The Death of Eros: Higher Education in its Crisis

Flammarion Engraving II[These remarks formed one part of the total contribution to a panel on “English and Literature Programs” at the 1 November 2003 Pope Center Conference on Academic Standards, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bonald’s latest post prompted me to revisit the text.]

I would like to begin with two brief preambles. The first one is that I authored what I believe to have been the prototype of what later became a spate of reports on degraded curricula in the state college systems – my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in October of 1996. I mention this to indicate that I well understand the whole range of curricular, administrative, pedagogical, and political criticisms that conservatives and traditionalists characteristically bring against our existing distorted institutions of higher education. The other preamble is that, in my remarks today, I shall be departing in style and content from what I might call the standard technical admonitions – that ninety-nine per cent of humanities professors voted for Bill Clinton, that they have bounced Shakespeare in favor of Toni Morrison, that students now run a four-year gauntlet of tawdry, Marxisant propaganda – in order to take up another, as I insist a prior, issue.

Indeed, sufficiently different from the standard technical admonitions are the remarks I propose to make, that I should give a fair warning in advance. You should be prepared not to believe more than every other word that I utter, although I myself have come to believe it all quite implicitly, and it now informs my entire activity as a college literature teacher. Allow me to urge, then, that if I were you and you were me I should probably take me for a lunatic, and I shall lay no blame should you follow suit in so doing…

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The West’s Cultural Continuity: Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne

Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term “Dark Ages” to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic tribal self-assertion in the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term “Dark Ages” insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. Yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city – an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied – and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.

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Liberalism and Islam

I have been thinking about the coziness between Liberalism and Islam, which became evident about twenty seconds after the jihad attack on the World Trade Center, and now drives policy in the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Scandinavia.  A pair of complementary questions put themselves that I propose for a general discussion.

Does Liberalism embrace Islam, knowing that Islam is a religion and despite its active hostile attitude towards religion, as conceived by it categorically, solely because Liberalism has more animus against Christianity than it does towards Islam and therefore sees Islam as an ally in its campaign against Christianity?

Or…

Does Liberalism ally itself with Islam because it senses that Islam is not a religion, but is rather a secular ideology, utterly hostile to anything transcendent,  just like itself, and is therefore its perfect ally in the campaign against Christianity?

A Brief Story (With a Moral)

The priest of dwindling parish that is perpetually cash-strapped can no longer overlook the shabby appearance of the church, whose interior walls badly need a new coat of color.  He scrapes up a bit of money and purchases what he hopes will be gallons enough to do the job.  Halfway through the exercise, he sees that he has miscalculated, but he recalls from a few days ago that he had seen several tins of paint thinner in the basement, which he retrieves.  He extends the primary material and at last covers the final wall.  It does no good.  As the new layer dries the crummy-looking old layer shows through with a vengeance, even uglier than before.

At this moment a voice comes booming out of heaven: “Repaint, repaint,” it says, “and thin no more!”

The Order of Memory is the Order of Being

This is the third in a sequence of three essays examining aspects of reality from a Traditionalist perspective. The two previous essays took as their topics education and its relation to faith; and, the other, revelation and its relation to reality. The present essay, “The Order of Being is the Order of Memory,” assumes the conclusions of the two preceding essays, which it rehearses briefly in the first paragraph.

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In the Philosophical Fragments (1843) Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) explores the existential paradox that while men must live their lives forwards they can only understand their lives backwards. Kierkegaard’s observation is far from being an item of attention-grabbing rhetorical cleverness: It explains both the precariousness of cultural transmission across time and the difficulty of philosophical maturation in the individual; it also throws into brilliant clarity the absolute dependence of the individual on the line of cultural transmission. In his study of Order and History (1956 – 1986), Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985) carefully traces out and analyzes the historical process, which he calls “symbolization,” by which Western Civilization gradually and arduously constructed its adaptation to the absoluteness of reality, reaching an acme in Christian revelation only thereafter to embark on a long decline. In respect of Kierkegaard in the essay that I devoted to the Philosophical Fragments, I focused on education, arguing that modern education, which likes to teach to the test, is not truly education because education requires faith and modern educators have banished faith from the curricular horizon. (I referred not to any particular faith – but, as I wrote, to “the very structure of faith.”) In respect of Voegelin in the essay that I devoted to him, I focused on the modern rejection of revelation, arguing that phenomena are indistinguishable from apocalypse and that a rejection of revelation entails a rejection of reality. I characterized the modern rejection of reality, moreover, as a recrudescence of archaic cult-activity, complete with the scapegoat ceremony.

Voegelin’s “symbolization” is an activity, spiritual and intellectual, carried out “forwards,” but its beneficiaries only understand it “backwards.” In understanding the history of the symbols, indeed, the inheritor places himself thematically with respect to the endeavor; he acquires a relation to the past that transforms his notions both of himself and his social-temporal situation, enriching them and making them more real. In this way, readers may understand Kierkegaard and Voegelin as conducting complementary analyses. The former elucidates the way in which the individual subject, in opening himself to inherited experience, redefines himself; the latter elucidates the way in which the collective subject, opening itself to reality, creates cultural order and bequeaths it to posterity, so that later individuals might orient themselves with respect to that order. Both the individual and the collective forms of self-understanding concern memory, that function or organ of consciousness that permits the formation of identity and insures its continuity beyond a fleeting moment. The philosophical investigation of memory suggests furthermore that the Order of Being is the Order of Memory.

Ancient peoples regarded memory as divine or supernatural. Memory is thoroughly bound up in Antiquity with the Cult of the Dead, whose constituency cries out for commemoration. In ten-thousand-year-old Çatal Hüyük in Central Anatolia the dwellers lived in apartments built over the sepulchers of their ancestors. The past – in the form of the dead – was physically ever-present to those living people. At mealtimes, the dead ate around the hearth with the living, receiving blandishments of food and drink, as the documented custom elsewhere permits one to infer. For the archaic Greek poet Hesiod (Eighth Century BC), memory was not personal, but self-evidently transcendent and godlike. The Muses, who taught Hesiod about the generations and order of the gods, were the daughters of a personified Mnemosyne (“Memory”), their mother, and the chief Olympian deity Zeus, their father. In the Invocation of the Theogony, Hesiod, whose name translates as “the poet,” writes, “From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet.”

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Article of Interest

Michael Presley’s essay “Sorcerers and Warriors: The Initiatic Journey in Chinese Mythology” is currently the featured article at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website.  It will be of interest to readers of The Orthosphere.  Presley explores the Traditional meaning of two important Chinese folktales using an exegetical framework based on Marshal McLuhan’s theory of oral narrative.  Presley is interested, not only in the canonical narratives, but also in their recent adaptation to cinema.  The article is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/sorcerers-and-warriors-the-initiatic-journey-in-chinese-mythology/[.]  Presley’s knowledge of Chinese film, in its historical depth, is especially noteworthy.  I have been the beneficiary of it for a number of years.  Chinese cinema has long since surpassed Hollywood in the technicalities of film making and more than that, contemporary Chinese film is a department of moral narrative — a thing now entirely foreign to the American movie industry.

The Structure of Reality is the Structure of Revelation

This essay follows a previous one on the relation of education to faith; it is the second of three essays intended to critique the prevailing modern worldview of the West’s ubiquitous liberal regime by demonstrating the narrowness and insipidity of liberal views. I argued in “The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith” in favor of several pre-modern ways of viewing education. I rehearse that gesture again, this time in respect of the prevailing modern sense of the encompassing reality in the context of which people must live their lives. A third essay, following this one, will deal with memory considered as an institution.

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The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith

Thomas F. Bertonneau

This is the first in a series of three essays intended to critique selected aspects of the prevailing modern worldview of the West’s ubiquitous liberal regime. In the present essay, I am interested in the prevailing modern view of education; I argue that various pre-modern ways of understanding education address their topic with a good deal more penetration than that achieved by the modern view, which tends to insipidity. In a follow-on essay to this one I will address the question how revelation is related to reality; a third essay will devote itself to a discussion of memory considered as an institution.

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Article of Interest

My friend and colleague Richard Cocks has an article, “Are Friends Electric,” at The People of Shambhala that will, I believe, be of interest to Orthosphereans.

I offer an excerpt:

To some people being an emotionless machine is enormously attractive. Any view that seems to offer support for the mechanistic notion will seem appealing. It’s actually going to be an enormously counter-productive attitude to adopt in living one’s actual life. But it remains an ideal for many. It would indeed make things simpler. When the Earl of Shaftesbury said that pleasure was the one and only source of human motivation, one seems to be encountering a person of such emotional stupidity with so little insight into the multi-faceted nature of human existence that it beggars belief. That whole generations of English philosophers followed suit indicates to me that Anglo-American philosophy has become a self-selecting discipline filled with emotional imbeciles, just as psychopaths were once described as moral imbeciles. Sociopaths tend to be skeptical about morality because they lack empathy and a conscience of their own. They extrapolate from their own experience, as we all do. Interestingly, many Anglo-American philosophers have expressed skepticism about moral matters too, such as the logical positivists. To be frank, being a normally mentally functioning person in such a context can be a very bizarre experience.