Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education
by Jeffrey Hart
Yale. 261 pp. $26.95
Several months ago, the New York Times cultural correspondent Emily Eakin wrote a piece for her newspaper’s education supplement describing her own fairly recent college career. Although she majored in literature at a seemingly prominent (but unnamed) university, she graduated, she tells us proudly, “without having read for credit the Odyssey, Paradise Lost, a single play by Shakespeare, or a single novel by Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Henry James.” Instead, she “was breaking new ground” by taking courses like “Feminist Literary Criticism” and “Women and the Avant-Garde,” and by reading critics like Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, novelists like Thomas Pynchon, and Les Guérrillères, which she identifies as “a lyrical fantasy about a society without men by the French radical lesbian Monique Wittig.”
This advertisement for the higher ignorance was notable mostly for its candor. Usually, proponents of current academic trends like to insist (against all evidence) that the classic works are holding their own even as newer and usually inferior tides crowd into the curriculum in response to the demands of political correctness and America’s new “diversity.” But the steady, decades-long assault on the cultural heritage of Western civilization has also had one interesting countereffect: a few true stalwarts of traditional education have been roused to set down, often in personal terms, their own understanding and appreciation of the culture under attack. Recent examples include Alvin Kernan’s intellectual memoir, In Plato’s Cave (1999) and Jacques Barzun’s comprehensive history, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000).
Now Jeffrey Hart has come forth with this lively and highly enjoyable sojourn through some of the greatest of the Great Books. Centered on texts that Hart first read decades ago as an undergraduate at Columbia and then taught many times over in his long career as a professor at Dartmouth, this book is ideal sustenance for anyone who, unlike the cultural correspondent of the Times, is wise enough to know that he does not know.
In the first part of the book, “The Grand Narrative,” Hart traces a dichotomy that he sees at the very base of Western culture, and that he sums up in the twin names of Athens and Jerusalem. Athens, in Hart’s formulation, represents that aspiration to truth through reason which found its first sustained expression among the Greeks; Jerusalem, that aspiration to holiness through adherence to revelation which is embodied in Scripture. These two approaches, writes Hart (following the philosopher Leo Strauss), are never to be reconciled, but also never to be divorced, for Western man knows too much to be a skeptic and too little to be an absolutist. Behind them, indeed, lies the assumption of a single truth to which each in its own way aspires. The dialectical tension between them is what has given rise, finally, to the vigorous and purposeful freedom of thought that has uniquely shaped our culture.
It is in line with these insights that Hart points us, for example, to the (dialectical) relation between the Homeric epics and the Bible, even going so far as to characterize the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as a “Mosead.” As the Iliad crystallizes in the hero Achilles the code of warrior virtues prized by the archaic Hellenic civilization, out of which emerged the Athens of the philosophers, so the story of Moses, “another Bronze Age hero,” advances a code of disciplined behavior under a stringent monotheism. In time, both Socrates and Jesus would avail themselves of these ancient templates of their respective traditions, fashioning them into new standards of aspiration and conduct, disparate but also linked.
In “Explorations,” the second part of his book, Hart looks at later developments of this two-headed tradition, offering spirited interpretations of Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Moliére, Voltaire, Dostoevsky, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Throughout, he gives just enough background to help the reader situate the major figures historically, while concentrating primarily on the artistry of the books and the content of their thought.
Taken together, Hart’s chapters form an excellent syllabus for a one-year introduction to the Great Books. The immediacy of the classroom crackles in his often dramatic presentation—and so, too, it must be added, does the classroom teacher’s occasional lapse into idiosyncrasy or mere assertion. Hart’s emphasis on the interlocking qualities of his two traditions can obscure important differences: Achilles has struck more than one reader not just as a paradigm of the heroic but as a half-mad semi-savage, whereas Moses, despite his flaws, is truly exemplary. But this just means that, like any great teacher, Hart engages us in his ideas and prompts us to articulate our own.
Above all, what Hart reminds us of is the wondrous versatility of the great works, their refusal to yield to schemes of any kind, his own included. Consider, in this connection, his analysis of Hamlet. To Hart, the relentlessly thoughtful Prince of Denmark embodies the expansive Renaissance tendency to entertain “various and often incompatible ways of looking at the world,” a quality that in the conclusion to this book Hart terms “disinterestedness.” True enough; but, in puzzling endlessly over his own motives and their possible adverse consequences were he to act upon them, the poor prince fails to do anything to resolve his awful dilemma. In this sense, to adopt Hart’s terminology, Hamlet’s internal situation may be taken as pointing to a certain paralysis caused, precisely, by the unresolved tension between Athens and Jerusalem. Hart does try to suggest possible solutions to Hamlet’s plight, but might not a Hamlet less pensive, more simple-mindedly or absolutely devoted to the good of Denmark, have averted tragedy altogether?
The point is of more than literary interest. For Hart, “disinterestedness” is fundamental to Western thought (“absolutely fundamental,” he says). But he is also frank enough to acknowledge that, in going “beyond [considerations of] tribe and nation, beyond personal attachment,” this same disinterestedness might “conceivably be inimical to survival in a Darwinian sense.”
One sees all too readily what he means. For in this sublime disinterestedness, we in our day can all too readily recognize the debilitating lineaments of relativism and nonjudgmentalism, doctrines that in Hart’s own world of the university have permitted a takeover of the liberal arts by the anti-liberal theories of postmodernism, driving out both freedom of thought and (witness the Times’s cultural correspondent) respect for the very tradition on which that freedom is based. The part these doctrines have played outside the confines of the university, drawing many Americans into deprecating their own way of life, and America itself into lowering its defenses, cultural and otherwise, is deeply unsettling to contemplate.
Such, at any rate, are a few of the darker thoughts, along with all the lightsome ones, to which this sprightly and engaging book gives rise.