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September 19, 2006

The Roots of Rage and Pride: Marc Sidwell considers the learning of Oriana Fallaci

Posted by Marc Sidwell

Oriana Fallaci's books on Islam and the post-9/11 world sold in their millions in much of Europe, yet made little impression here in the United Kingdom. Why? Marc Sidwell suggests that this may have something to do with the fact that fewer and fewer of us have a classical education.

Oriana Fallaci fought her cancer hard. She had a message she wanted to shout at Europe and the West as loud and for as long as she could. Vilified by many, threatened with imprisonment, ignored by the powerful, she wrote with increasing urgency, and her philippics will continue to sell, in the idiosyncratic English translations which she produced by herself. But Europe's Cassandra has passed, and left us to our fate.

The death of so talented a journalist has received much attention. Who could resist the irony that, even as she died, the pope whom Ms Fallaci condemned for his weakness in the face of resurgent Islam was being condemned by the Islamic world?

I was struck by one sentence from her essay on the 7/7 bombings, the essay in which she addressed herself directly to Benedict XVI and told him that his calls for dialogue were hopeless. Speaking of her own work, she wrote:

I've been shouting until I'm hoarse "Troy is burning! Troy is burning!" and I despair of the Danaids for whom, like Virgil in the Aeneid I weep for a city entombed in its torpor.
The more I read that sentence, the more extraordinary it seems. The assumption of knowledge it makes, the cultural reference it draws on for its apocalyptic imagery is simply inaccessible to most modern Europeans, even among the educated classes. Can you recall a politician drawing on Virgil? Football references, surely; Big Brother (the reality show, not George Orwell's, alas) quite likely. Not Virgil. The classics have become, to the elite as well as their audience, a closed book.

This strikes me because I am working on an anthology of the liberal education tradition in Britain, which shows how it persisted over more than a thousand years, and well into the twentieth century, before finally losing itself in the sands and shallows of progressive education. Liberal education, that education due to a free individual, invented alongside political freedom in fifth century Athens, has always relied upon the classics. The enemies of freedom have always tried to control them: there were once debates in parliament about whether the Irish could be allowed access to such incendiary political material as the Latin and Greek masters.

"Dead languages", we call them now. But Ancient Greek and Latin are not dead, merely not spoken. The works written in them are still living, still bursting with ideas of freedom and human dignity for anyone who can open their pages. Is it a coincidence that Oriana Fallaci should have a knowledge of the classics and be such a fierce defender of Western civilisation? Mark Steyn, another commentator relentless in his critique of European pusillanimity, admits to being an autodidact with no college education, but - tellingly - was taught ancient Greek in his high school.

Tolstoy once said that without a knowledge of Greek, there could be no education. We used to think that too, but not now. Kenneth Clark's Civilisation reminded us that the West frequently came through by the skin of its teeth. When it survived, it was thanks to those who kept liberal learning alive. In the eighth century, Alcuin, one of the last truly learned men in Europe, left the School of York to put the Emperor Charlemagne and Europe to school again. Behind him, the Danes began their brutal raids on the British coast. King Alfred the Great, still fighting the invaders in the ninth century, made it part of his fight to encourage literacy and translate Boethius into Old English.

In the wartime of 1943, T. S. Eliot thought it relevant to found the Virgil Society. It continues to this day, but must find it increasingly hard to find members qualified to attend. The purpose of the Society is:

to unite all those who cherish the central educational tradition of Western Europe: of that tradition Virgil is the symbol.
Oriana Fallaci would have understood that sentiment.
The history of Western civilization through the last three thousand years - for all its sins and stupidities - can best be understood as a record of the adventures of the thinking mind.
That is the opinion of Gilbert Highet, whose comprehensive account of the influence of the classics on our literature, The Classical Tradition, is still worth reading. A book like Highet's makes it clear that free thought grows best from Greek and Roman roots. Of course, Highet's old school doesn't teach the classics any more. Where will we produce another man of his learning to remind us of what we are forgetting?

Since Pope Benedict XVI's recent lecture is receiving such attention, I hope that people notice that he too understands the importance of the classical inheritance.

The encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance,
rules his Holiness soon after the contentious paragraphs on Islam. He proceeds to celebrate the Christian God as a God of reason. This is the Catholicism of Alcuin, of Aquinas, of St. Thomas More, of Cardinal Newman. It is the belief that man is free in so far as he serves God and that such service can only be in accord with reason.

Freedom, human dignity, the power of reason. These are the lessons of the classics, as Hobbes knew all too well when he denounced them in his Leviathan and Behemoth, [Leviathan, II,29,14]:

And as to rebellion in particular against monarchy; one of the most frequent causes of it, is the reading of the books of policy and histories of the ancient Greeks, and Romans.
So we should not be surprised that individuals such as Oriana Fallaci and Mark Steyn know their classics. Nor that a West that has forgotten its heritage no longer knows what it is fighting for. But the Greek ideal of paideia, the process of educating children into their true nature as free rational agents capable of self-mastery, is timeless. It waits only to be rediscovered.

The Greek dramatist Menander called paideia "a haven for all mankind". America, that haven of modern freedom, unsurprisingly takes more interest in the tradition of liberal education than we do in Britain. But we need it now more than ever. Werner Jaeger, in his classic account, Paideia, as translated by Gilbert Highet, got it right in his 1933 preface:

The book is meant not only for scholars, but for all who seek to rediscover the approach to Greece during our present struggles to maintain our millennial civilization.
There is an old saying that Oriana Fallaci would have liked: "Trojans grow wise too late". It is not yet too late, but it is getting dark outside. It is time to seek out Minerva, goddess of wisdom; time to think about what freedom requires, and recall why it is worth defending.

Marc Sidwell is a freelance writer and a member of the organising committee for the Henry Jackson Society. He is currently working on an anthology of British writing on liberal education.


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I am not sure that Oriana's lack of popularity has anything to do with a lack of classical education amongst us.

Instead it has more to do with the systematic suppression of conservative thought in the UK media in generally. The Times has become erratic and increasingly juvenile in its coverage. The less one says about the BBC the better; it would certainly have no time for the likes of Oriana whose views and opinions do not accord with the politically correct mantra the BBC is increasingly pushing in the guise of being 'balanced'. The Telegraph is something but I know not what and The Spectator has curiously become anti-american.

That leaves only the internet and the force of an individual's intelligence to become aware that the media in the UK is largely left leaning and is in the main pushing left-wing views and opinions. I myself discovered Oriana's writings via Mark Steyn, and while I did not have a classical education, nevertheless understand the main themes of her writings.

Is it a coincidence that some of the best English conservative writers now write for American publications? I think not.

Posted by: AdeOluOla at September 20, 2006 12:23 PM
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An interesting piece, but by pushing the teaching of the classics in education today, are you implying that any "new writing" is somehow less worthy in its opinion? Would you ever consider that the development of society as a whole and the change in opinion in this day and age render classical writings less relevent in our progressed society? It would seem to me that new writing with an underlying knowledge of the classics would be far more relevent than a purist view of classics alone.

Posted by: just me at September 20, 2006 04:24 PM
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