Further Mutterings on the More Succinct & Sound Remarks by Jonathan & David

Knowing history is an important part of being educated, not only because it’s good to honor the people who came before us, and who built the world that we take for granted, but also because if we don’t know what people did in the past we will needlessly repeat many of their mistakes. This is as true on an individual level as it is in geopolitics. We forget it at our peril, and too many people have forgotten it. Jonathan

Honoring is thanking, respecting, learning from. This is something that takes us a while to understand. Some find it hard to see Hamlet as a tragic hero – he’s too self-absorbed, too cynical, too indecisive, too – well, too non-heroic. He doesn’t do great deeds, he is more worried about his father’s ghost than he is about the kingdom his father ruled. That diminishes heroism. He’s the adolescent tragic hero. Well, we’ve got plenty of them.

Some day, people may look back on our time as that of “The Adolescent.” (I hope it ended with a new period so harshly entered on 9/11 but I fear it may not.) David Foster’s “temporal bigotry” comes from a lack of sympathy & imagination as well as history. Most of all, it comes from hubris. But it is not an Olympian hubris; rather it is that of a teen-ager in the throes of first love, unsure of his own dignity and self, angered by the demands of classes and work he finds demeaning. He complains the world is not sufficiently accommodating, voices the petty doubts of the village atheist and classroom cynic.

Adolescents always think they are outside history – no one ever loved as they did, understood the world as they do, saw through the pretensions of their elders as they do. (Think The Graduate which moved many of my generation.) Their elders, who know history from tradition & books but also from the experience in their bones, smile indulgently. Yes, you think the world began again with you, they sigh. So did I, once, they say.

But something happened to my generation – perhaps it was its size. But far too many still believe they stand outside history. They comment on the world as if from a vantage point that owed nothing to those who came before. The Marxists thought they could define the world anew – human nature could be hammered into a hero of a new Utopia. All was social construct. Ignoring the tens of millions that died for that peculiar delusion, its assumptions can still be heard over dinners on the academic circuit where graying & soft-bodied professors posit it as if it were new, revolutionary, daring (those same people who would fight for tenure and little else).

At some point, the pretensions of post-modernism would seem to have failed. It is spun from air and hangs in the air. It has no sense of the universality of human nature, the heroism of history, the beauty of literature. But in academic circles the same inane observations remain standard.

And under all is hubris:
1) In the unwillingness to learn history – to master the dates, the events, the worlds of other times that led to ours. The sense of great figures who did great deeds – and the pattern of those great deeds that might well help us model our own lives, understand & sympathize more broadly – is gone. The motives of all (save the interpreter) suspect. (A particular example of which was Michael A. Bellesiles’ Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.)
2) In the unwillingness to read literature as infinitely great works of art telling us much about human nature, life, reality but rather as cultural artifacts to be condescended to and treated with irony.
3) In the unwillingness to assume that human nature is more robust and more interesting (and sometimes more transcendent) than that of a culturally determined being.
4) In the unwillingness to understand that those who take responsibility in this world merit more sympathy and understanding than those who don’t, even if consequences may well be laid at their feet. (Monday morning quarterbacking may be useful analytically but should be done with modesty.)
5) In the unwillingness to accept that anything – God, history, the baby in a womb – is more important than the unfettered self.

The point I was trying to make in two earlier posts – on Zoch & on Lemon – were that hubris gets in the way of learning; of course, it also denies the infinite pleasure of leaving one’s self and entering a work of art or a great discipline, like Latin. Such immersion leaves us wiser about other periods and our selves as well. Lemon aggregated the great critics before him, thus signaling perhaps the end of that era of the great, close readings. But in that era the critic began with respect for and humility before a work of art; this dedication arose not from a desire to enlarge the critic but the work itself. (Lemon describes his task as making intelligible a poem’s beauty & power.)

Discuss this post at the Chicago Boyz Forum.

8 thoughts on “Further Mutterings on the More Succinct & Sound Remarks by Jonathan & David”

  1. “unwillingness to understand that those who take responsibility in this world merit more sympathy and understanding than those who don’t”..I think one of the main divisions in society today is between “line” people and “staff” people: those who are actually responsible for getting things done, and those who analyze and critique, but don’t decide.

    It seems like the proportion of jobs falling in the latter category is increasing. Also, I have the sense that most people of college age and slightly beyond tend to view the “staff” occupations as higher-status than the “line” occupations: in the private sector, they’d rather consult with GM about its acquisition (or divestiture) strategy than run an assembly plant or a sales region. In government, they’d rather write a paper for the FAA on “Factors influencing air traffic control in 2020” than run the Atlanta Tower.

    And those whose careers are spent entirely in staff positions rarely have much understanding or empathy for those who must make decisions under time pressure and with incomplete information.

  2. Yes. I made many bad decisions in my business, but I had to pay the consequences. So I’m quite impatient with academics who whine about their salaries or complain about the administration, having never had to balance a budget or make plans for a future that proved different than anyone had (or perhaps even could have) predicted. (Explains but doesn’t excuse my snark.)

    I think parents want their kids to major in “business” to shelter them. “Business” is a vague term covering skills they don’t understand but which, they believe, would have made their own entrepreneurial venture more secure. All the business classes in the world won’t affect a home construction business as much as mortgage rates.

  3. I would add (a la Sokal and Gross and Levitt), that an inability or unwillingness to understand mathematical science and its explanitory power makes post-modernism the greatest repository for magical thinking in the modern era.

    Magical thinking begets slogans such as “no blood for oil”. What? Do these people realize how much human suffering – including human suffering in the Middle East – has been alleviated by the technology based on petrolium? That the feedstocks for our drugs, our plastics, the energy that fuels the entire modern life are based on oil? That it is worth fighting for? No, they think that this stuff just magically appeared, and they think that their lives would be as magically nice as they are now if we all gave up technology and lived a more primitve lifestyle. I’d like to take all those people and subject them to 19th century dentistry just once.

    I think Heinlein pretty much summed up my feelings about education:

    “The three-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics. Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn. But if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots.”

    There’s a lot of dung in the “Studies” departments of academia all right.

  4. Well, Ginny, at least this is not (quite) as bad as the case of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. He represented Harlem from the 40’s through 1970. He was so corrupt that the overwhelmingly Democrat House finally refused to seat him after he was reelected the last time. He ran in the special election to fill the vacancy, and he won it. The Supreme Court ruled he had to be seated. In the 1970 Democrat primary Charlie Rangel beat him, and, of course, Rangel has been reelected ever since.

  5. What does the phrase “village atheist” mean? Is it an implicit contrast with “sophisticated big-city atheist” or does it have some broader meaning? Just curious.


  6. Narr,
    That’s what I get for throwing out cliches I haven’t always thought through. Here, however, I believe it does fit – its adolescent sneer and skepticism.

    First three googles:
    Skepticwiki uses an illustrative example from Moira Breen, someone acquainted with Chicagoboyz:

    I detest the puerile effusions of all village atheists. “Me so smart! Believers so dumb! Me so brave! Believers moral cowards needing crutches!” Well, I’d say you a leetle bit smarter than the fathead fundies who apparently inhabit the intellectual stratum into which your natural gifts have delivered you, is my usual mental response.—Moira Breen, an atheist herself, in a blog entry on the ex-blog inappropriate response.

    Another google finds the “Village Atheist Syndrome” definition.

    And finally that useful chronicler of turn of the century American small town life, Edgar Lee Masters, includes “The Village Atheist” in his Spoon River Anthology.

    And, thank you Narr – you poked me to be a bit embarrassed at throwing out a cliche and you also poked me to learn more. I appreciate readers like you.

  7. What does the phrase “village atheist” mean? Is it an implicit contrast with “sophisticated big-city atheist” or does it have some broader meaning? Just curious.


    Narr, just in case you’re not familiar with it: An old (I have no proof but wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t go back to 16th or 17th century England) apellation one might give to a buffon is “the village idiot”. “Village atheist” no doubt plays on this.

  8. Thanks for the response, Ginny, and also whoever posted after her. I have seen the term many times and understood it to be on the negative side, but had never had a clear idea of exactly what it signified. (In the interests of full disclosure, I am one myself–atheist, that is–
    but I leave to others the job of hitching modifiers and descriptors to the plain term
    according to their own lights.)

    Narr (who usually just surfs and lurks)

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