The questions for the West have now become: What it is that we should remember and teach? What are the elements of Western civilization that might sustain what is left and reconstruct what has been damaged or destroyed?…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Jeffrey Hart as he considers the course of liberal arts education and the heritage of Western civilization. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher 

In the early twenty-first century, the liberal arts curriculum at our universities is in a peculiar condition of uncertainty. No one is willing to say what it should consist of or what it should accomplish. The auspices, however, may be better than they seem in that we have come through a very difficult phase, and there are some signs of a willingness to return to serious work on the part of both faculty and students, perhaps especially students.

The students today are generally purposeful, take a serious view of life and its opportunities, and usually can distinguish between substance and frivolity in the curriculum.

During the 1960s, future Secretary of Labor Robert Reich led the way to the founding of an Alternative (non-credit) College at Dartmouth, offering a variety of rebellious marginal courses. Such an entity would now draw next to no participants. In comparison with the later 1960s and most of the 1970s, drug use is minimal, the sexual revolution has had its Thermidor, common sense has prevailed, and clothes, hair, manners, and other indicators have normalized. During the period of the Great Liberation, my students were drug-glazed in class, some walked out of upper-story windows afloat on LSD, and communication was much impaired. I seriously considered resigning and devoting full time to writing. Today, students are not much different from those who came before the Upheaval and, like them, are ready to take their university work seriously.

Yet they find themselves culturally at odds with some of the faculty and much of the administration, whose formative years were those the 1960s and 1970s. A residue of this generation remains to some degree, often extreme, of rebellion against mainstream culture, which it regards as racist, homophobic, and greedy. This residue is more broadly hostile to America and the West, which it regards as exploitative and racist. Faculty and administrators with this orientation regard the students as needing their consciousness raised by submitting to deracination. The courses they generate do not seek to transmit Western culture at its best, but rather to insult it, expose it, and–fancifully–destroy it. In the 1950s, widely thought to have been boring, we young professors competed with one another in a usually friendly contest to know as much as possible. The professors today who were formed by the sixties and do much to set the tone of the universities, compete in generic suffering. That is, they talk about themselves as much as possible, even if only as suffering witnesses to the presumed suffering of others. If you are a woman, black, or sexually unusual, the university is Valhalla. This really is pretty boring.

The central problem is that the university at the present time has few institutional defenses against this project. It is porous to courses that are essentially polemical rather than cognitive. It has been disarmed because the university is not informed by any consensus on the aims and shape of liberal arts education, and it is such a consensus that needs to be argued about and recovered. In its absence, “transgressive” and propagandist courses make their way without resistance through the faculty committees, are ratified by complacent or enthusiastic administrators, and are inflicted on undergraduates as well as on the university budget.

Interestingly, most of these courses no longer take a directly political form, since in the United States today, and indeed among the advanced nations, there is little opportunity for radical politics. There is not a single socialist economist today in any first-rate economics department, and admiration for such socialist states as do survive has a crank character. Rather than taking political forms, alienation and rebellion are located in the liberal arts and the social sciences, where actual consequences in the visible world are thought to be less checkable. And there they take the form of sexual and racial propaganda. With regard to the latter I should point out that “Affirmative Action” affects not only admissions policy but also faculty and administration hiring and promotion, and, most important, curriculum, where group “representation” often takes precedence over importance and perspicacity, “Nicaraguan Lesbian Poets,” propelled by sufficient institutional chic, displacing Donne, Herbert, and Marvell. The good news is that today the junk courses enroll few students and fewer still of the best students; the bad news is that they consume substantial institutional resources, dilute the curriculum, and distract from the real work of the university.

I will cite one example of such a course, though not an extreme one, and let it stand here as representative of the entire genre. I have just mentioned that, in the absence of any possible radical politics, one form that alienation and rebellion take today is sexual. A phalanx within the faculty is exclusively interested in “transgressive” sexuality, kinkiness, fetishism, gender-bending, sadomasochism, homosexuality, fantasy, pornography, bestiality, pornography, and other “cutting edge” expressions of eros. Needless to say, all this is not investigated in the scientific spirit of a graduate course in abnormal psychology, or in a medical school, but in courses in the liberal arts.

I have to say that the sexual preoccupation of many university faculty members strikes me as odd. If you grouped together the members of the Departments of English, Comparative Literature, Romance Languages and so on, and tried to imagine them engaged in sexual activity, the effect would be hilarious or depressing depending upon your temperament. But many of them have “sex in the head,” as D.H. Lawrence called it, and they also like it in the classroom.

The course I will put forth here as an example was written up in the June 1999 number of The New Criterion, and is offered at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, a supposedly reputable institution, indeed an “independent Ivy,” to which a student pays $30,430 per year of residence. COL 289 is an “interdisciplinary” course in the College of Letters entitled “Pornography: Writing of Prostitutes.”

The professor’s description of her course in the Wesleyan catalogue is a perfect snapshot of academic scandal, and of course is written in turgid academic prose which does not conceal its malice and impotent revolutionism: “The pornography we study is an act of transgression which impels human sexuality toward, against and beyond the limits which have traditionally defined civil discourse–defined that is, by regimes of dominance and submission, inclusion or exclusion, in the domains of organ and emotional pleasure. Our examination, accordingly, includes the implications of pornography in so-called perverse practices such as voyeurism, bestiality, sadism, and masochism, and considers the inflections of the dominant white heterosexual tradition of alternative sexualities and genders,” etc. Notice here that sexual intercourse with animals, “bestiality,’’ is considered a “so-called” perversion, no doubt defined as such by that “dominant” and “excluding” “white heterosexual tradition.”

The students in this course read, naturally or unnaturally, the Marquis de Sade and move on to Hustler magazine and much other pornography. Then theory becomes praxis, and the students are obliged to create their own active pornography, that is, become sexual rebels against norms. The New Criterion quotes one account of the course to the effect that the professor in charge describes this practical assignment by saying, “I don’t put any constraints on it. It’s supposed to be, ‘Just create your own work of pornography.’” She also says, reassuringly, that she would never push a student beyond what she perceives as emotional, personal limits. Unpushed, the student projects come up with videos of oral sex, of sexual intercourse, masturbation, and sadomasochism—as in the example of a “scantily clad” female student being beaten with whips.

Nothing about this “transgressive” course suggests that it has a place in Wesleyan’s liberal arts undergraduate program. Everything about it, including its description in the course catalog, suggests that it is ideological nonsense, and an irresponsible invasion of powerful and–as all literature attests–potentially dangerous emotion.

President Douglas Bennet of Wesleyan, perhaps a perfectly decent fellow, did circulate a memo to his faculty questioning the “appropriateness of this course in the Wesleyan curriculum.” But the official Wesleyan position held that Professor Weissman is “one of Wesleyan’s most dedicated, serious and effective teachers.” One hopes that this is a lie.

There is no need here to attempt to analyze why this abysm has opened beneath the liberal arts curriculum, and why such a curriculum has so few willing to define and to defend it, or why the great Liberation of the 1960s-70s was so devastating to it. Not long before he died in 1996, the eminent sociologist E. Digby Baltzell observed to me that the year 1968 resembled 1848 in the international character of its rebellion against existing authority and established institutions throughout the advanced nations. The assault was especially virulent in the great universities and possessed an intensity that the assorted local conditions do not credibly account for. Nor could it have succeeded in wreaking the devastation it did if the norms and institutions under assault still possessed their longstanding authority.

What seems to be evident, however, is the devastating effect our “short century,” 1914-1989, from the outbreak of World War I to the fall of the Soviet empire, had on the moral confidence of the West and, derivatively, on confidence in the liberal arts and in the institutions connected with them. The high bourgeois civilization of the Enlightenment had masterfully protected our freedoms and our well-being, but even before 1914, Joseph Conrad felt that he was writing its elegy in the great opening dirge of Heart of Darkness (1898):

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

This is a loving elegy, with prose evocative of the world of Henry James and Whistler and tints like those of Constable, but an elegy nevertheless. Then there soon supervened our short century, from the colossal slaughters on the Western Front after 1914, through the anxiety-ridden period between the wars to the inevitable-seeming apocalypse of World War II, including Hitler’s death factories. Not at all surprisingly, many sensitive spirits found abundant reason to question the civilizational claims of the formerly dominant bourgeois West. Not a few prominent intellectuals in one way or another washed their hands of that civilization: Sartre, Maurras, Heidegger, Lacan, Foucault, Althusser, Marcuse. Deconstruction, as in DeMan and Derrida, launched a radical attack on meaning itself in verbal expression, that is, on the memory of Western experience as expressed in literature. The repeated apocalyptic shocks issued in such sentiments as, “After all this, who can go on talking about Bach, or Mozart, or Proust?” Or, “The Humanities were supposed to elevate the human spirit, but just look at this.” The ultimate nihilism of the death factories seemed to trivialize everything.

Non-existential thought should have replied that the resources of the West, including some resources widely forgotten, would have been adequate to the apocalypses and the nihilism, and that it was not the job of Goethe or Bach to stop the death factories but rather politics and, if necessary, force. The sensitive intellectuals should have learned about force from the humanities, such as Homer and Thucydides, for example.

“A people that no longer remembers,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “has lost its history and its soul.” The question now becomes, and quite immediately as we look forward to the next century, what it is that we should remember and teach, what the elements of Western civilization are that might sustain what is left, which is considerable, and reconstruct what has been damaged or destroyed. Even a tentative answer to these questions, since they are the right questions, will contribute to a conversation about the shape of the liberal arts curriculum and point to a way out of the current chaos.

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.[*] In such things as the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Quantum Mechanics, Athens and cognition seem 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 [1000 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 datable 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 Israelites. 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 become 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.

In this compact rhetorical model of an emerging Bronze Age polity, the fifth commandment is pivotal and marks the transition from divine to social-political matters: 5) Honor thy father and thy mother. The family is thus rhetorically and socially central, carrying the religion and the emerging culture of monotheism. This is to be a highly traditional society. The last four commandments give instructions, fairly modest ones, about how to live in it. In the compact structure of the Ten Commandments, God shows himself to be something of a literary formalist. In their content, He is a political philosopher: 6) Do not commit murder. (“Kill” here is a dangerous mistranslation of the Hebrew verb “Lo Tirtzach.” Moses himself frequently kills.) 7) Do not commit adultery. 8) Do not steal. 9) Do not give false testimony. 10) Do not covet thy neighbor’s goods. Moses, a gigantic Bronze Age figure like Achilles, dies on the highest peak of Mount Nebo, seeing afar the Promised Land, a heroic final scene both like and also very different from the funeral pyres of Hector and Achilles.

In Plato, we saw the internalization of the Homeric heroism in terms of heroic philosophy. We next see the internalization of the Mosaic heroic in terms of inner perfection in the Sermon on the Mount. As Plato talked with Homer, Jesus (surely Joshua) talks with Moses. Throughout the Sermon, he is “perfecting” Moses and the Prophets, but most explicitly in the second section known as the “Antitheses.” Each of these has the structure of the following: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

This is the great internalization of Jerusalem, analogous to Socrates–Plato internalizing the Homeric heroic. Jesus accurately says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come to fulfill them.” External “not doing” must become internal perfection. We are not to be whitewashed tombs with corruption within, but pure all the way through. No wonder that when “Jesus finished these sayings, the crowd was astonished, for he taught as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”

Paul of Tarsus, a contemporary of Jesus, is an enormous figure in his own right. The Book of Acts, thought to be a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, centrally brings Jerusalem to Athens in Chapter 17, when Paul speaks in the Areopagus. This scene clearly recalls the trial of Socrates in 399 B.C. Paul, Jew, Roman citizen, Greek speaker, and Christian convert, represents a personal synthesis. Along the Roman roads, enjoying the security of Roman law, he brings his synthesis to congregations throughout the Near East, brings the message of Jerusalem to the Stoics and Neo-Platonist Athens, and thence to Rome, where he was executed about 65 A.D.

Soon thereafter, John would bring Athens and Jerusalem together in the first chapter of his Gospel (around 85 A.D.), which identifies Jesus with the Greek philosophical concept of the Logos, or universal pattern discussed since the pre-Socratics. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, would soon wrestle with a synthesis of his own. By the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria and Origen were defending Athens-Jerusalem against the fierce opposition of Tertullian, who pointedly asked, “What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”–by this formulation indicating how long the iconic use of the terms had been in use. Clement and Origin won the argument. Knowledge was not at war with holiness, at least not intransigently.

Such are the foundations. And an undergraduate course need not explore them all through the early centuries. But they are refracted through the great and indispensable works, all of which talk to one another, often down to intellectually exciting details. Plato talked with Homer, Jesus with Moses. A good reading for students who have read some Paul and then Acts, would be St. Augustine’s Confessions. Here there is a powerful scene that involves Dante, one thousand years later.

Augustine, tormented by the defect in his will that prevents him from conquering sexual desire, and feeling “tumult within my breast,” enters a garden, attached to his house, with a friend Alypius, a lawyer. The garden is serene, and a fig tree grows within it. Then he hears:

a voice like that of a boy or girl, I know not which, repeating over and over, ‘Take up and read, take up and read.’ Instantly, with altered countenance, I began to think intently whether children made use of any such chant for some kind of game, but I could not recall hearing it anywhere.

The only volume near at hand is a volume of Paul’s Epistles lying on a gaming table in the garden.

I hurried back to the spot where Alypius was sitting, for I had put there the volume of the apostle when I got up and left him. I snatched it up, opened it, and read in silence the chapter on which my eyes fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in sensualities and impurities, not in strife and envying, but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh and its concupiscence.’

Augustine comments: “No further wished I to read… All the dark shadows of doubt fell away.” In the sentences from Paul, he heard the voice of divine grace assisting his flawed will.

Dante used this episode in his famous Canto V about the adulterers Paolo and Francesca, here blown about by winds of passion. She recounts that they were reading a courtly romance about the great lover Lancelot: “When we read that longed for smile was kissed by so great a lover, he who never shall be parted from me, all trembling kissed my mouth. A Galeotto [pander] was that book and he that wrote it; that day we read no further.” The “inspiration” given to Paolo (Paul!) and Francesca contrasts with that given Augustine by Paul. Paolo and Francesca were reading the wrong book, a comment on the power of literature. Or reading the book in the wrong way. If, instead of reading no more that day they had in fact read further, they would have found that the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere and the incest of Arthur wrecked Arthur’s court, and that Arthur and his son Mordred killed each other. In the life of Francesca da Rimini, according to Boccaccio, the affair with the married Paolo continued, her husband found out about it, surprised them and killed them both.

Dante is full of connections like this to Homer, Virgil, and Aristotle. As students engage works of this seriousness and scope, they themselves overhear the great conversation and contribute to it. In the mind of a contemporary reader, all of these books are present at the same time, talking with one another. Achilles could engage Jesus in an interesting dispute. Augustine might wonder about the idealization of women in Dante, a reflection of the idealization of women in the religion of Amor that arose suddenly in Provence during the twelfth century, which is still reflected in our behavior and distinguishes the West from all other cultures. But Dante might reply that Monica was Augustine’s Beatrice.

The first line of Hamlet, where it stands as a stroke of genius, reverberates throughout the play: “Who’s there?” Who indeed: all the darkness and dubiety of that play. When the Ghost appears, now evidently in the Christian Purgatory, the old heroic warrior King Hamlet commands his son to unite Athens and Jerusalem (Nietzsche’s Caesar and Christ): “Revenge his foul and unnatural murder … But taint not thy mind.” Kill, but do not experience anger or bloodlust. Remain pure within. Old King Hamlet knows: He slaughtered Old Norway, and now he is in Purgatory. The Prince has his work cut out for him. The play engages the heroism of Achilles and the aspiration of the Sermon on the Mount.

And so the books talk with one another. Milton put the heroic warrior in the form of Satan into a Christian universe and holds a cosmic conversation. The great writers of the Enlightenment shift back toward Athens and cognition, and also regard society as an object outside the self, to be mocked if necessary and reformed if possible (Molière, Swift, Voltaire), and then we get the great critiques of the Enlightenment, in Burke, Goethe, Herder, Dostoevsky and many others, reminding us of what the Enlightenment forgot. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky gave us his Hamlet. In The Great Gatsby, a Faust in Great Neck, his Mephisto a gambler named Meyer Wolfsheim, his Helen named Daisy, tried to transform the world through the magic of money and vision.

Earlier I noted that this material can be made available to students in a variety of formats. I also mentioned that I had experimented with an abbreviated format in a course given at the fine small Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts. In this course, I assigned the Iliad, the Symposium, the Apology, Exodus, Matthew, John, Corinthians I, Romans, Acts, the Inferno, Hamlet and The Tempest.

This course, I think, accomplished a great deal. It provided the foundations. The students understood, and did so increasingly, that they were dealing with important things. They were participating in the Western memory, and becoming citizens of the Western present and not mere passengers. They possessed a standard by which to distinguish the serious from the trivial and pernicious, and would not care much for the Nicaraguan Lesbian Poets or “Pornography: The Writing of Prostitutes,” even if under the auspices of the Wesleyan College of Letters.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2013. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


* On the subject of Athens-Jerusalem, the literature is vast. I have found the following especially valuable: Werner Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia (Cambridge, MA, 1964); Susan Orr, Jerusalem and Athens (Lanham, MD, 1995)—a very fine analysis of Leo Strauss’s essay of the same title, which reprints the essay itself; Eric Voegelin, Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge, 1956), especially Chapter 12 on Moses; and Voegelin, The World of the Polis (Baton Rouge, 1957).

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