These are classical subjects that centuries of people have written and thought about while reading the great playwright and poet. What’s new to say about them? Probably nothing. Instead, reflecting on such themes entails a rediscovery of knowledge that past readers may have possessed but that must be reacquired by every reader, by every student, anew.
By definition, that’s not “progress in knowledge,” since it denies that a contemporary scholar necessarily knows more on the subject than a reader from a previous century. It presumes that the only form of “progress” is each individual’s advancement in coming to understand the perennial problems and puzzles of the human condition, and it looks to great writers of the past for help in acquiring that understanding.
This explains the resistance shown by many conservatives toward efforts to achieve progress in knowledge by expanding the canon: They tend to presume that the authors and books that come down to us as “great” will provide more guidance than those that have disappeared into obscurity. It also explains why many conservative academics prefer to teach at small liberal arts colleges, where they can spend their days poring over the same old books by the same old writers, making their own personal progress toward understanding, in part by leading new generations of young people to begin their own personal progress toward the same goal.
But this means that the culture of the research university stands in considerable tension with what motivates many conservatives to pursue academic study in the first place.
When a friend of mine told me that his unfinished dissertation was on aphorisms in history, I was excited to read it. I was young and naïve at the time, though, so I was expecting a more general overview. It turned out to be a specific focus on a particular use of aphoristic sententiousness in a particular section of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, not the sort of thing that will ever make its way into ordinary conversation. By contrast, when I came across James Geary’s book The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, I thought I had finally found the fulfillment of my earlier expectations, only to find myself quoting Julius Caesar upon finishing it: “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice.” It was the sort of pleasant book that passes easily through your eyes and out of your memory like so much fiber through your digestive tract. It turns out that while aphorisms in particular are fascinating, there just isn’t much to say about aphorisms in general, as a genre. It’s better to just go straight to the source—read the practitioners themselves. rather than filter them through intermediaries.
Linker’s piece is excellent, and I think he’s exactly right. When people complain about the lack of conservatives in academia, they’re referring mostly to the humanities. But the culture of the research university incentivizes the wrong sort of attitude and approach to humanistic learning. That same sort of approach — seeking a counterintuitive, novel perspective on old topics, attempting to build one’s own name by tearing down an established predecessor — permeates a lot of popular writing online as well. While thinking about Thoreau the other day, I had a vague memory of having seen yet another recent viral piece attacking him for…well, who knows. Whatever it was, it’s easy enough to find things to upbraid him over, if that’s the angle you want to take. But we’re still talking about Thoreau centuries later because he was a fantastic writer, whereas the twenty-something gender studies major who’s currently getting clicks and praise for denouncing his problematic views on this, that or the other won’t even be remembered five years from now. Well, if I may repurpose the words of a famous prophet, those hack writers have received the reward they’re most interested in. But for those who are willing to shut the door on academic careerism and trendy contrarianism, greater rewards can be found by quietly studying in private with the great minds of the past.
I mean that quite literally — there’s no need to take on massive financial debt just to study the classics and apply their lessons to everyday life. In fact, the sunk costs of doing so will almost irresistibly incentivize you to become yet another tenure-chasing ideologue. We’re fortunate enough to live in an age when both the materials and a supporting community of like-minded people (if you’re so inclined) are a few mouse-clicks away. I’m picturing something like Morris Berman’s “new monastic individual” (minus the almost cartoonish bitterness and despair that Berman evinces in his more recent writings). There’s no need to cast down this culture’s idols of progress. Just refuse to offer them prayers.