Fintan O’Toole, the Leonard L. Milberg ‘53 Visiting Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University, gives the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University.

The Tanner Lectures are presented annually at a select list of universities around the world. The University Center serves as host to these lectures at Princeton, in which an eminent scholar from philosophy, religion, the humanities, sciences, creative arts or learned professions, or a person eminent in political or social life, is invited to present a series of lectures reflecting upon scholarly and scientific learning relating to “the entire range of values pertinent to the human condition.”

About the 2022 Lectures

The relationship between democracy and art has shifted simultaneously in opposite directions. On the one hand, very few people still believe that aesthetic experience has a positive political value. Yet, on the other, democratic practice is increasingly saturated in performativity and the fictional narratives of identity. Ideas that once belonged to artists – provocation, invention and knowingness – are now the stuff of reactionary politics.

We need, therefore, to reassert the necessity of art for democratic citizenship. It is through art that we learn how to live at once in different time frames, as we must do if we are to come to terms with the climate crisis. The aesthetic experience engages with the past but does not pretend that is finished or complete. It creates mental spaces that are “neither here nor there/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass” (Seamus Heaney). It allows us to hover between states without having to land on the fixed terrain of absolutes. The democratic mindset is one in which this capability is embraced and we can behave as if we know who we are and what we are doing even while also knowing that we do not.

November 9 — Lecture 1: Against Artfulness

Democracy has become, not so much aestheticized, as artful. Reactionary politicians create collusive relationships with their audiences in which exaggeration and provocation are performed and consumed. Citizens become fans. This is less a form of democratic deliberation, more an ersatz replacement for the aesthetic experience.

November 10 — Lecture 2: Negative Capability

Democracy cannot sustain itself without what John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity to live with doubts, uncertainties and mysteries without having to impose apparent resolutions. The current crisis of democracy is rooted in the loss of this capacity and the insistence that contradictions are inherently intolerable. How can artists seek to restore it?

Attend a Lecture

Both lectures are free and open to the public. No tickets required.

About Fintan O’Toole

fintan with graying hair and serious gaze wears glasses and collar shirt with blazer

Photo courtesy Fintan O’Toole

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg ‘53 Visiting Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University. He is the winner of both the Orwell Prize for Journalism, the European Press Prize and the AT Cross Award for Supreme Contribution to Irish Journalism. He is currently working on the official biography of Seamus Heaney. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Born in Dublin in 1958, he has been drama critic of the New York Daily News and The Irish Times and Literary Adviser to the Abbey Theatre. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books and The Guardian.

His most recent book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland was named Book of the Year in the 2021 Irish Book Awards.

Presented By

  • University Center for Human Values
  • Tanner Lectures on Human Values
  • Program in Creative Writing