YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 15, 2010

The Classics as antidote to science education?

Max Beckmann, Odysseus and Calypso, 1943

   In the late 1930s, two books were published that traced the trajectory of European civilization, and found that The Greek Way (as classicist Edith Hamilton titled her book of 1930*) was clearly protofascist. One was by social psychologist Ellis Freeman: Conquering the Man in the Street: A psychological analysis of propaganda in war, fascism, and politics  (N.Y.:  Vanguard Press, 1940), the earlier by future Labour M.P. Richard Crossman:  Plato Today (N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1939). Both are available on Amazon.com and I highly recommend them, for social democratic journalists (Stanley Fish and J. M. Bernstein), blogging this week in the New York Times, are calling for renewed attention to a classical education as a remedy to a narrow science/technology education that is allegedly suppressing critical thought.  (In one case, the philosopher  J.M. Bernstein, compares the Tea Party to Jacobin terrorists, rage-driven and standing for a mythical autonomous individual.  But that critic of the organic society, Ellis Freeman,  would have been outraged by such a comparison, for the test of democracy was the structure of groups: would or would not the “leader” accept criticism from individuals in the group? If not, it was fascist or protofascist. Think now of the structure of classrooms in the humanities, dominated as they are now by left-liberals and hardcore Leninists. Or the fear that some Democratic congressmen have of Town Hall meetings.)

In other words, proto-Nazis (the Tea Party) would be cured with a dose of Hegel and other German Idealists who looked to measured, balanced, communitarian ancient Greeks for their models. Having just read the Robert Fitzgerald translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, I find the idea that Homer’s epics are useful to us today as any kind of social or political model quite terrifying, especially with respect to the critical practices that make a democracy viable. But as a source for comic books and blood and gore movies and television, the adventures of Odysseus are a treasure trove. Think of the good king, the paternalistic welfare state, the touching loyalty of its servants, fatalism, magic, the intervention of wise god figures in daily life (grey-eyed Athena or a wise Latina), superheroes, shape-changing creatures, gorgeous tall women and men, the glitter of gold and silver along with artisanal triumphs designed for the aristocracy, the increasing blending of gymnastics with dance, but most of all, the aestheticization of violence that Walter Benjamin described as the culture of fascism and Nazism in his famous defense of modern mass media “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Writing at the same time as Freeman and Crossman, Benjamin declared that such artists as Marinetti had glorified war to the point where humanity was contemplating its own destruction as an aesthetic experience. What would Benjamin have said about the humanizing beauty of Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors and the female slaves who had slept with them?– A slaughter that left the poet in awe of the “lion” figure of Odysseus, covered as he was with the blood and gore of his enemies.

As the late mathematician and author Norman J. Levitt understood very well, the scientific revolution created a rupture in the trajectory of the West that had the potential to change the course of Western civilization.**  It is through science-induced skepticism that we learn to stand alone, if necessary, in confrontation with the mind-management of the past, or with power-hungry and corrupt leaders of the present. It is through the ingenuity of individual, Promethean free-thinking humans that we will conquer hostile nature without destroying life on the planet. As for the Greek way (explicitly Keynesian in the view of Robert M. Hutchins), look to its legacy in the streets of Athens.

*I did not mean to imply that either Freeman or Crossman criticized Hamilton, nor do I forget that Plato banished poets from his Republic. I have now read her book, and it fits in with the ongoing portrait I have painted of the Progressives: their claim to balance the claims of individuality and community through their embrace of “the Third Way,” the aspiration to aristocracy, the glorification of heroes, their organicism. But she adds a grim touch in her adulation of tragic heroes, whose fates bring us intense pleasure, not pain. S-M anyone? (For a related blog, see https://clarespark.com/2015/05/30/constructing-the-moderate-men-with-the-classics/.)

**My friend Norman Levitt was a democratic socialist, and might have been transposing his desire for a rupture between capitalism and what he thought would be a better society back into the seventeenth century.

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11 Comments »

  1. Tea Party advocates are hardly proto-fascists. There is simply no rationale in a comparison with the Jacobin terrorists nor with the Nazis. Very shallow thinking.

    Religious belief and the scientific method are not nor have they ever been exclusive. There have been debates and sometimes the path has been twisted, but in the end faith dictates an acceptance of provable facts.

    The romanticism of Rousseau and Hegel, and the dialectical contradictions of Nietzsche have done more damage to progress than perhaps any other philosophies.

    Comment by Matteo X — June 19, 2013 @ 11:06 pm | Reply

    • I had already criticized the notion that the Tea Party was protofascist or fascist. As for scientific thinking, various religions and sects within those religions have varied ways of adapting to the challenge of worldliness and empiricism.

      Comment by clarelspark — June 19, 2013 @ 11:14 pm | Reply

  2. Reblogged this on YDS: The Clare Spark Blog and commented:

    With some pundits wondering if we are already fascist, see how classical antiquity has been mobilized by both social democrats and hard leftists to undercut democratic participation.

    Comment by clarelspark — June 19, 2013 @ 9:00 pm | Reply

  3. When I consider the treasures of Western Civilization, I too wish that more people received a classical education when they were young. I attended parochial school and, although I disliked all the history, Latin and religion at the time, I’m grateful now.

    OTOH I can’t help but notice that people who have had much of that education, i.e. humanities academics, seem to me astonishingly, dangerously foolish. An emphasis on science and technology is not their problem, not at all. What has gone wrong?

    Comment by huxley — June 29, 2010 @ 2:54 am | Reply

  4. An excellent essay. Thanks, Claire Spark. Claire Spark must be a pseudonym, or perhaps your mother was a romantic, and a wit.

    Comment by Lynn Chu — June 20, 2010 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

    • Coming from you, Lynn, that is quite a compliment and I accept it with gratitude. I was named for my maternal grandmother, Clara Tumin Rosen. The Spark was perhaps the invention of someone on Ellis Island, making me a Brit and not the descendants of Eastern European Jews. What name was affixed to my Eastern European ancestors is a mystery to me, as it is to many persons of Jewish descent.
      Both my parents possessed the comic spirit, and it is my most valued inheritance, but my name was not an invention of my parents.

      Comment by clarespark — June 20, 2010 @ 4:48 pm | Reply


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