August 28, 2013


Literature and the Foundations of the West (Jeffrey Hart, 8/27/13, Imaginative Conservative)

Various narratives about Western civilization have been proposed and they vary in their ability to "cover the facts" of Western history. Again and again, philosophers and historians have been drawn to various formulations of "Athens and Jerusalem." Figures as different as Jefferson and Nietzsche found the formulation useful, though in different ways, and very different have been usages of Hermann Cohen, the German Kantian, and Leo Strauss. In all uses of this paradigm, however, there is general agreement on what "Athens" and "Jerusalem" signify. In their symbolic meaning "Athens" represents a philosophical-scientific approach to actuality, while "Jerusalem" represents a scriptural tradition of disciplined insight. The symbolic meanings of the two terms is rooted in the historical actuality of the two cities. The dialectic between the two poses the question of whether actuality is more like a mathematical equation, or whether it is more like a complicated and surprising poem, reflecting, as Robert Penn Warren put it, "the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty."

In terms of human goals, Athens represents cognition, Jerusalem spiritual perfection. As the dialectic has operated in Western civilization, the emphasis has swung back and forth, in culture and in individual lives. A figure such as Columbus, for example, had scientific motives (navigation, geography), economic motives (a trade route to Asia), and Christian evangelical motives (convert the heathen). Over the centuries, the West has not chosen finally between Athens and Jerusalem, but rather both. Leo Strauss, indeed, sees the maintenance of the tension that exists between them as absolutely essential to the West, the tension nourishing freedom. A choice entirely for Athens would be potentially totalitarian, as in The Republic. A choice for Jerusalem would be potentially theocratic or monastic. But the interaction between the two has in fact been a dynamic one, characterized by tension, attempted synthesis, and outright conflict. It is this dynamic relationship that is distinctive in Western civilization, has created its restlessness, and energized its distinctive achievements, both material and spiritual.[1] In such things as the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Quantum Mechanics, Athens and cognition seems foremost, but spiritual aspiration may also play a role. In Chartres Cathedral, Stanford White's triple porch for St. Bartholemew's Church in New York, and the poetry of Hopkins and Eliot, the aspiration of Jerusalem is foremost, but the mind of Athens remains a presence.

No other civilization has experienced this energizing dialectic. China, for example, was anciently inventive in science but did not succeed in institutionalizing it, nor did China possess religious aspirations that resembled in any way those of Jerusalem. It may be that the essential consciousness of China and other historic civilizations, shaped by their particular historical experiences, remain fundamentally different from the Western consciousness, even as China, India, Islam and a variety of others struggle to enter a modernity that is largely a Western and universalizing accomplishment. The outcome of this vast effort remains in doubt.

Much more static than the West, China has made its major symbols the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and has characteristically seen its history as ever-recurring cycles. It has never evolved anything like the systematic philosophy derived from the Greeks. Its great teachers have immemorially counseled accommodation to the cycles and reconciliation with the inevitable. The sense of intellectual silence in China sometimes seems overwhelming to a Western consciousness, its art highly formalized and its philosophy mainly wise "sayings." "China in the late nineteenth century," writes Professor Jonathan Spence of Yale, "retained astonishing continuities with what we know of the country in the Third Century B.C., when it first became a unified country ruled by an autocratic emperor." "Better fifty years of Europe," wrote Tennyson, "than a cycle [l000 years] of Cathay." It is doubtful that China and other contemporary civilizations can modernize without Westernizing.

And so some part of the liberal arts curriculum might well be shaped by an investigation of the particular development of the West as reflected in and shaped by its supreme works of history, philosophy, and narrative. Let it not be supposed here that I am recommending an exclusive focus on this material, far from it. A single one-year required course would do very well as an introduction. One example of such a course is the Columbia College Humanities 1-11, which is required of all freshmen. I myself, as I shall describe, have recently experimented with doing the job in a single eight-week seminar. Many formats are possible, if the essential narrative is their foundation.

In my own experience of dealing with these works, students quickly become aware of dealing with important matters. They acquire standards of seriousness that allow them to "place" mediocrity and fraud. First, then, let me outline very briefly the foundations of the Athens-Jerusalem shaping of the narrative.

Both Athens and Jerusalem may be thought to begin with great epic heroes, both dateable in the Bronze Age, or around 1250 B.C., or about the time of the Trojan War and also the Exodus. Achilles is primus inter pares on the Greek side, Moses singular among the lsraelites. Heroic in themselves, each contains the germs of later development: the drive for excellence among the Greeks, the drive for law and spiritual aspiration in Moses and the Israelites.

In Plato's Socratic dialogues, the heroism of Achilles and those like him becomes heroic philosophy in Socrates, presented by Plato as a greater hero than those of the Bronze Age, their heroism becoming an inner commitment to truth. Homer, endlessly recited by Athenian schoolboys, had been the teacher of Athens. Plato gave the greatest of the commentaries. In other words, Plato talked back across the centuries, and meant to be a better teacher, and writer, than Homer. The love of truth was more heroic, more internal, than battlefield prowess.
Like Achilles, Moses was a great warrior, and like Achilles given to violence and rage. He was also a law-giver and nation-builder, and in his Sinai commandments shaped a polity. The document is remarkable in its formal proportions: 1. No other gods before me. 2. No idols. 3. No misuse of God's name. 4. Keep the Sabbath. Each element of this compact formulation follows from the monotheistic premise. These are emphatic commands for a people struggling toward a demanding monotheism, and tempted sorely by the more relaxed Golden Calf. Moses takes care of the deviants by ordering his Levites to slaughter some three thousand of them.

Posted by at August 28, 2013 5:10 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus