Common knowledge, then and now

When I read works of non-fiction written in the first half of the 20th century, I’m almost always struck by how freely, frequently, and casually they throw around references to history and literature, especially of the Ancient variety. These references, though many of them would now be understood by relatively few non-specialists, are usually not meant to provide new information—no, they typically have a familiar tone which takes it for granted that this is something which the reader already knows, and which is now being brought up only to give an analogy or example. Nor are they limited to heavy, scholarly tomes; they show up quite often in popular, “middlebrow” stuff as well, including political speeches. For some reason, this tendency seems especially pronounced in the U.S. between the Interbellum and the cultural revolution of the 1960s; there are, of course, other examples that are as old as widespread literacy, but the trend dies off completely in the last three or four decades of the 20th Century, when the pool of historical and literary common knowledge becomes vastly smaller, the references to it less presuming, and the intent of those references limited to showing what credulous, puritanical bigots our ancestors were.

As a young man, I find it hard even to imagine that there was a time within living memory when references to Julian the Apostate were as universally and immediately understood as are references to The Simpsons today, but there you have it. And interestingly, those references seem to have been just as popular among the ideological ancestors of today’s anti-Western Left as among others. Here, for example,  is a short excerpt from The City of Man, a 1940 “declaration of world democracy” written and signed by a group of prominent progressives, as quoted in Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse:

We shall not imitate the backward course of Julian the Apostate … or of the Roman populace running for asylum and atonement to the old gods after the capture of their city by the Goths. We shall not return, under the counsel of despair, from a higher and vaster religion to lesser ones.

(See? I wasn’t kidding about Julian the Apostate.)

This leads me to think, perhaps too kindly, that some of the people who laid the groundwork for the present regime perhaps didn’t really know—or at least couldn’t fully envision—exactly what it was they were setting in motion. Perhaps they didn’t understand, for example, that by making internationalism and universal democracy their God, they were removing the very foundations of their own culture, which is what made those casual allusions to Julian the Apostate and the Sack of Rome possible in the first place. Then again, maybe they were just playing Good Cop.

I’ll wrap up by way of another related excerpt from Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism—which, by they way, reads a little like a much more learned version of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, with all the peaks and valleys that entails:

In one of his [Theodor Adorno's] last lectures at Frankfurt University a number of female students stripped to the waist and tried to kiss the dazed scholar who fled with tears in his eyes. To the press he declared that this, indeed, was not the evolution he had hoped for, that his aims and ideas had been completely misunderstood. A few weeks later he succumbed to a heart attack in Switzerland.

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38 thoughts on “Common knowledge, then and now

  1. Mr Sellanraa,

    Consider the late poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), who was one of the older mentors  of the West Coast Beat movement.  Almost entirely self-educated, he was a left-wing anarchist in the IWW tradition.  He wrote a “Classics Revisited” column for Saturday Review in the ’60′s and these short essays could, if one followed up on the works and writers discussed, give one a very good self education indeed. His definition of ‘classic’ is much broader than the works of the ancient Greeks and Latins, but he has essays on Homer, Petronius, the Gallic War, Catullus and many other ancients.  The series was collected in two books, and about half the essays may be found online. 

    Rexroth had a profound influence on me, though he would certainly be horrified at the direction in which his examples have led me. 

    Each time I put down The Iliad, after reading it again in some new translation, or after reading once more the somber splendor of the Greek, I am convinced, as one is convinced by the experiences of a lifetime, that somehow, in a way beyond the visions of artistry, I have been face to face with the meaning of existence.

    On translating poetry:

    Last and not least, translation saves you from your contemporaries. You can never really model yourself on Tu Fu or Leopardi or Paulus the Silentiary, but if you try you can learn a great deal about yourself. It is all too easy to model yourself on T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams or W.H. Auden or Allen Ginsberg — fatally easy — thousands do it every day. But you will never learn anything about yourself. Translation is flattering, too. I don’t at all like feeling like T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg. All through the world’s literature there are people I enjoy knowing intimately, whether Abelard or Rafael Alberti, Pierre Reverdy or Tu Fu, Petronius or Aesculapius. You meet such a nice class of people.

    On contemporary ‘relevance’ in literature:

    Notoriously, the great dramatic fictions of mankind have not progressed as has science or even religious insight. Art is not improved by technology. The bisons in the cave at Altamira are not inferior to the best paintings in the last Biennale — and so with literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses does not improve Homer. At one time it was believed that the mid-nineteenth century had witnessed a revolution of sensibility and insight. The poetry of Baudelaire, the novels of Dostoievsky were imagined to be different in kind from what had preceded them. Only the very young, and few of them, believe this any more. In fact, it would be easier today to muster cogent arguments on the other side.

    The perils of the soul and its achievements are constant. From his earliest literary efforts man does not seem to have advanced in his comprehension of them, and may well have declined. Above all others, this is the area where novelty seems to be of no importance whatsoever, yet its lack never results in tedium. Quite the reverse: the contemporary novel that embodies paradigms of the great tragic commonplaces of human life seems precisely “novel,” fresh, and convincing, while literature that deals with contemporaneity on its own terms is hackneyed before it appears in print.

    Today it is next to impossible to imagine a man like Rexroth on the intellectual left, and not much easier on the intellectual right. 

  2. I truly doubt the left does not comprehend what they are doing read their writings they know exactly what they are doing they arrogantly brag about it and wallow in it some of Marxs early writings are rife with satanic allusion Leftism is, always was and will be about self righteous destruction of the world that is so they can “remake” it according to their own vision of perversion

  3. “As a young man, I find it hard even to imagine that there was a time within living memory when references to Julian the Apostate were as universally and immediately understood as are references to The Simpsons today, but there you have it.”

    As a young man, I think the New Left is the best thing that ever happened to consumer capitalism. Everyone’s hunger for stories used to be filled by Western history and traditional literature. After they “problematized” such education, the minds of subsequent generations were a vacuum to be filled by copyrighted stories churned out by media corporations,

  4. Another measure of our decline is how frequently French and Latin quotations were left untranslated before the 1960′s. The authors simply assumed that if you were intelligent enough to read their works, then you had already mastered those languages.

  5. That a reservoir of literary and historical knowledge exists (at least among educated people), is an assumption which can no longer be counted on. This lack of civilizing background has something to do with the deculturation of the intellectual and academic world. It also reflects a contempt for the erudition that used to prevail in universities.

    As Eric Voegelin observed, opinions are dominant now which would have been laughed out of court in the late Middle Ages or the Renaissance.

  6. This reflection is important for us to deeply consider if we are to understand the development of Western intellectual history. The liberal order that exists today did not arise upon foundations of ignorance but from a tradition of wide and deep learning. If today many liberals, of either left or right, seem intellectually shallow compared to their forebears, then it is because their ancestors settled many matters to an apparently satisfactory degree. There is a danger, however, in relying too much upon this experience of what passes for the common form of liberalism. We ought to expect any system of ideas to become vulgarized when spread wide and far. A more difficult proposition is understanding and combating the basic root concepts of liberalism, a task to which this blog often turns.

    Unless we understand how liberalism arose through an encounter with the classics and the lessons of history then we will not be able to truly understand let alone refute its conclusions.

  7. I have swallowed more than my share of the pernicious order of the day, more than I sense to be tolerable. I recognize this, which is considerably more toward the goal of turning away from it than I could say just ten years ago. Living in the society that we do, I do not expect that I ever could fully eradicate all traces of the poison, let alone the effects of it, but there still seems to remain the discovery of some large action I could take in my life against it, some injurious blow or thrust of a lance to render it permanently crippled and less effective as a force upon me.

    It seems that a large part of battling the bottom-dweller that is liberalism is to use as fully as possible human faculties as they have been granted to me, especially the faculties of will, intellect and memory. I wonder if the large action to combat liberalism that I could take would be to immerse myself, or at least to the best of my ability, into the learning of a useful other language, such as French or Latin. Unfortunately the human faculties in myself have been out of use, or really have not been put to use like they should have in the first place, such that they are embarrassingly flabby. It may be too late for me, but perhaps not for my young children.

    • buckyrinky,

      More and more people, often of my own age but quite frequently younger, 
      seem to understand that the whole atmosphere of the social and cultural world around them is toxic. 

      Rexroth, whom I referred to above, used to call it the ‘Social Lie’. 

  8. That a reservoir of literary and historical knowledge exists (at least among educated people), is an assumption which can no longer be counted on.

    Yes. We are all a pretty well-educated bunch, but even I don’t know nearly as much about the classics as I would like, and I love it when, e.g., Thomas Bertonneau or someone else writes posts centered around the writings of ancient thinkers. (That *is* a hint, Mr. Bertonneau and others!)

    I wonder if the large action to combat liberalism that I could take would be to immerse myself, or at least to the best of my ability, into the learning of a useful other language, such as French or Latin.

    That sounds like a fantastic idea. I have found anything, anything, that forces your mind out of the modern American frame to be enormously therapeutic.

    • I know Spanish reasonably well, although not completely. I intend to learn Japanese as well. Those languages also give good window into other bodies of thought, but do have the slight disadvantage of not giving direct access to the classics.

      • Latin or Greek may be ideal, but a working knowledge of any language will put you a step above most Americans. So, Spanish and Japanese may not give you direct access to the Greco-Roman Classics, but you’ll at least get the lowercase-’c’ classics of those two languages. I’ll leave it to someone more knowledgeable than I to say how valuable they are to someone primarily interested in the Western literary tradition, but for Japanese things like the Hundred Poets, the Pillow Book, and even more modern writers like Souseki Natsume and Mishima Yukio are worth reading, and like samsonsjawbone says below, almost any break from the modern American frame is refreshing.

        If you do proceed with Japanese, just be prepared for a long slog before you’re literate enough for serious literature. I know that from my own often-frustrating experience.

      • Oh, it will definitely be a long slog. Especially with so many other things getting in the way right now. Speaking of Japanese, have you ever tried the Hesig method for Kanji? I am not sure if it actually sounds like a good idea to me. I have learned a few characters but have tried to concentrate on spoken until I feel more up to pare in Japanese ability.

      • I’ve used it, and feel confident saying that Heisig’s method is, easily, the best way to learn kanji, with the caveat that it’s only good for the kanji, so you’ll need something else to supplement it for vocabulary and grammar. In my own case, I got about 60% through the first book before hitting a snag, mostly because I didn’t have much to supplement it with besides a few books (mostly comics) I’d imported. Knowing a lot of kanji, though, makes it much easier to learn new vocabulary, and learning a kanji is easier when you know a word or two that uses it. So, when I restart my attempt at learning the language here shortly, I’ll definitely make use of it; I just need to decide what to use with it.

      • I am a professor of Japanese, and although the Heisig books came out too recently to be of much use to me, many of my students swear by them.

        Having said that, it takes a very long time indeed to get up to reading speed in Japanese, and even more time if you want to pursue any early modern literature, and yet more time if you want to approach Classical Japanese. Classical Japanese is to modern Japanese what Latin is to French, more or less.

        On the other hand, it will take you less time to be able to read manga and modern novels, but few of those are actually worth reading (in my opinion, anyway).

      • Thanks for your comment. In the history realm I am most interested in the late modern, and of course the present (which is basically the same time period). I know old forms of any language are very hard to get into, but for me even some of the thought from the last few decades is interesting.

  9. but do have the slight disadvantage of not giving direct access to the classics.

    Yeah, but I don’t think they need to, really. As I say, anything that helps you escape the modern American thought-prison feels therapeutic. It doesn’t have to directly involve studying ancient literature or other ostensibly Important Things. It’s enormously refreshing to realize that there are other points of view out there, no matter what they are.

  10. Reading through such older works without a very rigorous background in history or philosophy, I’ve often felt stupid. I guess it’s small comfort knowing it’s not just me — we’re all stupid now.

    • Reading Voegelin’s “The New Science of Politics” has been really enlightening in this respect. Having to stop every 15 words or so to look up some Greek word has really expanded my vocabulary!

  11. samsonsjawbone (terriffic handle, BTW!),

     I have found anything, anything‘ that forces your mind out of the modern American frame to be enormously therapeutic.

    *joetexx grins*

    And to use therapeutic in that context seats you thoroughly in the modern American frame, with plenty of caulk. 

    • And to use therapeutic in that context seats you thoroughly in the modern American frame, with plenty of caulk.

      Ha, touché; I accept that one! Still, substitute whatever word you want – healing, maybe?

    • Find me a town where anyone who knows that he is politically correct must leave at dawn the next day, and I’m moving there.

      Mr. Nicoloso can be the wise and trusted stranger who lets them know that there is at least one PCer in town.

  12. This leads me to think, perhaps too kindly, that some of the people who laid the groundwork for the present regime perhaps didn’t really know—or at least couldn’t fully envision—exactly what it was they were setting in motion.

    It is both too kind and not kind enough at once. It is not obvious to most that advocating, with actual religious fervor, for seeming high ideals (such as “freedom” and “equality”) that you are advocating for the eventual destruction of public order and ultimately of civilization itself. And nowhere is this less obvious than when you are dealing with, planning a future for, a high-functioning and largely homogenous people. (It also wouldn’t hurt for cousin marriage to be rare, and familial bonds to be relatively weak vis-a-vis meritocracy.)

    So then, those who laid the groundwork for the present regime certainly did not intend and possibly could not have foreseen the consequences of what they advocated. In fact, it is likely that most 18th century revolutionaries would have come to their senses if they had only glimpsed 100 years into the future, to say nothing of gazing on the massive self-spinning vortex of dysfunction which defines the present day.

    It was not obvious to most… BUT it, i.e., the descent into democracy, was obvious to the very best and most trusted political thinkers in all ages. So in this, those who laid the groundwork for the current regime, deserve all the greater blame… for not having listened… to tradition… to their betters.

  13. I definitely prefer Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s other two major works: ‘The Menace of the Herd’ and ‘Liberty or Equality’.

  14. I submit another facet of this problem for consideration, the divergence between the sci/tech world-outlook and the literary world-outlook, that is the subject of C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures.

    • That is definitely a big problem. I was recently debating with a classmate on Facebook. She is an educated geology student, who has analyzed the origins of clay used to make pottery by one of the native tribes in Texas. I brought up Front Porch Republic, and she replied that she can’t comprehend the articles. I found that a bit sad.

      • The situation is much worse now than in 1959 when Snow gave the Two Cultures lectures. 

        Imprimis, the level of discourse, and of basic honesty, has radically declined in both scientific and humane vocations. Snow wanted to build a bridge between the two; increasingly there is less worth seeing on either side of the divide. 

        Secundus, the two cultures are estranged not simply from each other, but from the putatively well educated in the professions, in business, and in government service.  This, also, was already true in 1959 and is worse now. The incapacity of Anymouse’s soil geologist to comprehend FPR could be matched by many a GS-12, minister, accountant, or executive with multiple degrees. 

        I would like to see Dr. Charlton comment on this. 

  15. Pingback: Father Knows Best: So Hard Done By Edition « Patriactionary

  16. @joetexx “Snow wanted to build a bridge between the two; increasingly there is less worth seeing on either side of the divide. ”

    That’s very well phrased, and hits the spot.

    Real science is gone, and there is nothing worth the effort of knowing in the highbrow arts.

    *

    But Snow was himself one of the agents of this situation.

    I have read a lot by and about Snow, and he is a much more interesting figure than generally supposed – e.g his book on the Physicists, his novels The Masters and The Affair and The New Men.

    But Snow was a significant element in the move to a society of atheist bureaucracy – he was a Fabian socialist, which is just a gradual communist – and was very sympathetic to the USSR, a great friend and admirer of the genius scientist and commnunist fifth columnist JD Bernal; and of course Snow craved both power in government and traditional aristocratic recognition as a Lord. In his personal life, for years he ‘kept’ a secret mistress which his wife discovered at Snow’s death – which means he was living a lie.

    So he was a typical example of the Leftist intelligentsia, and through his influence moved things in that direction. Although it is hard to imagine Snow liking how things have turned out now, people of his time have almost all followed the drift left into political correctnes, mandatory dishonesty, and transcendental inversion – because their atheism and love of status prevailed over their finer feelings, and they prided themselves on their ‘realism’.

    • Thanks, Dr. Charlton. 

      I know only a little about Snow’s life, but from that I think your take on him is correct. 

      He got me interested in the development of radar in WWII, and the mobilization of science in the service of total war, a subject I have pursued down the years 
      with profit.  I tried to read the Strangers and Brothers series, getting no further than a chapter or two of Sleep of Reason.         

      Variety of Men was a fascinating book; save for Churchill and Stalin, Snow had known all his subjects personally. Hardy, Rutherford, Wells and Lloyd George had been friends or mentors to Snow; his portraits of them were affectionate  and perceptive,  and I’ve reread them often. 

      The piece on Stalin is instructive. Snow deplored his crimes, unquestionably honestly, but concentrated on the persecution of artists and scientists; the two groups he could most identify with. The collectivization was horrible but necessary, it had just been  badly carried out. He simply could not bring himself to question the basic legitimacy of the soviet revolution and state. Well, in 1967, that would have been ‘unrealistic’.  

       The’ …people who laid the groundwork for the present regime perhaps didn’t really know—or at least couldn’t fully envision—exactly what it was they were setting in motion.’

      The shoe fits C. P. Snow. 

  17. I am surprised that leftwingers in the 1940′s (or any decade) would consider Julian the Apostate’s actions a “backward course.” They thereby hold Christianity superior (“a higher and vaster religion to lesser ones”) to traditional paganism and, let us not forget, temple cult Judaism. Who would have thought? The world is a strange place — maybe Rachel Maddow any day now will start quoting St. Ephraim the Syrian on MSNBC.

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