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A cultural syllabus for North Americans

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted June 4, 2001

Former drug czar William "Three-packs-a-day" Bennett is not a man with whose views I generally find myself in sympathy. But his on-again, off-again crusade to restore respect for the classic thought of Western civilization resonates to some extent. Bennett is correct that the educational establishment has overreacted to past generations' exclusion and ignorance of diverse cultural source in elevating to par with the classics recent or modern writings which have not yet proven their agelessness and durability.

However, in a fashion consistent with his own rather narrow intellectual attainments, Bennett did not go far enough in encouraging the teaching of the classics in secondary and post-secondary education. He limited himself to a few authors and titles exclusively from European and Mediterranean civilization. The reality of modern America's cultural mix is that in the workplace, particularly in the high technology workplace where the intellectual is likely to be raking in the rewards of persistent study, one can often find one's self surrounded by as many Hindus, Chinese and Moslems, as persons of European or Mediterranean descent.

So I would like to emend Mr. Bennett's recommendations by presenting my own cultural syllabus for the North American intellectual elite of our times that is neither Eurocentric nor Europhobic, a syllabus rendered truly international not by a desire for political correctness but by a fervent appreciation of the classics, all the classics of the world. The diligent student who pursues this syllabus will, over time, find himself or herself well armed with the apt quotation or analogy for nearly any situation before nearly any audience.

First, let's consider the religious classics. One delight of my recent party switch from Democrat to Republican is that, at last, I can quote the Bible in a political context without encountering blank stares. Americans who aren't familiar with the Judeo-Christian scriptures are not so much impious as marginally literate. However, we shouldn't stop there. A great deal of our difficulty in dealing with the Moslem world is that Americans don't generally appreciate how rich the Islamic tradition is, starting with the Quran. The Quran is the collection of revelations from Allah via the angel Gabriel to the illiterate prophet Mohammed, whose associates transcribed into lucid and poetic Arabic the prophet's inspired utterances. The moral content of the Quran is in no way inferior to that of the Bible; in point of style, the poetry of the Quran is often superior, influenced as it was by the multicultural milieu of Persian, Greek, Roman, Jew, African and Arab in which Mohammed lived. Adequate translations into English, albeit rarely as melodious and thunderous as the original, exist of the Quran, including various renditions found around the Web.

Moving eastwards, the modern American might find most of the Hindu Vedas somewhat inaccessible, but the compendia of post-vedic exegetical works called the Upanishads are moving and pungently witty and have received excellent attention by the translators both under the British Raj and in modern times. The two Indian moralistic epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are perhaps too long for most readers except in abridgments, of which many exist in English, but the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of God, form perhaps the most beautiful short religio-philosophical work in existence, provided one chooses a poetic translation such as that of Juan Mascaró in preference to the crudely ideological Prabhupada translation sold by the Society for Krishna Consciousness.

The Buddhist Tripitaka is again nearly inaccessible in its totality to Westerners, but widely translated excerpts such as the Diamond Sutra speak to all audiences. Also, the non-canonical Jatakas, or Birth Stories of the Buddha's prior incarnations, make good reading for children as well as adults. When Buddhism reached Tibet, it inspired the Autobiography of Milarepa, the life of a sorcerer turned monk, which is a thrilling cliffhanger whatever one's personal creed. Buddhism reached perhaps its highest exposition in classical Japanese culture; any English collection of the amusing and thought-provoking Zen Koans, or paradoxes, is easy and delightful reading.

Returning to the Americas, recent translations from Mayan of the Popul Vuh are indispensable for an understanding of the culture of our neighbors to the south. Even the holiday El Día del Muerte, the Day of the Dead is difficult to assess without insight into pre-Columbian Central America and its obsession with Xibalba, the Underworld.

Moving on to philosophy, one need hardly recommend Plato's Socratic Dialogues, which many praise but few read. Let us merely note here that there is a reason why these works were the most highly regarded of all in the sophisticated urban society of the Roman Empire which arose afterwards. Socrates' technique of snaring his interlocutors in self-contradiction with the most innocent questions is powerful despite being charmingly self-effacing. Socrates is also useful intellectual training in our age wherein public discourse consists primarily of the sort of pompous and tendentious contradiction that Socrates delighted in deflating. Aristotle's Politics is also required reading for political observers; there's very little in the way of political experimentation from aristocracy to communism that Aristotle had not seen tried somewhere in the Greek commonwealth and commented upon with profound insight; the authors of the United States Constitution turned to Aristotle as much as to any contemporary source for clues to the future of their experiment in self-government.

Further eastward, the crown of philosophy must be yielded to the Analects of Confucius. Confucius concerned himself with the relations of Man and State in a fashion which is both idealistic and eminently pragmatic for citizens of widespread empire. His later expositor Mencius has much to say that would be good for modern world leaders to heed. Mencius had a way of cutting to the chase and driving away the smoke blown by self-seeking public officials to point to what was essential in good government. For the libertarian or cynic, the greatest delight from the Chinese canon is the Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way, often mistaken by New Agers for a religious tract, but in reality intended by its author as a somewhat satirical jazz riff on familiar leitmotifs of Chinese political philosophy.

Among classic works of history, the Westerner must surely imbibe Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Caesar, Suetonius and Tacitus, and if the reader's English-as-distinct-from-American is good, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, completed in England during the American Revolution. Pure historical writing is somewhat rarer in the Eastern world than in the West -- older civilizations having seemingly undergone more episodes of wiping the slate clean via book-burning than our younger civilization has done -- but Ssu Ma Chien's Annals of the Historian, covering the Chinese Warring States period and the early Ch'in and Han Empire yields nothing to his Roman contemporaries Suetonius and Tacitus in breadth, originality, and pithy moral insight, as the Chinese Communist regime tacitly acknowledged in continuing to reprint it almost alone among their civilization's classics even under Mao, who vigorously disagreed with the Ssu Ma Chien's interpretations.

We could go on through poetry, fiction and even music, but this article is already too long to garner much "eyeball share" in the evanescent Worldwide Web. The attention span of many has been brutally truncated to the length between commercial on network television. Still, with the wealth of empire the West has also gained access to treasures finer than gold: the wisdom and wit of all the planet is ours for the asking at the local bookseller. This luxury, this indulgence in the classics, is, I am convinced, one of the few morally unequivocal dissipations vouchsafed humankind.

Jack Woehr of Fairmount, Colorado discovered the classics in 1979 after he threw his last television set out the window. No-one was injured in its fall, and his children grew up highly literate.

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