We’re roughly at the halfway point for the NaNoWriMo writing challenge. I’m a bit behind on word count (only about 11,000 out of 50,000 words), though not critically so. I’m not too worried because I will go through at least one bipolar cycle between now and the end and on the up cycle I can average 5,000+ words per day.
In my last post I mentioned that, instead of writing a novel, I wanted to write some essays on moral philosophy. I have a couple of first drafts done, but I don’t want to post them until I’ve rewritten them a couple times. Have no fear, though, they’re coming. In the meantime, I do have something that is ready: The following will be packaged as bonus features for a webcomic that I am creating. Please imagine that it is contained in multiple tabs on a sidebar under a menu button called “About”. Have the visual? Good.
Oh, if you want to see a preview of Poison Fruit, the webcomic, you can click here for the first half-dozen pages. Keep in mind, though, that this is still early days and I may decide to change things before I go live.
A Little Background
Poison Fruit was meant to be a movie. Ever since, several years ago now, I first read Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, I have wanted to create an adaptation that would make it accessible to 21st century audiences, while still maintaining the atmosphere and pathos of the original. If possible, I also wanted it to be set in space. Those were the two things I knew for sure, all of the other details fluctuated as I kept the project on the back burners of my mind. I considered different media: live action, stop motion, marionettes. Different formats: a feature, an OVA, a streaming television show. Different scopes: would it be just Duchess, or would I bring in material from other Jacobean plays? I also thought about the world itself. For a year or more I was decided to make all the characters extraterrestrials. If there were any humans at all, they would be in strictly supporting roles. But as I explored the concept, I realized that if I wanted to make them relatable, I would need to make them fairly human. And, as much as I love Star Trek, we don’t need any more green-painted women or otherwise human characters with bumpy foreheads. If I was going to have aliens, I wanted to make them alien, but Poison Fruit is a human story.
Around the time I had a pretty good conception of the project, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make it work on video. To tell the story wanted, I would need, at the minimum, a full season TV show. My production company is, for the most part, a one-man-band operation. Animated productions typically employee dozens, if not hundreds, of specialists. Even if I could somehow raise the money to hire them all, and find a place for all of them to work, I have neither the experience not the administrative support structure to show-run that size production, which meant I would have to give up a lot of control to someone else.
I was a bit stuck until the webcomic idea occurred to me. I like to joke that a comic is just an animated movie with an extremely low frame rate. In a comic, as compared to a movie, I can dispense with all of the animation between keyframes, all of the audio and accompanying lip-sync, and most of the editing. By going with more of a manga aesthetic I could use simpler backgrounds. By doing it mostly in grayscale I could eliminate most of the color design work and all of the color grading, while significantly simplifying my texture and lighting work. And besides, the manga is almost always better than the movie, so why not just make the manga?
So there you have Poison Fruit, a movie adaptation of a play expressed as a web comic.
The Lure of Italy
The period that we think of as the Renaissance was fleeting–sightly less than 200 years, depending on which start and end dates you choose. Many historians consider it to have begun in the second half of the 1300’s, when Italian literature and art began breaking away from the medieval conventions which had circumscribed them for centuries. It was winding down by the mid 1500’s, under the influences of the Spanish occupation and the counter-reformation, events which quashed the violence and vice, and the chaos and corruption of Italy at the expense of her creative and economic energy. Hardly any Englishmen had anything to do with the renaissance, and few of the famous Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were even alive when it happened. [There is a line in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics that seems apropos, though I am likely quoting it incorrectly: “The renaissance was just a bunch of Italians poncing around that the English didn’t hear about until 100 years later.”] And yet, Renaissance Italy exercised an incredibly pervasive influence on early modern English popular culture. We know that translations of Italian books, especially the trashy ones like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, from which Webster adapted Duchess, were Elizabethan best sellers. In Shakespeare’s comedies references to Italy and her cities can usually be interpreted as “a generically exotic foreign locale”, and he travels there frequently. While some of his greatest tragedies are set elsewhere, even he can see that Italy is the natural background for Othello’s crimes of passion and betrayal, and Romeo and Juliet’s feuding noble families and semi-accidental double suicide. By the reign of James I Italy was the preferred setting for the most horrific tragedies: Gothic murder-fests like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and White Devil, or sordid tales of incest, mental illness, and more murder, like Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. These plays must have sold seats, because they kept writing them.
What exactly was the English’s fascination with Renaissance Italy? Vernon Lee, in her essay “The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists” in her book Euphorion offers some insight:
The crimes of Italy fascinated Englishmen of genius with a fascination even more potent than that which they exercised over the vulgar imagination of mere foppish and swashbuckler lovers of the scandalous and the sensational: they fascinated with the attraction of tragic grandeur, of psychological strangeness, of moral monstrosity, a generation in whom the passionate imagination of the playwright was curiously blent with the metaphysical analysis of the philosopher and the ethical judgement of the Puritan. To these men, ardent and serious even in their profligacy; imaginative and passionate even in their Puritanism, all sucking avidly at this newly found Italian civilization the wickedness of Italy was more than morbidly attractive or morbidly appalling: it was imaginatively and psychologically fascinating.
Since it is now in the public domain, I have gone ahead and placed a copy of the essay here. The full book is available from Project Gutenberg. The author’s thesis is that since both the immorality and grandeur of Renaissance Italy so far surpassed anything to be found in England, the stories of them provided fuel to launch English literature to height never before (and perhaps never since?) attained.
And so, we have two Italies. One is the real Italy of the mid 1300’s through mid 1500’s. We can never know exactly what it was like, since we weren’t there, but history and archaeology can give us a general idea. The other is the Italy of the early modern English popular imagination, with it’s every crime and aberration sensationalized and blown out of proportion, loaded with casual anachronisms and, for all relevant purposes, eternal. These two Italies have some character names and geography in common, but they are not in the same world.
And to these two I add a third. Just as those old Elizabethan and Jacobean writers took their inspiration from the real Italy to create a world for their imagination, I have used the Jacobean Italy to create an Italy in the outer solar system, which I call Poison Fruit.
There, now that I have the really meta part out if the way, I can go into specifics. That is, I’ll be as specific as I think I can be without dropping spoilers.
The World of Poison Fruit
No one knows who invented space travel. It must be ancient, though, because spaceships are mentioned in Homer and the Bible. They were cruder things than modern ships, though; just look at all the trouble that Ulysses and Jonah had.
Throughout history, great empires have risen, conquering large segments of the solar system. At its apex the Roman Empire ruled everything from orbit of Mars to the moons of Saturn. Not only did they enlarge existing orbital habitats and build new ones, but it is sometimes even claimed that they had the technology to land on planets and take off again. No one entirely believes that last part, though, since it is well-known that entering such a large gravity well is simply a flashy way to commit suicide.
Alas, the Empire succumbed to internal stresses and waves of barbarian invaders from the outer system. A dark age began in which most people focused on subsistence, and it was too dangerous and expensive to stray too far from home. Rome itself, one of the oldest and largest habitats and the seat of the Church, lost much of its population and much of its influence, except within its own immediate vicinity in the asteroid belt. At one point the French even forced the papacy to relocate to Avignon! Other Italian habitats, or individual cities within habitats, did better, especially those like Venice and Genoa who managed to maintain their fleets and keep up a steady, albeit local, trade.
In recent generations, though, Italy has grown wealthy again. Her popes, bankers, mercenaries, and merchant princes bring the treasure of all of Christendom to her coffers. Her artists and engineers are the envy of the system. Granted, there are still threats to this prosperity. The recent conquest of the habitat of Naples by France has shown that the European powers have grown strong enough to be a threat. Piracy is rife everywhere. The Turks, though humbled by their defeat a few years ago at Lepanto, are still a powerful force. And, worst of all, Italy herself is plagued by constant small wars between individual cities and factions. Lucky is the habitat that doesn’t have at least one war going on between its cities at any given time. Lucky is the ruler of a city who can keep the local nobles from slaughtering each other in vendettas. Overall, though, things are going well and Italy is once again, for the first time in centuries, the center of the Christian universe.
Families and Factions
House Aragon is one of the most powerful royal families in Europe. Not only do they control a newly unified Spain with recently established colonies in recently explored parts of the system, but the have extensive holdings in the rest of Europe, as well as a marriage connection with the current Holy Roman Emperor. The head the family is King Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain, but he isn’t in this story. The Aragons in this story are his second cousins, former members of the royal family of Naples, before its conquest by France. Now they are mere vassals of the French viceroy. Granted, they still control the Duchies of Calabria and Amalfi, as well as a cardinalship in Rome, but these honors hardly compare with the rule of an entire country. They seek to mend their fortunes, remembering better days and more prosperous relatives.
House Orsini is an ancient patrician house of Rome, able to trace their roots to the founding of the city. At least, that’s what they say. What is known for sure is that since the dark ages Orsini have been involved in Roman politics. The other thing they are known for is their recurring feuds with House Colonna, another ancient Roman family. What some people have not realized, at least until it was too late, is that the Orsini and the Colloni are quite capable of joining forces against any third-party that tries to muscle into their turf. Between the two of them they control the majority of the eternal city’s military assets, as well as numerous men in key positions of authority, both secular and religious.
The senior Orsini are adept at walking the line between suave, cultured nobles and gangster bosses. Not that they see any conflict between the two. Their current “Prince” is Paolo Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, near Rome. Besides their seat at Bracciano, a junior branch of the family holds the County of Pitigliano, also near Rome.
House Medici is by far the wealthiest family in Italy, as well as the absolute rulers of the Tuscany Habitat and its capital city, Florence. The current head of the family is Grand Duke Cosimo di Medici. He was a highly successful condottiere, or mercenary general until the main branch of the family died out and he inherited the throne.
Rumors of crimes of brutality and lust attach to the Medicis as they have done to no house since the fall of the Borgias, over a generation ago. Most of these stories seem to have been spread by jealous rivals. On the other hand, it is well-known that Cosimo does what he wants, without reference to the laws of God or man.
While smaller habitats exist, built on different patterns, the majority of people in the solar system live in what, in another universe, are called Stanford Toruses. They are gigantic (tens of thousands of square miles of surface area) doughnut shaped objects that spin to produce artificial gravity. A system of mirrors transmits light more or less evenly onto the surface, while most harmful radiation is absorbed by the outer rim. The terrain inside every habitat varies, with each having its own combination of coasts, mountains, rivers and other landforms.
No one knows who originally built the habitats. While the commoners believe it was the Romans, it seems more likely that they just repaired and expanded what was already there. Whoever the builders were, they believed in massive redundancy, generous factors of safety, and minimizing the number of moving parts—which is probably why so many habitats are still livable.
The microgravity hub area of each major habitat contains vast manufacturing and storage spaces, most of which are only partially explored. There are probably large areas where no man has entered since ancient times. No one alive knows what most of the equipment does or how to use it. However, there are certain common items that any spacefarer knows how to recognize and put to use, like life support and thruster modules. The ancients left generous stockpiles of the most common sizes, which can easily be bolted onto contemporary hulls (built of wood, wrought iron, canvas and other mundane materials) to create functional space ships.
One process that has not been lost is the art of making very thin, strong solar sails….though the actual machines and the technique of using them is a closely guarded guild secret. All ships that sail out of sight of a habitat carry solar sails in addition to thrusters because thrusters are not only expensive, but they sometimes fail and, when they do, no one knows how to repair them. Also, thrusters burn phlogiston (a.k.a. hydrogen) which, while it is cheap and available at the space port of any habitat, takes up space that could otherwise be used for cargo. For these reasons long-distance freighters and cruisers rely on solar sails for their primary means of propulsion.
Guns and gunpowder have been around for two and a half centuries, and cannon have long since replaced catapults and ballistas as artillery, both within habitats and in space. Black powder weapons work in a vacuum as long as a high oxidizer powder is used. “Space powder” is less powerful than that used in atmosphere, but the lack of air resistance makes up for the reduced muzzle velocities at all but the shortest ranges.
Matchlock arquebuses, though they can be a bit aggravating, are common infantry weapons. Wheellock weapons are also available and are more reliable and don’t require walking around with a burning match. However they are also several times as expensive, and never issued to common soldiers. There are also still plenty of bows and crossbows around. They take more practice to master than guns but they tend to be more accurate and reliable. Also, sailors and marines dislike matchlocks for the simple reason that they live next to large tanks of highly flammable phlogiston.
Poison Fruit is its own world, with its own history. For those who would like to know more about the worlds that inspire it, though, the works below are good starting points. Many of these are available for free download at Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org).
Plays About Italy
The major plot arcs in Poison Fruit are adapted from these plays so, while I recommend them highly, you might want to wait until the manga is done before reading them, to avoid spoilers:
Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi.
Webster, John. The White Devil.
These three tragedies have a similar atmosphere to the Webster plays and are set in what I think of as the same world. They were inspirational for Poison Fruit but did not directly affect the plot:
Ford, John. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (a.k.a. Giuliano and Annabella).
Shakespeare, William. Othello.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
For those who still haven’t had enough, here is a further sampling of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays set in Italy:
Jonson, Ben. Volpone or The Fox.
Marston, John. Antonio and Mellida (Parts I and II).
Marston, John. The Malcontent.
Massinger, Phillip. The Great Duke of Florence.
Massinger, Phillip. The Maid of Honor.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice.
Shakespeare, William. The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The Palace of Pleasure was one of the most popular sources of story ideas for the playwrights. It is an anthology of early modern English translations of Italian and French stories, referred to as “novells” (though, by 21st century standards, most of them are closer to short story length). The plot of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is taken directly from Volume 3, Novell 23. While it is purportedly a true story, it’s unlikely that the original author did any fact checking.
Painter, William. (1566). The Palace of Pleasure (3 Volumes).
Stendahl’s book is a translation of an eyewitness account of the events that inspired The White Devil. Webster himself probably got the story from another (now lost) novell.
Stendahl. (1837). Vittoria Accoramboni.
In addition, anyone who really wants to get a feel for the era would do well to read anything by Boccaccio, Dante, and Machiavelli. Dante and Boccacio wrote at the beginning of, or just before the renaissance and their books remained best sellers right up to the end. Machiavelli wrote at the end of the period. His books are the quintessential summation of Renaissance thought, right at the turning point into what we think of as the “modern” age. The three most important works are:
Boccaccio, Giovanni. (c. 1350). The Decameron.
Alighieri, Dante. (1320). The Divine Comedy.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. (1532). The Prince.
There are far too many books on Renaissance Italy and early modern drama for me to try listing them all. A few that I’ve found particularly useful are:
Durant, Will. (1953). The Renaissance. Simon and Schuster.
Hill, Wayne F. & Örrchen, Cynthia J. (1991). Shakespeare’s Insults: Educating Your Witt. Mainsail Press.
“The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists”. In Lee, Vernon. (1882). Euphorion (Volume I).
Norway, Arthur H. (1901). Naples, Past and Present.
Staley, Edgcumbe. (1900). The Tragedies of the Medici.
NOTE: The following is 1st draft of a chapter which I wrote for a book I am currently working on. I decided to cut the chapter as being outside the scope of the book but it seemed a shame to waste it, so I decided to post it here, particularly since parts of it relate so various of my Great Books posts.
So far in this book I have used the term outside scholar fairly casually to refer to Victor Sharrow and those like him. Before proceeding, I think it is time to expand on what I mean when I use this label. First, though, I think it is appropriate that we review a bit of history about scholarship in general.
A scholar is a person who creates knowledge by a process called research and transmits it to others, usually through writing. In contemporary usage the term often connotes a profession. In the truest and most historic sense, however, scholarship is a vocation; scholars are driven by intellectual curiosity, love of knowledge, and a desire to create a permanent legacy for other scholars who will come later. A person with the true scholarly vocation will usually find a way to pursue their interests regardless of what formal profession they follow to make a living. In fact, the idea of a professional scholar who is paid for their studies is largely an invention of the modern age.
In our western tradition this conception of scholarship has its roots, like much else in our society, in the Golden Age of classical Greece when literate men began to research science, philosophy, and history and record their conclusions on scrolls which they allowed other scholars to borrow and copy, birthing the concept of scholarly publication. Typical of these men were the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. The first of these was a merchant, while the other two were career military men but all three were fascinated by recent history and the causes and effects of war. After collecting and comparing oral histories and visiting the some of the locations where important events had occurred, they wrote books which not only chronicle history, but also analyzed it. There works are still read and studied today1.
Thucydides, at least, was fully cognizant of his drive to leave a permanent intellectual legacy, writing,
“It will be enough for me…if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”
Thucydides knew Herodotus personally and was influenced by his book. Xenophon would have been acquainted with the work of both and seems to have written the Hellenica as a direct sequel to Thucydides’ work. Nevertheless, it never occurred to these men, or their contemporary colleagues whose work is now lost, to think of themselves as a community or school of historic scholars. They merely shared a common interest. It was the philosophers of Greece who originated the idea of an academy. The original academy was a grove of trees outside Athens where teachers met with their students. The academy became an actual institution when Plato joined with other local philosophers to create a school, holding classes in his home or the nearby gymnasium. Aristotle, the son of the Macedonian Royal Physician, studied there for several years before returning to Macedon to found his own academy, the Lyceum. Philosophers in Greece had always supplemented their incomes by teaching the sons of the local aristocracy. Formal academies were a way of persuading the students to come to them, rather than wandering the country in search of students. Academies in the pattern of Plato’s came and went in the Hellenic until the very end of the ancient period. From the first century of onward the Christianity began to dominate the intellectual life of the West, gradually replacing the more secular philosophy of classical antiquity. By the time the Western Roman empire collapsed, most learning was concentrated in the Church. Literacy rates dropped throughout Europe and the secular members of the upper classes found they were too busy fighting for survival to devote time to scholarship. The Eastern empire survived and was spared the worst effects of the Dark Ages, but the Byzantine mind was increasingly inclined towards mysticism and away from rational scholarship. In 529 the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of the last incarnation of the Athenian Academy, an event which some historians consider to be the official end of the ancient era and the beginning of the medieval period.
For nearly 1000 years, the church, particularly the monasteries, had a virtual monopoly on scholarship. Nearly everyone who learned to read and write was taught by clerics and most of what books still survived were the property of the church. The first universities were an outgrowth of earlier monastic schools and existed mainly to train priests and church officials2. Even those rare lay scholars who did not accept ordination pursued their studies with and within the church organization, or not at all.
All of this began to change around the end of the 15th century. The invention of the printing press and availability of paper drastically lowered the cost of books. Rising economic prosperity allowed more lay people in the upper class and the emerging bourgeoisie the luxury of an extended education. Since the 13th century, classical works which had long been lost in Europe but had survived in the Islamic world had begun to make their way back into the libraries of the West. Now they could be purchased and read by the laity. A new kind of intellectual, began to emerge throughout Europe to help build the modern age .
These renaissance men had more in common with the scholars of classical Athens than with monks of the Middle Ages. Typical of them was Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a Florentine politician. After finding himself on the wrong side of a coup, he found himself unemployed and was forced to retire to the countryside. His best known work, The Prince was an unsuccessful attempt to showcase his knowledge of political science and recent history in the hopes that a powerful noble would notice and offer him a position. Permanently shut out of politics, he consoled himself by reading the classics and writing a scholarly commentary on the works of Livy. Machiavelli might be the first successful outside scholar of the modern age. In fact, at least some historians feel that the publication of his works mark the start of the modern age3. Machiavelli was a layman and out of favor with the establishment. His major works were not published until after his death and were officially banned by the Church. Even today The Prince, while widely read, remains controversial. Despite this, Machiavelli’s eventual influence on western thought is incontestable .
Perhaps the greatest of all the Enlightenment outsiders, though, was Spinoza. Born in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Jews who had fled to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition, he showed a scholarly turn and was initially expected to become a rabbi. His curiosity soon drove him beyond the Torah, Talmud, and orthodox judaica into the Cabala and other esoteric studies. Then, after taking Latin lessons from a gentile freethinker, he proceeded to devour every philosophical text he could find, from Aristotle to Descartes. By then the young philosopher was beginning to harbor theories that made the elders of the synagogue extremely nervous .
Intellectual life among the Dutch Jews of the 17th century was closely circumscribed. Holland was one of the only places in Europe that was not closed to them in that period, and they remained only at the sufferance of their Protestant Christian hosts. Driven by the dual imperatives to maintain their cultural unity and to avoid giving offense to the Christians, they focused their studies on the Torah and avoided dangerous speculation. Young Spinoza, who had now begun saying things like “Angels are probably only hallucinations” and “The Bible uses figurative language and isn’t meant to be taken literally,” was not just a destabilizing influence, but was all too likely to bring down the wrath of the Christian majority on the Jewish community .
At the age of 24 Spinoza given a choice: he could either accept an annuity of 1,000 florins in return for keeping his unorthodox theories to himself, or he could be excommunicated from the Jewish faith. He chose excommunication. Europe had recently concluded a series of brutal wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants which raged intermittently for 126 years. Religious affiliation was still the single most important factor in the personal identity of most people and to not belong to an organized religion was unthinkable. Yet Spinoza never converted to another faith. Changing his first name from Baruch to Benedict, he moved into an attic apartment and spent the rest of his life writing books on philosophy while he supported himself by grinding lenses. Later, when his reputation began to grow, he turned down financial support from Lois XIV of France and even a prestigious university professorship on the grounds that accepting money from the government would irrevocably compromise his freedom to philosophize.
Of his five works (one unfinished) only two could be safely published during his life: a commentary on the philosophy of Decarte and the Theologico-Political Treatise, which was immediately placed on the index of banned books and had to be sold with a false cover and only the author’s initials on the title page. Among the inflammatory ideas contained in the book is the idea that the Bible is written in figurative language. The key to understanding it is to study the historical, biographical, and cultural context in which the authors lived,
The universal rule, then, in interpreting Scripture is to accept nothing as an authoritative Scriptural statement which we do not perceive very clearly when we examine it in the light of its history.
… such a history should relate the environment of all the prophetic books extant; that is, the life, the conduct, and the studies of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion, and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language. Further, it should inquire into the fate of each book: how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many different versions there were of it, by whose advice was it received into the Bible, and, lastly, how all the books now universally accepted as sacred, were united into a single whole.
All such information should, as I have said, be contained in the ‘history’ of Scripture. For, in order to know what statements are set forth as laws, and what as moral precepts, it is important to be acquainted with the life, the conduct, and the pursuits of their author: moreover, it becomes easier to explain a man’s writings in proportion as we have more intimate knowledge of his genius and temperament.
Further, that we may not confound precepts which are eternal with those which served only a temporary purpose, or were only meant for a few, we should know what was the occasion, the time, the age, in which each book was written, and to what nation it was addressed. Lastly, we should have knowledge on the other points I have mentioned, in order to be sure, in addition to the authenticity of the work, that it has not been tampered with by sacrilegious hands, or whether errors can have crept in, and, if so, whether they have been corrected by men sufficiently skilled and worthy of credence. All these things should be known, that we may not be led away by blind impulse to accept whatever is thrust on our notice, instead of only that which is sure and indisputable.
Today, this viewpoint is at the core of all but the most fundamentalist bible Judeo-Christian bible study, but it was revolutionary in 1670. In fact, the Theologico-Political Treatise is barely studied or quoted today, except by historians, because most of its arguments are now taken for granted in mainstream western thought.
Spinoza’s greatest work is his Ethics which solidified his reputation, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three greatest rationalist philosophers. It would be hard to exaggerate the extent of Spinoza’s influence on the next 500 years of modern philosophy. His impact on Judaism, once his people were ready to reclaim him, was equally pervasive. He has been called “The “first modern secular Jew” and credited with originating many of the core ideas of Reform Judaism .
Even as Machiavelli, Spinoza, and numerous other freethinkers were revolutionizing Western thought from outside any organized intellectual establishment, new forces were making themselves felt throughout Western Civilization4. Universities, which had first appeared in the medieval period, multiplied through the modern period, first in Europe and then in the New World5. Meanwhile scholars and learned professionals, seeing the value of communication and collaboration, began to organize themselves into societies. Typical of these was the Royal Society, founded in 1660, of which Henry Oldenburg, one of Spinoza’s best friends, was the first secretary. The, often overlapping, influence of the universities and societies on the growth of knowledge was overwhelmingly positive. However, as time went on a divide began to appear between the “elite” scholars who attended and taught at universities and/or belonged to scholarly societies and the “amateur” scholars who did not. A new Academy was forming which had the power to give or withhold approval and legitimacy to scholarly efforts.
The implicit narrative began to be that outside scholars were undisciplined and underprivileged. By the end of the Enlightenment, efforts were made to bring the most brilliant of them into the fold, which many accepted joyfully. Spinoza was exceptional in turning down a university position when it was offered. More typical was Samuel Johnson, that brilliant titan of English letters, who was given an honorary doctorate and referred to as “Dr Johnson” by academics forever more. Benjamin Franklin, a self-educated man who spent his early career as the archetypal outside scholar, happily accepted his own honorary doctorate and membership in the Royal Society in later life, glorying in his hard-won academic legitimacy.
As time went on, it became harder even for exceptional outsiders to gain admission to the ivory tower of academia. The Academy had emerged as a new international priesthood, with a hold over scholarship almost as strong as the church had enjoyed in the previous age. Only those who had served their novitiate and displayed appropriately orthodox dogmas could be ordained.
Rise of the Modern University
While universities first appeared in the middle ages and can, in at least in theory, be placed into the tradition of higher education which began with the Athenian academy, most of the traits which we associate with the modern university first appeared in the 19th century. It was in this period when two major schools of thought emerged which still shape thinking about the role of the university. One of these viewpoints was articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman, in a series of lectures given in Dublin in the 1850s. Newman’s view was shaped by his own experiences at Oxford which, like the other “ancient universities” of the British Islands was then in the process of transitioning from training aristocrats to providing a liberal education for the new class of skilled bourgeoisie. He argued that the primary role of a university was to provide a generalized education. Research was a less important mission than teaching. Indeed, research could be more efficiently conducted outside the university,
The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following:—That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science. … …there are other institutions far more suited to act as instruments of stimulating philosophical inquiry, and extending the boundaries of our knowledge, than a University. Such, for instance, are the literary and scientific “Academies,”… … To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new .
The Newman model of the university’s mission was highly influential in the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, on liberal arts colleges in America .
Meanwhile, in Germany, another model was emerging based on the University of Berlin, founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810. In the Humboldt type university teaching and research were inseparable. The university was a sort of knowledge factory. Students learned by being involved, albeit at a very low level, in the critical investigation of truth. The overall prestige of a university was based on the quality of research it generated. The Humboldt model became wildly popular on the continent because Humboldt type research systems were seen as a major factor in Germany’s economic growth. When the US began building its state university system with the passage of the Morrill Acts in 1862 and 1890, the Humboldt model was taken as a template for the ideal public university .
Until World War II most new universities in Europe and the Americas were based on the Humboldt paradigm. After the war, however, pressures to provide mass education to all citizens, combined with population pressures from the baby boom and the passage of the GI Bill in the US, which allowed returning soldiers to finance higher education, created demand for a third type of university. Neither Newman nor Humboldt type schools were physically capable of absorbing the influx of new students, which pushed student-to-faculty ratios to an historic high. nor were the new–primarily first generation–students particularly interested either in gaining a generalized liberal education or engaging in research. They came to school to learn technical skills and gain specialized diplomas which would increase their incomes. In response to this demand, the second half of the twentieth century saw a wave of new polytechnic schools, vocational schools that reinvented themselves as “technical universities”, and, finally, for profit “universities”. At these new schools basic research, if conducted at all, was a distinctly secondary pursuit. The need for faculty in these institutions paved the way a type of second-class academic whose primary job was lecturing to students who would never themselves become scholars .
Older universities, forced to compete with the new technical schools for funding, faculty, and students, began to adopt some of their traits. Student-to-faculty ratios rose, universities began doing more applied research, and an increasing number of specialized professional degree programs appeared in catalogs. Many older universities added professional schools, which allowed them to attract talented students who might otherwise go to a technical university while charging them tuition at a much higher rate than that for “research” graduate degrees. In 1908 Harvard began offering a new graduate degree, the Master of Business Administration (MBA), which was essentially a vocati9onal diploma for corporate executives. Other major research universities rapidly followed. Today the MBA is the most awarded graduate degree world-wide. Some MBA students are involved with research and a few go on to PhD programs, but the degree is not seen as preparation for a research career. In most business schools that offer PhD programs, MBA and PhD candidates are admitted based on different criteria and are almost completely segregated from each other throughout their studies. An MBA, even if they are a talented researcher, has almost no chance of landing a tenure-track academic job after graduation. There are around 800,000 of them graduating every year and every one of them, if they choose to do research, is, by definition, an outside scholar6.
The result of these four decades of competitive convergence, the typical state university of today has a case of institutional schizophrenia. One side of the split personality is a Humboltian research university in which research teams, led by tenured professors assisted by a chosen few students, spend their time competing for grant money and cranking out papers. The other side is a career school in which lecturers and graduate teaching assistants cater to legions of undergraduates’ and professional students’ need to diplomas which will allow them to take their places among the ranks of the bourgeoisies.
The same period over which the university attained its final form has seen the stratification of the scholarly community into four rigid castes, with relatively little mobility between them. The two upper castes make up the Academy, while the two lower castes are outsiders. At the top are the professional researchers. Most often they are tenured professors at a research university, or hold an analogous position at a public or private research facility. This caste not only has little trouble getting their research published and accepted, but because they control the peer review process, conference agendas, and PhD committees, are able to give or withhold the stamp of legitimacy to scholars of the lower castes. Below them are the lecturers, scholars who have either failed to reach the upper class, or whose main interest is education. Their main function is undergraduate and professional education but if they can somehow find the time and money for research they can often get it published. Below them are the professionals who hold specialized doctoral or masters degrees in law, business, medicine, engineering, education or other fields. They they generally are generally able to publish applied research in their own field, generally under the auspices of a professional association, but are discouraged from pure or theoretical research. At the lowest level are the autodidacts. These scholars, no matter what their level of interest, ability, and knowledge, have not managed to obtain the graduate degree which is the minimum requirement for scholarly legitimacy. In general, they have no access to journals, conferences, or “respectable” academic presses and are totally ignored by the academy. The avenues open to them to communicate their work–“popular” nonfiction, Internet blogs and predatory, for-profit journals, have little reach even among their own caste.
One of the most universal traits of all four castes in specialization. Despite a certain amount of lip service to multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary scholarship, 21st century scholars tend to confine their work to incredibly narrow disciplines. The typical modern scholar is thus defined by their place in a rigid system which labels and circumscribes them according to type of (or lack of) institution, rank, and specialty. There is no place in such a system for a Benjamin Franklin, a Francis Bacon, or even an Aristotle or Spinoza.
Historian John Lukacs explains this phenomenon as part of a process of bureaucratization which has continued in all aspects of Western Civilization throughout the modern age, reaching new heights in the twentieth century, “In this increasingly bureaucratized world, little more than the possession of various diplomas mattered. Since admission to certain schools–rather than the consequently almost automatic acquisition of degrees–depended on increasingly competitive examinations, the word ’meritocracy’ was coined…In reality the term ’meritocracy’ was misleading. As in so many other spheres of life the rules that governed the practices and functions of schools and universities were bureaucratic rather than meritocratic.” Securing admission to a program and earning a degree is only the first step for someone seeking an academic career. In the US it takes around ten years for the average PhD student to earn their degree, counting from the receipt of their bachelor’s . Once they take the examinations and submit to copious paperwork to gain admission to a program, they are presented with a list of required courses, further exams, and residency requirements to gain the degree. The only requirement that is designed purely to test the student’s skill as a writer and researcher is the dissertation. Even in this area following the correct format and submitting the appropriate paperwork often becomes nearly as important as the actual scholarship. In many fields, particularly the physical sciences, the PhD program is not even seen as adequate preparation for independent research and students are expected to spend further years in one or more “post-doc” research appointments to gain further experience.
Newly made PhDs as next subjected to yet another “meritocratic” sorting process. The lucky and well-connected are placed in “tenure track” positions as assistant professors. The second tier secure positions as lecturers–second class faculty who have no prospect of tenure and are expected to teach heavy course loads to free up the professors for research. The rest, an increasing percentage of the total, eke out a living as part time adjunct instructors, often commuting to three or more schools in a week in order to earn a living income. These “gypsies”, as they are referred to by their more fortunate colleagues, live in hope that a full time position will materialize, but the odds are stacked against them. It is hardly surprising that so many PhD students either fail to complete their degree or, having obtained it, give up and leave academia forever. Some of them have no choice: a gap in employment of more than a few months, or two much time spent as an adjunct, is often seen as a black mark in an academic’s career, permanently excluding them from consideration for full time positions7.
As for those lucky few, the small percentage of scholars who make it onto the tenure track, they are privileged to spend the next six or seven years working sixty hour weeks while they accumulate the requisite ticket punches for promotion. If all goes well they gain tenure around year seven, finally making it into full membership in the academy. If something goes wrong, or the university simply decides that it doesn’t need any more associate professors at the moment, they are thanked and excused and leave to start over from the beginning .
An associate professor working towards tenure has no incentive to take risks. A large volume of acceptable publications is always less risky than a few brilliant ones. Research that is two controversial, or steps on the toes of a member of the tenure committee, can easily wreck their career. Some of them tell themselves that they will play it safe until they get tenure, then work on the projects that they really want to do. A few follow through on this, but it is hard to radically change the direction of one’s research after seven years of escalating commitment. Many of them, after spending two decades of their research career playing it safe, have no idea how to take risks even if they wanted to.
Everything in the career path of an academic selects for risk avoiding individuals who know how to play the system. Successful professors have all the same character traits of a career bureaucrat. Worse, by the time they achieve tenure they have been thoroughly socialized to look down on any scholar who has not managed to survive the same process. At the same time, they have spent years acquiring narrowly specialized knowledge, working mostly with people in the same discipline, and being warned by their mentors not to have opinions or do work outside their field8
American research universities are incredibly good at their main function, which is rigorous, deep research in narrowly defined areas. They focus on training the kind of scholars that they need for this mission. Unfortunately, these specialized professors are much less effective at some of the other functions which have traditionally been associated with scholars. Teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level, is generally fobbed off on lecturers and graduate students. Practical applications, particularly those involving interdisciplinary knowledge, tend to be the province or corporate R&D organizations, where researchers are expected to pursue projects that will make a profit for the company and which only share their findings with competitors when it is in their interest. The task of advising policymakers is carried out by staff intellectuals at government agencies–which are, more or less by definition–even more bureaucratic and conservative than the universities.
But what of those scholars who follow the more traditional model, more like the great thinkers of the ancient world and the enlightenment? What about those who left the academy after earning a graduate degree–PhD, masters or professional, but still have an interest in doing real scholarly research and creating knowledge or affecting public policy? What about autodidacts who never had a formal education at all but, after a lifetime of reading are now ready to write serious nonfiction works? Is it even possible for these outside scholars to make a contribution in the modern era?
So far in this book, I have deliberately avoided writing any autobiographical details because I felt it would distract from the purpose of the work. Now, however, in the interests of full disclosure, I must mention that I too am one of these outsiders, and the answers to these questions affect me personally. I attended professional school at a major research university, earning an MBA. While there I did original research and completed a thesis which was later published as my first book. Several professors strongly urged my to continue on and finish a PhD. Upon examining what would actually be required, and the personal and family sacrifices that I would need to make, I decided that it wasn’t worth it. I am still doing primary research in my specialty, but I am finding every aspect of it more difficult now that I am now affiliated with an institution: it is much harder to obtain grant funding, I have trouble getting the journals and database access I need, and I no longer have a departmental fund to pay my way to conferences. When I go to publish in journals I find that the burden of proving my credibility is on me; without the name of an institution under my byline, the assumption is that I don’t have the qualifications to publish. I am far from the only one in this situation, though. Later, I will talk about some of the changes which are making life easier for us.
- Read together Books V-XII of Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and Xenophon’s Hellenica form a continuous trilogy of the history of Greece and her neighbors from just before the Greco-Persian wars up to the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, a period of approximately 136 years.↩
- Note the modern similarity between academic regalia and monastic habits.↩
- Alan Bloom argues that Machiavelli was the philosopher who began the Enlightenment. According to Bloom, it was Machiavelli who first suggested that the philosophers of western civilization, who had formerly been dependent on the patronage of the aristocracy, should “change camps” and espouse democracy, reason, and the theory of rights–some of the most characteristic concepts of the modern age–as these would create a society that offered them greater protection and scope for their talents.↩
- My discussion has necessarily been limited in scope to the history of Western Civilization. Other societies have their own scholarly traditions and institutions, some of which predate Western civilization itself. Likewise, they have had their own outside scholars who toiled outside the scholarly establishment and gained legitimacy and influence only late in life or even centuries after their deaths. Confucius is but one example. As the modern age continued, however, the ruling and intellectual classes of the East were increasingly educated by the Academy of the West. By the 20th century the Academy was completely international, and organized on the Western Model. See Eberhard.↩
- Even the destruction and upheavals of the Wars of Religion did little to slow the spread of universities. In fact, some of the most famous universities were founded as gambits in the struggle between Protestants and Catholics. For example, Trinity College in Dublin was established on the orders of Elizabeth I to educate the sons of her protestant subjects in Ireland without subjecting them to the corruptive influences of Catholicism.↩
- During orientation on my first day of business school I raised my hand and asked an associate dean about research opportunities for MBA students. He laughed and said “If you want to do research, what are you doing in the MBA program? You should have applied as a PhD.”↩
- For purposes of discussion I have focused on the career path of scholars at a research university. Many PhDs also work for government agencies or for-profit research organizations which have their own bureaucratic hurdles.↩
- At American universities and schools in other countries that are based on the American model, the basic unit of organization is the department, which consists of all of the university’s specialists in a particular discipline. At English universities, on the other hand, the basic unit is the college, which will typically include one professor from each discipline. English professors, and European academics in general, also tend to be more involved with teaching and administration than their American colleagues. See Eagleton for a delightful overview of some of the differences.↩
Anderson, Robert. “The ‘Idea of a University’ today.” History and
Politics (2010). http://www.historyandpolicy.org/hp/research/papers/policy-paper-98.html.
Bloom, Allan David. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Copulsky, Jerome E. “The Last Prophet: Spinoza and the Political Theology of Moses Hess.” University of Chicago Divinity School, 2008. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/imce/pdfs/webforum/032008/copulsky_last_prophet.pdf.
Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Kindle Ed. Aristeus, 2014.
Eagleton, Terry. Across the pond: an Englishman’s view of America. 2013
Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. 3rd ed. [org. pub. 1969]. Project Gutenberg, 2006. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17695.
Herodotus. The Persian War. Translated by William Shepherd. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Hoffer, Thomas B., and Vincent Welch. Time to degree of U.S. Research doctorate Recipients. National Science Foundation Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, March 2006. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/.
Lukacs, John. At the end of an Age. New Haven: Yale University
Machiavelli, Niccoló. The Prince. Translated by George Bull. LondoEagleton, Terry. Across the pond: an Englishman’s view of America.
2013n; New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin. Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/24526
Newman, John Henry. The University: Its Rise and Progress. Edited by Kevin A. Straight. Montrose, CA: Creative Minority Productions, 2015.
O’Brien, Keith. “The Ronin Insitute for wayward academics: a bold new idea to solve the PhD crises.” Boston Globe (May 27, 2012). https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2012/05/26/new-idea-for-unemployed-academics/UUZOGe1KNWvUXDl7Yae1IL/story.html.
Spinoza, Benedictus de. The ethics of Spinoza: the road to inner freedom. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1976.
Spinoza, Benedictus de. Theologico-Political Treatise. Translated by R.H.M. Elwes. Project Gutenberg, 1997. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/990.
Spinoza, Benedictus de, and Joseph Ratner. “The Life of Spinoza.” in The philosophy of Spinoza, [org. pub. 1926]. Project Gutenberg, 2010. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/31205.
Thucydides. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1954.
Xenophon. Hellenica. Translated by Henry Graham Dakyns. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1174
The other day I posted the first of the essays I had to write for my application to CSUDH’s Humanities Master of Arts External (HUX) program. As promised, here is the second, longer essay. The prompt asked me to describe two to three events, works, or people which inspired my interest in the humanities. I chose to write about two professors I worked under as a teaching assistant the last time I was in graduate school who made particularly effective use of the Great Books in their courses.
Two professors, Dr. Sean Jasso and Dr. Paul Beehler, did more to inspire my interest in studying and teaching the humanities than anyone else I have met. Ironically, I met both of them not by taking humanities courses, but by being assigned as their teaching assistant in business school. Each of them, however, is serious about integrating the humanities in their undergraduate business classes and expects their assistants to do the same. While working for them I learned more about writing, criticism, and the great authors of the Western canon than I did in my entire undergraduate career.
Dr. Sean Jasso’s background is in hospitality management but his research is in public policy and corporate ethics. For several years he has been fine-tuning a class titled “Business Ethics and Law in Society”. The main text for the course is Michael Sandel’s Justice, which uses real world examples to illustrate the ideas of ethical philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, and Mill. All of these authors were new to me. I nearly panicked the first time a student appeared in my office saying that she “didn’t really understand Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives,” and could I explain it for her. As every teacher knows, however, teaching a subject is the best way to understand it. My own pedagogical style relies heavily on Socratic questions to encourage students to think critically and make connections, so my weekly discussion sections became a shared journey of inquiry with my students as we found new ways to apply the teachings of these philosophers to weekly case studies.
With Dr. Jasso’s help, I soon found ways to apply the philosophy we were teaching to situations in my professional life. One ethical issue that affects everyone in higher education is academic integrity. Catching a student cheating or plagiarizing creates an ethical dilemma for any teacher teacher, especially an overworked graduate assistant. To simply ignore the offense and pass the student is easy, but is a betrayal of one’s duty and, in utilitarian terms, hurts the whole society by lessening the value of a university education for all students. Failing the offender and turning them over for disciplinary action is nearly as easy and can be justified on the grounds that cheating is categorically wrong and that punishing cheaters rewards those students who do not offend. Dr. Jasso believes, however, that because a teacher’s purpose is to educate, a cheating incident needs to be used as an additional opportunity to teach the student. He expects his assistants to call a meeting the student and himself. In this meeting teaching assistant confronts the student, who is given an opportunity to confess. Students who come clean are then prompted to explain why their actions were wrong and allowed to write an essay titled “Why Cheating is Wrong and I Won’t do it Again”, supporting their points with material from the class. If the teaching assistant is satisfied with the essay then they are not referred for disciplinary action (they still have to repeat the course). These “cheater meetings” were emotionally exhausting for the teaching assistant and created extra grading work, but Dr. Jasso convinced me that they were the right thing to do.
Dr. Paul Beehler is an English professor who teaches “Business Writing and Communications” for the School of Business Administration. One of the texts for his course is Machiavelli’s The Prince. As their term project students are required to write a research paper analyzing the strategy of a real corporation in terms of Machiavellian philosophy. When grading papers and exam blue books I found that I usually knew within a few paragraphs whether I was looking at ‘B’ or ‘C’ work (there were very few ‘A’s), but a letter grade is almost useless to a student because it doesn’t tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Dr. Beehler pushed me to become not only an editor, but a critic: deconstructing a student’s work and offering comments on their style, logical reasoning, creativity, and use of semiotics. This was a painful process for me, because Dr. Beehler spot checks his assistants’ grading work and often returns papers to be regraded. I was frequently frustrated when his opinion of a paper differed widely from my own. As time went on, however, I realized that my criticism tended to be fairly shallow and he was teaching me to read at a deeper level– to go beyond mechanics and rhetorical flourishes and assess the sophistication of a student’s thoughts. I soon I realized that I was applying a deeper level of analysis to everything I read, including my own work. I was also able to give much better comments to students who brought in their work in progress to show me during office hours. This made me a better critic and editor which in turn made me a better writer.
Another benefit of teaching the class under Dr. Beehler is that it introduced me to Machiavelli’s work, which I now understand represents a watershed in Western philosophy. Machiavelli stands upon the divide between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and represents one of the first articulations of the basically humanistic path which Western thought has followed for the past five centuries. His decision to embrace republican political philosophy over the traditional divine right of kings not only influenced all of the enlightenment authors who followed him, but eventually led the way to the liberal democracies in which we now live.
Even though I never took a course of theirs, nor did research under them, Dr. Jasso and Dr. Beehler taught me more than any of the professors I knew in professional school. Dr. Jasso introduced me to the great ethical philosophers and showed me how to integrate their theories into my professional life. Dr. Beehler pushed me to a higher level of writing and textual criticism, making me a better writer. Both inspired what I suspect will be a lifelong interest in the Western canon and the humanities in general, and teaching under them was one of the most valuable aspects of my professional school experience.
I am currently reading historian John Lukacs’ At the End of an Age. I only discovered Lukacs’ work fairly recently, after reading a review of one of his other books on David Withun’s blog. He is an insightful and very readable author whose platform happens to match my own in several interesting ways; I’m sure I will be mentioning him again in the future.
I will probably do a full review of the book as soon as I finish it. At the moment, however, I would like to respond to one of the ideas which he discusses multiple times in the first half of the book: intellectual bureaucratization. The main thesis of At the End of an Age is that the modern era of history, which began around the end of the fifteenth century, is now drawing to a close. One of the main attributes that Lukacs points out as differentiating the modern era from previous eras is a the massive growth of bureaucracy in every area of human existence. This trend is even evident–in fact especially evident–in the pursuit of knowledge. Lukacs points to the increasing tendencies towards specialization, the need for credentials, and the drive to place intellectuals within some sort of larger organization. He points out that the words “writer”, “scholar”, “philosopher”, and “intellectual” were once essentially synonyms but have not come to mean very different things. The word “scientist”, meaning a philosopher who cultivates scientific knowledge, did not even appear in print until 1840. Now “scientist” usually implies a practitioner of the natural sciences who has little or no connection with philosophy.
In many ways, this parallels an argument in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which I reviewed in back in December. Like Bloom, Lukacs infers a connection between the growth of Democracy and academic specialization. Bloom, however, argued that the preeminence of Democracy was itself the result of the concerted efforts of philosophers from Machiavelli on to ensure their own comfort and survival. Lukacs, so far at least, has identified no such causal relationship.
Like Bloom, Lukacs points out that education is increasingly concerned with credentials such as specialized college degrees which are designed to fit students into particular pigeon holes in society and assign them a label (e.g. “physicist, business analyst, journalist”) that equate what they are with what they do.
Thinking on my own career, I realize that I have often chaffed against this phenomenon of intellectual bureaucratization. My “official” academic specialty is operations research, the field which is concerned with using certain techniques of applied mathematics to find optimum solutions to problems in management and engineering. I have succumbed to societal pressure and acquired certain credentials on this area, such as my MBA degree with a concentration in operations. In my final terms in graduate school I was strongly urged by my adviser and others to continue to a PhD program so I could become a “real” operations researcher.
But I never wanted to label myself that way. I don’t think of myself as an operations researcher. I am an intellectual. Operations research is a set of useful tools which I use to understand the world and create knowledge; it isn’t what I am. Nor do I think of myself as a scientist, a philosopher, a scholar, or even a writer, though I do think that each of these are important facets of the intellectual life. Even the label of “intellectual” is limiting. If I am an intellectual, does that mean that I’m less of a worker, or an artist, or a homemaker, or any of a dozen other roles which I fill?
Society though, at least in this age, is very uncomfortable with anyone who doesn’t wear a label. If someone at a cocktail party asks me “What do you do?” they become flustered when I don’t have an easy answer.
At the beginning of the modern era a PhD, or “doctor of philosophy” degree was a general degree, because philosophy was the discipline that included all of the others. A PhD was someone who had achieved a breadth and depth of knowledge in all areas of philosophy sufficient to provide a liberal education to students. Nowadays, though, PhDs are incredibly specialized. The professors and PhD students I knew at school were entirely focused on publishing in the “hot” areas of their own disciplines, to the extent that they would refuse to consider or comment on questions in other fields. Many operations PhDs will not even answer a student’s question about economics or finance, even though these are closely related disciplines. Many of them teach the same two or three classes year after year and become offended when asked to take on a course which is outside their own research interests. I enjoy both research and teaching, but was horrified at the idea of doing either at that level of specialization. Lukacs is right: an intellectual who is willing to be labeled and limited in such a way has become a bureaucrat, a cog in machine which is supposed to create knowledge, but mostly just produces citations and degrees.
For a few months now I have been reading my way through the Great Books and publishing my responses to them on this blog. One of the things all of the authors of the Great Books have in common was that none of them allowed themselves to be cogs in a machine or limited themselves to considering one narrow area of study. As a writer, there is only a slim chance that I will myself produce the next great book. On the other hand, if devoted the rest of my life to being a professor in some narrow area of operations research, there is no chance I would write such a work at all.
Perhaps things will be different in the next era of history, and people will be able to just be people, without labels that fit them into a bureaucracy. Perhaps Lukacs is right and that next era is coming soon. I rather hope so.
I ask that you bear with me as I continue my detour of discussing books about Great Books. Reading the great books to improve myself as a writer is likely to be a pretty long project–probably even more time consuming than the time I decided to watch all 726 Star Trek episodes in chronological order. Before I get started too far into it, I want to be sure and examine some of the motivations for someone to launch on a Great Books reading program. Next time I will return to discuss the Odyssey.
I just finished reading The Closing of the American Mind: How higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) by Allan Bloom. Allan Bloom was a Great Books veteran, having produced well respected translations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, as well as two books on Shakespeare. The Closing of the American Mind, written a few years before his death, is his magnum opus of popular nonfiction and is one of the last articulate 20th century pleas for greater integration of the Great Books in education.
The book covers quite a bit of ground, since Bloom was trying to trace a complete intellectual history of the purpose of a liberal education in our society. He brings up quite a few interesting points, any one of which would make a good blog article, but I will try to keep this post brief.
Bloom argues that in a liberal democracy, which by definition has no aristocracy or powerful established religion, the university is the only place where young people have a chance to experience a larger world of ideas and possibilities before going back to the “vulgar bourgeoisie” world of their future careers. Furthermore, a university is the only place where dissenting or new ideas are allowed to thrive, free from a democracy’s moral consensus. However, the fact that modern universities exist within a democracy means that they have been under pressure to encourage “openness” to different ideologies, lifestyles, values, etc. This has caused the academy to fragment into a “Chinese restaurant menu” of different disciplines, depriving students of any commonality of experience or deep exposure to the core ideas that make up our civilization. Also, the wide acceptance of Neitzeism and other German philosophies has led to a new nihilism in both the academic Right and the academic Left, causing them to abandon teaching about The Good and instead teach a vague sort of value theory where nothing is good or bad and a dangerous relativism where all lifestyles and philosophies are equally valid as long as their proponents exhibit a proper level of commitment, leaving students adrift with no means to evaluate anything in terms beyond simple utility.
Bloom’s solution is a return to the wellsprings of Western Civilization, i.e. “the good old Great Books approach.” However, he admits that this is unlikely to happen now that the humanities have been stripped of their traditional prestige and allure, the physical sciences have decided they don’t need the other disciplines, and an increasing number of undergraduates are shameless careerists, intent only on getting the prerequisites they need to get into professional programs. He points out, however, that even if there is no solution to the problem, the problem itself is eminently suitable as a subject for study by philosophers.
I honestly am not sure whether I agree with Bloom. Many readers have detected overtones of elitism in his argument. If we were to reset the curriculum to what it was in, say, the Victorian period, it would again create a massive advantage for upper-class, white males. On the other hand, I would embrace any program that could teach undergraduates to read and think, two things which very few of them now do well. Also, as a member of Western Civilization, I do think that it is important to protect and cherish our own intellectual and cultural heritage. On my most recent trip through college I was frequently shocked to learn what little awareness my fellow graduate student had of Western culture, literature and history. There education had failed in that respect, and there must be a better system.
One section of the book which I found very interesting was Bloom’s discussion about the role of the philosopher in society (pp. 268-293). The philosopher, Bloom says, is an inherently vulnerable individual because he is different from the rest of the society and his contribution is not measurable in terms that regular people can necessarily understand. Very seldom has a philosopher been a ruler. In fact, most of them have lived in poverty. Philosophers are thus subject to all sorts of persecutions, starting with Socrates’ execution. I was reminded of Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community and Galileo’s censure by Catholic church. Because of vulnerability, philosophers have “engaged in a gentle art of deception” to woo the aristocracy for protection and support:
In sum, the ancient philosophers were to a man proponents of aristocratic politics..They were aristocratic in the vulgar sense, favoring the power of those possessing wealth, because such men are more likely to grasp the nobility of philosophy as an end in itself, if not to understand it. Most simply, they have the money for an education and time to take it seriously. (p. 284)
However, by the 17th century, philosophers had come up with an even better scheme: Enlightenment. This plan was Machiavellian in the truest since of the word, given that Machiavelli was the one who thought of it. By simultaneously showing the world the fruits of scientific inquiry while teaching a theory of rights, the philosophers inspired revolutions which led to liberal democracy and allowed the existence of the modern university–an institute dedicated to teaching and protecting philosophy. Once the rule of Reason was firmly established, the philosophers no longer needed aristocratic patronage and switched to”the party of democracy”.
Now, if we return to Bloom’s main argument, the universities are in a state of decline and philosophy is no longer central to education, yet philosophers are now unable to survive outside the university. Bloom would like to change the university back to what it once was, if possible.
For my own part, I must ask if it isn’t time for philosophers to come up with a new plan. If the aristocracy is gone, and universities are now more of a hindrance than a help, perhaps it is time to move on. To where? I don’t know; I’m no Machiavelli. It seems, though, that this too is a good question for philosophic inquiry.