Our most recent readings for the Great Books of the Western World reading project are, I believe, among the most interesting that we have read this year as well as the most truly essential. Included in September’s readings are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few of the Federalist Papers, the editorials published by Jay, Hamilton, and Madison in defense of the Constitution.
Each of these readings is essential reading for an American and each is an exhibition of a belief that I have come over the past several years to hold: namely, that the United States is, while not the exclusive representative of Western Civilization, its most pure and significant representative. The work of the Founding Fathers is, in its essence, a distillation of all of the previous history and thought of Western Civilization. They drew, through their own classical educations, upon the history of the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans of the ancient world as well as the Christians of the Middle Ages and later who brought these previous cultures into a great synthesis within their new ideological context.
In so doing, the Founders of the United States drew out of each of these aspects of the heritage of Western Civilization the best elements and avoided the worst errors. The subsequent history of the United States has, in large part, been the sorting out of what all of this means. The Civil War, the various social movements of the last 150 years, and so on each have at their heart the question of what it all of this heritage means and how it is to be lived out. Because of this, these works are essential readings for all Americans as well as the other denizens of Western Civilization.
Something is amiss in higher education and has been for some time. Unfortunately, this something amiss in higher education has also steadily trickled down to primary and secondary education, so infected them that these too are now permeated by the same ailment — or, rather, ailments. As Hanson and Heath (the two authors of this book) and a number of other brave souls have pointed out, these ailments, though they come in a variety of forms, can be narrowed down to three basic categories: multiculturalism, vocationalism, and careerism. Tackling each of these and the symbiotic relationship that exists between them specifically in the Classics departments of America’s universities, Hanson and Heath do a great deal to diagnose while also providing some excellent advice for a future cure.
Multiculturalism has, of course, brought havoc to nearly all of the American education system, ironically doing the most harm to those it was supposed to help. Rather than empowering African American, Hispanic, and other minority students, however, multiculturalism has further disadvantaged these students by denying them access to the knowledge that would make them education and successful denizens of Western Civilization. As Hanson and Heath show, multiculturalism has harmed all of us by denigrating the civilization that we are the inheritors and whose thought world we continue to live within while heaping up a large and steamy pile of sophisms about the history of the West and its relation to other civilizations.
Vocationalism may be the ailment in American education that has entrenched itself the deepest. It now runs from the kindergarten all the way through the doctoral program. There is a constant and consistent focus on what makes money rather than on what is good, true, and beautiful. Classics has been one of the majors hardest hit by this focus on vocationalism as the refrain of “how will you make money with that?” has steadily worn down the numbers of students willing to pursue a costly college degree in a field that, they are continuously assured, they will never be able to earn a sufficient income with. Damned be the truth that a man with a BA in Classics will undoubtedly prepare anyone to be a fast learner with solid interpersonal skills fit for nearly any job in business or education.
Tied closely to these ailments, and, in a sense, providing the filth upon which they feed, is careerism. It is remarkably difficult to find a professor or even a K-12 teacher who is not focused on their career above the needs of their students. The professor seeks an ever decreasing course load in order to pursue ever more specialized (and therefore ever more irrelevant) research that no one will read. The K-12 teacher kowtows to the educational authorities’ latest pedagogical fads and buzz words, teaches to the test, and dumbs down the curriculum so everyone will pass. The result is a woefully undereducated, distracted populace that can handle only “Greek Mythology in Cinema 101” rather than “Introductory Homeric Greek.” And the fate of the Greeks — and the civilization they gave us — is sealed.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in an insight into the profoundly depressing world of modern academia. But, remember, it’s not all doom and gloom: the light of the end of the tunnel is you, if you so choose.
Plutarch was a Roman author who lived in 46-120 AD. He is most famous for the many biographies he wrote about important people of the Greek and Roman worlds. The selections below are about Sparta and are from his “Moralia,” a collection of short stories and sayings.
35. [In Sparta], when the time had arrived during which it was the custom for the free boys to steal whatever they could, and it was a disgrace not to escape being found out, when the boys with him had stolen a young fox alive, and given it to him to keep, and those who had lost the fox came in search for it, the boy happened to have slipped the fox under his garment. The beast, however, became savage and ate through his side to the vitals; but the boy did not move or cry out, so as to avoid being exposed, and left, when they had departed, the boys saw what had happened, and blamed him, saying thatit would have been better to let the fox be seen than to hide it even unto death; but the boy said,”Not so, but better to die without yielding to the pain than through being detected because of weakness of spirit to gain a life to be lived in disgrace.
36. Some people, encountering Spartans on the road, said, “You are in luck, for robbers have just left this place,” but they said, “Egad, no, but it is they who are in luck for not encountering us.”
37. A Spartan being asked what he knew, said, “How to be free.”
55. While the games were being held at Olympia, an old man was desirous of seeing them, but could find no seat. As he went to place after place, he met with insults and jeers, and nobody made room for him. But when he came opposite the Spartans, all the boys and many of the men arose and yieldedtheir places.Whereupon the assembled multitude of Greeks expressed their approbation of the custom by applause, and commended the action beyond measure; but the old man, shaking his grey-haired head and with tears in his eyes, said, “Alas for the evil days! Because all the Greeks know what is right and fair, but the Spartans alone practice it.”
69. Another, passing by a tomb at night, and imagining that he saw a ghost, ran at it with uplifted spear, and, as he thrust at it, he exclaimed, “Where are you fleeing from me, you soul that shall die twice?”
71. Another, in the thick of the fight, was about to bring down his sword on an enemy when the recall sounded, and he checked the blow. When someone inquired why, when he had his enemy in his power, he did not kill him, he said, “Because it is better to obey one’s commander than to slay an enemy.”
- Why did all of the Spartans at the Olympic Games stand up in 55? Answer in a sentence.
- In a paragraph, describe the sort of virtues the Spartans practiced according to these selections from Plutarch’s writing.
Every period in history is remembered in popular consciousness by a set of characteristics which have attached themselves to it. Although this popular characterization of a given period is often little more than stereotype and caricature the power exerted by this collective summarization of an epoch nonetheless permanently colors perception of the period. These characterizations frequently even become the title by which the period is remembered, guaranteeing that any time the period is mentioned the immediate implication of the truth of this characterization will follow inevitably. The Renaissance, for example, is characterized as a great period of “rebirth” and of the flourishing of the arts. The Scientific Revolution as, of course, a period of revolution in the sciences. At some point, every historian wonders how his own era will be characterized by future generations; how will the present age be remembered by those a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now? What summarization or title will be bestowed upon our era? In addition, the conclusion one reaches about the reputation of the present among those of the future has imminent ramifications for potential courses of action to improve the heritage bequeathed to posterity by the current generation.
To arrive at a conclusion concerning how our age might viewed in retrospect, one of the soundest methods is the use of historical knowledge as a measuring stick by which to evaluate the present, one of its most traditional and important usages. In a comparison with previous eras in history, our age bears the most striking resemblance, unfortunate though the fact may be for us its denizens, to the two great dark ages of earlier times in Western Civilization, namely the Greek Dark Age and the Medieval Dark Age.
Both of these dark ages are characterized by the dissolution of centralized governmental and military authority. In the case of the Greek Dark Age, the authority which dissolved was that of the old order of the Greek peninsula, the Aegean Sea, and surrounding areas which is best exhibited by the wealth and power of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples. With the onset of the Iron Age and the ostensible Dorian Invasion, however questionable the size and nature of the latter event may be, a fracturing of institutional unity gave rise to a fracturing of cultural and intellectual unity in a world of increasingly prevalent sectionalism. The inception of the second dark age of Western Civilization arose from similar circumstances. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD removed from the western half of the Mediterranean Sea and most of Western Europe the institutional and cultural structures which had maintained some level of stability in and among societies. This institutional collapse was swiftly followed by a period of rapid cultural and intellectual decline coupled with ceaseless warfare among various tribes and peoples competing for dominance within relatively insignificant realms of power.
The cataclysmic event which triggered the onset of the current dark age is almost certainly World War I. Merely contrasting a map of Europe before and after the war is ample evidence. A look at the events “on the ground,” so to speak, is even more revealing. Through Europe, and much else of the world, political structures collapse and disappeared altogether or were replaced by ideologies which arose from the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras, ranging from Marxism and other socialist philosophies to the radical, notably not Classical, forms of republicanism and democracy advocated by some 18th and 19th century thinkers. Throughout the civilized world, the old structures of government which had united various peoples under a single figure and various empires under a universal civilizational outlook were abolished. Along with these institutions went the cultural and intellectual unity of Western Civilization and of the old order in a supracivilizational sense.
Greece emerged from its dark age at about the time of the poet Homer, in the 7th century BC, and the flourishing age of Classical Greece followed quickly. The Medieval Dark Age ended with the rise of Charlemagne and the dawn of the Carolingian Renaissance at the turn of the 19th century AD. Although it is less clear in the case of the Greek Dark Age, there is sufficient evidence to establish the thesis that the various elements of a vibrant culture were kept alive during both of these dark ages by the fastidious work of certain concerned groups and individuals.
In the better documented case of the Medieval Dark Age, more often than not these individuals were the Fathers of the Church and other great Christian thinkers. Cassiodorus and Boethius, contemporaries who lived in Italy shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for example, each recognized the precarious nature of their age and the tremendous task which their circumstances had placed before them. Each sought to preserve the greatest elements of their Greco-Roman heritage while allowing these to pass through the formative lense of Christianity. The result was that when the dark age did finally end some 300 years after this men lived, the ensuing era, which lasted nearly a thousand years, was a period of rapid scientific and technological progress as well as intellectual and cultural flourishing which remains still the greatest period in all of the history of Western Civilization.
If we are greet our current circumstances soberly, we must be honest about the perilous time in which we, who wish to bear our heritage and to pass it on to future generations, find ourselves. We must work with the same assiduity as our great forebears to preserve and improve about our great Western tradition. We must form the same sorts of assemblies for this task which our fathers before us formed. And we must continue their great work. If not, our progeny will have us to blame for the destruction of the greatest civilization the world has ever known.
The earliest Greek culture did not begin on the Greek peninsula. It began instead on a small island just south of the Greek peninsula. That small island was Crete, which was home to the Minoan civilization from about 2700 BC until the end of that civilization in about 1450 BC.
Although the Minoans are very important because they were the first culture to develop in Europe and their culture formed the foundation for what became ancient Greece, we actually know very little about them. In fact, we are not even sure what they called themselves. The name “Minoan” is a name that historians have given to them. Historians got this name from King Minos, a character in a Greek legend about the island of Crete.
Most of what we know about the Minoans was learned by studying the art and architecture of the ruins they left behind. For example, they built a huge, complex palace at Knossos, on the northern part of Crete.
From looking at the art they left behind there, historians can tell that the Minoans thought that bulls were very important animals. They probably viewed them as having a special religious significance. The bulls might have been symbols for the gods. This special emphasis on bulls is probably due to the fact that bulls, because they are very aggressive, are often used to represent masculinity and virility. Some paintings left behind by the Minoans show young men and women jumping over charging bulls. This was probably a religious ritual of some kind.
It is also clear from the art and architecture they left behind that the Minoans were very rich and powerful. Art in Egypt shows people wearing Minoan clothing presenting gifts to the Pharaoh of Egypt. At the time the Minoan civilization existed Egypt was a very powerful nation. If the Minoans were friends with the Egyptians, this shows that the Minoans were powerful as well.
In about 1450 BC, there was a volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, a small nearby island. The eruption caused the sky to blacken and rain ash on the Minoans’ fields. As a result, many of the Minoans’ crops died. It also caused an earthquake that damaged their large palace and other structures. As a result, many Minoans died. Others fled from Crete never to return. Minoan civilization came to an end.
At that time, another group of Greeks who lived on the southern part of the Greek peninsula were rising in power. This group, the Mycenaeans, used the decline of the Minoans as an opportunity to spread their own power. The Mycenaean civilization flourished on the Greek peninsula and on the islands near Greece, including Crete, from about 1600 BC to 1100 BC.
The Mycenaeans spread their power by using new weapons they developed. These weapons were made of bronze, a metal that made their weapons stronger and deadlier than the weapons of the other peoples around them. When the Mycenaeans conquered Crete, where the Minoans had been, they began to admire Minoan culture and adopted many aspects of it. Through their conquests, the Mycenaeans spread Minoan culture all over Greece and the islands of the Aegean Sea.
Eventually, however, Mycenaean civilization also came to a violent end. In about 1100 BC, a group of people called the Dorians invaded Greece from the north. Not much is known about the Dorians or where they came from, but it is clear that they were using weapons made of iron, a kind of metal that is even stronger than the bronze weapons the Mycenaeans were using.
Following the Dorian Invasion, Greece entered into a 300 year period of warfare and cultural decline. We call this period the Greek Dark Age. While the Greek Dark Age was a period of great turmoil for the Greeks, Greece emerged more powerful than ever at the end.
1. What animal was very important to the Minoans? Why was this animal important to them?
2. What kind of weapons did the Mycenaeans have that made them so powerful?
3. What kind of weapons did the Dorians have?
4. What do historians call the 300 year period between 1100 BC and 800 BC? Why do they call it that?