart Schultz’s biography now shows us.) Closer to our own time, both Bertrand Russell and John Dewey encountered significant problems of academic freedom, though they kept their positions. The U.S. university system is not perfect, and we must always be extremely vigilant about potential denials of academic freedom. During the Vietnam War era, in particular, there were abuses. It is, however, better than most systems have been in most times and places.

Of course, these protections may lull intellectuals into ignoring issues of their time, and that is bad when it happens; but it is still better that the protections be there, in the strongest possible form.

Academic freedom is especially important because, I believe, the best way for intellectuals to engage with American society is for us to think, write, and teach. Sometimes some of us may take up actual political positions, but beware: the person who does so loses a lot of freedom. As I contemplate friends of mine who are serving in the Obama administration, I feel so lucky to have the ability to say whatever I like and to work things out the way I like to work them out I think of what Cicero said about some of his contemporaries who refused to get involved in politics: they “claim for themselves the same privilege as kings—to obey nobody and to enjoy liberty, saying and doing whatever they please.” That is what I am doing, staying here in Chicago, and my friends are doing what Cicero thought one ought to do, serving the republic at a serious cost of freedom. He would consider my choice self-indulgent. However, I think that most of us serve the republic better by our writings than we would by going to Washington and giving up writing. Look at Cicero: his direct political action had little effect on history, but the books he wrote during his periods of exile changed the world.


I do consider myself a world citizen, but I have also come to believe that Mazzini was correct: patriotism of the right sort is an essential source of political stability and, ultimately, of global concern. Mazzini saw that people are usually preoccupied with their own narrow affairs. So it is very unlikely that they will be motivated to serve all humanity. The idea of the nation, however, can be transmitted in a powerfully motivating symbolic form, calling the heart to the service of noble ends, and these ends, rightly formulated, can lead on to the service of all humanity. Of course, most patriotism is not like that, but it can be: look at Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech for a beautiful example of what I have in mind. One may also find this in the oratory of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.: all used a resonant and moving idea of the nation to attach people’s hearts to abstract moral values that ultimately acquire a cosmopolitan significance.

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Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in Law, Philosophy, and Divinity. Her latest book is From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution.

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