On the culture

The Greeks, as I once learned through Leo Strauss, had a wonderful word for vulgarity. They called it apeirokalia — that is, a lack of experience in beautiful things. At the heart of liberal education (“liberal” in the pre-modern sense), is a project to rescue men from this condition. It gives them the experience they need, among beautiful things. It puts them in contact with the finest minds, the finest works, this world has to offer. As Strauss said, this is to make them humble, & to make them bold. Humble: to discover their place in an intellectual order, among minds more learned & wiser than their own. Bold: to break with “the noise, the rush, the thoughtlessness, the cheapness of the Vanity Fair.”

What we have today, in the governing heights of Western society, is not liberal education. Rather it is the Vanity Fair of the intellectuals — the class, the herd, the swine in many ways, who have come to dominate the intellectual trades. In academia, in media, in law, in bureaucracy, in religion (broadly considered to include “secular humanism”), we have people who are credentialled, to be sure, but who have not been educated. In particular, the education they have not received is liberal education, which requires nearly the polar opposite of the kind of training they have successfully endured.

Liberal education is not specialized. The word “university” once conveyed this. It had many faculties, but was in that sense alone multifarious. It was an aggregation of teachers & scholars gathered in one place, to consider matters “in the whole.” It offered training in many disciplines, but to a common end.

Well, who am I to judge? “I have a Grade X education,” as I was explaining to a gentleman the other day, by way of excusing myself from an opinion on some monsterpiece of advanced “textual criticism” by an academic star, which he proposed to study as a project in self-improvement. “I can hardly read & write. You have a Doctorate in Philosophy, I’m sure it will make sense to you.”

He could not imagine I had read the book. He was, I assume, assuming I had seen the reviews. That is how most of us form our opinions, having delegated the homework to the specialists.

Pressed on the matter, I recalled the moment of vivid clarity I had experienced at the age of sixteen, when I suddenly decided to leave High School. It was like an impulse to leap off a train, upon realizing where it was going. Somehow I grasped, perhaps through older friends, that it was taking me to a University, to a modern one — to a kind of cemetery for the philosophical mind; to a place where the love of wisdom had been replaced with the demands of industry; to an institution in which everything I myself loved would become desiccated & tedious. Somehow I saw that the humanities had been “professionalized,” that the adepts of the ancillary disciplines had taken over. The brain had rebelled & deposed the heart; mind had itself been displaced by a revolutionary committee of sparky little neurons.

This wasn’t a Left/Right thing, incidentally. I was anyway much more “liberal” in those days (in the modern sense). Rather, the technocrats had removed the thinkers. This must have moral & political consequences; shallowness always does. No doubt it all began with a suggestion from the Devil; but I’m sure the pioneers of modern higher education were well-meaning people, who considered themselves perfectly humane. (They were, as I understand, the people who pioneered modern textual criticism of the Bible, in Protestant England then Protestant Germany, from the later 17th century forward; their sceptical techniques spreading incrementally through other fields, making each in turn ever more specialized & self-referential.)

In the olden time — to which I was already semi-consciously adhering — the introduction to a classical work might tell you what it was about, who wrote it, when & why; things of this nature. That the book was written at some time, by someone, & had been preserved in some apparent even if fragmentary order, might go without saying. After all, men had loved it, & gone to the trouble of copying & re-copying, time out of mind. This in itself showed it must be worth visiting. The teacher’s job was to focus the excitement; to show a way in.

In the modern time, the introduction begins with the textual history. What the book is & why one should read it is the afterthought. It is the part that is taken for granted, for the scholars are working assiduously on the text. This is an enterprise like coal mining, in diminishing seams. Advancement comes of scraping lignite off the walls, in ever smaller chips with ever greater precision. Then, as we arrive at “literary theory,” polishing the nothing that remains.

This, anyway, was my juvenile rebellion: “You are not going to send me down that mine!” My general idea was to read instead, from love of learning; to travel & find what professors I could on the open road. Yes, there were some left, & they always took me in. I had only to write to an impressive teacher, & he would immediately agree to see me. I never suffered from lack of teachers; though I could have done better on the point of discipline & self-organization, for I have always been a reckless lover.

Here is the motto I discovered near the front of a book that my high-school Latin teacher lent to me, it seems yesterday, but now long ago. It is by Emil Staiger:

“The organs of recognition, without which no true reading is possible, are reverence & love. Knowledge cannot dispense with them, for it can grasp & analyse only what love takes possession of, & without love it is empty.”

Let me add that the teacher, the late Mrs Jessie Glynn, is exempt from all criticism, textual or otherwise. She was a real teacher, of classics to anyone who wished to learn; a remarkable product of the old rural (& very Protestant) Ontario; the last of her tribe. She was herself approaching her last year of schoolteaching, a subject that would be cancelled as irrelevant to modern needs. The other teachers told me I must stay in school for my own good; she alone told me I’d be better off leaving. They understood small things, she understood large. They were employees; she went on teaching privately without charge to anyone who came to her — through four decades, as an old widow woman, past the age of one hundred. God rest her beloved soul!


On the other hand, most students in the drive-in universities of today — the ones which were built in the profligacy of the post-War — are not channelled into the advanced technocratic realms. These colleges take in the great mass of kids who simply lack the equipment to benefit from a university education. Instead they are fed the equivalent of paperback blurbs, on books beyond their reading comprehension. The little they must ingest is supplied (once by mimeo, later xerox, later PDF, &c), to spare them the effort & expense of tracking anything down. They are marked on their ability to spew back what has been spewed forth, to standards constantly adjusted downward by a process of inflation so that no one will suffer the ignominy of failure, & thus a first painful prick of self-knowledge. The whole scheme was conceived in the spirit of reductionism, to what is (mistakenly) called the lowest common denominator. It is a process more like pumping gas than mining coal; by comparison it makes going down the mine seem attractive.

The modern world “prioritizes,” the way manuscripts are prioritized by the competent textual scholar. This one comes before that. For sure it does, if it did, & let me not say the textual history of a book is uninteresting. Nor would I suggest that the acquisition of basic reading skills in Latin or Greek — the sort of thing redbrick universities don’t encourage — is unimportant. They are not important in themselves, but for the larger purpose of assimilating a classical heritage, or as much as one can within the limits of a human life. For either we do that, in each generation, or the heritage is lost.

As Jacob Burkhardt was quoted, in the same long-ago borrowed book: “We can never be free of the ancient world, unless we become barbarians again.”

Grammar & vocabulary are where we begin — where the child begins with a capacity for rote that will leave him as he grows. Our ancestors understood, that we must catch them young, before that native ability is transformed, during adolescence, into a new power to reason on things, & the old delight in rhythmic recitation becomes dreary & a trial. It is not a “priority,” to start with the declensions & conjugations, it is carpe diem, as Horace used to say.

Ancillary disciplines are not lower in “priority.” That is how the liberals (in their modern version) think. Reality does not work that way. One must become a crack Latinist (& I to my shame never became one) to capture nuance in that language; one must be able to dream in Greek to fully appreciate the use of the old Attic or even the later New Testament rhetorical figures — to actually understand what one is reading. Though let me add that a mind attuned by poetry in any language will be open to the possibilities of nuance in another, so that with a certain genius (in the ancient Greek sense) insufficient training in the ancillary discipline can be overcome. Great scholars of classical Chinese, for instance, have admitted that the irresponsible Ezra Pound did better translations of Li Po; great Thomists have admitted that the hack journalist, G.K. Chesterton, wrote arguably the best book on Thomas Aquinas. Life is unfair.

The ancillary disciplines are specialized, but strictly crucial, means to a general understanding. They can never be discounted, yet they cannot be the end to which we strive. So it is within e.g. Christianity, where moral perfection is not an end in itself, but the means of advance towards the beatific vision. This does not mean it has some lower priority, that it can be safely ignored or bypassed. Only liberals think like that. For the sincere Christian, good behaviour is not optional. It is the only possible path to the destination.

All this I have mentioned in order to make clear what I mean & what I do not mean. To this day, I have nothing against textual scholarship, & have benefited immensely from the coal miner’s work: especially that which was done centuries ago, in the monasteries by men no longer named, when the veins were much richer. Yet those were not specialists. They compared manuscripts, they sought out the best, in the spirit of Saint Jerome: out of hunger for the truth, for the whole of the truth, or for as much as they could get their eyes on. They sought books because they wanted to read them, & their commentaries engaged with the authors of those books. They were men, not apes.

The apes are specialized, each species for its niche; men, to the contrary, were designed to be generalists, in the image of our Maker. That is how we went forth & multiplied & subdued the earth: as masters upon entering the home prepared for us. We were not, Darwinists & Marxians notwithstanding, just a new design of monkey. It is therefore to be regretted that the modern university is, for the most part, graduating apes, not men. Except, those which do not even try to train their innocent charges to the survivalist level, & graduate not independent apes, but interchangeable cyphers for the machinery of perdition, to be ruled by apes.


The demand for “relevance” in education has been throbbing since at least the 1960s. Among the vulgar, it was in demand long before. Expressions such as, “merely academic,” have a long & curious history. So far as I can make out they were a product of reductionism from the era of Reformation propaganda; but a book could be written on this. “Relevance” is for the apes, who delete from observation anything that does not serve the proximate utilitarian end. Human beings were distinguished by idle & irrelevant behaviour — from strange ritual acts of worship, to painting on cave walls, to the very mysterious burial of their dead. Tools could be fashioned by many animals, & apes were especially clever with them. It was the use to which the tools were put that revealed our unique elevation, above nature.

I am making this short observation today, by way of lament for our Church. A commentator on my last post, the Canadian poet, Robert Eady, made what I considered an astute remark. He said, “I think what has been missed for the past fifty years or so is that Christianity is a revealed religion.” This was, in its subtle simplicity, the sort of remark that requires a liberal education. It may be too simple for an illiberal mind to grasp — it could be dismissed as something obvious, & irrelevant. It could be taken glibly, when it is not glib. The entire orientation of our Church is to Christ, alive & available in the Eucharist. This is the unifying centre of our Christian life; not one thing among many in any sort of list. Everything we must do follows from that singular act of Communion, in which the mystery of the Creation is taken whole.

We had bishops, once, of liberal education; men who were not narrow, & reductionist; who had cultivated the habit of seeing things whole. Beyond them we had throughout the Church teachers & scholars of real breadth, whose interpretation of our revealed religion was not constrained by the “power-point” mindset we are now getting, from Rome down. We had clergy & laity alike, broadened daily by the experience of the beautiful old Mass, before it was remodelled by the apes of the ICEL to make it “relevant” to the times. We had a Church that consciously made its appeal to all manner of men & women, & which was in that sense catholic, universal; which was not tempted to pitch away whatever might seem “irrelevant” in the moment. That Church had found her way into the hearts of men of goodwill in every known human culture.

A hideous, ape-like, destructive force has been at large in our world for generations, & through the hierarchy of our Church for at least the last two. It is in its animal nature always lurking; it had emerged within the Church before; but in the time since Vatican II it has often seemed to have broken its chains. It cannot be defeated, within this world; therefore must ever be contained.

The Catholic Church teaches a revealed religion, not a religion limited by specialized human inquiry. It is, further, a mystical religion, & irreducibly so — “for men do not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.” The Church reaches out not to “the poor,” but to “the poor in spirit,” a much different, & not narrowly material idea. She is there to accommodate sinners & saints, not those of any preferred rank or class. Her works of mercy & charity follow from the Revelation, & out of the mystery of divine Love. They are not a political programme; Christ kept himself aloof from Caesar.

Literalism, reductionism, point-scoring, prioritizing, are marks of the poorly educated mind. The consequences are too easily foreseeable. But the cure is also foreseeable. Prudence itself, queen of the cardinal virtues, requires something in the nature of a liberal education, & we must learn to value that again. It can begin with the restoration of reverence in the Mass, & with the re-apprehension of living beauty; with the re-acquisition of our enchantment with a Creation that is not reducible to parts in a machine. The whole is more than its parts. It is animated by the breath of the Spirit, & it is innate with poetry.

Or as Pope Francis put it yesterday, we must “bear witness to, & disseminate, this ‘culture of life’,” against that culture of death everywhere encroaching.