Tell-tale signs of decadence reveal that it’s time for the Humanities (again).
Now, while everyone is looking towards science to put right all that’s wrong with the world, it is time to call on the Humanities. To be conservative often consists in being a party pooper. It is not that we enjoy being naysayers, it is just that the world insists on conspiring against all that is good and beautiful. Without Greece there is no beauty. Without Rome there is no language. Humanists have been warning for years that a return to barbarism is in store for Western society if it continues to turn its back on the classical world. Without the Greco-Roman legacy, the whole world would be like Antifa: a collective incapable of connecting without the help of a brick.
It is possible that many schoolchildren intellectually kidnapped by progressive pedagogues believe pizza to be the greatest cultural inheritance from Rome. But believe it or not, even before the whole world spoke Shakespeare’s language, the great imperial language of the West was Latin. More than half of our modern English language comes from Latin. Some Latin words prove very useful in election campaigns. “Fool,” for example, is as old a term as human stupidity: It comes from Old French and ultimately from the Latin follis, which alludes to a bellows, a small swollen leather bag.
Beyond Latin, as Dave Barry wrote, “The Romans spent the next 200 years using their great engineering skill to construct ruins all over Europe.” Thanks to their efforts, we have inherited from them Roman law, the best architecture, the arts, the calendar, and the Christian religion. In the political arena, Rome left us institutions such as the Senate — something for which we are still waiting for an apology.
If we are able to admire our immense classical heritage nowadays, it is not because of the old empire’s charm, but because of the way it was built. Chesterton once shed light on this, saying: “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”
As for Greece, without a doubt, their greatest contribution was the ideas. Yes, there were good ones and bad ones; but the Greeks imbued them with an important novelty: They made it fashionable to reflect upon which ideas were good and which were bad. Gender ideology would never have prospered in Greece. Greek philosophers tended to position themselves with opposing points of view and debate for as many hours as necessary with the aim of perfecting an idea. You would never find a Greek conservative cowering before a controversial issue and saying, “Well, as long as I pay less in taxes, I don’t mind if a transvestite visits my children in class to talk about sexual diversity.” In the classical world, hesitant and complacent politically correct attitudes were not considered a sign of a good education but of a very deficient one.
Whatever the case may be, if today Humanities spark contempt from the Left, it is because they often refute their latest occurrences backed by immutable ideas that have matured for almost 30 centuries. That and because of what Hesiod wrote about the dignity of work, perhaps with future limousine liberals wearing Marxist masks in mind: “Work is not a disgrace, idleness is a disgrace.”
In Sophocles, when Antigone rebels against unjust laws, she does not do it because she wants to confront the king of Thebes, but because she recognizes the existence of a natural moral law, the same one that today we could turn to, even without religion, to reject the murder of babies in their mothers’ wombs. By and large, it was Greece that gave the philosopher Leo Strauss grounds to pass the most beautiful and savage judgment on liberal education ever written: “Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for ‘vulgarity’; they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful.”
Although, of all the classical world, I suppose that if anything really torments the apostles of modernity it is reading the works of Titus Livius — and in no way am I suggesting that they do. The old historian wrote that the greatness of Rome came about through virtue, and he spoke of the stereotype of the ancient Roman with the epic qualities with which we might speak today of someone such as John Wayne: hardworking, heroic, constant, and a lover of justice. Titus Livius compared this ideal with the customs of his time, becoming a prophet of Roman decadence. If he were our peer, with his ideas, it is likely that he would have had to seek refuge within the pages of National Review, while receiving daily attacks from CNN, the New York Times, and other mass media, raised in mass captivity.
I do not know if it is too bold a statement to claim that Roger Scruton was the Titus Livius of our day, but in any case, he was the most important defender of the Humanities in the worst conditions. Scruton’s reasoning, always elegant, remains effective, as he exposes the limitations that the scientific and the material will always have: “that world [material] can be understood completely in another way which also has its truths which are not translatable into the truths of science.” In the 2017 presentation of On Human Nature, Scruton was even more explicit: “Science does not know what man is.” Therefore, science alone cannot make decisions about whether or not it would be right to remove the organs from 50 children if that helped manufacture a vaccine against the present pandemic. For science, obviously, the end always justifies the means. In fact, that is its only reason for being. It is philosophy, ethics, and morals, the immense legacy of classicism, that raise their voices against injustice or against an affront to human dignity.
This is why the Democrats have become suspicious of the Humanities. Philosophy is a very dangerous discipline because it could teach schoolchildren how to think for themselves. Again, it was Scruton who saw it coming, pointing out that hatred for the classical world is not to be sought in the laboratories, but “in the universities and cultural institutions, where a kind of morose antipathy to the Western inheritance accompanies a deep suspicion of all those who wish to teach it and to build on it.” From there, the ideological battleground has shifted. In the end, all those who fail to win in the field of ideas end up declaring war on grammar, but savagely, as if instead of a university it were a Democratic Congress.
After all, some people may argue that the Humanities discourse is beautiful but not very pragmatic if what you want is to reach the end of the month with food in the fridge. In the end, I am a writer; I cannot give any lessons on how to live comfortably by devoting oneself to bloody bohemianism. A friend of mine, the Spanish writer and director at the Instituto Cervantes in London, Ignacio Peyró, often says that writing is our most expensive vice. However, it could be that the times are changing. A British Academy report published this year will undoubtedly make contemporary philosophers very happy, after years of looking in the mirror and asking “why?” — I mean: “Why on earth did I study this career?”
This Qualified for the Future report claims that graduates in the arts, humanities, and social sciences find work with almost identical ease and conditions as those in technical fields: “Of the ten fastest growing sectors, eight employ more AHSS graduates than other disciplines.” But additionally, those working in humanities prove to be more versatile, making their jobs flexible and, in the event of losing them, find new jobs more easily in a variety of industries. The report compares this situation to the many technical profiles of those who can rarely escape their own professional field and do anything else if they lose their job. In this sense, in turbulent times such as these, the Humanities can be a lifesaver. Although I am not suggesting that the only destiny in store for technical engineers is serving drinks in a Mediterranean beach bar, fighting for tips from a bunch of tipsy German pensioners.
It is true that salaries tend to be a little lower in the Humanities, but this kind of calculation usually ignores that this is a long-distance race. Unlike technical disciplines, Humanities growth comes from experience and allows for, over the years, improvement in one’s salary. This has been, on the other hand, a constant in the history of work: Without wanting to belittle anyone’s efforts, it’s the exception, not the rule, to be a millionaire programmer by your 18th birthday, managing a multinational corporation dressed like a junkie from the ’80s. The normal course is to progress little by little, with much effort. In the professional realm, haste and the obsession with immediate triumph are tacky.
For decades we have bet everything on science, as if it were a god. Thanks to medicine, we began to feel almost immortal. In this area, Europe became even more radical. Philosophy, religion, and critical thinking were outlawed. Only science was valid. The ideal was health — universal health. But in the hour of truth, the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and we died just like everyone else, while science desperately searched for a solution, feeling the angry breath of converts to a harsh reality breathing down its neck, like a conned mob at the door of the con man, who is actually just another victim of the fraud.
No, perhaps the Humanities cannot find the vaccine against coronavirus, but it can find it against stupid rationality, moral sclerosis, nihilistic pride, or the Chinese totalitarianism that paved the way for the pandemic. And, in any case, whatever happens, it will always be better for the soul to read Homer or St. Augustine than that famous self-help author, Paulo Coelho, who wrote in 1988, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” It does not work. I’ve been wanting something hard since 1988, but Coelho is still publishing his books.
Translated by Joel Dalmau.