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.

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.

Castes v. mobility

I want to share some excerpts from R.W. Grant’s The Incredible Bread Machine, a “study of Capitalism, Freedom, and the State” published in the 1970s:

Every enterprise imaginable — dry cleaning, trucking, beauty parlor, grocery store, and on and on — is today under the thumb of the politician. ….

For those who already have capital, experience and education, the numberless “barriers to entry” erected by the state [ie – licensing, regulatory requirements] can be overcome, but to the under-capitalized poor, often with little experience and scant education, these barriers are virtually insurmountable. The illegal immigrant selling oranges at the off-ramp of the Los Angeles freeway is a truer capitalist than those businessmen who are constantly running to government for this-or-that favor or restriction.

Regulation is a necessary evil, but onerous or punitive regulation is a genuine evil in that it distorts natural relations and market activity, typically to the greatest detriment of the “under-capitalized poor.”

[T]he barriers are more complex today than they were then. For example, suppose a person in a poor area saw the need for a low-cost barber shop. One might suppose that with a few hours practice, a $15 set of clippers, a chair and a willing customer, he could go into business. Then, if her were industrious, and were truly able to provide a service of value to his neighbors, he would prosper. Perhaps one day he could open a bigger shop and hire two of his relatives. That is the way things are supposed to be in a “land of opportunity.” But that is not the way things are. In California, this is what the law says he must do.

The first step for an aspiring barber is a barber’s license granted by the state Board of Barber Examiners. But this requires either two years as an apprentice working for someone else or 1500 hours (!) at a state-licensed barber school at a cost upwards of $3,500. … Then, it costs $50 to register for the state test. And then, if the test is passed, there’s another $50 for the two-year state license. But there’s still more, for the new shop must now be inspected and approved by the Board — for another $50. Then, a city business license ($106.43 in Los Angeles). …

Now, assuming he were still in business, suppose the new proprietor hires an assistant. Deductions, contributions and fees must be accurately computed and paid. Just for starters there’s Worker’s Compensation and unemployment insurance (around 1.3% of the first $7,000 in wages) paid for by the employer. Then, in California there’s something called the Employee Training Tax, 0.1% of the first $7,000. Then there is a Federal Unemployment Tax, $56 per year per employee.

Now come the payroll deductions. State Disability Insurance (SDI) is 15% of the first $31,767 in wages. Then there’s State Withholding Tax (variable). Then come the federal calculations which include Withholding plus Social Security/Medicare (7.65% matched by the employer).

The paperwork for all this represents a severe burden even to people with a fair degree of schooling; to the person with only a meager education and perhaps only a scant familiarity with the mysteries of bookkeeping, these artificial barriers to business survival are simply overwhelming. But there is still more: most states enforce — or try to enforce — minimum price schedules. But a poverty area shop forced to charge these inflated rates would go out of business in a week!

The decision a few years ago to give the FDA power to regulate tobacco demonstrates the way in which regulation can be used to insulate existing interests from competition. Who came out on top in that case? Marlboro. Flush with cash, and with an army of lobbyists, they successfully convinced the FDA to ban flavored tobacco cigarettes on the grounds that they appealed to children. Okay…

A big maker of flavored cigarettes (a competitor) was Djarum, an Indonesian company that was effectively eliminated from the U.S. market by that protectionist regulation.

And most interestingly, Marlboro’s menthol flavored cigarettes were exempted from the flavored tobacco ban. Critics have dubbed this change in law the “Marlboro Monopoly Act of 2009.” (Black Americans are a large percent of menthol sales, and a ban including menthols would have dealt a heavy blow to Marlboro’s market share.)

It seems as if bureaucracy and regulators function well when promoting a principle, but often stumble when enforcing specific policies.

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.

‘You can’t love something you don’t know’

David McCullough, Pennsylvanian and historian, wrote a few years ago:

“People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively,” Mr. McCullough argues. “Because they’re often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing.” The great teachers love what they’re teaching, he says, and “you can’t love something you don’t know anymore than you can love someone you don’t know.”

Where are we now? Teachers majoring in “education” (theory), then graduating and becoming the head of a fifth grade classroom—all with no particular depth in any of the subjects to be taught. That’s a problem, isn’t it?

I don’t think passion can be taught. I think it flows out of us naturally; it’s like energy. A teacher either has zeal, or a teacher doesn’t have zeal. She either knows her stuff, or she doesn’t. And a third grader will know. It’s instinctively obvious to any child when an adult is in her element, in charge, not to be messed with, to be paid attention to, to hang on every word, to respect.

But that’s where we are today. We’re all being taught to be generalists in a world that’s rewarding specialists. Anyone can know a little about a lot. Few can really walk you through much with depth, and with ease.

Teacher 1: “The Battle of Stalingrad was the bloodiest on the eastern front. X happened, then Y happened. Some say this about it, others say that.”

But what was life like for the German soldier, huddling at night amidst mortar and chaos and an anonymous death?

Teacher 2: “Let me tell you how this soldier’s death in Russia broke his family in Munich, and about the life of his son growing up fatherless in the fringes of the Iron Curtain after being raised to believe Hitler was a savior.”

We don’t get “Teacher 2” when we let our schools be dictated to by Middle States and other accrediting agencies.They require schools to hire only certified teachers. And a certification program isn’t typically something a real historian, or a real businessman, or a real science lover either gains real knowledge from or has time for.

So we get Teacher 1, and a world where many teachers deserve provide as much information (or less) than what’s found on Wikipedia, etc. In the society we’ve built, too many teaching positions should be automated.

But the conversation really shouldn’t be about online learning or automation. It should be about asking whether our teachers are in love with what they’re teaching.

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.

Where did fake news come from?

I wrote the following in September 2012, and am sharing it in light of the “fake news” controversies of the moment:

I believe the news and most of television has become poisonous to our culture. Our parents grew up in the fading days when Cronkite was the embodiment of news, and when “straight reporting” was almost never laced with opinion. Functionally, not ever in the public consciousness. There was news, and then there were others on other shows who might comment on the news.

We don’t even pretend what we’re doing today is lacing the “news” with “perspective” — we know it’s all just spin.

Let me explain. I watched Mitt Romney’s convention speech last night. He delivered a fine speech, of the type that for much of it made me proud to be an American because he spoke to some of the best qualities of what we try to be as a people. I expect Obama will make me similarly proud for much of his own convention speech. They’re speeches. They’re trying to explain themselves to us in a way that makes sense. It makes sense that we should feel proud about our country and our electoral process when we hear them.

And within seconds of the speech ending, whatever network we’re seeing them on springs into action. What surprised you in this speech tonight? Where did he succeed in connecting with undecideds? Where did he fail? How much will this move the needle? And on, and on, and on. And on.

We might watch a quarter hour of either soaring or grounded rhetoric. We might be feeling like we’re right to think brightly about ourselves, and our future. And within maybe two minutes we’re being brought low. We’re dragged along through the cliquishness of contemporary news; the clucking-hen culture that wants to talk about what the talk will be about, and wants to think about what the thought will be about. It’s all become so meta as to become unreal.

I remember reading in one of Peggy Noonan’s books years ago (I think it was in What I Saw at the Revolution) where she spoke about a marked change she witnessed in America between the 1980 and 1984 elections. The questions reporters asked were the same: What do you think of the candidate? Will you vote for him? What don’t you like? etc. In 1980 many of the answers were straightforward: I like him; my family’s always been Democrat; I wish he was stronger on X policy. By 1984 the answers had become echoes. Americans were now answering by saying things like, “Well I saw CNN said X about him, and the New York Times said Y,” or “He’s five points behind in the polls so people don’t think he can win here.”

Americans went from citizens with opinions to third-rate news commentators, sharing what they had come to understand as the prevailing opinion of the moment over any particular opinion of their own. More “this is how I’ve heard things are playing out” than “this is what I think.”

And who did this to these people? Noonan doesn’t say, but I think that the news media created these conditions. It’s alright to feel good about things without having them so analyzed as to have the effect that we watch a speech we liked and that elevated us and yet end up leaving the room more cynical and sour than we entered it thanks to the “news” commentary that ran before, after, and sometimes during its delivery.

Everyone will have an opinion. The one thing that once set journalists apart is they were people who wouldn’t have opinions. I said in the beginning that I think news has become a poisonous force because I believe it’s not so often simply informing viewers as damaging our ability to think, because we now have to think about what we’re thinking about.

The cocktail parties are where journalists once had opinions, not the primetime slot. In elevating themselves they’ve abused the public trust. They’ve corroded their profession.

Americans will be asking themselves some form of “What are we all doing here?,” more than ever.