Of late, I’ve felt a revival of interest in liberal arts and the classics in general: it seems I can’t go a month without reading an ardent defense of the classical college curriculum, and how it develops a well-rounded thinker in a way that no other regime can replicate throughout someone’s life. I also believe in the value of such an education, and as someone who wasn’t as rigorously educated, often feel deprived. But at the same time, I also don’t believe that freshmen year in college is the only such place to obtain such an education, and I also question the importance of the classics on occasion.
As always, I have a few anecdotes to start off with, that when clumped together, hopefully illustrate some sort of idea. These all happened within a few weeks of each other, around a month ago now.
Zeno’s Paradox: I have a friend currently funemployed and living in Mexico. While chatting with him and others, he mentioned that the cost of living in Mexico was too high, and he was eating through his savings at a much faster pace than he had expected to. Consequently, his plan was to move to Columbia, where the cost of living was close to half of what he was paying now. A few beats later, someone remarked that all he had to do was keep on moving to places with an increasingly lowered cost of living, and he would never run out of money.
Ship of Theseus: I was discussing the 2022 Toronto Raptors’ offseason with a friend, and we went over the usual topics: who we’d keep, who we’d trade, and of course, how we’d get Kevin Durant. At one point, we mutually bemoaned the players we had lost from the beginning of the “We the North” era: Derozan, Ibaka, Lowry, and Powell. A discussion then ensued about how we as a Raptors fanbase now also root for the Bulls, the Clippers, and the Heat, and what the Toronto Raptors truly means as a club these days if so many of the core pieces we’ve loved have been moved and replaced.
Aristotle’s Forms: Some of my friends and I ended up visiting Mexico’s newest resident, and we had a great time cavorting around the city, eating and drinking everything in sight. Except for tap water. We drank no tap water. At restaurants, we were often served tortilla chips that were coated in a layer of savoury chilli dust as an appetizer. They were the most delicious tortilla chips that I’ve had in my entire life, and at one point, I remarked to my friend that these are what Doritos should be, that this seems to be the primordial ancestor of every single flavoured tortilla chip ever created.
Yes, I’m a bit conceited and pretentious for attributing these stories to the categories that I have. Perhaps I’m compensating for my lack of such an education, but at the time that each occurred, the classical analogue was the first thing to cross my mind. Proponents of a liberal arts education will take the endurance of such philosophical concepts as evidence of their relevance and importance. It is argued that this shared understanding of the framework of Western thinking is essential to societal cohesion and cultural belonging. The same justification is applied to study of history, Shakespeare, or the creative arts in elementary and secondary school.
In each of the anecdotes above however, I had named the classical connection I had made, but when the Greek left my lips, I was largely met with blank looks, even though no one had any trouble understanding what I meant before that point. There are several possible conclusions to draw from my experience. One is that these exact stories were taught at some point in our lives, and although the original story evades my friends now, the idea behind the story remains. Another possibility is that these stories were never explicitly taught, but their meaning has passed onto other more modern forms of media, so my friends are able to instantly grasp my meaning.
In my ideal world, friends would be able to understand what I want to communicate with a mere mention of Zeno, Theseus, or Aristotle. Okay, maybe not Aristotle, but the other two at least. Not only would it be efficient, it would be wildly impressive. To an extent, that’s why I like book clubs so much. I will invariably find myself referencing things that we had all read as a benchmark to whatever was happening. It’s fun to lean over to say to someone, “oh, he reminds me of Ignatius J. Riley”, or “our friendship is like Frodo’s and Sam’s”.
But as with my undressing of Shakespeare, is it important that everyone knows the original work from whence the story came, or the name of the philosophical concept? Or is knowing the meaning enough? It’s certainly not as sick. But at the same time, the intent is communicated. Granted, the classic stories are the traditional way of passing on lessons and ideas, but if they can be imparted in a Tweet or a TikTok, are they any less valuable? In fact, with the speed that ideas can be disseminated with the help of the internet, are Instagram and YouTube a better medium for distributing this shared culture?
The dearth of easily accessible ideas and entertainment is part of the reason that the classics have been so pervasive throughout history, and part of the reason that they are now not. It is also partially to blame for the homogeneity of society then versus the heterogeneity of society now. Not that dissenting opinions only came into existence with the emergence of the Internet, but they certainly thrive as a result. There are increases in cultures and subcultures, tastes and flavours. Not one is regarded as superior to the rest. The syllabus of a liberal arts education is then to enshrine the beliefs of a group who has been afforded the financial circumstances to attend college, and to mold ambitious plebeians eager to join their ranks.
To an extent, I think this leads to a fragmentation of society: lack of common stories, and by extension values, creeds, and philosophies lead to a diverse set of beliefs, perspectives, and mores. Any sort of societal breakdown sounds strictly negative; after all, a less cohesive society is one that is slower to make decisions and stand divided. Simultaneously, dismantling the value ascribed to these ancient pieces of literature democratizes access to perceived culture. No longer will someone have to quote Aurelius or reference Diogenes to seem cultured, and the same goes for Chaucer, Austen, Joyce, and Franzen. There are now many lanes to cultural relevancy, across the socioeconomic spectrum.
In each of the three instances where I brought up names of Greek philosophies, I felt embarrassed for being pretentious. But in a world where all cultural knowledge is considered equal, there would have been no such feeling. It would have been like bringing up a YouTube video or meme that no one knew, and carrying onto the next subject. Empirically then, society still puts certain cultures and knowledge on a pedestal, or at least my friend group does. But will it remain up there? Will recognition of memes be respected just as much as knowledge of Impressionist paintings one day? I’m not entirely sure that it will be, but I wouldn’t be concerned if it were to be the case.