September 15, 2005

Scattershot Education and Divine Impetus

Most conspicuous in the writings of the Revolutionary period was the heritage of classical antiquity. Knowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists . . .

But this elaborate display of classical authors is deceptive. Often the learning behind it was superficial; often the citations appear to have been dragged in as "window dressing with which to ornament a page or a speech and to increase the weight of an argument" . . . Thacher too thought Plato had been a liberty-loving revolutionary, while Jefferson, who actually read the Dialogues, discovered in them only the "sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities" of a "foggy mind" - an idea concurred in with relief by John Adams, who in 1774 had cited Plato as an advocate of equality and self-government but who was so shocked when he finally studied the philosopher that he concluded that the Republic must have been meant as a satire.

. . . What is basically important in the Americans' reading of the ancients is the high selectivity of their real interests and the limitation of the range of their effective knowledge. For though the colonists drew their citations from all portions of the literature of the ancient world, their detailed knowledge and engaged interest covered only one era and one small group of writers.

-The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn

But, my friend, the priests of the temple of Zeus at Dodona say that the first prophecies were the words of an oak. Everyone who lived at that time, not being as wise as you young ones are today, found it rewarding enough in their simplicity to listen to an oak or even a stone, so long as it was telling the truth, while it seems to make a difference to you, Phaedrus, who is speaking and where he comes from. Why, though, don't you just consider whether what he says is right or wrong?

. . . Those who think they can leave written instructions for an art, as well as those who accept them, thinking that writing can yield results that are clear or certain, must be quite naive and truly ignorant of Ammon's prophetic judgment: otherwise, how could they possibly think that words that have been written down can do more than remind those who already know what the writing is about?

-Phaedrus, Plato

One thing apparently hasn't changed about education over the course of the last few centuries: we still only study bits and snatches of the great writings of western civilization. Reading from Bailyn for Intellectual History this week, I was struck by the irony that I, too, was merely reading a selection by this historian for class.

Furthermore, I've been sampling liberally from Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Horace, etc. for Literary Criticism. We read portions varying between 5 and 20 pages of their work, discuss them briefly in class, and move on. This is the extent of my knowledge of Greek and Roman literature: whatever some mysterious group of people deemed important enough to shove into an anthology, and then whatever portion of that is actually assigned by the professor.

But as I saw what the literati of the revolutionary period were reading, and how they were using what they read, I was reminded of that excerpt from Plato that I quoted above. The Founding Fathers had an idea, even a fixation, in their heads of liberty and government and purpose, and once that idea was there, they saw it everywhere they looked. They pulled aspects of their grand philosophy together (whether they actually existed in the text or not) out of writings from (among others) the Ancient Greeks, the Enlightenment thinkers, the Puritans . . . could three groups of intellectual thought be more diametrically opposed to each other than these?

And yet from them, men like Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton began to cobble together the foundation of the American Republic. Plato has it that writing cannot teach anyone new ideas, it can only remind them of things they already knew. I don't know for certain that I agree with that statement and all of its implications, but I think it was true here. Incidentally, I am also not immune to the irony of quoting a fragment of Plato to support this particular point.

There was one more thing that struck me during the discussion of Bailyn's piece. "In one sense [New England Puritanism] was the most limited and parochial tradition that contributed in an important way to the writings of the Revolution . . . But in another sense it contained the broadest ideas of all, since it offered a context for everyday events nothing less than cosmic in its dimensions."

Having just completed Wide as the Waters by Benson Bobrick and discussed the incredible impact on history of the translation of the Bible into English, it is apparent just how important this "most limited" contribution really was. The Puritans represent, out of all of the sources of Revolutionary thought Bailyn named, the staunchly biblical worldview. This was a worldview which most people had no real exposure to a mere 300 years before. Once the Bible, that all-time bestselling book, started to hit British stands in fits and starts beginning in the early sixteenth century, it began to revolutionize the lives and minds of everyone who came into contact with it.

As to the contribution of the Puritans to the American Revolution, and America in general, it seems to me that logical arguments and appeals to reason and precedent can only go so far in forming the impetus of a movement which seeks to overthrow an established government and create an entirely new country out of thin air. If, however, you can convince people that not only is God on their side, but this is His plan for them . . . How much more powerful of a motivator is that? That, not something from Plato or Locke or Montesquieu, is an idea that people will fight and die for.

Posted by Jared at September 15, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack