If “liberal” is a dirty word then Martha Nussbaum is one of the most profane philosophers alive. An unashamed champion of the value of liberal democracy, Nussbaum is also an enthusiastic advocate of providing the kind of humanistic education that prepares students to be good democratic citizens. For decades she was written about the value of philosophy and the arts for Cultivating Humanity, to use the title of her 1997 book, and the importance of education for creating a humane, democratic world.
Now Nussbaum has boiled her case down to a “manifesto”, which in fewer than 150 pages makes her case to the wider world. As a model of public philosophy, it is exemplary. Anyone familiar with Nussbaum’s work will know that a lot is going on beneath the surface, and that her case has more and deeper roots than are on show here. However, she is always careful to argue for her conclusions as fully as is compatible with brevity and accessibility. There are no pronouncements from on high here, only strong arguments, forcefully made.
Nussbaum’s argument is a simple one. The good life is a full life, one which is engaged with more than just generating profit and achieving practical goals. Governments have to be concerned with these mundanely utilitarian matters, but, as the Indian educator Rabindranath Tagore is quoted as saying, “while making use of [material possessions], man has to be careful to protect himself from [their] tyranny.” This danger is ever present, which is why we need constantly to reaffirm the case for the humanities and humanistic education.