From Atlanta to Naples: what purpose does humanist culture serve



Following cuts by the US Government, the number of people working at the Georgia Archives in Atlanta has been reduced. As a result, it will soon become impossible to visit the archives. Why does this news cause a stir? Because not only do the Georgia Archives preserve no end of historical curiosities, but they also have an inestimable collection of documents, papers and official agreements that make up the USA’s historical and political memory.

The news reminded me of another episode that has been much discussed in Italy, i.e. the risk that the Institute for Philosophical Studies in Naples (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which houses an important library, may well close due to lack of funding. In recent weeks the news has drawn the worried attention of many international scholars and, despite the appeals that have been signed and the proposals put forward, to date a solution has not been found.

These episodes that are far apart, not just in geographical terms, raise general issues concerning the role of humanist culture and about the importance of preserving historical memory. First and foremost, who should take responsibility for this ‘capital’? Private enterprises can do a lot, through patronage or the creation of foundations (with the Fondazione Benetton we try to make our own contribution), but they cannot take the place of the State, which is ultimately responsible for preserving what is, after all, public property. And what can be more public than memory, history and culture?

But above all, these episodes periodically pose us a fundamental question – what purpose does humanist culture serve? Why should we commit resources to preserve it, in particular during a period of economic hardship? This is an issue I have already broached in another post and I believe it to be crucial. What is at stake, in fact, is not just the fate of an intangible asset, which – as demonstrated – can also generate economic benefits. What’s on the line, more than anything else, is our vision of ourselves, of what is meant by wellbeing and quality of life and of what we want for our children. In other words, our vision of the future.