A few years ago, David Denby wrote about his experiences as a student in Humanities I-II, the “Great Books course,” at Columbia College.  In Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe, Dartmouth professor Jeffrey Hart “teaches,” for the general reader, his own version of the class, the distillation of decades of teaching and reflecting on the story of Western civilization.  By the time the reader has worked his way from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he has learned a great deal about important works of Western literature and has come to know a wise teacher with a sense of style, and a sense of humor, as well.

Undergraduates and older folk who remember their college days, even people without a college degree, will profit from Jeffrey Hart’s learning and insight.  They often find themselves today, like Dante at the beginning of his Comedy, wandering confused and afraid in a dark wood.  Beatrice in heaven sent Dante a helper: not one of his friends, such as Guido Cavalcanti, or another poet, such as Arnaud Daniel; not even Thomas Aquinas, the great Italian philosopher who provided much of Dante’s intellectual foundations.  No; in Dante’s hour of need, Beatrice sent Virgil, a damned pagan poet (if you will excuse the theologically exact description), because Dante needed to go back to the sources of his culture in order to get out of the forest, to be saved, and, last but not least, to finish his poem.  Hart is our Virgil.  He finds us confused and frightened in the dark wood of today’s cultural catastrophe.  He takes us by the hand and leads us back to the Great Books.  On the way, he clears up difficulties and points out beautiful vistas and important truths.

For Jeffrey Hart, Western civilization is the result of the interaction between Greece and Israel.  Although Hart follows Tertullian in talking about Athens and Jerusalem, he begins before wealth and power ever came to those two cities, with the accomplishments of two “epic heroes,” Achilles and Moses.  The paths these two break lead to Socrates and Jesus, who internalize and spiritualize the heroic vision.  Socrates and Jesus, by their lives and deaths, open up a new order of understanding and human richness.  For the Western civilization we know to come into existence, however, these two traditions must be united.  Hart sees Saint Paul as the figure who creates the new intellectual and moral unity.  The tension-filled interaction of these two traditions makes Western civilization the creative, dynamic, and sometimes destructive force the world has known for thousands of years.

Hart leads us on a series of explorations of this new creation: Saint Augustine, Dante (with pages on Virgil), Shakespeare, Moliere, Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Each author provokes Hart to a series of reflections on literature, culture, and life, from which he digresses to reminisce about great teachers at Columbia and Dartmouth.  A memorable story has Mark Van Doren telling Allen Ginsberg, who had been arrested in a getaway car with thieves, that it might be time for the young poet “to hear the clank of iron.”  (Lionel Trilling advised Ginsberg to plead insanity, which he did.)  The New York police had been keeping their eye on Ginsberg ever since he hid the handsome Lucien Carr in his dorm room after Carr stabbed to death and threw into the Hudson River the obsessive homosexual drifter, David Kammerer, who had threatened to kill Carr’s girlfriend if Carr would not have sex with him in Riverside Park.  (These stories come up in Hart’s discussion of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.)  On a quieter level, Hart remembers his philosophy teacher at Dartmouth, the polymath Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who admonished his students, “History must be told.”

Hart is brilliantly successful in telling the story of the great books he discusses.  Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe is more a Columbia book than a Dartmouth one, however.  Its leitmotiv is the liberal vision that inspired Humanities I-II from its origins after World War I and continued strong in the decades after World War II, when Hart taught the course.  According to this vision, Western civilization mounts stage after stage, ever higher, until it reaches its acme in the Enlightenment:

The great project of the Enlightenment . . . accomplished great and one hopes lasting things.  The critical intelligence was mobilized against superstition.  Absurdities were scorned.  Economic matters were examined critically, as by Adam Smith and David Ricardo.  The principles of representative government were worked out. . . .  Throughout the world today, such representative government appears to be the only legitimate form and the only form consistent with modernization.  Other forms—tribal, various modes of third world despotism—are ugly and likely residual.  The authoritarian capitalism of China is a problematic experiment.

Frankly, our regime seems to be turning into “authoritarian capitalism”—an excellent phrase—rather than China developing into a consensual and constitutional government.  History indicates that global free trade needs to be supported by an imperial system to survive for any length of time, whether the empire is Roman, English, American, or, someday perhaps, Chinese.

Hart’s suave tones become shrill when he discusses the Enlightenment.  “Absurdities were scorned.”  Oh, really?  What about Jefferson’s “All men are created equal”?  La Mettrie’s L’homme machine (“Man is a machine”)?  The French Revolution’s worship of the goddess Reason?  What beliefs of antiquity and the Middle Ages can approach these on the Absurdity Hit Parade?  The Enlightenment arose from such absurdities, culminated in the Paris Terror and the Vendée massacres, and ended with the restoration of mon-archy (as Burke had predicted), when Napoleon crowned himself emperor and codified the Roman civil law.  Wasn’t there a less bloody way to obtain the metric system?

Hart’s Enlightenment texts are Moliere’s Misanthrope and Voltaire’s Candide.  These are fine works of art, and Hart discourses on them eloquently.  There is nothing here, however, to compare with Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Comedy, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the wisdom Hart finds in them.

Speaking of absurdities, in discussing the world of the 17th and 18th centuries, Hart tells us that “progress in science and philosophy now rested on a new basis, experiment and logic.”  Hippocrates and Aristotle would be interested in hearing this.  In fact, the great scientific movement of the 16th and 17th centuries was a very self-conscious return to the ideals and even the texts of ancient science.  Copernicus was well aware that he was reviving the vision of Aristarchus of Samos.  The theory of atoms was based on Gassendi’s brilliant philological recovery of ancient Epicureanism.  Similar cautionary remarks might be made concerning Hart’s comments about the Enlightenment’s opponents:

It is important to see that even its most trenchant critics, from Swift and Burke through Dostoyevsky, have had to put such criticism in terms laid down by the Enlightenment itself.  That is, they have had to argue their case, not merely assume it, and appeal to fact, reason, and experience.

The characters in Plato’s dialogues did not have to wait for the Enlightenment to argue and debate over the range of human experience.  Did Aristotle need the Enlightenment to appeal to fact, or Aquinas to appeal to reason, or Luther to appeal to experience?  This is the progressivist party line of the brilliant faculty of Columbia’s Humanities I-II, exemplified most clearly in Lionel Trilling’s great work of cultural genocide, The Liberal Imagination (1950), where he proclaimed, 

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.  For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. . . .  The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas. 

This comment was published a few years after Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences and C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man appeared.  Despite the ostensibly descriptive language, its intent was to legitimize an intellectual purge of conservative and traditionalist teachers and scholars.  The result is today’s p.c. university, with its oppressive climate of intellectual conformity and reign of terror against any and every dissent, no matter how mild or fainthearted.

Hart ends this beautifully written volume with the hope that “the ideology of multiculturalism,” having been “subject to a devastating intellectual critique,” is now coming to an end.  If so, it is a case of our winning the argument while losing the war.  The positions, not just of power but even of assistant and associate professor, are filled with the representatives of the liberal and communist left.  Hart notes that students do not take multicultural courses unless compelled by requirements to do so.  This is true, but the power and the will to introduce and enforce those requirements are there, and the conservative or traditionalist voices that might be raised against them have been excluded.  Multiculturalism does not mean intellectual diversity.

“Is there any comfort to be found?” asked William Butler Yeats.  One source is Jeffrey Hart’s Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe, where a wise and sophisticated old-fashioned liberal recalls us to the cultural heritage that was the basis of our freedom and prosperity in the past and can be so again, if we will listen and pay attention.  “History must be told.”  Few tell it better than Jeffrey Hart.


[Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe, by Jeffrey Hart (New Haven: Yale University Press) 288 pp., $26.95]