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.

Recentering our politics

J.D. Vance on our politics:

“We need a better leadership class to set the tone for the discussion,” Vance tells TAC. “The most depressing part of the 2016 election is that the candidates often failed to show any cultural leadership: any recognition that the world of public policy was important but hardly the only good and necessary part of our shared society. They don’t talk about the church, about local community organizations, about businesses as anything more than providers of jobs.

“We’re very good at talking about the individual in American politics, and excellent at talking about the government,” he continues. “But we have little ability to even acknowledge everything that exists in the middle, and given how influential politics is on every other part of our life, I think that failure of discourse is pretty corrosive to our overall culture.”

The stakes are very high now. Vance expects the Rust Belt working-class vote to be up for grabs for the next few political cycles, with struggling blue-collar voters siding with whichever candidate, Republican or Democrat, promises the greatest change. This is a prescription for instability.

JFK is cited way too often as an example of a president appealing to the “common good” ethic of Americans to “ask what you can do for your country” rather than what it’s government can do for you. But he’s cited for a reason: he captured the spirit of that essential attitude of communal life and service pitch perfectly.

We don’t need more Americans who make a god of personal autonomy unshackled from any related ideas of relationship to their neighbors, responsibility to their communities, or reverence toward their nation. We need Americans with a sense of the “common good” again, and that starts by stopping to consider others.

The Young Pope

I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope recently. Matthew Schmitz writes beautifully in First Things on the 10-episode show, explaining that it “depicts a Church that no longer seeks the favor of the world—and is all the more fabulous for it.” Tyler Blanksi also has a great reflection on the show:

Today, Church teachings about sexuality are perceived to be retrograde. Yet the opening scene (which turns out to be only a dream) illustrates just how absurd it would be to hear the vicar of Christ say something like, “We have forgotten to masturbate, to use contraceptives, to get abortions, to celebrate gay marriages, to allow priests to love each other and even to get married, to divorce, to be happy.” Whether or not it was Sorrentino’s intention, just hearing a pope say what everyone thinks they want him to say seems to expose just how wrong it would be for him to say it.

The juxtaposition of opposites—the unexpected love for those in Catholic power combined with outrage when they commit grievous sins, the surprising delight in liturgical beauty mixed with horror at the extravagance, the way you can’t pin a single person down as either a sinner or a saint—combine in such a way that leaves us wondering, What is the Catholic Church, really?

Let me present some personal context for why I liked this show:

We’re living in a world where top Jesuits are flirting with turning Catholicism protestant in the most fundamental ways—changing the meaning of Christ’s words to fit their particular social agenda on the idea of the Eucharist as a cure-all for sin and reconsidering the covenant of marriage. No doubt there are other sympathizers, but the Jesuits are the worst in this and have shredded what trust I’ve had in them due to recent comments by Arturo Sosa Abascal, their Superior General. In short, there are some who are promoting the idea that, in the name of “accompaniment,” the totems of individual conscience and discernment can be used as a means to alter the church’s doctrine. Since “doctrine” simply describes the practice of the bishops in preserving Christ’s teachings, what Jesuits like Abascal are advocating appears to my lay mind to be heresy.

In the series, Jude Law plays Pope Pius XIII. He declares in his first homily to the cardinals: “I have no idea what to do with the friendship of the whole wide world. What I want is absolute love and total devotion to God.”

They’re a call from a man who, even as pope, we see struggle with belief and unbelief, and who is as conflicted about God and his ability to do what is expected of him as anyone. Over the course of the show, we see him mature and we see the ways in which his rigidity is transformed into a healthy balance of mercy and justice.

This is what a pope exists to do: be the vicar of the Christ we know.

Chris Buchignani’s ‘State of State’ talk

Ever wondered why Happy Valley has its name? Why the spirit of Penn Staters is so ubiquitous and recognizable? How a relatively isolated part of Pennsylvania became home to one of the nation’s great universities?

Chris Buchignani delivered a talk at Penn State at last month’s “State of State” conference that answers these questions and more.

My favorite part of Chris’s deck was this slide, portraying the typical student’s sense of “Happy Valley” unless/until they become aquainted with the larger region by forming a relationship with someone who cares about them, their experience of place, and their future.

This would be a great poster.

Free-born minds

A few years ago I wrote at National Review about the idea of “the free-born mind,” as C.S. Lewis presented it in The Abolition of Man. He writes on the repercussions for a culture that has decoupled the civic and moral aspects of its shared identity into separate and competing arenas.

What results? Cultural schizophrenia, where the warden-caretaker becomes the master:

As a result of the theory of sovereignty, [which holds that the state can make right and wrong by sheer act of will] Lewis observed, “Rulers have become owners.” He added: “We are less their subject than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.” As the state offers us less and less protection, “at the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.”

Despite all the talk of education reform of all varieties and degrees in America, a still surprising amount of the conversation is focused on the tactical rather than strategic. Too much talk about iPads and whiteboards. Too much focus on whether Wikipedia might be a legitimate learning tool.

On the strategic end, I’m suggesting a more sustained conversation on our first principles, on answering questions like:

  • Who do we want our children to grow up understanding themselves to be?
  • What historical narrative and flow can we help them to discover and join?
  • Should we equip students with a love of the Greek tradition and its heroes?
  • Do we any longer care about the idea of our Constitutional history?

These are questions often either laughed at or utterly ignored, so the implied answer seems to be: No, to hell with all that.

Anyway, continuing with Lewis, perhaps my favorite excerpt:

“I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the free-born mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

Wonderfully vivid: a citizen snapping his fingers at ideology and pretense.

Whether the specific “strategic” type questions I posed above really matter or not can be debated. What I’m really trying to get at is answering how a culture (through education) can transmit a coherent a narrative about itself and the world to the young. This is the age-old question.

In November 2011 I did an on-air radio recitation from Joe Paterno’s 1989 autobiography Paterno: By the Book in which he talks about Virgil’s Aeneas and how his reading of it (in Latin) shaped his entire life and approach to coaching college football:


“Once a person has experienced a genuine masterpiece,” writes Paterno in reflecting on the Aeneas, “the size and scope of it last as a memory forever.”

Ben Novak joined me on the broadcast, explaining Paterno’s reflection:

That was once the meaning of a college education, to have that experience that lasted forever. Joab Thomas gave a talk to the Board of Trustees [of Penn State] in the early 1990s pointing out that almost every one of our curricula (science and business and so forth) had their maximum value upon graduation to get your first job, and they declined in value every year after that as what they learned became obsolete. Everything was moving so fast in business and science and engineering that almost everything you learned was obsolete five years after you graduated! What Joe was pointing out in the original idea of an education, to experience the masterpieces in college, was that those experiences grow in value with every year of your life.

Cultural masterpieces like the works of the Greeks, or the Constitution and the whole constellation of history and principles that inform it, are sufficiently far removed from the present and sufficiently time-proven that they represent a means to approach reforming a coherent narrative.

They represent excellent things, enriching things that elevate a person beyond his particular milieu and can help him know when the time has come to “snap his fingers” at meddlers and ideologies alike.

Catholic identity on campus

Jason King shares some great insight on Catholic identity on campus. He describes three different types of Catholic culture:

On campuses characterized by students as very Catholic: Eighty percent of students identify as Catholic; three classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated every day of the week; few if any residence halls are co-ed; and strict limits are placed on co-ed visitation.

On campuses characterized by students as mostly Catholic: Seventy-five percent of students identify as Catholic; two classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated most days of the week; most residence halls are co-ed; and some limits are placed on co-ed visitation.

On campuses characterized by students as somewhat Catholic: Sixty-eight percent of students identify as Catholic; one class is required in theology; Mass is celebrated on Sundays; all residence halls are co-ed; and minimal limits are place on co-ed visitation.

What does any of this mean for the sort of outcomes that different Catholic institutions will tend to produce amongst their people?

On very Catholic campuses, less than 30 percent of students hook up. Given that very Catholic campuses have such low rates of hooking up, one would expect somewhat Catholic campuses to have the highest rates of hooking up. They do not. Less than half of the students on these campuses—45 percent—hook up. While this rate is higher than that on very Catholic campuses, it is lower than that on mostly Catholic campuses, where 55 percent of students hook up. Thus, mostly Catholic campuses have the most hooking up, very Catholic campuses have the least, and somewhat Catholic campuses are in the middle.

You’d think that there’s not much of a difference between “very” Catholic and “mostly” Catholic, but there is. These strange, apparently complicated results don’t strike me as strange at all. 

It’s like the difference between a “very” serious athlete and a “mostly” serious athlete. On the one hand, you can look at both and say, “Well, they’re both NFL players.” But the “very” serious athlete is always going to have the better chance of becoming a Hall of Famer. The “mostly” serious athlete, after all is said and done, is just as likely to end up as forgotten a player as the “somewhat” serious athletes who are conscious enough of their weaknesses that they consciously try to compete at a higher level.

If nothing else, it’s a lesson that there’s no downside to going all in. If you’re going to be Catholic, then be Catholic.