Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Manoeuverable and secure: the Nelly Option
It's entirely understandable -given the SCOTUS decision on same sex marriage and more generally just the times we live in- for those of us attached to past forms of life to feel a little disoriented and to long for a place of security. And so we come to the Benedict option much pushed (eg) by Rod Dreher and amounting to a claim that Christianity (or just Western Civilization) needs to established oases of civilization separate from the dominant barbaric culture and, in essence, make sure we can ride it out while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handcart.
It's named after MacIntyre's famous closing passage in After Virtue (although I suspect it takes on some of the emotional colouring of sharing a name with Pope Benedict XVI who appears, for a variety of reasons, a safe haven in current Catholic turmoil) where MacIntyre urges (or rather hopes for) another St Benedict. The general line of thought here is clear: just as learning was saved for Europe by the monasteries, so must western civilization be saved by similar foundations.
I'm not convinced. First, I'm not convinced because I am convinced that there is no one solution because there is no one problem. It's rather more a case of how to 'show the fly the way out of the fly bottle' or perhaps unpicking a tangle of wool. So, for example, in my last two posts, I have talked about concrete examples of the attack on the family in modern TV and the importance of the cosmopolitan as a reflective part of local culture. 'Salvation' at least as far as our natural end is concerned requires unpicking these two knots and a host of others: there is no quick and no single way. (In general, I'm profoundly suspicious of monocausal analyses, whether these are blaming Duns Scotus or Vatican II or whatever.)
Secondly, I'm not quite sure what the Benedict option could be. MacIntyre himself is suitably agnostic:
We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -doubtless very different- St Benedict.
In the context of his work, I've always taken MacIntyre's own message to be primarily about ensuring the integrity of intellectual traditions. Since modern liberalism is, for MacIntyre, a sort of Mad Max bricolage of philosophies that once made sense, but have since been forced together into shoddy verbal contraptions that rely on brute willpower for their survival, the aim should be to establish (in particular) Catholic educational institutions that teach the integrity of the Thomist tradition rather than simply reproduce the secular mess. (A PDF of an article by him on this is downloadable here.) Certainly, if we are looking at anything close to the historical Benedict, we are looking at the establishment of reservoirs, from which surrounding populations can be watered: a monastery or a university still has to exists in a surrounding culture. Historically, the Benedict option coexisted with (say) a Charlemagne or an Alfred option: some deployment of royal force both to support the monastery's existence and to ensure its influence. You might, I suppose, argue for a dhimmitude option, in which Christians become a barely tolerated minority in a secular state, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't sound very attractive (even if the reality in some places may well end up rather like that).
Well, what's my alternative? Again, let me make it clear: I don't have one. But that is because I am a limited human being with limited knowledge and sensibility: I am not a Moses. I am still less Christ. Even St Benedict didn't have the answer. None of us have to provide the answer or the analysis. Find what you can think of doing and do it. If you can found an Amish like community of Catholics, do so. Certainly, make sure that you pass on Catholicism as far as you can to your own children. Write books. Pray. Fume quietly. None of this will be enough, but each knot at least chewed at will bring us closer to the unravelling.
But let me be slightly more useful and suggest two strategies that I haven't seen suggested. First, there is the Aesopian Catholic. (I owe this thought to my reading of Melzer on Strauss which I hope to come back to.) Learn how to speak so that the surrounding culture leaves you alone but your associates understand you. Become cunning in the same way that dissidents in the USSR became cunning. Live publicly but esoterically. Second, become a Catholic cosmopolitan. Whatever your local circumstances, live intellectually (and really) in the Catholic cosmos. Read foreign Catholic publications. Absorb Catholic culture. Learn Latin if you can. Improve your Romance languages (how many of us learned no French at school?) and follow Catholic thought in that language. (For how many of us have the Cathos of France been a recent inspiration? ) If languages elude you, follow the American Catholic intellectual world. Use MOOCs and online syllabuses to educate yourself. Live as a Catholic cosmopolitan with Catholics across time and space. (Get on that flight to Florence!)
Let me repeat: no one strategy will work and all, moreover, have their dangers. (The Aesopian Catholic will always have a tendency to fall into dishonesty and to allow the dominant culture to rest unchallenged for example.) Those who do possess big cultural guns should use them: there are enough Catholics still in positions of political and cultural importance for us not to abandon that weaponry until we have to. But the rest of us (the guerrilla Catholics perhaps?) must do what we can with pitchforks or at least podcasts.
Thursday, 25 June 2015
I'm not going to say anything specifically about the current drive in the USA to get rid of the Confederate Battle flag: there's too much in that rich soup of racism and local pride for an unwary and ignorant foreigner to choke on.
But combined with my current obsession with the history of Sanskrit cosmopolitanism in Language of the Gods in the World of Men, there is something more general to be said about the interaction between the local and the cosmopolitan. If one takes a broadly Burkean view of society and tradition (so, roughly, the idea that politics should be about preservation of a tradition and change about an organic development of that tradition), one is left with the worry about what happens if it seems that one's tradition is shot through with some essential corruption. (So here, putting aside any question of the truth of the claim, the assertion that the cultural traditions of the South are shot through with racism and nostalgia for slavery.)
Any worthwhile tradition has within it critical and reflective resources. So the South produces (eg) writers such as Walker Percy who is both Southern to the roots, and yet able to take (some sort of) critical stand on the neuralgic issues of race and slavery. It's hard to imagine, given human contrarianism, any large, literate region not throwing up at least some dissident voices. But the Catholic tradition does rather more than this: it institutionalizes those critiques as practices. Thus, as well as the (national) State, you have the transnational Church and the transnational Academy, each realised within a complex exchange of personnel and an international language (Latin). (This general sort of pattern carries on after a fashion well into (Protestant) modernity.)
Catholic nationalism should, therefore, carry within itself not just the theoretical possibility of an internal organic critique, but the internalisation of an external, radical critique: localism is always in a realised tension with cosmopolitanism and not just a theoretical one. Only when (or to the extent that) the nation state hermetically seals itself (by abandoning transnational religion, language and universities) is this internalisation of the external abandoned and reflection turned in on itself.
Localism without the embeddedness of a cosmopolitan critique is liable to grow dumb and dangerous. Cosmopolitanism without the local is liable to grow imperious and theoretical. So where does that leave the modern nation?
Modern cosmoplitanism is perhaps most obvious as Americanism. The language of cosmopolitanism is English. The cultural artefacts that carry cosmopolitanism are primarily Hollywood films and US TV. Putting aside the case of non-English speaking nations, Anglophone countries such as Scotland face a blurring of the local and the cosmopolitan: our values become simply those of every other liberal Anglophone progressive.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Indeed, modern Scottish progressive nationalism seems to have created a nationalism that, unlike previous ones, is characterised by a revolt against history, an identification of the Past Scotland as the very thing to be sloughed off in favour of a cosmopolitan future. (Something similar might be said of the revolt of modern progressive Ireland against De Valera and comely maidens.) But in doing so, it loses the tension required for an internal critique: it becomes solely a city of monoglottal speech, created by words, but not tested by local traditions. Moreover, it isn't a very deep cosmopolitanism, but one founded on soap operas and thrillers.
And so one surveys possibilities, (Others are available.) The ideal of a rich local tradition, internalising within itself practices which bring in a rich cosmopolitanism and the possibility of a more than organic critique. Or a hermetically sealed culture, not entirely unable to change, but trapped essentially within itself. Or a cosmopolitanism simply of words, free floating, untested by reality or other speech, windy.
Tuesday, 23 June 2015
The haute vulgarisation of the Classics is currently well served in the UK, and, from a very strong team, I've always rather favoured Professor Edith Hall, in part on the ground that she really does seem to care about how to bring Classics to everyone whilst herself remaining a proper scholar.
Her latest piece for the Guardian is well worth reading. But perhaps the most important part of it is not the eloquent plea for the study of the Classical World, but the claim that a key part of this is the promotion of studies of classical civilization in translations rather than an elitist focus on the study of the Ancient Greek language.
The article makes the following main claims:
a) Studying Classics is very important.
b) Studying Ancient Greece is more important than studying Ancient Rome.
c) Studying Ancient Greeks is more important than studying Ancient Greek.
d) Focusing on language rather than culture (and especially Latin language rather than Ancient Greek culture) is counterproductive and liable, especially in the State sector, to see the complete demise of any teaching of the Classical World.
Frankly, I'm torn. If the question were simply, 'Should children study ancient Greek literature and civilization in translation or have no contact with the ancient world at all?' then her argument is a bit of a no-brainer. And I think it is because she sees, for most pupils in England, certainly in bog-standard comprehensives, that to be roughly the choice, that she comes to the conclusions she does. But I'm not sure that is quite the question, and so I'm not sure hers is quite the answer.
The first thing I'd say is that this sort of dispute is a local manifestation of a wider problem: the lack of depth and quality in modern (especially secondary) education. One of my children, just embarked on a History Higher (the main Scottish exam for university entry) was bemoaning to me the lack of any option before the twentieth century. The syllabus doesn't quite support that view, but like a great many things in Scottish (and I assume elsewhere in the UK) education, the reality on the ground doesn't fit the theory: certainly my experience of history education up till now has been that it's basically Glasgow sewers in the nineteenth century and Hitler. So anything, anything which puts something odd and rich into that gray gloop is welcome, whether it's philosophy classes, Latin classes, Chinese or classical civilization. The possibility of immediate escape for at least some children is to be welcomed, and if that possibility currently exists in the form of classical civilization rather than Attic Greek, I'd grasp it with both hands.
This inspiring past of people’s Greek can help us to look forward. It is theoretically in our power as British citizens to create the curriculum we want. In my personal utopia, the ancient Greek language would be universally available free of charge to everyone who wants to learn it, at whatever age – as would, for that matter, Latin, classical civilisation, ancient history, philosophy, Anglo-Saxon, Basque, Coptic, Syriac and Hittite. But classical civilisation qualifications are the admirable, economically viable and attainable solution that has evolved organically in our state sector. Classicists who do not actively promote them will justifiably be perceived as elitist dinosaurs.
[From her article here.]
Presumably, however, her call is not just to cherish what is already there but to encourage its expansion. And it's there I'm not quite so sure. The root of the problem is what the classics are for. Professor Hall seems to (at leas at university level) emphasize the production of good citizens:
This means engaging with literary texts fearlessly in translation plus increasing the importance of critical thinking and lowering that of language acquisition. Undergraduate degrees are supposed to produce competent citizens. Traditional classics courses are not making the most of those ancient authors on their curriculum who enhance civic as opposed to syntactical competence.
Study of Greeks is an important component of that because they uniquely (or at least at an unusually high level) embodied critical thought about what it was to be a citizen:
History, [Jefferson] proposed, is the subject that equips citizens for this. To stay free also requires comparison of constitutions, utopian thinking, fearlessness about innovation, critical, lateral and relativist thinking, advanced epistemological skills in source criticism and the ability to argue cogently. All these skills can be learned from their succinct, entertaining, original formulations and applications in the works of the Greeks.
I don't particularly want to challenge her assumption about the purposes of a humane education, although I'd rather put the emphasis on being a good human being rather than just a good citizen. And as part of that -and I suppose the turn to the historical which is part of the 2500 years or so of intellectual development since Classical Greece- I'd want to include a relativisation of that 'being a good citizen': to be a good citizen, it is necessary not just to consider what it is to be a citizen simpliciter, but an Englishman, a Scotsman, a European etc. In other words, you need to say something about the study of our history and thought since Greece. Moreover, Hall's view of Greek attitudes to citizenship is partial:
Socrates dedicated his life to proving the difference between the truth and received opinion, the unexamined life being, in his view, not worth living. No wonder Hobbes thought that reading Greek and Roman authors should be banned by any self-respecting tyrant, in Leviathan arguing that they foment revolution under the slogan of liberty, instilling in people a habit “of favouring uproars, lawlessly controlling the actions of their sovereigns, and then controlling those controllers”.
If Socrates did that, did Plato spend his life arguing that the ignorant should be subject to the wise few? Aristotle that there were natural slaves? Professor Hall has worked on the reception of Greek ideas in subsequent European history: she is well aware that they have just as often been used to justify tyrannies and hierarchies as to undermine them.
I'm am left at this point agreeing with her that classical civilisation studies is a very good thing, but not that it is a uniquely good thing. By all means, if the local situation is favourable, argue for its availability. But I'm not at all convinced that it is more important to argue for it rather than (say) Chinese or philosophy, and am equally not sure that, in fact, it will always be easier to produce students in classical civilisation than these other 'deep and interesting' subjects, even that of the Latin language.
Going back to what is ideal -what we should aim for in a slightly more idealistic way rather than scrambling to rescue whatever shards of culture we find at hand- I can't help thinking that it is the teaching of Latin that is really the crucial point. It is Latin (rather than Greek) which runs as the linguistic thread of culture throughout western history. It is Latin (rather than knowledge of Greek civilisation) which remains a charged cultural marker in our society, between those who have some Latin from a public school education, and those who have no Latin at all from a state education. It is Latin which is the language of Christendom (and thus of a whole layer of civilisation and reflective thought that encountering the Greek will leave aside).
And do we need Latin language rather than (say) a Great Books curriculum in translation? Well, we could certainly do with something like a Great Books curriculum in secondary education. But there remains, I think, something crucial about some Latin, at least for those going to something like a university level education. It is just a matter of historical fact that various civilisations have used a particular language to realise a cosmopolitan culture. By that, I mean they have used a special language to mark a culture which is not bound to the local either in time or place. (The use of Latin I think is clear enough, but the use of Sanskrit in Asia in an analogous way is addressed in Language of the Gods in the World of Men .) Now, certainly, you might wonder whether such a cosmopolitan idea is a good one, or even if having a 'designated' language is the best or only way of achieving it. I'd answer (probably) 'yes' to both questions, even if I'd struggle to articulate fully the reasons for these answers. But the very fact that such a language does exist across many different civilisations (Mandarin, Sanksrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Church Slavonic etc) should at least require a very clear answer as to why we are so sure that nothing is being lost by abandoning it.
In sum, I sympathise with Professor Hall's desire to hold onto and promote, where possible, the existence of studies in classical (Greek) civilisation in translation. But to the extent that we are mobilising our forces for a better, more ideal curriculum, I'd hold out for the wider teaching of Latin as an (almost) essential part of a proper humane education. (And if you're a Catholic, you can probably add the traditional 'and then some' onto the end of that last sentence.)