Stephen Greenblatt on the future of jobs, economic mobility, and decision making in Shakespeare

January 2018. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, legendary Shakespearean scholar, and Pulitzer Prize winner, on the future of jobs, economic mobility, and decision making in Shakespeare. | Click here for more interviews like this one.

LinksStephen Greenblatt’s website | His latest book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (W. W. Norton, 2017) | His Pulitzer-Prize-winning book (2012), The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

For comments about this interview, contact Growthpolicy’s Devjani Roy.

Growthpolicy.org: Where will the jobs of the future come from?

Stephen Greenblatt: Assuming a continued, indeed perhaps an exponential, rise in AI applications, I think that one source of jobs will be those human activities that cannot be done by even the most sophisticated of robots. We have long had these jobs, virtually from the beginning of our species, but their resistance to computer creation, at least at a powerful level, makes them particularly promising: I refer to poetry, dance, drama, painting, musical composition, story-telling, in short, the whole range of human art making. It has now been proven possible to have a machine teach itself, in the course of a day, to exceed the skill of the greatest living chess master; no one, as far as I know, has come even close to developing a program that would produce anything comparable to artistic creations that have been important to human happiness for millennia. In a similar vein, I think that there will be continued job growth in a closely related field of human imaginative life, namely, religion. The rise of technology has not and will not do away – as we might at one time have imagined – with the need to serve, ritually honor, and worship the gods that we constantly invent and reinvent.

Growthpolicy.org: In your book Will in the World, we learn that Shakespeare signed his last will and testament “William Shakespeare, of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwick, gentleman,” and successfully acquired a family motto and crest, taking him and his heirs far away from the family’s origins in the glove-making business. Do you believe such mobility would be possible today given the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite, as economists such as Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz have pointed out?

Stephen Greenblatt: Notwithstanding growing income concentration, I think that social mobility of the kind glimpsed in Shakespeare – or in his contemporaries Christopher Marlowe, the son of a shoemaker, or Ben Jonson, the son of a bricklayer – is at least as possible today and probably quite a bit easier. The question is not how to allow some upward social mobility to a handful of geniuses but rather how to make it possible for a far larger number of bright, energetic, hard-working men and women of more ordinary abilities who come from working-class backgrounds. If anything, I think that the prospects are for downward mobility, at least as measured by the ability to have a higher education without incurring crushing debt, homeownership, etc.

Growthpolicy.org: For your Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Swerve: How the World became Modern, you worked closely with Lucretius’s great philosophical epic, De Rerum Natura. How is Lucretius significant to our world today and what lessons does he hold for us?

Stephen Greenblatt: For Lucretius, the key question was how to come to terms with the fact that we live in an altogether material universe – just atoms and void – without divinely ordained rules or the prospect of an afterlife. He was critical of his culture’s superstitious rituals, its dreams of world domination, the cruelty and coarseness of its amusements, and above all its delusion that acquiring more and more wealth would provide lasting pleasure. He taught techniques of achieving an inner calm and a mature acceptance of our condition.

Growthpolicy.org: Let us talk about your latest book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. Given the current economic and political climate, what does the story of Adam and Eve teach us about the fear and distrust of knowledge?

Stephen Greenblatt: The story of Adam and Eve has been around for a very long time, in part because it can be taken in so many different ways.  Let us take only two, in relation to your question.  Already two thousand years ago, in the Nag Hammadi codices, people were speculating that the real hero of the story was not the God – who after all was trying to prohibit humans from acquiring the most important thing in their intellectual and moral lives – but rather the woman (or, in another version, the serpent). After all, it is the woman who boldly chooses knowledge over the comfortable and innocent but hopelessly constrained life. This then is one possible direction. But the other direction would say that the story urges its listeners to take in the potential dangers of an untrammeled lust for knowledge.  There is no reason to think that acquiring knowledge – just because one can, because it is there for the plucking – is a wise or safe thing to do. There are some things that it might be better not to know.

Growthpolicy.org: And finally, a question about decision making for policy makers. Hamlet is a Shakespearean character who astutely observes the world around him, engages in relentless self critique, but also demonstrates the failure to act. What does Hamlet teach policy makers about decision making, self-reflection, and the importance of critical thought?

Stephen Greenblatt: I’m not sure that Hamlet is the model for “policy-making,” successful or disastrous.  It is the murderer Claudius who is the great policy-maker in the play, carefully committing his crime so that the public believes that the old king died of a snake bite, prudently using diplomatic channels to deal with the Norwegian threat, even while ordering an arms build-up, consulting with his experienced adviser, spying on the principal potential source of domestic disturbance (in the form of his mentally ill step-son), and eventually deciding to rid himself once and for all of this disturbance. And yet at the end of the play Claudius lies dead (along with the other key figures in the Danish court), while the rash Fortinbras, who has simply had the accidental good fortune to be at the right place at the right time, becomes the ruler of Denmark and thereby recovers the kingdom that his father had lost.