Returning to the Cave: The Loss of Classical Light in Modern American Teaching

Every State is a community of some kind,
and every community is established with a view to some good…
He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need
because he is sufficient for himself,
must be either a beast or a god….
The determination of what is just is the principle of order in political society.

Excerpts from Aristotle, Politics, Bk. I, Chaps. 1 and 2

 

I. Introduction

I begin my remarks by expressing my cordial thanks to the members of the Hellenic American Professional Society of Northern California for inviting me to speak at this Annual Commemoration of Greek Letters Day.  I consider it a privilege to be invited by you to address a subject which, though concerning education, is far from merely academic: the progressive decline, during the past half century or so, of classical teaching and learning in our public and private schools, colleges, and universities.  I look forward to the conversation among us, which I hope will follow my talk, concerning the theme of my remarks.

The title I have given to my remarks is “Returning to the Cave: The Loss of Classical Light in Modern American Teaching.”  The title refers to a celebrated image constructed by Plato in Book 7 of his dialogue, the Republic, written sometime between 386 and 367 B.C.  The Republic is generally considered to be Plato’s greatest work.  It is an inquiry into the nature of Justice, explored partly through the imaginary construction of an ideal state which, Plato makes clear, could never actually exist in this world.  It is, as Socrates tells us in the dialogue, only “a model laid up in heaven” illustrating philosophical judgments about the nature of the truly just human being and state.

The image of the cave in the Republic follows Plato’s description, in Book 6, of the relationship between different kinds of knowing to different aspects of being (or to what really is) in comparison to opinions about different kinds of appearances (that is, what only seems to be).  Plato’s analysis tells us, for example, that we can know with certainty the things that mathematics can teach us; but we can only have opinions –without such mathematical certainty– about the world of appearances, and images of visible objects.

After exploring these questions about the nature of knowledge and being,  appearance and opinion, Plato turns, in book 7, to an image of “human nature in its educated and uneducated state.”  Notice: Plato tells us in advance that he is about to give his audience –us–  an image of “human nature in the educated and uneducated state.”  It is for this purpose that he constructs the metaphor of the cave from which I take the title of my talk.  Let me quote the dialogue at this point, which describes the cave shown in the diagram I have handed out.  Socrates is speaking:

“Imagine men in a cavelike underground dwelling with a long entrance, as wide as the cave and open to the light.  The men have been chained foot and neck since childhood.  The chains keep them in place and prevent them from turning their heads, so that they can only see forward.  Light comes to them from a fire burning at a distance above and behind them.  Between the fire and the prisoners, higher than they, imagine a road with a low wall built alongside, like the screen set in front of puppeteers, over which they show their puppets…Then see people walking along the road carrying things on their heads, including figures of men and animals made of stone and wood and other materials.  These extend over the top of the wall…

“Do you think such prisoners would ever see anything of themselves or each other or the things carried by the other people except their shadows thrown by the fire on the facing wall of the cave?”

“How could they [Glaucon replies] if their heads were held still all their lives?”

“Now, if they could talk to each other, don’t you think they’d believe what they saw was reality?”

“Necessarily.”    —Republic, Book 7, 514-515b).

This image looks so much like people chained to chairs in front of their television sets, that I can’t resist remarking on that.  But Plato is concerned with something even more fundamental than such particular numbings of our wakefulness.  After giving the basic description of the cave I just quoted, Socrates goes on to describe what would happen if one of the men was freed from his chains, and turned around to see both the fire and the objects carried along the road.  He describes how the light of the fire would at first blind such a person, and how he might be confused when he first sees the real objects he had only seen before as shadows, while he was in chains.  Socrates then continues his description of the cave and its inhabitants.  He asks us to imagine someone who was dragged entirely out of the cave into the real light of the sun.  He asks us to consider how the sun’s brighter light would at first completely blind such a person, and how he might even be tempted to run back into the cave because the shadows seemed so much easier to see (at first) than what was outside the cave.  But then, again, Socrates asks us to consider what would happen if such a man stayed long enough out of the cave for his eyes to adjust to the sunlight.  Wouldn’t he be filled with wonder and delight at the clarity and beauty of what he saw, compared to the dim and shifting shadows that were all he was able to see before?  Finally, Socrates asks us also to imagine what would happen if the man came back to the cave and sat down in his old place.  “Wouldn’t darkness fill his eyes,” Socrates asks, “after suddenly coming in from the sun?

“And if again he had to ‘evaluate’ those shadows down there in competition with the perpetual prisoners, then in that short time of habituation in which his eyes were dimmed and unrecovered, he’d make a fool of himself, and they’d say he came back from above with ruined eyes and the trip wasn’t even worth the attempt.  And if they could get their hands on the one who was trying to release them and lead them upward, wouldn’t they kill him?”

“Most violently,” Glaucon replies.

Now anyone even a little familiar with the story of the life of Socrates is likely to recall, when hearing this description, what actually happened to Socrates himself because of his devotion to philosophy, and his constant questions about the nature of things other Athenians took for granted: the Athenians sentenced him to death.  (We might also be led to think of Jesus, whose early followers called him “the light of the world,” 5 Matthew 14; see also 8 John 12.)  And we can all understand the factual basis for the image: whether we go into the light from the dark, or the dark from the light, our eyes need some time to adjust to its surroundings.  It is a often a struggle to learn something new; and it is sometimes difficult to see things from the point of view of others who haven’t.

I have taken this time to recall to you Plato’s image of the cave in some detail, because considering it may suggest answers to the central questions raised by my subject:  First, why has classical teaching and learning declined so much in the last half of the twentieth century?  And, second, what have we lost and what further may we be in danger of losing by that decline?  To help get your attention to what I am about to say, let me give you my short answers to these questions:  First, what we have lost: We have lost an appreciation of the paramount importance of seeking to understand the nature of the human soul and spirit. And what are we in danger of losing?  We are in danger of losing the democratic civil liberties that are the greatest legacy of classical learning and teaching, and sinking voluntarily into a disguised, but nonetheless progressive and degrading, slavery to our economic, material existence. That is why I say that the topic of my remarks is far from merely an academic subject.

II.  The Decline

 

Before giving you the reasons for these sobering conclusions, let me define, or at least describe, what it is we are talking about.  When I was a high school student in Philadelphia in the 1950’s –nearly half a century ago– it was assumed that if you were headed for a college education, you would probably study Latin.  Fifty years before that, it would also have been assumed –among the very few then privileged to plan a college education– that they would probably also learn some ancient Greek.  Now, of course, the reverse assumptions are made.  I do not know the statistics, but we can take informal notice of the fact that the study of Latin and ancient Greek in our public and even private schools is now uncommon, even rare.  Likewise, in the 1950’s, a general liberal education was presumed to include at least two years of introduction to what has been called “the canon:” a study of the greatest works of Western literature, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers, playwrights, and historians.  In fact, for most of nearly 2000 years, no person who sought to be educated would have failed, for example, to read either Euclid’s Elements of Geometry or Plutarch’s Lives of The Noble Grecians and Romans.  The twentieth century “canon” also embraced what Robert Hutchins called the writings of the “Great Conversation:” works which assumed some acquaintance with the great ancient writings and, philosophically, continued the inquiries the ancient Greeks had so notably begun.  When I speak of the abandonment of “the classics,” I therefore mean to include those works of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and of modern times that acknowledge the continued importance, in our search for human understanding, of considering what the ancients had to say.  Alfred North Whitehead, for example, a great twentieth century mathematician and natural scientist, famously observed that whenever he (Whitehead) approached a philosophic problem, “he met Plato coming back.”  He also said that “all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”

The gradual decline in classical teaching and learning that began after World I  — when extended formal education became more and more common– accelerated after World War II.  In the late 1950’s, after the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, the subordination of liberal learning to contemporary physical science gave a shock to the classics.  The flower power movement of the late 1960’s, launched nearly contemporaneously with the free speech movement at the University of California, began a radical questioning of the value of classical studies in higher education.  It instituted student demands for greater control over the curriculum which led, finally, to total rejection of the idea that to be educated meant, at least partly, to be educated in the classics.  The “canon” was condemned as the bastion of “dead white males,” unfairly depriving students, first, of familiarity with cultures other than that of Western civilization; and, second, of introduction to subjects perceived to be more immediately “relevant” to the ordinary anticipated challenges of everyday life.  By the early 1980’s, even Stanford University had abandoned the requirements of its traditional core curriculum, and faculties of colleges and universities throughout the United States trembled –and I mean literally trembled– at the increasing demands of students for more “relevant” and “politically correct” curricula of their own choosing.  The faculties trembled in their classical convictions, and then they fell, mostly in the name of greater democracy in education.  The result has been an increasing ignorance –I would say a generally abysmal ignorance– of the philosophical and spiritual roots of that democracy itself.  Nominally “well educated” young people are, typically, now almost entirely ignorant of the seminal teachings, both secular and religious, of Western culture.  The scope of such ignorance is often astounding.  It commonly includes ignorance, not only of the ancient, Renaissance, and Enlightenment legacies of philosophic thought and Judeo-Christian doxology, but even of the chief events of World War II.  In the broadest descriptive terms, this is the kind of educational loss we are talking about.

 

III. The Nature of The Loss

 

“And a good thing, too,” many will be apt to say.  In the following remarks, I will summarize, as forcefully as I can, the major arguments of those who are happy to see classical teaching and learning rejected as a standard for higher “liberal” education.

It is no accident, these opponents of classicism might confidently assert, that the decline in classical education started after World War I and rapidly accelerated not long after World War II.  Ten million people were killed in World War I; twenty million in World War II.  These atrocities of the first half of the twentieth century testify to the bankruptcy of the classical ideal of education and classical modes of thought in terms of advancing the human condition.  World War I was entered into by government leaders, and fought by a European officer corps, entirely educated in the classical tradition.  Both the Nazis and the Italian Fascists sought to imitate ancient pagan glories even in their architecture, as their World War II conquests progressively enslaved the democracies of Europe.  The Germans were, moreover, the greatest classical scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Nearly ten million Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and other Non-Nordics were slaughtered in the name of a pagan ideal as interpreted by the Nazis.  Nor were these the only 20th century political catastrophes related to classicism.  Thirty million or more of the Soviet people were butchered by their own regime in the name of Marxist-Leninism and Soviet Communism.  Karl Marx was deeply educated in the classics; in fact, a great classicist.

In contrast, these opponents of classicism may go on to argue, look at what the 20th century has given us as a result of greater education in the sciences rather than wasting hours contemplating abstract speculations of classical philosophers and theologians: Epidemic disease has been conquered to a degree that would never have been imagined in the ancient world.  In developed countries, we have now arrived at a point where there is more than a fifty percent chance that a girl born today will live past 100.  Longevity has been greatly increased, and both the incidence and risks of serious illness and disease have been greatly reduced, in advanced societies.  Moreover, if economic prosperity is a human good, look at what has been happening here, and in Europe, and in Asia, since we generally got beyond the classics in Western education.  The developed nations of the world may, at this very moment, be enjoying the most prosperous times in world history.  Technological advancements have brought the peoples of the world closer than they have ever been, and one does not have to read Plato, or Aristotle, or Sophocles, or even Alfred North Whitehead, to operate a computer or start up a dot com bringing new economic efficiencies to the world.

Finally, these successful iconoclasts may argue, as to a more democratic rule in education: How can you possibly object to the principle that a student should be free to choose to study whatever the hell he or she wants to study, and not what someone else tells the student is best for him or her?  Isn’t that what democracy is all about?  It is my life, and I should be free to choose how I spend my own dollars and my own time in my own education.

I take the preceding and kindred arguments to be the chief justifications –historical, philosophic, moral, political, social, and academic– for minimizing, if not altogether eliminating, study of the classics from higher education in America.

How can these diatribes be answered?  Let me begin with the later arguments first, the ones about how well we have been doing materially without an emphasis on the classics as a necessary, or at least highly desirable, part of higher education.

It cannot reasonably be disputed that modern medicine and technology have generally advanced our physical and economic well-being.  Furthermore, although the ancient Greeks were among the first human beings we know of who inquired methodically into the nature of the material world, they have very little to teach us about the applied sciences.  Except, of course for their original foundations in observation, logic, and mathematics.  It is worth pointing out in this connection, for example, that Charles Darwin, commenting on how he arrived at his theory of evolution, said “Linneaus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in different ways.  But they were mere school boys compared to old Aristotle.”  (Aristotle’s  biological and botanical classifications are, by the way, still used in those sciences.)

The valid claims for the gifts of modern science do not, however, dispose of the question at issue.  The question about the relative value to us as human beings of educationally devoting ourselves to applied science (that is, seeking to learn how to manipulate the material world to our benefit) as opposed to inquiring into the classical questions of moral philosophy (such as “What is our nature as human beings?” “Is there a human nature?” or “What is a good life?” or “What is justice?”) is not a 20th century question.  It is a question, in fact, that was first raised by Socrates in the fourth century B.C.; and it was his answer to this question that cost him his life. In Plato’s dialogue, the Apology, Socrates tells us that when he was a young man, he was intrigued by the inquiries of  natural philosophers such as Anaxagoras into the nature of the physical world.  (Anaxagoras is perhaps the first known person to identify the moon and other heavenly bodies as entities which were as material as the earth, and not composed of more ethereal substance.)  But Socrates concluded that inquiring into the nature of the material world was not as important to him as other inquiries.  He thought the most important thing he –or any other human being–  could come to know and understand was himself, as the Delphic Oracle told him he should try to know.  And so the Delphic admonition, KNOW THYSELF, became the wellspring of Western philosophy.

If we want to see what we have lost from our virtual abandonment of classical learning and teaching, we need to think about the choice that Socrates made.  His choice was one that involves reflections and decisions each one of us is still free to make.   It was a choice that proceeded from the opinion that an unexamined life is not as likely to lead to realization of the best in us as an examined life.  It is a choice that includes consideration of what critical thinking is; what the alternatives are for our human conduct; what these alternatives presuppose or imply; and how we can make the most practical, prudent judgments about the course of our lives in relation to particular situations.  So if we do not want to live mechanical lives  –lives shaped mostly, or even entirely, by things outside ourselves– but, rather, want to reflect upon who we are sufficiently to increase our chances of living with integrity to ourselves, then we must consider the wisdom of the choice Socrates made.  He chose to devote his life to inquiring into the nature of human being and our ethical and spiritual condition.  As I shall argue, abandonment of classical learning in its larger sense is, in essence, an abandonment of that Socratic inquiry.

Unlike the progressive findings of applied science, the most recent opinions about our ethical and spiritual condition are not necessarily the best or the most illuminating.  In this sphere of human concern, “newer” is not always “better.”  In certain respects, the ancients had a firmer and clearer grasp than most celebrated moderns do of the character of our human condition.  In this assertion,  I share Professor Bernard Williams’ opinion, expressed in his fine book, Shame and Necessity (University of California Press, 1993), that when we study the ancient Greeks, we are looking at ourselves.  “The Greek past,” Williams has written, “is specially the past of modernity…The modern world was a European creation presided over by the Greek past.  In some ways, the basic ethical ideas possessed by the Greeks were different from ours, and also in better condition” (emphasis added).  Or, as the poet Shelley wrote more enthusiastically: “We are all Greeks.  Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their roots in Greece.”

Who can ever know who he or she is, if they do not inquire into how their past has shaped them, and what implicit choices they have made about the character of the lives they are living, not deliberately and consciously, but by influences that have shaped them?  None of the writings of Plato, Sophocles, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Hegel, or Freud (to take just a few examples related to the quest for self-knowledge) is now generally required undergraduate or university reading.  Such condoned ignorance about the most thoughtful inquiries into human nature compounds the difficulties for anyone wishing to follow the Delphic admonition to Know Thyself as the first principle of philosophy for mature intellectual souls.

And this brings me back to the first, and perhaps most chilling arguments against classical education: Its alleged identification with the tragedies of World War I, World War II, and 20th century totalitarianism.  The answer to those arguments is essentially this:  They are exactly wrong.  The twentieth century has provided perhaps the greatest examples in all recorded history of the tragic consequences of the abandonment of classical moral thought and, later, the influence of corrupted and misunderstood ideas upon human events; consequences that have rightly moved its surviving victims to say “We must never forget.”

The German Kaiser, intoxicated with his personal power as Emperor and arrogantly determined to expand it, had relieved from the helm of his government one of Europe’s most prudent statesmen, his Prime Minister Otto Von Bismarck.  It is now known that almost immediately after the order had gone out from the Kaiser to his general staff to commence the hostilities of World War I, the Kaiser, realizing the tragedy that was about to unfold, tried to stop it.  But it was too late.  The technology of the early 20th century military machine had been unleashed, and could not be stopped in time to undo it.  In response to the invasion of Belgium, the idealistic young men of England, following their patriotic ideals (and belief in a short war) enlisted in a war led by a general staff that stupidly refused to adjust its critical thinking to the technology of modern warfare, leading to the truly tragic slaughter of almost an entire generation of fine English youth.  One does not have to be a Platonic scholar to conclude that it was not anachronistic classicism that led to this slaughter; it was, rather, ignorance and disregard of the importance of the classical virtues of prudence, temperance, and even courage.

As to the Soviet regime, its chosen philosopher, Karl Marx, had abandoned classicism for a “dialectical materialism” he invented, a conceptual engine derived from Hegel’s logic but loosely founded on ideas of applied (sociological) “science.”  The Soviets prided themselves on the “scientific” nature of their regime –and its godlessness.  And though Nietzsche was an ideological foe of organized Christianity and more skeptical even than Socrates, he would have detested the Nazi version of the “superman” as a totally ignoble perversion of his vision of human being at its best.  The Nazi ideologues were, moreover, supported in their fanaticism by a philosopher –Heidigger– who specifically rejected the ancient classics (Socrates’ thinking in particular) as the source of what he called a “magnificent error.”

The tyrannical corruptors of twentieth century political life were partly motivated by a will to personal power, and partly by claims related to the achievement of human “freedom” as they claimed to envision it.  The idea of “freedom” is one of the paramount –perhaps the paramount– political idea of our world civilization.  The classical idea of freedom was grounded on an understanding of human nature and the duties of ethical behavior.  We must carefully consider what abandonment of attention to this idea of freedom may mean.  Is a healthy future even possible for any civilization in which the idea of “freedom” becomes progressively confused and identified, not with duty, rationality, and ethical behavior, but with greater and greater individual license, and absorption in the pursuit of narrow material self-interests?  Both Plato (in the Republic) and Alexis deTocqueville (in his prophetic work, Democracy in America) expounded the tendency of democratic peoples to turn liberty or freedom to license, and to forget the importance of duty and rational moral behavior as indispensable to the best and wisest possible realization of human being, whether in community or individually.  Where is there now, in our technological consumer society, anything with a power even remotely comparable to this tendency –the now socially approved tendency to look out only for ourselves– to help remind us of its possible consequences, and to help combat it?  It is classicism that reminds us, as the ancient Greeks thought and believed, that our human being is inseparable from our shared community with other human beings.  In Aristotle’s maxim: “Who would live alone…is either a beast or a god.”

In sum, among the things we have lost in our abandonment of classicism –and I won’t even mention in detail the aesthetic sublimity of its literature– is promotion of an understanding of what it means to live free in community with others, through the use of prudent reason as a guide and regulator of our self-interested passions; a deepened understanding of our ethical and spiritual condition, rather than an almost exclusive preoccupation with our economic and material habits and aspirations.  The  characteristic disdain of contemporary Western culture for the timeless teachings of classicism, is a potentially tragic misdirection; one that threatens to disenable us from achieving our fullest human potential as we swim more and more deeply into the materialistic consumer morass.  And this brings me to what I regard as the greatest potential future loss we may suffer as a result of the decline in classical teaching and education: the actual threatened loss of our democratic freedoms.

 

IV. What We Are in Danger of Losing

 

We are confronted, right now, here in the United States, with a potentially fatal Constitutional crisis of epochal proportions; one that is, however, virtually invisible to the vast majority of our people except in certain of its effects.  This crisis is directly related to the decline in respect for classical education as understood by the Founding Fathers of our democratic republic.  It revolves around the specific question: how should the United States Constitution be interpreted if those who interpret it are to carry out the original intent of its framers?

The characteristic twentieth century ethical and philosophic view is one that may be called “historicist relativism.”  It is cogently expressed in the view that “there are no absolutes;” that all opinions are no more than the expression of a set of biases local to a specific time and place (including, of course, the view that all opinions are just the expression of the biases of a specific time and place).  The dominant scholarly view of what law itself is, reflects this 20th century relativism.  It began its ascendancy in American legal thought with an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1928.  In a case called Black and White Taxicab Co. vs. Brown & Yellow Taxicab Co. (276 U.S. 518, at 533-34, 1928), Justice Holmes rejected as a “fallacy and illusion” the idea that judges might be able to discern, through reason, enduring principles forming the substance of the common law.  Justice Holmes declared in that opinion:

“If there were such a transcendental body of law outside of any particular State but obligatory within it unless and until changed by statute, the Courts of the United States might be right in using their independent judgment as to what it was.  But there is no such body of law.”

We need to consider this statement of Holmes’s in the light of Plato’s metaphor of the cave.  Viewed from the classical perspective, Justice Holmes was declaring in this opinion: “There is no fire; there is no sunlight.  There are only shadows.”  Holmes’s opinion was a seminal expression of a view of the law called “legal positivism” or “legal realism.”  It is a view holding that the law has absolutely no moral basis other than what a majority of people, or their representatives in a democratic republic, say the law is.  Under this opinion of what valid law is, if a law were duly enacted through established procedures –say by a Constitutional Amendment– declaring, for example, that the property of all people of Greek-American descent, or Jewish blood, or Islamic faith, was to be forfeited to the State, and that all such people were to be interned in concentration camps –or worse– there would be nothing inherently unjust about it, as much as you might personally dislike it!  For justice is defined totally, under this view, by what a majority of people say that it is.

This is not the view of the law taken in the 18th century by Thomas Jefferson; or in the 19th century by Abraham Lincoln; or even in the 20th century by advocates of conscience such as The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr..  But it is the dominant view among legal theorists today; and not only academics, but the view of many of our most powerful judges.  The view of the foundations of law taken by Jefferson, and Lincoln, and King, was that expressed in our Declaration of Independence: that the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” endowed all men, who are “created equal,” with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Lincoln’s view, in other words, was, like Jefferson’s, that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were intended by the Founders, following their Enlightenment beliefs, to be written into the U.S. Constitution.  Lincoln believed, in effect, in principles of natural right and natural law, generally in accord with the idea of law propounded by St. Thomas Aquinas, namely, that law, properly understood, had, by definition, to be

an ordinance of reason
for the common good

promulgated
by those who are at the head of a community.

This Thomistic definition of law has its roots, in turn, in the teachings of ancient moral and political philosophy; more specifically, in the writings of Aristotle.  It was on the basis of this view of the law that Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to say that his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was a call to the conscience of America to make good on its promises in the Declaration of Independence.  It is on the basis of this natural right view of the law, that we can say a law that is unjust cannot command our consciences, even though we believe in the principle of majority rule.  As Thomas Jefferson said in his First Inaugural Address:

“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”  (emphasis added)

In contrast to the natural right view of the law held by our Founding Fathers, a number of the present Justices of the United States Supreme Court –including the Chief Justice, and perhaps even the present majority of Justices– have declared themselves to be legal positivists, opposed to the Lincolnian view of the Constitution and the principles of natural right and natural law referred to in our Declaration of Independence.

Let us consider for a moment, the likely potential practical consequences of this state of affairs.

We are an increasingly diverse society, enjoying the liberties of a democratic republic for a longer period than that enjoyed by any great power in world history.  We have entered into a period of moral relativism in which the dominant public ethos is one of fierce individualism and an almost obsessive consumerism.  The most powerful interpreters of our laws –and, indeed, the major portion of the legal profession as a whole– accepts no compelling moral basis for the nature of our law other than the principle of majority rule.  In fact, they are imprudently dogmatic in the view that there are no absolutes.  The classicist approach to matters of human being is, on the contrary,  not intrinsically dogmatic.  It is skeptical: it asks questions, and more questions, and more questions.  But it holds to the view that there is a human nature, and part of its nature is endowed with reason and right.  Is not abandonment of this view in our highly diverse society a recipe for increasing social discord among competing groups? Is not such rejection of all principles of conscientious reconciliation –other than the force of a majority– a guarantor of increasing discord in a highly individualistic, fragmented community?  And if such discord escalates to the point of regular, traumatic violence –as it nearly did in the decade of the nineties– isn’t it likely that the public at large –the majority– will be willing, increasingly, to narrow the scope of our civil liberties to obtain greater civil security against violence?

This is the ultimate future prospect we face from the progressive decline of respect for classical teaching and learning, and the timeless human search for enlightenment as to the nature of our human being.  It is an abandonment of what classical learning has to teach us in the false name of democracy, from a shadowy view of individual self-fulfillment, and from a short-sighted elevation of material well-being above concern with our full human character as material and spiritual beings.  It is an insistence that we return to the cave, and continue to stare at the wall, and deny the existence of a clearer light.  In this situation, I genuinely fear for my grandchildren’s future freedom.  What, I wonder, can we do about it?

 

(C) January 23, 2001 Harrison Sheppard