Not the least important insight of David Gress’s frequently important and always useful book is that the cultural vandals who have been taking their little hatchets to the idea of “Western Civilization” for the past thirty years or so have been powerfully aided by the overweening of that idea’s advocates and champions. Influenced by America’s civic religion and the tradition of the mythologizing of the Founding Fathers, they invented what Mr. Gress calls the “Grand Narrative” of Western civilization based on a “Magic Moment” theory of historiography. The first and paradigmatic Magic Moment for these theorists was the discovery (as they imagined it) by the ancient Greeks of the abstract principles of democracy and individual liberty. History since then can be summed up as the loss and rediscovery of these principles in further Magic Moments, such as the Enlightenment or the founding of the American Republic, and also in a series of “Great Books” wrenched from their historical contexts.
Educators had to make up reasons why it was for the public good that they continued to do what they had always done.
This simpleminded compendium of history, ironically summarized in Mr. Gress’s title, was created to meet the twin demands of Cold War propaganda and the postwar democratization of American higher education. But it was always going to be an easy mark for unruly students—or, nowadays, unruly professors—flushed with the shocking and permanently disillusioning discovery that, say, both the Greeks and the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Moreover, although Gress doesn’t go into this, it also encouraged those same students and professors in an increasingly silly pursuit through pre-history of some Magic Moment of their own—some “paradise” (to use Kirkpatrick Sale’s word) lost to “Western” patriarchy and capitalism and imperialism wherein gentle and pacific and environmentally aware Native Americans, or Africans, or women, ruled the earth.
Mr. Gress is commendably ruthless with all such nonsense. The first sentence of his introduction throws down the gauntlet: “Liberty grew because it served the interests of power.” So much for the mythology of the American state! But so much, too, for the daughter-mythologies now so popular among American academics and inclining, like their original, to a dangerous sort of millennarianism, an illusion that “true democracy lay ahead, not here and now. It thus became a future-oriented search for justice, whereas democracy was in fact an old practice in the niches of liberty, and one impossible to explain apart from the Christian ethnicity of the Old Western synthesis.” This synthesis, more Roman than Greek and more Medieval than Renaissance, he spends much of the rest of this comprehensively learned volume discussing.
Though Mr. Gress is himself Danish, he approaches his subject à l’Americaine by making it essentially a matter of pedagogy. It is surely significant, though of what I don’t know, that so much of American political conflict has been and continues to be about what shall be taught to the poor captive inmates of our nationalized educational system. But if what is being taught in our universities is some sort of ideological parody of history, either of the left (vulgar Marxism) or of the right (the Whiggish Grand Narrative) which, in their superficiality, often amount to mirror images of each other, that is an educational and a social problem, not an intellectual one. What we ought to be asking is not why this particular claptrap is being taught in our universities but why we have such appallingly poor universities that claptrap of any sort can be taught there without remark by the culture at large. And the answer to this question lies in the corruption of our intellectual life by ideology.
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It is telling that Gress quotes as an epigraph to his second chapter A. E. Housman’s remark that “It appears then that upon the majority of mankind the classics can hardly be said to exert the transforming influence which is claimed for them.” It is not clear to me that Gress quite appreciates the complex irony that Housman intended, since not only was no “majority of mankind” ever exposed to the classics in the first place—rather the reverse, in fact—but also “the transforming influence” of their study was the invention of pedagogical moralists engaged, precisely as the retailers of the Grand Narrative were a generation or two later, in an effort not of scholarship but of salesmanship.
With the state takeover of education at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, educators had to make up reasons why it was for the public good that they continued to do what they had always done. When the reasons why studying the classics was a morally improving exercise began to look to steely-eyed education bureaucrats as threadbare as old classicists like Housman surely always knew they were, the classics were jettisoned and the Grand Narrative, with a grand new set of moral arguments for its utility (incorporating, as Gress acknowledges, various rags of the old moralism on behalf of the classics), was put in its place. But Housman’s derisive account of the old moral argument should certainly not be used to reflect on the subject that he loved, as all academic subjects should be loved, for its own sake. In that respect, the classics and the Grand Narrative are not on all fours with each other. The one is a discipline of study; the other is at best a public relations exercise, at worst an ideology.
Though I liked this book very much, I sometimes wondered if its author quite realized what he was opposed to in writing it. Immersed as he is in the history he is trying to correct, he does not see that the real enemy is not merely historical error but also contempt for the study of history itself. The mistakes of the last fifty years are not a result of well-intentioned incompetence, but have been committed deliberately by ideologues on left or right for whom history exists only to be useful to some political program. This lamentable state of affairs is also contributed to by the popular culture—which, in its middlebrow and lowbrow forms, has always insisted on the reduction of knowledge of all kinds to formulae (hence the “Great Books” and the much-fought-over “canon”) and in its no-brow form insists on reserving the years when Greek and Latin are commonly learned, if they are learned at all, for play rather than work or scholarship.
The Grand Narrative and its principal identifiable theorist, Will Durant, are thus rather an Aunt Sally, set up just to be knocked down again and again for creating “an idealized vision of Greece seen through the lens of a West defined as the heir of that idealized Greece.” As a result, they are said to have misunderstood the period between the Greeks and our own time as “a long preamble to modernity” which was “not appreciated as an authentic and valid form of Western identity.” Doubtless there were foolish boosters of the Grand Narrative who so regarded the last 2500 years of history, but there were also a great many historians—almost all of them, I suspect—who would have been embarrassed by any such point of view. True, the grand narrative was structural and therefore extremely important once “Western Civ” became the foundation of the humanities curriculum, but this is a problem of politics and education and not historiography, and treating it as the latter, like taking poor Will Durant as the representative figure of American historiography, confers upon it a dignity it does not deserve. By the last chapter, Mr. Gress is taking the time laboriously to dispute with the likes of Kirkpatrick Sale, Paul Ehrlich, James Lovelock, and even, God help us, Al Gore as though they were foes worthy his lance.
The mistakes of the last fifty years are not a result of well-intentioned incompetence.
Mr. Gress’s inability to leave any argument unanswered mars what is otherwise a splendid work of intellectual history and makes it extremely difficult at times to follow the thread of his own argument. Leaping like a mountain goat from crag to crag, he gives us capsule summaries of a huge range of historical, economic, sociological, religious, and philosophical thought. In the forty-six pages of chapter seven, for example, he takes us from Pico della Mirandola to Goethe to Voltaire to Max Weber, back to Pico, to Luther to North and Thomas’s Rise of the Western World (1973), back to Max Weber, to Hume (the essay on “Superstition and Enthusiasm”) to the Jansenists to Armand de Rancé, the seventeenth-century founder of the Trappist order and his quarrel about monasticism with Jean Mabillon, to Edward Whiting Fox’s History in Geographic Perspective: The Other France (1971) to Eric Jones’s The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (1981) to Montesquieu, to Voltaire again, forward to Michelet, backward to Rousseau, back again to Montesquieu, forward to Madison, and ending with Burke.
Nor is that all. Along the way he manages to tell in essence the stories of the Protestant Reformation, the Elizabethan succession, the Spanish Armada, the English Civil War, the Thirty Years War, the Fronde, the monastic revival, the unprecedented growth of Western European economies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and to quote a poem by Klopstock which provides an excellently apposite and sardonic comment on this whole history. It is brilliant, a tour de force of historical writing, but just occasionally the reader is brought up short by the suspicion that what Gress is creating is yet another historical compendium, an epitome, a Great Books program reduced to a single book, a sort of prospectus for another Grand Narrative which will leave in the stuff, mainly to do with the Germanic heroic ideal, left out by the original. I am in complete sympathy with him about the Germanic heroism, but at times I wished he had arranged his book, as it is encyclopedic in scope, in encyclopedic form.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 6, on page 71
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