Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education

Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education

by Jeffrey Peter Hart

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Although the essential books of Western civilization are no longer central in our courses or in our thoughts, they retain their ability to energize us intellectually, says Jeffrey Hart in this powerful book. He now presents a guide to some of these literary works, tracing the main currents of Western culture for all who wish to understand the roots of their… See more details below


Although the essential books of Western civilization are no longer central in our courses or in our thoughts, they retain their ability to energize us intellectually, says Jeffrey Hart in this powerful book. He now presents a guide to some of these literary works, tracing the main currents of Western culture for all who wish to understand the roots of their civilization and the basis for its achievements. Hart focuses on the productive tension between the classical and biblical strains in our civilization—between a life based on cognition and one based on faith and piety. He begins with the Iliad and Exodus, linking Achilles and Moses as Bronze Age heroic figures. Closely analyzing texts and illuminating them in unexpected ways, he moves on to Socrates and Jesus, who “internalized the heroic,” continues with Paul and Augustine and their Christian synthesis, addresses Dante, Shakespeare (Hamlet), Molière, and Voltaire, and concludes with the novel as represented by Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby. Hart maintains that the dialectical tensions suggested by this survey account for the restlessness and singular achievements of the West and that the essential books can provide the substance and energy currently missed by both students and educated readers.

Author Biography: Jeffrey Hart is professor of English emeritus at Dartmouth College. The author of many books, he is also senior editor for the National Review.

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Editorial Reviews

Paul Cantor
Hart’s broad perspective gives his book a richness and depth seldom seen in literary criticism these days.
Robert Royal
Hart energetically pursues central Western insights. . . [with]. . . dazzling cultural commentary along the way. Abandon all hopelessness ye who enter here.
Weekly Standard
William F. Buckley
A crowning achievement. . . Hart has told. . . how rich is the Western patrimony. This book merits a place in its library.
National Review
Library Journal
According to Hart (English, Dartmouth Coll.), the interaction between Athens and Jerusalem, between philosophical-scientific ideas and scriptural-moral thought, has made Western civilization unique. Similarly, the literature of Western civilization from the Iliad and Exodus, to the Divine Comedy and Hamlet, and on to Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby has continued this "dialectical tension," the melding of these two seemingly opposite premises. Hart believes that it is imperative that college students continue to study Western civilization and its literature but asserts that more and more institutions of higher learning have pushed such courses aside, favoring the more politically correct concept of multiculturalism. Hart's ideas aren't necessarily new, but his call to arms is justified. Studying the dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem forces us to examine not only other cultures but also our own prejudices. The tension created between intellect and faith, Hart rightfully suggests, aids freedom and democracy. Primarily for academic and larger public libraries. Terry Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe

Toward the Revival of Higher Education

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08704-7

Chapter One

Athens and Jerusalem

* * *

Plato and the Prophets are the most important sources of modern culture. -HERMAN COHEN (1924)

In this chapter we will be considering the creative tension that arises between Athens and Jerusalem and the fundamental importance of that tension for Western civilization. Yet the idea of creative tension may also be applied to individual psychology. It may well be that thought itself, considered in its very nature, arises out of the experience of contradiction, that thought is the response of the mind to the experience of contradiction. Thus Emile Durkheim was struck by the apparent paradox of the fact that the suicide rate rose not during periods of economic depression but during periods of rising prosperity. This contradiction provoked thought leading to theories of relative deprivation and reference groups. Perhaps thought requires contradiction. As Lionel Trilling once observed, "whenever we put two emotions into juxtaposition we have what we can properly call an idea. When Keats brings together, as he so often does, his emotions about love and his emotions about death, we have a very powerful idea and the source of consequent ideas." Thus John Keats's lyrical expression, the nightingale's song, the unheard music of the Urn, and the thin but welcome music of autumn, arose out of contradiction.

I make no claim to originality in positing "Athens" and "Jerusalem" as fundamental to the structure of the Western mind and the civilization it produced. Thomas Jefferson and Friedrich Nietzsche do not appear often in the same sentence, but they agreed at least upon this. The Athens-Jerusalem paradigm is not exactly a commonplace, and certainly not one in the discussion of literature, but enough philosophers have argued for its centrality to have made this a kind of consensus. Whatever their differences in detail, such philosophers recognize that Athens and Jerusalem amount to a dialectic, and that the consequences of their interaction have been decisive for the character of Western civilization, setting it off from other cultures and civilizations both past and present. Yet, as I have said, this is not part of the intellectual equipment of the educated reader, and neither professors nor their students appear to be aware of its dynamic significance or its presence in the important books we will be discussing here, beginning with the Iliad and Exodus, fundamental works for Athens and Jerusalem. Indeed, with very few exceptions, these and many other works to be discussed here are but residually present today, if at all, even to professors of the liberal arts. In our present circumstances, I believe, most educated readers will experience these classics with, paradoxically, the sense of discovery felt by Keats upon first reading Chapman's Homer.

As I have said, the terms Athens and Jerusalem in this dialectic refer to the two famous cities and to the distinctive ways of looking at the world that developed in each. More broadly, they are metaphors referring to philosophy/science and to the disciplined insights of Scripture. The philosopher begins like Socrates by saying "I know nothing" and pursues knowledge through an investigation of the world. The scriptural tradition bases its view of the world on a series of received insights into the constitution of actuality. The insights are not true because they are recorded in scripture, but they are recorded there because, finally, they are true. As Paul Cantor says in his excellent recent book on Hamlet, "The conflict between the classical and the Christian has been central to Western civilization, and has produced the basis for both its proudest and its most deeply problematical moments." As we will see later on, the strong and competing claims of Athens and Jerusalem may be central to the conflicts within the mind of the troubled prince.

Let us begin by reflecting for a moment on the "Athens" part of the dialectic. It can hardly be a matter of dispute that both science and philosophy have developed in the West with a continuity and practical authority not seen in any other civilization. Edward Grant, for example, a distinguished historian of science, has provided a persuasive demonstration of why this disciplined investigation of the world developed in the West and nowhere else. Grant argues that Islam, which very early exhibited great skills in science and philosophy, distinctively maintained these activities in an intellectual compartment separate from Islamic religion. It thus failed to institutionalize the investigation of the world in its great religiously controlled universities. Within Islam, as in China, early scientific achievements remained separate from the central institutional life of the civilization. In neither was there a dialectic, an interaction-troubling but creative-analogous to Athens and Jerusalem.

In the West such a dialectic, with its creative tension, was established as early as the first century A.D. That, according to Grant, made the historic difference. His account of this development is important and should be quoted here rather than summarized:

Although science has a long history with roots in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it is indisputable that modern science emerged in Western Europe and nowhere else. The reason for this momentous occurrence must therefore be sought in some unique set of circumstances that differentiate Western society from other contemporary and earlier civilizations. The establishment of science as a basic enterprise within a society depends upon more than expertise in technical scientific subjects, experiments, and disciplined observations. After all, science can be found in many early societies. In Islam, until approximately 1500, mathematics, astronomy, geometric optics, and medicine were more highly developed than in the West. But science was not institutionalized in Islamic society. Nor was it institutionalized in ancient medieval China, despite significant achievements. Similar arguments apply to all other societies and civilizations. Science can be found in many of them but was institutionalized and perpetuated in none.

This is an important piece of analysis. Its arguments apply to "all other societies and civilizations." Science was "institutionalized and perpetuated in none." Grant locates this uniqueness explicitly in a theological development, the incorporation by early Christianity of Greek philosophy, an incorporation that involved intense struggle. He writes from the perspective of the history of science, but clearly he engages much more here-that is, a uniquely Western way of looking at the world, with consequences for its culture generally. He puts his stress on Clement of Alexandria and Origen in their arguments with Tertullian, but the dialectic between Athens and Jerusalem can be traced back more than a century earlier, to the first century, to Paul and to Philo of Alexandria, a Platonizing Jewish philosopher, both of whom were contemporaries of Jesus. Grant, however, concludes that it was Clement and Origen who institutionalized the dialectic between Athens and Jerusalem and established the terms with which their successors worked: "In the second half of the Third Century, Christian apologists concluded that Christianity could profitably utilize pagan Greek philosophy and learning. In a momentous move, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 215-150) laid down the basic approach that others would follow. Greek philosophy, they argued, was not inherently good or bad, but one or the other depending on how it was used by Christians. Although the Greek poets and philosophers had not received direct revelation from God, they did receive natural reason and were therefore pointed toward truth." Though Clement and Origen won this important argument, they did not do so without fierce opposition. Tertullian (ca. 225-150) sternly asked, "What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?"

It is striking here that Tertullian, thus very early, uses as paradigmatic the terms Athens and Jerusalem, indicating as he does so that they were thus understood then as we understand them here, and no doubt were so understood even earlier. Tertullian tried to pry Athens and Jerusalem apart. Clement and Origen tried to pull them closer together. In its formative early centuries, Christianity, like Islam later on, might have ignored or tried to suppress Greek philosophy. As Grant says, however, the victory of Clement and Origen was momentous. The Athens-Jerusalem dialectic prevailed in the West. Neither was compartmentalized against the other.

Beginning with Homer and with Exodus, that is, here, Achilles and Moses, roughly contemporary Bronze Age figures (very approximately around 1200 B.C.), both of whom were fundamental to their civilizations, both awed, both heroic and exemplary, we will go on to see the tensions shift within the dialectic as represented by a succession of indispensable works reflecting to a considerable degree phases of Western civilization. The heroic virtue of Achilles will be internalized by Socrates as heroic philosophy. The Commandments of Moses will be internalized by Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount as heroic holiness. Neither man wrote anything, and both teachers were martyrs to their truth. Exterior heroism becomes interior aspiration, in Socrates to cognition, in Jesus to perfection of the soul. Paul of Tarsus, a contemporary of Jesus, Roman citizen, Jew, rabbi, Christian, and a Greek speaker, embodies in his person the polarities of the dialectic. When he travels to Athens to make his case at the Areopagus, the scene in Acts is intended to remind us of Socrates before the Athenian jury. Augustine begins as a Roman and a neoplatonist but chooses Paul and holiness, and Dante holds the polarities together in a grand synthesis, Aristotle-Cicero-Virgil-Science, but also Paul-Augustine-Scripture-Aquinas. Hamlet contains multiple contradictions, saliently the command by the Ghost to exact revenge (heroic) but not to "taint" his mind (Christian). The Enlightenment shifts the balance toward Athens-science and cognition-but evokes in response a profound critique in literature and philosophy.

Leo Strauss, a formidable twentieth-century philosopher, was far from alone in insisting on the centrality of this dialectic. He maintained that the core of Western civilization consists of an irresolvable tension between Athens and Jerusalem. He began a famous and densely argued essay ("Jerusalem and Athens," 1968) this way: "All the hopes that we entertain in the midst of the confusions and dangers of the present are founded positively or negatively, directly or indirectly, on the experience of the past. Of these experiences the broadest and deepest, as far as Western men are concerned, are indicated by the names of the two cities Jerusalem and Athens. Western man became what he is through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens."

Strauss insisted repeatedly that though individuals in regard to ultimate decisions might choose either Jerusalem or Athens, they at the same time must remain open to the other possibility because each pole represents a profound interpretation of actuality. Off at the edge, do we place our bets on rational analysis or on the insights of acknowledged masters? If the individual chooses one or the other, for Strauss the West must not. He went so far as to claim that Western liberal democracy uniquely inhabits the both-and tension between Jerusalem and Athens. It is the special insistence of Strauss's thought that the tension not be resolved, that civilizationally the dialectic remain open. I understand him to mean that a society based entirely on cognition (Athens) would have a pull toward totalitarianism, as in Plato's Republic; and that a society based wholly on the pursuit of holiness (Jerusalem) would be a theocracy and resemble a monastery. For Strauss, these two tendencies correct each other and freedom flourishes within the tension, the democratic norm being the man who knows too much to be a skeptic or a relativist but too little to be an absolutist. Strauss's reverence for the great works of Western literature has to do with the fact that, characteristically, they do not resolve the tension, though they may pull one way or the other. They refuse to simplify the experience of either Athens or Jerusalem. When that experience is lost, I understand Strauss to be saying, the West ceases to take itself seriously. There occurs, to use the language of Martin Heidegger, a "withdrawal of being."

Strauss certainly understood that in his both-and civilizational position he was quarreling with, or correcting, Nietzsche, who internalized the tension and sought to resolve it. Nietzsche experienced the tension with pain and could write about it lyrically: "'You shall always be the first and excel all others; your jealous souls shall love no one, unless it be the friend'-that made the soul of the Greek quiver; thus he walked the path of his greatness. 'You honor thy father and mother and follow their will to the roots of one's soul'-that was the tablet of overcoming that another people hung over themselves and became powerful and eternal thereby." This was one way to express the polarities and their tension: the Greek striving for excellence, the Hebrew commitment to a moral and spiritual tradition handed down by father and mother. Unlike Strauss, however, Nietzsche wanted to resolve the tension rather than maintain it, the tension perhaps being too much for his nerves. He proposed to do so through a new kind of man who would contain the opposites. "The Roman Caesar," he called it, "with Christ's soul." This new man, the Ubermensch, was, as Strauss put it, "meant to unite Jerusalem and Athens at the highest level."

Of course the Superior Man "at the highest level" remains a myth. We can see distant attempts to embody a resolution in, perhaps, Charlemagne, Chaucer's Knight, Shakespeare's Henry V, soldiers with aspects of saintliness, but not at the level or intensity that Nietzsche had in mind. His Superior Man contains the contradiction without diminishing the attracting force of either pole. Not surprisingly, such a figure remains mythical, though perhaps finding expression in the lyricism of Nietzsche's prose.

Descending a bit, one sometimes encounters these polarities in unexpected places. The great historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, celebrant of material progress, sensed the polarities, however flickeringly, when he visited the Crystal Palace exposition in London in 1851.


Excerpted from Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe by JEFFREY HART Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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