Graeco-Christian

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.

Service as the source of power

Charles Wagner, writing in 1894 from Courage:

A profound duplicity, a discrepancy between words and deeds, between appearance and reality, a sort of moral dilettantism which makes us according to the hour sincere or hypocritical, brave or cowardly, honest or unscrupulous–this is the disease which consumes us. What moral force can germinate and grow under these conditions? We must again become men who have only one principle, one word, one work, one love; in a word, men with a sense of duty. This is the source of power. And without this there is only the phantom of a man, the unstable sand, and hollow reed which bends beneath every breath. Be faithful; this is the changeless northern star which will guide you through the vicissitudes of life, through doubts and discouragements, and even mistakes.

“A sort of moral dilettantism.” Isn’t that language great?

The entire “I do what I want!” mentality breaks like a fist against rock in encountering the clarity of thinking of someone like Charles Wagner. “I do what I want” is often just a slavery to our ever-changing passions.

This single paragraph can be better understood in its fuller context, of course.

What a lesson for young people.

Higher cost, lower esteem

Revisiting something I noted a few years ago, an incredible story of a university suing its former student for graduating too rapidly:

A German university is suing a student for lost income because he finished his bachelors and masters degrees in only 20 months.

The School of Economics and Management in Essen is asking the court to make former student Marcel Pohl, 22, pay an extra $3,772 after he obtained his degrees in only three semesters instead of the usual 11, The Local.de reported Tuesday.

“When I got the lawsuit, I thought it couldn’t be true,” Pohl told the Bild newspaper. “Performance is supposed to be worth something.”

Could there be a better example of how ugly it is when colleges forget that their role is developing a human person, rather than producing (or benefitting from) just the economic dimension of a person?

Does a college exist to extract value from its students before producing graduates for a marketplace, or does it exist more broadly to elevate its students beyond their marketplace value?

This question prefaces almost every conversation about college life today.

Commitment, not passion

I think one of the most misunderstood ideas today is that happiness in life comes after you decide to “follow your passion.” Steve Jobs famously encouraged young people to follow their passion in his Stanford commencement address. It’s a beautiful way to think about creating an intentional and rewarding life, but those three words paper over the stark reality that “passion” doesn’t lead to “happiness.” Steve Jobs himself elbaorated on this idea in a separate talk:

“People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing, and it’s totally true. The reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it—if you’re not having fun doing it, and you don’t really love it—you’re going to give up.”

In other words, people who are committed to their vision, or who have a strong sense of vocation or purpose in life, are the ones likeliest at least not to be discouraged by the sheer difficulty of realizing their vision. Jobs suggests needing to be irrational in pursuit of the passion, but I think it’s simpler to think in terms first acting out of a place of happiness, and second, living with commitment. Warren Buffett spoke to this many years ago:

If you think you’re going to be a lot happier if you’ve got 2x instead of x, you’re probably making a mistake. You outta find something that you like that works with that and you’ll get in trouble if you think that making 10x or 20x is the answer to everything in life, because then you’ll do things like borrow money when you shouldn’t, or maybe cut corners on things your employer wants you to cut corners on. It just doesn’t make any sense, and you won’t like it when you look back on it.

Far better to encourage young people to have a fixed ethical/moral sense, and unshakeable commitment to something concrete.

Ave Maria for a week

I’m writing from a rocking chair in the Philadelphia airport, waiting for my phone to charge before heading into the city. Just getting back from a week in Ave Maria/Naples, where I was fortunate to meet, reconnect with, and speak with many good people.

It’s now been five years that I’ve been visiting Ave Maria, and the town seems to be developing nicely, overall. It’s growing in earnest—about 4,000 residents live there now, according to one long-time resident. Ave Maria University doesn’t seem to be growing in a substantial way, but it does seem to be more or less stable. It’s identity is evolving, though. A major drama a few years ago was dropping Latin as a requirement, and now a somewhat subterranean drama involves an attempt from the administration to do away with a focus on great literature in favor of a more technical focus on composition.

“If you want to be a great writer you’ve got to learn how to be a great reader.” These words aren’t the unique property of the high school English teacher whom I so vividly remember uttering them, but I think they resonated with me because they speak to the truth. I can’t imagine Ave Maria University will be better or more distinctive if it moves away from its great literature professors.

In any event, I was fortunate to spend the week there amidst work, meetings, planning, and very good friends and people I love.

(I took this photo from the beach in Naples when I arrived last Sunday.)

Prove that it’s not transactional

Kevin Horne, a friend of mine and soon to be Penn State Law graduate, recently spoke to the Penn State Trustees at their February meeting in his last address as president of the graduate students. Onward State recounts some of his remarks:

Kevin Horne (also an Onward State editor emeritus) spoke in his final address, as he is serving a second term as president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association.

“I spoke last year about Penn State’s 15th president Eric Walker, who often spoke about the concept of a university having two presidents, both himself and the student body president,” Horne said. “This is a time when Penn State student governments had offices, built and paid for the HUB on their own, and contributed a great deal to many things that continue to enrich Penn State student life today.”

Horne encouraged the Board not to lose sight of what made them fall in love with Penn State and want to serve the university in the first place. He explained Penn State should be more about the number of degrees earned each year of the ratio of students placed in jobs immediately after graduation.

“Students are not customers as some trustees or administrators refer to them, when we log into LionPATH and are forced to schedule courses by adding them to what is called a shopping cart,” Horne said. “The Penn State experience becomes more transactional and shallow, less special, and the spirit of our founders less vibrant. College must be more than just the acquisition of job skills or certification of courses passed.”

Horne quoted Provost Nick Jones, who said yesterday in a Board of Trustees committee meeting that Penn State is about the people here. Students are attracted to Penn State not by the building renovations that increase student tuition and fees, but rather by the faculty and other students inside the buildings.

“A former Penn State trustee wrote that the Penn State spirit is indestructible, but only if in a practical sense we allow it to come alive inside of us. If we can conceive of our place as something far beyond the role of students as customers, we have begun to answer that question,” Horne said. “It is on all of us here — students, trustees, administrators, everyone — and you as the Board, ultimate governing body to open your heart and cultivate a vision for the future of Penn State as vast and ambitious as that of our founders. Only then will we have met the challenge of the question what kind of University is Penn State. Only then will we honor what’s always made Penn State great.”

What is Kevin suggesting? Nothing less than a revolution in how Penn State’s leaders think about their roles—both the trustees as the strategic leadership, and the administration as the operational leadership.

What Kevin is stressing is that words really matter. No amount of lofty rhetoric from Penn State administrators can change the fact that every student encounters the language of commerce when registering for his or her courses: “Add course to my shopping cart.” This language impacts the perception of tens of thousands of young people in understanding what Penn State is, and for the worse.

Far more than updates on campus roofing and renovation plans, engaged trustees should be pressing administrators in good faith on how they will make every student feel less like a statistic within a grand system, and more like a person of infinite and distinct worth.

Kevin is one of the few voices speaking for what Penn State could be, rather than just regurgitating PR lines about what it presently is.

Knowing your story

Lewis Mumford said, “Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”

If this is true, then it means that we’ve got to ensure our families, and our sons and daughters, are equipped to know their grandfathers, and great grandmothers, and great great grandfathers, as much as possible.

What are we doing to make sure that happens? (It doesn’t matter if we have children now, or even plan on having any in the near future. The best way to create the future is to be prepared.) What are we doing to make our family history accessible? To make it resilient and ensure it survives any one family “keeper of the records”? What are we doing to make sure the young among us actually hear these stories from the living, and get a sense (from a lively storytelling!) of where they’ve come from?

If we want strong families, where some generations rebel against others even while maintaining a larger coherence as family, it starts with intentionally creating and conserving a family, like anything else.

I was fortunate to be born into one that just worked in these practical ways and more. I hope I can do the same for my children, in time.