Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Summoned by bells

Schools run by, or under the auspices of, mainstream churches were once the mainstay of conservative values in many Western countries. The schoolmasters and schoolmistresses of times past were natural conservatives, valuing hierarchies of authority, almost military (or monastic?) routine, and a relatively stable body of cultural lore to be passed on - Christian texts, Greek and Roman texts, and various literary works in English and European languages.

In many ways this traditional amalgam of Greek, Roman and Christian ideas became a liability for the West because of the high prestige accorded to classical learning and literature, and the low status attached to science and technology. Nietzsche, steeped in the classical tradition, saw science as democratic and levelling. At the school I attended from the age of nine to the age of seventeen - an institution which carried the Middle Ages well into the second half of the 20th century - Latin and French were high-prestige subjects and, before some long-overdue renovations, our chemistry laboratory would have made any time-travelling alchemists feel right at home.

But there is no doubt that the West's shared cultural traditions helped to create a sense of social harmony at home and the sense of belonging to a wider world; that the widespread teaching and learning of Latin and Greek helped to create self-discipline and a sense of history; and that the tedium of regular services in the school chapel taught the invaluable but dying art of sitting still.


  1. Where I went to school, academic prestige belonged mostly to maths and science. Modern languages ranked pretty low (maybe girls could do that sort of thing). Latin? What's that? Religion was never mentioned. Cultural traditions? Nope. Sport? Yes, important, but not dominating.

    You'd think it would be possible to have a "balanced" education, mixing science, maths and humanities in equal quantities.

    Mark, in your classical schooling (I think it comes from the Renaissance) did philosophy ever get a mention? Would you have ever read -- or heard of -- Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero?

  2. There were no philosophy classes as such. I first encountered it as a formal subject at university. Religious Knowledge classes were mainly watered-down theology but theology shades into philosophy and we certainly did discuss philosophical ideas. I had a strong sense of the contrast between the old way of arguing from first principles and arguing from the evidence. Descartes loomed large and I knew in general terms about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and medieval philosophy.

    Texts in Latin classes were readers in the early years, anthologies (scraps of Cicero et al.). Our two main matriculation texts were Virgil's Aeneid and the incredibly boring letters of Pliny the Younger.

    (I envied the Roman schoolboy in one of the readers who had a slave to carry his books!)

  3. So did you read Augustine or Aquinas or Pascal or Newman or any other religious-cum-philosophical writers?

    I am trying to figure out how much scope your sort of schooling had for would-be thinkers and debaters.

  4. Debating was encouraged but not free thinking. One was expected to toe the line on Christian doctrine. No - that gives a false impression. We believed and we were happy to believe. Once when I had doubts I felt wretched and was greatly relieved when one of my teachers was able to talk me out of them.

    We did not read any of the authors you mention. Much of what they wrote was apologetics, targeted at non-believers. Pascal's wager argument falls into this category.

  5. There is a simulacrum of sitting still observable today. Youngsters sit almost motionless, slouched in a chair or curled in a bed, with only their thumbs flashing over the keypads of their "mobile devices." I'm told they are "texting."

    As an outside observer, I sense they share cultural traditions, experience social harmony, and feel a part of a wider (digital) world. What I know of their world, however, does not compare favorably with Virgil, Shakespeare, or Dante. Perhaps their world will mature as they do and will ultimately produce genius. Perhaps not. Golden ages are not the norm.

  6. A decline in intergenerational communication has been exacerbated by those mobile devices, I believe. It's all part of a trend towards a curiously ahistorical way of operating - a mentality I have difficulty imagining.

  7. Tim Parks has a wonderful book entitled "Teach Us To Sit Still". But it's on a different subject altogether. (

    In your religious school there was debating and cultural tradition but no freedom of thought.

    In my secular government school there was no prescriptive belief system but also no debate or argument -- at least not in the curriculum.

    Neither model teaches kids how to be the sort of thinkers that created the traditions we inherit. That's why I think schools must teach at least some philosophy and critical thinking.

  8. Most of the thinkers who created the traditions we inherit were profoundly influenced by religion. (Admittedly some pioneers of science were not.)

    Socrates believed in the gods, didn't he? Plato had Pythagorean beliefs. The Stoics were on the whole religious thinkers. Even the French Enlightenment thinkers were deists. And that's not even mentioning Christian thinkers. Descartes and Pascal - both devout Christians - were amongst the greatest thinkers of all time.

    My view is that philosophy derives from religion and cannot exist as a distinct discipline in the absence of religion.

    Critical thinking is something else - a generic skill that applies to a wide range of intellectual activities and situations.

  9. Ahem... Isn't there a fallacy of correlation and cause in there somewhere?

  10. I was responding to your suggestion, Alan, that a religious context precludes "freedom of thought". I had previously emphasized that - in my experience at least - religious belief does not feel like something imposed but is something one freely embraces as a thinking being.

    And it is a fact of history that much philosophical thinking has been done in environments heavily influenced by religion. I am indeed suggesting that, in a sense, philosophy is parasitic on religion, and will not thrive without it, but this is merely a speculative hypothesis.

  11. Thanks, I misunderstood you.

    I was suggesting that some frameworks are too prescriptive to allow room for a good education, and maybe also some are too unprescriptive, if there is such a word, so that the idea of debate and intellectual culture does not arise. The second was my sort of school education, to some extent.

  12. Philosophy parasitic on religion ... well! I object to keeping PHI continually tangled up with REL and SCI, that's why I cringe. Nonetheless ...

    Countless philosophers great and small were primarily religious thinkers, and developed their philosophies directly in that light. The Scholastic tradition was rooted and steeped in religion, for instance and its vestiges still survive.

    Modern philosophy begins at Descartes, who (in my understanding) was coy on religion when pressed. He conformed to tradition when it came to religious "belief." It was not that he believed, but that he agreed to live by the conventions of his time. He wouldn't contradict the teachings of his society -- but that is not the same as accepting its beliefs. He was not above dissecting cadavers, for instance, at a time when that was still considered immoral by the Church (and most people). In other words, Descartes waffled on religion -- flip-flop, two-faced really. (No wonder he's known for dualism -- LOL).
    Though not so much religious himself, his notion of "the soul" (which today we call "mind") resembled the disembodied ghost soul of Catholic teaching: the body was inhabited by the spirit and could not live without it (death is the soul leaving the body). The recipe for classic Cartesian dualism, then, is definitely inspired or influenced by the soul metaphysics of the Church.

    Philosophers and scientists have spent several centuries overcoming that "soul" paradigm of consciousness (for instance). That makes Descartes the last ancient and the first modern, I guess.

    But does that make PHI parasitic on REL? Or simply an improvement on REL? I still don't like the phrase.

    Similar to Comte, I think of religion, philosophy and science as historical phases of (cosmological) theory. First religion, then philosophy, then science (what next?) have looked at the world and humanity, and in trying to understand them, have developed increasingly physical/empirical (and less spiritual) representations of "reality." In each phase there is a new, revised set of metaphors or terms. A new language, even a new grammar. The basic questions of cosmic origins and human significance in the universe are the same for a caveman as for a priest, a philosopher, or a scientist, and that is how they relate -- the concerns are perennial. Each paradigm feeds upon (but is meant to supersede) the previous ones. A new language every millennium or so, one might say.

    What's weird about our present age is that all of these paradigms (languages) are still alive and compete with each other. Ours is an age of transition. All previous terms or metaphors are still considered valid, and none has supplanted the rest. Future ages could be "post-scientific," with syncretic terms and metaphors (visualizations of reality) we have not yet developed. In a sense, "the truth" has not been invented yet.

    But ... philosophy parasitic on religion? Okay, yes, I know what you mean but ... that idea still furrows my brow. I want humanist philosophy transcendent but resolutely undivine.

  13. On a related note, I (unclearly) recall in Socrates' farewell to his friends, with hemlock in hand, he said outright that the gods are only fairy stories we tell our children to give them courage and hope. Although he used the metaphors of the age (discussing "what the gods want," for instance) I read that as communicating on the audience's level, rather than a sign of Socrates' belief in gods. Mostly because of this comment of his as he approached his own death, I don't think Socrates was religious at all. And neither, apparently, did the Athenians. LOL.

    Of course, I believe that the Jesus story of crucifixion (execution of the righteous and innocent) is the story of Socrates retold to a Levantian audience ... but I'll never be able to prove it. That would be religion parasitic on philosophy, wouldn't it.
    The strange ahistorical bent of the youngest generation is not unprecedented, I think. It's a continuation of the same impulse in their fathers (such as I), who sometimes want to "forget history" in the name of peace. We did not teach a lot of (classical) history to our children. And it worked. They know little of it. The question is whether that was all so wise.


  14. There are two problems with Mark's hypothesis (at least).

    One, plenty of philosophers have not been religious at all.

    Two, amongst those who were, how can one tell which -- religion or philosophy -- was the driving force?

  15. Thanks for your thoughts, gc - always good to hear from you. I did some Googling on the religious views of Socrates and Descartes. It's clear, I think, that Socrates was deeply religious even if he did not take the popular stories of the gods seriously. And I think my view of Descartes as a devout Christian is defensible though the issue may not be one that can be definitively proven. My point about philosophy being parasitic on religion does not depend on philosophers being religious however (see below). By the way, I recall being told about a survey of professional philosophers which sought to find common factors in their backgrounds. Religion - or some sort of encounter with religion - was the only common factor identified.

  16. Alan, as I said in my reply to gc, my hypothesis is not that philosophers are necessarily religious, but that philosophy is in some way dependent on religion. In that survey I mentioned, virtually all the respondents had had a significant encounter with religion. But my views were formed just by looking at the history of philosophy and by noting that a religious or spiritual view of the world allows an important role for abstract, non-scientific thought that a secular and scientific culture does not recognize.

    The best example I can think of to illustrate my point is the Vienna Circle. Most of the members were not religious but that incredible flowering of philosophical thought was a direct response to the deeply entrenched religious and conservative culture of Catholic Vienna.

  17. In his book, "The Philosophers", Ben-Ami Sharfstein studied 22 of the greats. The most striking finding was that 20 of them suffered the death of a parent early in their lives.

    Of his 22, six became atheists. Four of these -- Hume, Nietzsche, Russell and Sartre -- lost their fathers very early in life.

    The other two atheists were Mill and Santayana.

    He says very little about the role of religion, so I guess it is not what you are thinking of. Your hypothesis as expressed above does make sense to me. Philosophers are often trying to vindicate religion or trying to supply an antidote to it.

  18. I tend to find books like the one you mention, Alan, fascinating, though I wonder about the selection criteria and about the usefulness of the designation 'philosopher'. Do those people really fit together?