Penn State Greek Corps

As a follow-on to yesterday’s Vision for Penn State Greeks, I wanted to clarify some things after speaking with some who read it. I also want to offer a practical idea for how we might start addressing the problem of “spiritual meaning” I identified as the underlying problem beneath the surface of fraternity and sorority challenges.

First, a basic history of the fraternity and sorority system is worthwhile for getting a larger perspective on this topic. What’s relevant to note is that fraternities and sororities developed from something, and that “something” was often informally/organically organized literary and civic/rhetoric clubs. These were students who started with a shared interest in what we would today call a “special” interest, like oratory or singing or dancing or political debate. That’s why I pushed back yesterday against the idea of lofty and abstract language. Young men and women will only develop authentic relationships if they are together for practical purposes like singing together. We want practical relationships.

Second, the history teaches us that change must occur organically. It almost certainly can’t be viola’d with a sweeping “reform program.” And it can’t be the result of nostalgic alumni wishing to simply recreate the Greek system of their own time. Whatever happens, it should be something new.

Third, and relatedly, I have no specific plan in mind. There’s no program. I view the Greek issue as fundamental as “Will these places be vehicles/excuses to learn how to be human beings?” If not, can we find some other way to do that within the university structure? All that “other half” stuff that Cardinal Newman talks about in his book, The Idea of a University.

Fourth, because everyone wants a program even though I think a formal initiative would be foolhardy: Why not try something like a “Penn State Greek Corps” that would seek to “enlist” about 200 people. It would seek Greek alumni, but be mostly non-Greek. It would be diverse in age, gender, professional background, etc. These corps members would be asked to build a relationship with their designated fraternity or sorority, and encouraged to experiment. It wouldn’t be a one year tour, but something closer to a decade-long commitment—real relationships. That would be the only real deliverable, and I think it could produce significant positive results. These corps members would be honored at Homecoming. they’d be invited to meet the trustees and star professors at special events. They’d be shown love in various ways for their extraordinary commitment. Penn State would build a relationship with them, too.

After yesterday’s piece was cross-posted to Onward State it picked up 500+ Facebook shares and I heard back from many people who said it got them thinking. If nothing else, I hope that it helps Penn Staters think less tribally and with more heart.


Vision for Penn State Greeks

I remember touring Beta Theta Pi a few years ago. It was over Arts Fest in 2013, and I had been invited along with some others to see inside the new crown jewel of Penn State’s fraternity system.

An alum had contributed a huge sum of $6+ million to entirely renovating the historic fraternity basically from floor to ceiling and now that it was in physically excellent shape, Penn State administrators had been making a show of the place and talking on their website, their magazines, and everywhere in between about what a model Beta would be for fraternities. Beta had cameras throughout for monitoring conduct in its public spaces. It had a house mother to help regulate basic administration of the property. It had a working relationship with Schreyer Honors College, if I remember correctly—or at least a minimum GPA requirement and other superlative standards for membership. And it had been reformed as a dry chapter.

It was a lovely story, and one I was tempted to believe. If anything could work to pull Greek life away from the worst stereotypes of Animal House culture, maybe it was Penn State’s effort with Beta. I took some photos during my tour of the house that summer:

It took less than a decade for Penn Staters to learn what we got in return for $6+ million in alumni generosity and a years-long PR-campaign from administration: one of the the worst breeding grounds for scandal and ultimately tragedy in modern Penn State fraternity history.

After the terrible death of Timothy Piazza during a drinking party at Beta earlier this year, administrators hastily suspended the chapter and booted its members midway through the semester. And today, as criminal investigations continue into the total neglect of Beta brothers to look after a sophomore at their house, Penn State administrators announced there will no longer be a Beta chapter. I can’t help but marvel at what’s happened at/to Beta in so short a time.

A Penn State challenge, not a Greek problem

While the question of legal culpability for Timothy Piazza’s death is determined through the legal system, the larger question that we can all consider is the moral culpability of Penn Staters writ large—and administrators in particular—in modeling ethical and moral behavior for our 45 fraternities and dozens of sororities.

I wasn’t in a fraternity at Penn State, but I care about fraternities and sororities because I believe in their potential as distinctive communities to form young boys and girls into men and women. I believe in this potential because we know that historically they did exactly this—particularly through ethical and moral formation and the development of brotherhood and sisterhood. (John Shakely, my grandfather, was in a fraternity at Penn State, and my grandmother Marion was in a sorority at Penn. I saw the formative impact those experiences had on them even late in life.) If nothing else, America desperately needs to rejuvenate social structures and experiences that cultivate character and singular men and women with confident and grounded senses of self who are capable of being strong threads in the communities they settle. Fraternities and sororities served that role once, and while we could get rid of them due to the nuisance they’ve become, it’s not clear we’d be any closer to some better system of social development for young people. Fixing them seems a far more worthwhile challenge than the easier route, which would be washing them down a drain that’s already clogged with cultural traditions jettisoned over the the last century.

So I care a great deal about Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. I think the young people in them have largely been abandoned and left to their own idle and directionless ends for decades. After the death of Timothy Piazza, I was amazed at the number of older people so ready to condemn kids aged 18-22 for their negligence. I was amazed not because I condoned their negligence, but because I wondered what other than blame-shifting and poor behavior we could expect from the kids in an environment where they receive no meaningful ethical or moral instruction—or more importantly, actual modeled behavior.

Penn State administrators did just about everything right in their renovation and reform of Beta except the most important thing in failing to provide any concrete sense of ethical or moral vision for a fraternity. Instead, they held up lofty words. But words have little meaning when divorced from behavior, and something our culture almost universally lacks today is the sort of sustained and authentic relationships where modeled behavior has a chance of influencing another person. Without relationships, words are just abstractions and bound for failure.

Abstractions v. concretes

Beta had words: “To Develop Men of Principle for a Principled Life.” Beta had a purported vision, which included things like “Betas will be universally known as friends, gentlemen and scholars” and “Beta Theta Pi will be acclaimed and respected by the academic community” and “Betas will be in high demand by leaders of business, government and the professions.” And Beta had a mission, which included things like “devotion to intellectual excellence” and “high standards of moral conduct and responsible citizenship.” Beta sought to cultivate “lifelong friendship” and “cultivation of the intellect” and “responsible leadership” and “responsible social conduct” and “commitment to community.”

Beta shared, more or less, basically the same sort of vision and mission of every fraternity and sorority. Let me suggest that the problem with Beta’s words are that they’re abstractions. And abstractions can be bent to mean anything, or nothing.

Aspirations (for fraternities and sororities especially) need to find expression in concrete habits and traditions and ways of being. You’re not “universally known as friends.” Instead, you’re “known as the smiling and stopping-to-help fraternity.” You’re not “devoted to intellectual excellence.” You’re the “top-tier engineering fraternity.” You’re not “committed to community.” You’re “the visiting-sick-and-elderly fraternity.” You’re not “developing men of principle.” You’re “a fraternity that attends mass/synagogue/mosque together.”

These are the sort of specific habits and traditions that can sink into the bones of those involved. They’re not abstract, fluffy PR material constructed to earn “acclaim and respect” from the academy community.

I’d bet every fraternity and sorority proclaims some sort of commitment to “intellectual excellence.” That’s a beautiful thing. If it’s true, then tell me: Where are the obviously and distinctly intellectual Greek students? Why aren’t they being spotlighted every fall at Homecoming? Why don’t any specific names immediately leap to faculty or administrators’ minds at every Board of Trustees meeting, so they’re thinking, “I need Trustee Such-and-such to meet fraternity-brother So-and-so.” More broadly, where are fraternities and sororities cultivating distinctive strengths? Let’s have fewer vague pleasantries about “commitment to philanthropy” and instead be able to answer specific questions like, “Point me to the jazz sorority, please.”

We don’t literally need a “jazz sorority,” but we should be cultivating a Greek system as distinctive and full of obviously (and literally) remarkable men and women as we can. That’s what real community looks like.

Not alcohol, but a lack of spiritual meaning

Every time a tragedy at a fraternity or sorority happens, some alcohol or hazing or illicit behavior is cited as the problem. That’s certainly the case today:

Alcohol misuse, hazing and sexual misconduct among students are challenges at nearly every college and university across the country. Greek-letter communities throughout higher education are distinctly affected by these issues, and have generally failed to effectively address them through their self-governance processes. The same is true at Penn State, where research shows that fraternity and sorority members are four times more likely than the general student population to be heavy drinkers; sorority women are 50 percent more likely than other female students to be sexually assaulted; and fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than non-fraternity men.

A large part of the challenge stems from the autonomy these groups have assumed. Typically, colleges and universities cede ultimate responsibility to the organizations themselves, and while alumni boards and national organizations share part of that responsibility, the undergraduate members are often given broad latitude.

I think the second paragraph could have been better written, but if its identification of “autonomy” is speaking to the need for better relationships between fraternity and sorority students with others, then I agree.

What we need, though, are not legal relationships for the purposes of rear-end covering. We need the sort of authentic relationships with young people that can say something like: “You’re 20 years old, and have just joined a fraternity whose mission is to cultivate ‘principled men.’ How specifically are you going to achieve that, and how will you make amends if you fall short?”

That’s the sort of question that hasn’t been asked for decades. And because no one in a position of authority has been asking that sort of question, young people have lost connection to ethical and moral vision and consequently what I’ll call a sense of “spiritual meaning” for what they’re doing in a fraternity or sorority in the first place.

It’s for these reasons that I think the solution lies not in fixing the drinking problem, but fixing the spiritual void that leads to total, unregulated, and unrepentant public drunkenness and debauchery in the first place. It’s a spiritual problem, in other words.

(I don’t mean to take this “spiritual meaning” problem too literally, but I have to point out that for the first 50 years of fraternity life at Penn State, something as specific as Sunday chapel attendance was mandatory for all students, not just fraternity and sorority students. There was a larger, common campus culture that rooted behavior. We’re less than 90 years removed from mandatory chapel, and many within living memory still remember how a practiced religious experience publicly shaped their lives and behavior, rather than simply serving as a sanitized, privatized “worship” service that wasn’t supposed to be seen or discussed in polite company.)

Too many today will brush aside the idea of a “spiritual meaning” problem, and ignore the void of meaning that I think exists in the hearts of most people (not simply young fraternity and sorority members) and will instead decide that trying to better regulate alcohol consumption, or make already-illegal activities like hazing somehow more prohibited (one of today’s recommendations), will be a better way to help people. Down that path lies the dual fate of morally-pleasurable virtue signaling for the “helpers” and ultimately disaster for the “helped.”

We can’t look to our collegiate peers for help. If someone else had fixed the root problems of Greek life, we would have heard about it. Continuing to adopt one another’s surface-level policy reforms won’t fundamentally change Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. That’s just a recipe for becoming derivative, and if that’s the plan, then we might as well close shop. No one seems to be doing any better, and that means we have an opportunity to lead rather than follow. To attempt to foster a whole sense of Penn State community again. If we want a better outcome than what we’ve got for nearly 50 years, we’ve got to consider different approaches.

Do we really care?

Do we really care? This is the uncomfortable question at the center of this conversation.

If we care, we’ll figure out how to mandate that fraternity and sorority students have full-time older people who live with them and have meaningful power to regulate their personal behavior—not only through an enforceable code of conduct, but also by earning respect through real relationships and decades of personal investment.

If we care, we’ll figure out how regular alumni (Greek and non-Greek) can be routinely and specifically invited into fraternities and sororities during special times of the year like Homecoming to be impressed by the talents and habits and traditions of young people, and those alumni will be given ways to form relationships with those young people. We’ll do this because we’re smart enough to remember that every passionate alumni giving relationship is simply one form of commitment to the community, and it’s well past time to cultivate deeper relationships with those graduates.

If we care, the reaction of townspeople and administration and faculty will not be to first condemn or tsk-tsk fraternities and sororities at every turn, but to figure out how to model behavior and form relationships (and even publicly shame them when necessary) in ways that encourage a healthier way of being. When is the last time a professor, for instance, showed an interest in building up the sense of self of a fraternity or sorority student, let alone a chapter or the system? When have professors been encouraged by the Faculty Senate or administration to do this as a necessary part of earning tenure—or simply as something looked upon favorably during contract renewal season?

As much as the students at Beta are morally culpable for Timothy Piazza’s death, so are Penn State administrators who have an obligation more directly than any other to elevate the Greek system. Today’s steps are small but important ones, but I can’t help but point out that Penn State’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life has lacked a leader for quite some time. (And its last prominent leader was most recently in the news on charges of disorderly conduct and prostitution.)  Today’s statement identifies “autonomy” as a large part of Greek life’s challenge, but it’s an autonomy that a generally indifferent administration has long seemed to be fine with—getting to condemn the Greek system’s worst cases of debauchery without ever being willing to insinuate itself into the day-to-day lives of those young men and women.

(A key threat in today’s news is that future sanctions could result in Penn State declaring the entire Greek system dry. What kind of a plan is that, given that Beta itself was allegedly dry? We’re instructing students that the solution is to drink less, but we’re not instructing them in how to drink responsibly—which isn’t typically the same thing as simply drinking less.)

It’s an indictment of administration, but also all of us in the larger Penn State community, that it’s taken a student’s death to even take today’s small steps toward changing something deeper than surface-level policy in viewing Greek problems as our whole community’s challenge rather than some vague sense that every generation of socially neglected 20 year olds have faulty ethics.

Showing that we care

Ours is a problem of spiritual meaning, and the solution lies somewhere near the cultivation of authentic relationships with the young people in fraternities and sororities that every Penn Stater should be encouraged to visit, know, mentor, and help elevate as distinctive members of our community.

Featured photo credit


Artificial Narrow Intelligence

I started subscribing to Ben Thompson’s site a few weeks ago. Daily emails on technology that I’ve found very helpful to understand what’s going on, and weekly articles like today’s that is a great overview/introduction to the issue of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. It starts with Chris Dixon’s recent article How Aristotle Created the Computer:

Dixon goes on to describe the creation of Boolean logic (which has only two variables: TRUE and FALSE, represented as 1 and 0 respectively), and the insight by Claude E. Shannon that those two variables could be represented by a circuit, which itself has only two states: open and closed. [Shannon’s insight underscores that] the logical [abstract] and the physical [circuit] layers depends on the realization that they can be two pieces of a whole. That is, Shannon identified how the logical and the physical could be fused into what we now know as a computer.

Our technology shapes human experience. An obvious point, but one with consequences when one realizes that there are different forms of logic. Boolean logic applied to circuits has shaped our experience of reality to something other than what it was before the advent of the computer. The logical and physical layers were Eureka’d as two pieces of a whole in producing what we call the computer. As Ben Thompson points out, this has allowed human beings to extend their power in new and important ways. But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is all the result of one particular form of logic (new forms of logic could in time reshape our understanding of computing machines specifically or technology generally).

And while humans are “logic/thinking machines,” we’re also “consciousness/feeling” machines. These are the two pieces that make up the whole for the species homo. Those writing about our technology almost universally neglect to remember our whole nature, and act as if homo sapiens is purely a “logic/thinking machine.” In thinking this way, we risk destroying ourselves by making us less than we are. By reducing other forms of logic or knowledge (philosophy, theology, aesthetics, ethics, etc.) relative to a single, narrow understanding of logical knowledge. Interestingly, it’s also in only a narrow way that our Artificial Intelligence/machine learning is advancing so far:

Artificial intelligence is very difficult to define for a few reasons. First, there are two types of artificial intelligence: the artificial intelligence described in that Vanity Fair article is Artificial General Intelligence, that is, a computer capable of doing anything a human can. That is in contrast to Artificial Narrow Intelligence, in which a computer does what a human can do, but only within narrow bounds. For example, specialized AI can play chess, while a different specialized AI can play Go.

Ben Thompson notes that as Artificial Narrow Intelligence makes these advances, we typically stop calling it AI and start calling it simply “technology.” It remains narrow, but that might change:

Recall that while logic was developed over thousands of years, it was only part way through the 20th century that said logic was fused with physical circuits. Once that happened the application of that logic progressed unbelievably quickly.

Technology, meanwhile, has been developed even longer than logic has. However, just as the application of logic was long bound by the human mind, the development of technology has had the same limitations, and that includes the first half-century of the computer era. Accounting software is in the same genre as the spinning frame: deliberately designed by humans to solve a specific problem.

Machine learning is different. Now, instead of humans designing algorithms to be executed by a computer, the computer is designing the algorithms. It is still Artificial Narrow Intelligence — the computer is bound by the data and goal given to it by humans — but machine learning is, in my mind, meaningly different from what has come before. Just as Shannon fused the physical with the logical to make the computer, machine learning fuses the development of tools with computers themselves to make (narrow) artificial intelligence.

This is not to overhype machine learning: the applications are still highly bound and often worse than human-designed systems, and we are far, far away from Artificial General Intelligence. It seems clear to me, though, that we are firmly in Artificial Narrow Intelligence territory: the truth is that humans have made machines to replace their own labor from the beginning of time; it is only now that the machines are creating themselves, at least to a degree.

We’re nowhere near close to Artificial General Intelligence, but apparently we’re breaking through to an Artificial Narrow Intelligence that can build upon itself. In the words of our time, “Big if true.”

It would be a perverse thing if, in our quest to create a more general form of machine logic/thinking, we ended up also creating a less conscious/feeling humanity in the process.


Penn’s Prayer for Philadelphia

I was walking through the City Hall courtyard earlier today and William Penn’s prayer caught my eye. I thought I’d share it here:

William Penn’s Prayer for Philadelphia- 1684

“And Thou, Philadelphia, the virgin settlement of this province—named before thou wert born. What love, what care, what service and what travail there have been to bring thee forth and to preserve thee from such as would abuse and defile thee.

Oh that thou mayest be kept from the evil that would overwhelm thee; that faithful to the God of the Mercies, in the life of righteousness, thou mayest be preserved to the end.

My soul prays to God for thee that thou mayest stand in the day of trial, that thy children may be blest and thy people saved by His power.”

Erected by the Colonial Dames of America


Good financial advice

Joshua Becker shares key financial advice that changed his life. At the top of the list is my favorite:

Most people who overspend their income do so in one of three ways: 1) Too much house, 2) Too much car, 3) Too much entertainment.” // Financial adviser, 2008.

I made a passing statement to a financial adviser friend of mine one particular evening over dinner. I had no data to back up the claim, it was purely an observation made on anecdotal evidence. I told him that most people I know who are living in debt seem to carry a monthly car payment. That’s when he offered the financial advice above in the form of his own personal interactions.

There are outstanding circumstances for sure (medical emergencies, tragedy, job layoffs, etc.). But generally speaking, if you have a hard time living within your income, check your spending on your home, your car, or your entertainment (dining, tickets, trips). I have tried to keep all three modest ever since.



I picked up my first SEPTA Key earlier this month. The SEPTA Key works for subways, trollies, and buses so far, but they’re not yet functional for the regional suburban trains that I take frequently.

The slow-roll launch of the SEPTA Key program has been many, many years in the making. I’m proud of some of its distinctive characteristics, namely its double function as a reloadable debit card. For kids who you want to give an allowance to, or for the many in Philadelphia who lack traditional banking options, this is a big deal. I also like that each card has an account number (I’ve scrubbed mine from this photo), and that it ties in with your SEPTA Key account online. If you lose your card, you haven’t lost whatever funds you had left on it.

I’m hoping for two things: that SEPTA Key goes live for regional train riders this summer or fall at the latest, and that Apple Pay and other NFC-equipped users can use their devices in the future rather than having to carry around the SEPTA Key card. I suspect it’ll be years more before we get the latter, but I’m hopeful about the former.

It’ll be great not to have to run to ticket windows or wait in lines for single or monthly passes—or the worst situations, where you’ve got to board a train to make it someplace, but have no ticket or cash and get reamed out by the conductor for it. There’ll soon be a modern way to pay.


A little creek

Earlier this week I caught the train out of Philadelphia. It was a beautiful early spring evening, so I walked the mile or so from the suburban train station to where I was heading. Along the way, this little creek was flowing under the pedestrian bridge I was crossing. I stopped to snap a Live Photo, which I’m sharing here as a GIF of the scene. It’s a picture of nature as much as the technology and industrialization that have implanted themselves as a part of the fabric of our communities. It’s the creek, though, that’s the testament to the fact that nothing changes as much as we might imagine.



Reading defeats narcissism

Kevin Hartnett writes on the effects of art on life:

In the same way that it would be hard to meet Scarlett Johansson and not be distracted by her beauty, it is difficult to read War and Peace and not be preoccupied with its reputation as the greatest novel ever written. …

One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace?  The answers, I think, tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading. …

Tolstoy’s intellectual agenda in the book was to expose the meagerness of historical accounts of the War of 1812 that tried to reduce the world-remaking conflict to a finite and knowable set of causes.  Instead, Tolstoy wanted to depict the war in all its complexity and contingency, to show that the outcome rested at least as much on the decision of an individual soldier to charge or not as it did on Napoleon’s machinations, and that both the soldiers and the Emperor were controlled equally by forces larger than themselves. …

(One somewhat disquieting effect of reading War and Peace is that the more your own thoughts show up in its pages, the less original your life begins to feel.) …

The night I finished reading about Borodino, it was plainly obvious that I had just read something great.  Yet here I was sitting in a corner of my couch, just the same as I had been an hour before.  I thought about the question with which I opened—what is it that greatness does? An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.

This gives voice to the power of great literature to combat narcissism and egoism. It’s a path toward humility.

There’s so much value in immersing yourself in the mysterious power that the written word has on the scope, depth, and perspective of our minds.

Little squiggles on paper with a metaphysical power.


State College streetcars

I’m writing to share a romantic vision. I’m telling you this right off the bat to so that you can take a hike if you’re the cold hearted, unsentimental type. If you don’t care about aesthetics, and if you don’t know where nostalgia lives, then get out and save yourself the grief of what’s to come…

I believe that the Penn State/Nittany Valley communities are among the most distinctive and special places in the country. I think there’s a genius loci to the place, a pervading spirit of at least practical relational and economic if not also spiritual magnetism. It’s one of my aims in life to do whatever I can to help cultivate an even more distinctive and romantic spirit in the place that more than a million living American college graduates will have called their home in this century.

It’s with this aim in mind of conserving the specialness of place in Happy Valley that I also consider what’s not special about the place. A thing that’s not special about Penn State and the region? These:


They’re just regular buses. They’re somewhat quiet. They’re not hideous. But they’re buses. And they’re big and formuliac. They are at war with an otherwise nostalgic aesthetic.

I understand that for most of CATA’s regional routes (the routes throughout the wider Centre County region) that these buses make the most practical and financial sense. But wait. Look again at that beautifully and legitimately arresting scene of that black and yellow San Francisco streetcar above. Now imagine that in navy blue and white, with elegant chimes at each stop, trundling its way along the Blue and White Loops that circle Penn State’s campus and State College’s downtown. Do you hear it? Listen…

And because even abstracted art is an attempt to speak to the essence and nature of its subject, imagine those blue and white streetcars, little bells chiming politely, as a part of Richard Greenleaf’s incomparable College Avenue watercolors:


Wouldn’t that be just one of the most unusual experiences of local and neighborhood travel you’ve ever had? And wouldn’t it be just one of the most beautiful things to see snaking itself through town and campus? Can’t you just see that blue and white streetcar there? Maybe it’s already there…

Think State College streetcars aren’t feasible? They’re uniquely feasible—even practical: “They work best in places with some fundamentals already in place, says Daniel Malouff, a Washington transportation expert. There are a few basic things he says a city needs for a streetcar to work: dense population, easy walkability, a line that moves relatively quickly and some frequency of service. ‘If you can get all four, you will have a smashing success,’ Malouff says.”

So a limited route like this is practical. It’s not grandiose, and it would still serve the needs of the Blue and White loops that are currently served by those unremarkable buses that are totally beneath the aesthetic of one of the most special places in the country. If nothing else, why not making this place more resilient by making it more distinctive from every other college town? It would be fun, and that used to be half the point to any public initiative.

(I stole the photo above from Julia Kern, who took it in San Francisco and was the inspiration for this post. I’ve had a vague feeling about this for years, but her photo was the spark for this post.)



In Will Durant’s closing section of Our Oriental Heritage, the first of eleven volumes in his The Story of Civilization series, he works to tie in the broad histories of ancient Asia with Greece as a transmitter and transformer civilization. (The Life of Greece is the second in his 11-volume series.) Excerpt:

From Egypt and Mesopotamia Greece took the models for her doric and ionic columns. From those same lands came not only the column but the arch, the vault, the clerestory, and the dome, and the ziggurats of the Near East have had some share in molding the architecture of America today. Chinese painting and Japanese prints changed the tone and current of 19th century European art and Chinese porcelan raised a new perfection for Europe to emulate.

The somber splendor of the Gregorian chant goes back age by age to the plaintive songs of exiled Jews, gathering timidly in scattered synagogues. These are some of the elements of civilization, and part of the legacy of the East to the West.

Nevertheless much was left for the classic world to add to this rich inheritance. Crete would build a civilization almost as ancient as Egypt’s and would serve as a bridge to bind the cultures of Asia and Africa and Greece. Greece would transform art by seeking not size but perfection. It would marry effeminate delicacy of form and finish to the masculine architecture and statuary of Egypt and would provide the scene for the greatest age in the history of art.

It would apply to all the realms of literature the creative exuberance of the free mind. It would contribute meandering epics, profound tragedies, hilarious comedies, and fascinating histories to the store of European letters. It would organize universities and establish for a brilliant interlude the secular independence of thought. It would develop beyond any precedent the mathematics of astronomy, the physics and medicine bequeathed it by Egypt and the East. It would originate the sciences of life and the naturalistic view of man. It would bring philosophy to consciousness and order, and would consider with unaided rationality all the problems of our life. It would emancipate the educated classes from ecclesiasticism and superstitution, and would attempt a morality independent of supernatural aid. It would conceive man as a citizen rather than as a subject. It would give him political liberty, civil rights, and an unparalleled measure of mental and moral freedom. It would create democracy and invent the individual.

Rome would take over this abounding culture, spread it throughout the Mediterranean world, protect it for half a millenium from barbarian assault and then transmit it through Roman literature and the Latin languages to Northern Europe. It would lift woman to a power and splendor and mental emancipation which perhaps she had never known before. It would give Europe a new calendar and teach it the principles of politcal organization and social security. It would establish the rights of the individual in an orderly system of laws that would help to hold the continent together through the centuries of poverty, chaos, and superstitution.

Often the phrase “Judeo-Christian” is used to almost interchangeably to refer to American/Western cultures. Yet Durant paints a portrait of Greek achievement and cultural synthesis—protected by the Romans and later European cultures—that continues to shape the majority of what we think of as a modern way of life.

In light of this, I wonder whether a firmer case could be made for the phrase “Graeco-Christian” rather than “Judeo-Christian” to better describe the development of our culture’s shared political and intellectual life. As Durant underscores, Greece indelibly shaped our sense of culture, law, and thought that came to dominate what became “Christian civilization” and Greece’s development of the individual and of political liberty continue to shape both domestic and international law.

If we need a phrase to describe the thread that binds the fabric of our culture through time, “Judeo-Christian” works in speaking of religious relationship and tradition, but “Graeco-Christian culture” might be better for describing what Durant refers to at one point as the “living cultural basis” for modern culture.