Tag Archives: civilization

Remember the Men of Marathon

On January 20, 1961, in his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy stated that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God” and that, as a nation, “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The remarkable thing about these comments is that, at the time, they were so unremarkable. Where else but from God could rights come and was not liberty a rare condition always preserved with blood? Who would not find the new president’s comments obvious? Perhaps someone who has not grasped the significance of the heroic defense of freedom at Marathon, pondered the emergence of individual liberty at Runnymede, or contrasted the American and French Revolutions.

Of the “men of Marathon,” Plato writes, “So I say of these men that they are fathers not only of our bodies but of our freedom” and that Greeks became “students” of the men of Marathon. My father, who grew up on a farm and was forced to run it at the age of 16 when his father died, talked of the men of Normandy and thanked God for Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the Manhattan Project. Now, juxtapose the men of Marathon with today’s students, who are beneficiaries of the men of Marathon, Normandy, and a thousand other such places of heroism, suffering, and death. Instead of being students of the men of Marathon, or of their successors in the Academy or the Lyceum, they carry signs and vent rage with regard to some topic of the day. Had these intrepid students been at Marathon, would they have stomped their feet and accused Darius of microagressions, and would such indignation have stopped the Persians while Darius genuflected and performed the ritual apologies?

Civilization Is Perishable

With respect to our universities, consider these words of historian Will Durant:

Civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end. Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.

Are universities transmitting civilization? Are students reading Sophocles, Dante, and Tolstoy? Are they studying the deep epistemological problems pertaining to climate, medicine, and other complex scientific issues? Evidently, many are not; otherwise, they would not demand simplistic solutions to age-old conundrums or to recent problems regarding large-scale dynamical systems.

Civilization is perishable and its collapse, along with disastrous consequences, has recently been witnessed in the twentieth century with the rise of Bolshevism and Nazism. There was good reason for reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (required) and William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (recommended) in high school. Liberty and its concomitant individual rights are rare in human history. The United States has been most fortunate to have descended from Locke rather than Rousseau. Yet, it is important to recognize that the totalitarianism inherent in Rousseau stems from a democratic impulse.

Tocqueville, who believed that the tide of history is democratic, saw great potential for a totalitarian mind set in America. As a Frenchman, he was familiar with the democratic form taken by the French Revolution. Tocqueville identified three aspects of the American experiment that were central to maintaining freedom: local township government, voluntary intermediate institutions between the citizen and the state, and the spirit of religion. If Tocqueville was correct, then we should not be surprised that the virtual disappearance of all three of these in the last half century has coincided with a decline in liberty and the rise of an oppressive regime. Are university students familiar with Tocqueville’s analysis or with Plato’s warning that democracy is naturally followed by tyranny or with Aristotle’s reflections on what makes a good regime?

Are they reading Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, the fundamental work for our republic? These questions are central because, as students, they are supposedly at the university to learn, and if the state of the republic is their interest, then one presumes that they would possess an interest in the foundations of the republic and the conditions under which it best functions according to its principles.

The Waning of Reason and Faith

Together with increasing ignorance, we are suffering a decline in reason. Politicians are not expected to be philosophers, but they should demonstrate a modicum of rationality. More worrisome than the blather coming from politicians are the illogical arguments emanating from our courts. While this might be attributed to judicial prejudice, might it not also be due to an inability to reason? Indeed, could the justices pass a simple test in logical calculus? Their statements make it appear unlikely. Looking at the history of human freedom, can a society unable to produce leaders with the capacity for sound reason be expected to preserve liberty?

Reason alone cannot preserve liberty. As President Kennedy noted, rights come from God, not from the state, notwithstanding the black robes. During the last half century, faith has declined in tandem with reason. This correlation is understandable since individualistic hedonism is poison to both faith and reason. Certainly, there is an abiding conflict between faith and reason; nevertheless, the Western mind has strove to mitigate their irreconcilability, from Aquinas’ efforts to make Christianity and Aristotle compatible to Kant’s declaration that the practical reason demands that God underpin the moral law, a conclusion that cannot be drawn from the theoretical reason.

In line with Kant, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche declared that without God, all is permitted. For all three, God does not appear as a whim of human fancy or the conclusion of a deductive argument, but as a necessity for human moral life. In the Will to Power, Nietzsche puts the matter simply: “One still hopes to get along with a moralism without religious background, but that necessarily leads to nihilism.” Nietzsche tells us our plight because he understands the gravity of killing God. “How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” asks his madman in Beyond Good and Evil. “What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us?”

With nihilism, we reach the heart of our educational dysfunction. Yale professor Donald Kagan states, “A vulgar form of nihilism, I claim, has a remarkable influence in our educational system today, a system rotting from the head down, so chiefly in universities, but all the way down to elementary schools.” Inclusiveness, diversity, and other popular mantras are products of a nihilism that replaces erudite deliberation with a tyrannical sentimentality oblivious to its own internal contradictions. The adherents of nihilism, so ubiquitous on our campuses, display a mindless Schopenhauerian will constrained by neither morality nor reason. Indeed, an ersatz morality appears as a manifestation of a blind, striving will and reason is reduced to a servant of that will.

Are students conversant with Kant, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche? From their rhetoric, it appears doubtful. But post nineteenth century one cannot expect to be viewed seriously on moral issues without taking into account the thinking of these giants of moral thought. At least at prestigious universities, one should expect students to be so informed.

Law Be Damned

With the renunciation of reason and the advent of nihilism comes the abandonment of law, which requires words to have more than momentary meaning. “I want” is the cry of the protesting students – and damn the law! Like all spoiled children they want what they want and they want it now. Law is too slow. And who needs law, so long as we get what we want? These young zealots bear kinship to the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Inquisitional judges whose aim was to purge their societies of those who dared challenge their beliefs. Like their predecessors, they care not for free exercise of religion or freedom of speech. They aim to crush the devils who do not bow before their secular gods and neither reason nor law will stand in the way of their rage.

But rage has consequences. In Man for All Seasons, William Roper says that he would “cut down every law in England” to get the devil. “Oh?” responds Thomas More,

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Today’s disgruntled students do not consider how they or others shall stand in the winds they wish to unleash because they are rooted in the immediate and show little knowledge of the past. Will, and will alone, is their guiding principle. Perhaps their professors should advise them to think for a moment and remind them how the Grande Armée learned the meaning of liberté, égalité, fraternité from the will of Napoleon on the road to Moscow, how the Old Bolsheviks learned the meaning of dialectical materialism from the will of Stalin in the frozen waste of Siberia, and how the Chinese learned the meaning of class struggle from the will of Mao in the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps their professors should warn them that today’s useful idiots may one day stand before the personification of will that they so desire, but at that point their idiocy may no longer be useful and they may find themselves first in line to the gulag that they helped to prepare. Alas, education has skipped two generations and Will Durant has warned us that civilization may not be able to withstand the loss of one. How many remember the men of Marathon?

Pleasure Island


The kids! The boys! They’re all donkeys! – Jiminy Cricket

Beloit College recently released its annual “Mindset List,” the findings of a yearly survey which attempts to take stock of the cultural touchstones that each generation of college freshman is, or is not, familiar with. Most of the observations are benign: “They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it,” for instance. But, predictably, at least one of the observations on the list is distressing to those of us carrying the fire of the Western intellectual tradition. The List claims that “The Biblical sources of terms such as “forbidden fruit,” ”the writing on the wall,” ”good Samaritan,” and “the promised land” are unknown to most of them.”

Why does it matter if the Class of 2016 is ignorant of the source of these references? Educationally, such unfamiliarity is symptomatic of higher education’s drift, nay, dog-paddle, away from tradition of the Great Books, the time-honored mechanisms for defining and explaining Western thought and virtue, what the 19th century poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.”  In earlier times, we might have taken hope in the university’s liberal arts tradition to remedy this sort of deficit. Currently, however, there is little hope that the American post-secondary system is doing much to stem the tide of ignorance. 

Continue reading Pleasure Island

‘Defend the Humanities’–A Dishonest Slogan

humanities.bmpCollege foreign language and literature programs have been in decline for some time, first shrinking, then being consolidated with other departments, and now in a growing number of cases actually closed down. But the recent decision to eliminate French, Italian, Russian and Classics at SUNY Albany appears to have struck a nerve, and caused an outcry: “Defend the Humanities!”
It’s a cry that has been heard many times in the past. As the segment of the university that has no direct link to a career-providing profession, the humanities have regularly been called upon to justify their usefulness, but the justification is easy to make, and it is an honorable one that instantly commands respect.
The case generally goes like this: exposure to the best of our civilization’s achievements and thought gives us the trained minds of broadly educated people. We learn about ourselves by studying our history, and understanding how it has shaped us and the institutions we live by. As European civilization developed it produced a range of extraordinary thinkers who grappled memorably with questions that will always be with us, leaving a rich and varied legacy of outstanding thought on philosophical, ethical, religious, social and political matters. Its creative writers left a record of inspired reflection on human life and its challenges. Studying the humanities make us better prepared for civic life and for living itself, and better citizens.

Continue reading ‘Defend the Humanities’–A Dishonest Slogan