Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tom Paine vs the Classics, Part II

Along with new weights and measures and a new calender, the French Revolution introduced new fashions, including short hair in the style of the ancient democrats of Greece and Rome. Neither Robespierre nor Paine cut their hair in the classical style, but many younger people did, for example Napoleon. Jacques-Louis David painted very popular pictures on Roman themes. Classicism remained evident in architecture and theatre. One wonders how far the taste for classical styles was bound up with the cultivation of classical languages, or, indeed, if many of the people who dressed and cut their hair in the new way were even aware that they were copying the Romans. Presumably many people, whatever the length of their hair or their aesthetic tastes, and whatever their politics, would have rejected out of hand Paine's assertion that all the useful books of antiquity had been translated, and that therefore learning Latin and Greek was a waste of time. One of course cannot blame the decline of classical education on Paine; this decline had begun before him and continued after him, it was a gradual slipping away from one kind of learning into another. I assume that a conscious rejection of classical studies comparable in vehemence to Paine's was and remains rather rare. Among those few dull people who have read with enthusiasm the whole of The Age of Reason -- I've only read the above-cited passage and a little more, and I'm convinced that I've had enough Paine to last me my whole life. One doesn't have to drink the whole ocean to know that it's salty. A little sip will do --among Paine's actual readers, the main interest of The Age of Reason presumably has to do much more with its Deist philosophy than with specific points like language.

Apparently Thomas Edison was an enthusiastic reader of Paine, and helped to re-popularize him a century after his death. Here is Edison on Paine:

"I have always regarded Paine as one of the greatest of all Americans. Never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic . . . It was my good fortune to encounter Thomas Paine's works in my boyhood . . . it was, indeed, a revelation to me to read that great thinker's views on political and theological subjects. Paine educated me, then, about many matters of which I had never before thought. I remember, very vividly, the flash of enlightenment that shone from Paine's writings, and I recall thinking, at that time, 'What a pity these works are not today the schoolbooks for all children!' My interest in Paine was not satisfied by my first reading of his works. I went back to them time and again, just as I have done since my boyhood days."

Paine and Edison each did a lot to improve the lot of their fellow man. It would be foolish to try to paint them in an entirely negative light. Still, I think that we have now and again had intelligences which were, in this respect or that, somewhat sounder. Let's take another example of an American widely regarded as a genius and a hero, Edison's close personal friend Henry Ford. On the one hand, for decades he paid extraordinarily high entry-level wages to his laborers, wages which changed many lives for the better and forced other companies to pay fairer wages, too; and he gave these high wages to many black employees at a time when it was quite unusual, and took some courage, to do so. On the other hand, he was an anti-semite and an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis. And he offered his famously high wages only to those of his employees who, as far as he was able to determine, led their lives in a manner of which he approved; he established a "Sociological Department" in the Ford corporation to spy upon his employees. And he opposed labor unions with especially brutal tactics.

It is not very far from Paine's "As there is now nothing new to be learned from the dead languages, all the useful books being already translated, the languages are become useless, and the time expended in teaching and in learning them is wasted." to Ford's "History is bunk." It certainly is bunk when studied and taught as Paine and Bryan and Edison and Ford did. The illiteracy in Latin and Greek which Paine advocated has as its result an inability to improve on the historical teachings of our predecessors whenever they relied on Latin or Greek texts, to correct their errors in translation, or to know that there may indeed be books in Latin or Greek which are useful and as yet untranslated. To say nothing of previously-lost texts in these languages, ancient and more recent, which are still being discovered now and then. (It makes my head hurt just to consider Paine's assertions for the very brief time it takes to refute them!) Ignorance of these two old, allegedly dead languages, and of Hebrew, allows such nonsense as "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," which Ford published in his Dearborn newspaper, to crop up relatively unchallenged. Such ignorance is in line with a reliance on the Bible as the ultimate source of truth -- as THE book, from the Greek "biblius," meaning "book," any book -- and the consequent will to attack any other line of thought which contradicts this ultimate source, just as Bryan did at the Scopes "monkey" trial. Furthermore, how well can you understand even one book if you only know that one book?

Naturally, not everyone can learn everything, and even the brightest human mind cannot understand every language. There may be or may sometime have been someone so blessed with understanding as to be truly fluent, not only in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but in Arabic and Chinese and Sanskrit and Persian, Japanese and and Mongolian and Georgian and Armenian, Nahuatl, Mayan languages, Coptic, Cherokee and Swahili as well. Even such a genius, however, would be ignorant of the foundations of many of the world's cultures. Fluency in Latin and Greek is certainly not to be confused with intellectual omnipotence. On the other hand, it's certainly not to be despised, as Paine clearly despises it. I have the strong suspicion that Paine himself was one of the schoolboys he describes, who are so cruelly tormented by the study of Greek. It seems fairly clear to me that if any effort was made to teach Paine Greek, it was in vain. Perhaps Paine had a point, when it came to the majority of schoolchildren: maybe it's wrong to force the ancient languages upon them. Maybe it's wrong to make most children go to school at all. There's so much effort expended these days just in repeating the mantra: "Stay in school," and so little reflection about the purpose of the entire educational system. As late as a century ago, only a small percentage of the population ever attended a university -- is it realistic to think that universities can do now for 60% percent of the US population what they so recently did for 3 or 4%? I think not. I don't want to turn back the clock, and re-introduce the social privileges and restrictions of a century ago. The problem with higher education back then was that it was almost exclusively for privileged, upper-class white men. And, as anyone can see by observing some past Presidents of the United States or certain chief executives of large corporations, being white, male and privileged is no guarantee of scholarly aptitude.

There are many prejudices of which we should disabuse ourselves. In the early stages of the French Revolution there was much talk of opening careers to to talent, and sometimes even more than just talk, but actual opportunity based on ability rather than social rank. This was a very good idea, and it corresponds to the very good idea here in the US, which unfortunately remains more often an idea than a reality, that everyone should have equal opportunities, in careers, and also for example in education. Much more should be done in offering equal opportunity, including improving the schools and the public libraries in poor areas.

There was also, however, a more radical attitude in the Revolution, which also lives on to this day, and which insists so utterly on equality that it denies differences in ability. This is not usually explicitly said, or probably even explicitly thought, but rather works on an unconscious level, resulting in demands which are anything but well-thought-out: Stop teaching Latin and Greek. Send everyone to college. This is a particularly complicated issue, having to do with traditional class distinctions, respect, contempt, and other factors which tend to be repressed, and which therefore express themselves the more incoherently and irrationally. Until a few centuries ago, in Western civilization, an elite made up of the aristocracy and a small group of other rich men controlled practically everything. The people in power were almost exclusively white, male, and Christian. This small elite group was also, with very few exceptions, the only segment of the population to be intensely schooled, and their education always included Latin and Greek. On rare occasions a woman would rise to power or be admitted to a university, or a Jew would be granted an aristocratic title. Apart from such rare exceptions, an exclusivity was rigidly maintained, based on preconceptions of gender and race which were clearly wrong. Just as wrong was the contempt for all the kinds of work which fell outside of the traditional education -- and the traditional education was very narrow indeed. Just as there were people from outside the traditional elite with an interest in and a talent for the traditional objects of study in the elite institutions, so there were white male aristocrats who would have been better at carpentry that at Latin, and much happier at it, if not for the traditional attitude that carpentry was beneath a man "of quality."

I suspect that Paine and Ford and other unreflective opponents of traditional education felt very keenly the contempt of the upper classes. They both worked their way up from very humble beginnings, and neither of them lost his identification with the poor, oppressed masses -- which is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is that their outlook did not expand as their power and privileges did. They did not become curious about the new culture to which they were exposed. Many people rise in social status, and then do their best to wipe out all traces of their humble origins, working with tremendous effort to change their speech, dress, habits and manners so as to blend in with others of the upper classes, if not to appear more aristocratic than any actual aristocrat. Others are very open about their past, and, while they appreciate what their new surroundings and new acquaintances have to teach them, they also continue to struggle on behalf of poor people, as they struggled to overcome their own poverty. These lucky few people are significantly free of class prejudice; having belonged to different classes personally, they can see the good in different ways of life: for example, the riches of the traditional classical education, of which the masses, unfortunately, have always been relatively ignorant; and the skill and knowledge and wit required by all forms of manual labor, of which the upper classes traditionally have been rather ignorant, and have usually quite drastically underestimated and under-appreciated. There is blindness on both sides, and it still today is nowhere near disappearing: the contempt of laborers for all sorts of cultural achievement which they do not in the least understand; and conversely the contempt of the rich for the labor of those people without whom they would be much less comfortable, labor which tends to be much more difficult, and interesting, than they assume. There are exceptions, of course: mechanics who read Vergiland Ovid,perhaps even a few who read them untranslated; and multimillionaires who can align their cars' wheels and fix their own furnaces -- but they remain exceptions.

Paine saw everywhere around him, and all the more so as he rose to ever-greater power and prominence, wealthy, privileged people who benefited from the labor of the masses without ever remotely appreciating that labor, or even acknowledging that there was any sort of skill or intelligence involved in it. He was right to condemn that ignorance. He was wrong, however, to remain ignorant of the traditional intellectual preserves of the upper classes, and to remain hostile to the classics. He himself never learned much from the classics, this much is clear. It's very unfortunate that he concluded that there was nothing there to be learned, and all the more so that such sheer ignorance is displayed in the work of such a popular and influential author.

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