Way back in my tenderer years, a few people were concerned about the direction in which I appeared to be headed. Sometimes I took them seriously…but as it happens, not often enough. One such has risen to mind this morning, owing to a reflection by John Hinderaker:
A long time ago, in a freshman English class, my professor realized that no one in the class understood the significance of the phrase “ecce homo.” He was taken aback for a moment, and then said: “Oh well. The culture is dead.”
I was shaken by that at the time, but if classical cultural was dead decades ago, modern culture, such as it was, is following rapidly in its wake.
A collection of American college freshmen, none of whom knew what ecce homo means? I’d have been shaken too. But today, I’d have been more surprised by an order of magnitude had anyone in a college freshman classroom known what that Latin phrase means. And as is my wont, I shall tell you why.
(Polite pause while my Gentle Readers look up ecce homo and “wont.” Look sharp! Do not put an apostrophe in “wont.”)
A schoolmate a year ahead of me once advised me in a fashion relevant to Hinderaker’s recollection. When he heard that I was headed to college to study physics, he said rather forcefully, “Don’t do that, Fran. Get an education first.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by that. Worse, I refrained from asking him to elucidate. It took decades before I grasped the import.
The following is from Culture and Anarchy, by poet and commentator Matthew Arnold:
The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.
(Yes, it’s a run-on sentence. Yes, the matter could be phrased more neatly, or at least more compactly. But Arnold was a product of the Victorian Era, and wrote in the style typical of that period. Indeed, writers who diverged from that manner were disdained by the elite as “proper only to cheap thrillers and penny dreadfuls.” So cut him some slack.)
Matthew Arnold was not notably provincial, though he was an English patriot. In the pursuit of what he calls “culture,” he sought “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” In his best-known poem – one of my favorites – he lamented the trend of things as he saw it:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Perhaps what Arnold championed is part of what’s missing from our milieu. A part, that is, which if it could be infused into the millions through some sort of cerebral intravenous procedure, would help to mortar up the cracks in our increasingly fractious era. But what did Arnold mean by “culture?”
I think it unlikely that Matthew Arnold championed rigid adherence to the thinking of the past. He was adamant that he wished men to have knowledge of “the best that has been thought and said.” He never advocated mental enslavement to it:
If a man without books or reading, or reading nothing but his letters and the newspapers, gets nevertheless a fresh and free play of the best thoughts upon his stock notions and habits, he has got culture. He has got that for which we prize and recommend culture; he has got that which at the present moment we seek culture that it may give us. This inward operation is the very life and essence of culture, as we conceive it.
For one can be enslaved to the nostrums and fetishes of the present quite as firmly and destructively as to those of the past. Moreover, without knowledge of “the best that has been thought and said” by those who preceded us, it’s far more likely that we will accept the nostrums and fetishes of the present as unquestionable and irrevocable doctrines, not to be criticized.
It’s been said, and truly, that if you don’t know where you came from, you’re unlikely to get to anywhere worth the going. The common ignorance of “where we came from” – the thinking and writing of our more thoughtful and literate forebears – is almost a watchword today. It’s invoked to explain everything from abscesses to zymosis…sometimes justly so. But it must not be invoked dogmatically. It’s much too important for that.
In the past we can find beauty and ugliness, exaltation and horror, eloquence and vulgarity, penetration and obdurate stupidity, truth and falsehoods, advances and stumbles. But above all else, we can find there perspectives at variance from those of our present. Some of those perspectives may be better ones than those that dominate contemporary culture. For my part, I think it’s so.
But how is one who lacks knowledge of them to judge?
Herein lies the great sin of our “institutions of higher education:” they, which were specifically charged with the conservation and dissemination of “the best that has been thought and said,” have abandoned their mission. They allowed themselves to become dogmatic proponents of contemporary nostrums, or training centers for the next generation of serfs, or a combination thereof. It is because of their default that so many of us don’t know where we came from.
Just a few early-morning thoughts.