Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Even Homer Nodded" - My One Encounter with the late William F. Buckley

My Trotskyite father hated everything William F. Buckley said. But he loved the way Buckley said it and always watched him, enjoying the style - despising the substance.

Now, years later, I am an occasional contributor to National Review Online, something my father takes with a combination of pride, horror, and equanimity.

I enjoyed his writing, although I cannot claim to be one of his legions of truly dedicated fans who drinks up each of his words. But I did have the pleasure of hearing him speak live, once. Now that he is gone, I appreciate that I had the pleasure of seeing something and someone quite special.

On May 19, 1996 William F. Buckley Jr. delivered the commencement address at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. I was partway through my graduate degree and attending commencement to cheer on many good friends. Like everyone who finds their way to St. John's I was somehow seeking the essential, the timeless - whatever that means. If I find it - I'll be sure to let everyone know.

Buckley spoke to this desire. He noted that our civilization and its fundamental questions began with the Greeks and the Romans. In this age of more and more information (and this was years before Google became a verb) knowledge of their ideas is even more important because it gives people a common cultural vocabulary so that we can continue to understand each other.

The speech, below, was delivered in a lyrical tone - more poetry than prose. Until I found it and read it this afternoon all I remembered was the refrain he used to punctuate his speech, "Even Homer nodded."

He was reminding all of us that in studying the classics we are reminded of our inherent fallibility. It is a humbling thought and yet also, particularly in this mad wonderful time, a comforting one.

But enough of my poor words, his follow:
From quite early on, beginning when I was 12 or 13, I heard my father say that he hoped his sons, of whom I was the third, would, when reaching college age, attend St. John's. This did not happen, my brothers opting for the geographically expedient Yale, only an hour's drive from where we lived. But my father's reverence for the idea that animates St. John's lingers in the memory, and later on I would read references to this college in the work of my father's friend Albert Jay Nock. Mr. Nock was not given to ambiguity, and if I remember right, at one point he pronounced St. John's the only college in the United States where a student could still receive an education. As I think back on it, his views on education were more complacent than my father's, who in a moment of exasperation with the modern curriculum told his ten children that, in America, either one went to college, or one received an education.

Mr. Nock exaggerated, of course, but he would not be distracted from his main point, which was that any attempt at education that is not grounded in Athens and Rome is quite simply evasive. Because, he said, every subject that challenges the human curiosity and intimates the resources of the human mind is sitting there in the copious inventory left by ancient Greece and Rome. To ignore them, as most curricula now do, is to ignore the primary deposits of Western intellectual experience.

Most educators would classify any such claim as exorbitant, and many even deal with it condescendingly: this is easier to do now that Mr. Nock is dead, because he knew very well how to bite back, in any of the five languages he had mastered. Critics will cite the huge events in human thought and experience that came after the fall of Rome. No matter -- St. John's is not here to deny the importance of what came after, which after all figures prominently in your own later curriculum. Albert Jay Nock was insisting on the indispensability of root knowledge, of what is learned only, he insisted, by knowing first what was thought and done between the time of Homer and Marcus Aurelius.

But our mind then turns to the other end of the scale, to the proliferation of knowledge.

HOW is it possible to keep up in today's world?

The answer is that it isn't possible to "keep up," in any actuarial sense.

Someone somewhere remarked that Erasmus was probably the last man on earth about whom it could more or less safely be generalized that he knew everything there was to know. By "everything" was meant everything in the Western canon. Probably that means that Erasmus was known to have read every book then existing in those Western languages in which books were written. Knowledge was finite in the fifteenth century, and so tightly packed that the entire Western library fitted into a single room in Salamanca. One still finds there, framed and hanging over the arched doorway, a papal bull of excommunication automatically activated against any scholar who departed that room with one of those invaluable volumes hidden in his vestments.

Five hundred years later we are told that twice as much "knowledge" is charted with the passage of every decade. Suppose, by way of illustration, that at the end of every decade the penetrating reach of a telescope doubles. In that event you begin the decade knowing x about astronomic geography. At the end of the first decade, you know 2x; at the end of the second decade, 4x; and so on.

All this is so primarily because of the multiplier effect of computerized explorations. On that question skepticism is dead, very dead. It was only a hundred years ago that George Bernard Shaw was told that the speed of light had been ascertained to be 186,000 miles per second. He replied that such a finding was either a physicist's effrontery or a plain lie. But we know now that raw knowledge has to increase. Pol Pot made a titanic effort to bring about nescience in Cambodia. His undertaking, twenty years ago, was to kill everyone who was literate -- excepting, presumably, those at his command who needed to decipher his instructions to kill everybody else who could read instructions. He tried very hard, killing almost one-third of the Cambodian population; but he did not succeed in his ambition, and no one will. The wonderful line from the Russian novelist Ilya Ehrenburg comes to mind here, that when all the world is covered by asphalt, somewhere a blade of grass will force open a crack, bidding its ineluctable way through to sunlight.

The knowledge explosion, as we have come to refer to it, is philosophically accepted. With this acceptance comes a discreet resignation to live in relative ignorance, on a progressive scale.

SO THEN the question peeks in at us: What is it that we are expected to keep on knowing? And what are the prospects in the years ahead of the survival of a common cultural vocabulary? If we mean to continue to talk to one another, don't I have to understand what you're saying if, to excuse an inattention, you remind me that, after all, even Homer nodded?

To know this is different from knowing that the earth is round, that a day comprises 24 hours, or that the seasons follow one another. But can we assume that the computer programmer, master of his own discipline, will in a moment of frustration console himself by reflecting that -- even Homer nodded?

It is fair to ask, Why remember this formulation? To which the reply is that there is no design here to forsake others, merely to give an illustration. Besides, the defense avers, with the ascendancy of myth-breaking science, we should cherish a formulation that reminds us of man's fallibility. The impulse to self-government, along with the exercise of the scientific method, wore down many encrustations. The belief in the divine right of kings began to wither on the overburdened wings of certitude. It was in the seventeenth century, the lexicographers tell us, that the phrase about Homer gained currency. If fallibility could catch up with Homer, how much likelier it is that we will err. Homer was the august poet universally regarded as unerring (the divine Homer). Yet it was before the time of Christ that textual explorations caught him up, in one case describing a ship in which he placed a rudder on the boat's bow end. It was Horace who wrote that "even excellent Homer sometimes nods."

By documenting an imperfection in the excellent Homer, we are reminded of the comparative magnitude of our own errancy. A knowledge of individual fallibility nudges us on to accept the probability of collective fallibility, and -- indulge me, please, my glide pattern -- our mind then turns to such safeguards as government by laws, not men; to the concept of checks and balances; to human rights. And one is prompted to reflect that the knowledge of human fallibility may orient us to hunger after infallibility, which surely gives rise to the religious instinct. And this instinct acknowledges what some of us insist on calling "eternal verities."

Your curriculum takes you from Homer to Flannery O'Connor in literature, and from Plato to William James in philosophy. You have trod the great highways and byways of Western culture and thus you have in hand the basic instruments of communication. Do not be overawed by what you have not learned. Everything over there, in the high galaxies of experimental science and indeed social surmise, is deracinated, except as it is rooted in what you have studied, and what you do know.

What so many of us experience, even those who have never laid eyes on St. John's, is the special lure of this campus, and a feel of the serenity it continues to irradiate with its emphases on the initial struggle for knowledge, back when Thales first restated the quest for an understanding of man and his universe. You have every reason to be proud of what you have learned, and to be grateful to those who taught it to you, and to the parents who expedited your passage first into the world, then to St. John's. You will not easily be surprised, standing on the shoulders of the giants; and, as you experience commencement speakers who come and go, you will be reminded, as today, that even Homer nodded.

1 comment:

John Wright said...

Oddly enough, I was at that commencement speech. I was there to cheer some younger friends of mine graduating. Thank you for bringing back the memory.

John C. Wright, class of '84