Sunday, November 21, 2010

Nothing Gold Can Stay

I am a Francophile, of course--and my pays de prédilection will always be France.  But, if Paris has my heart (as I think Montaigne said), Athens and London have my head.  And even if I sometimes wish it were otherwise, I cannot honestly escape the conclusion that the Greeks and the English/British have shaped me and my culture more than have the French.  Indeed, I think it fair to conclude that, in all countries that we commonly label The West, these two peoples--the ancient Greeks and the modern Brits--have exercised disproportionate influence--in philosophy, science, politics, economics, literature, technology--and, well, spiritual/moral development.  Certainly one could criticize the Greeks for their misogyny and their occasionally bloodless art; certainly the English never equaled the French, Italians and Germans in painting, architecture or music.

All that notwithstanding, we can judge the overall "heft" of a people by asking ourselves a simple question:  how would the world be different if this particular tribe had never passed our way and left, in its wake, its special contributions?

Doubtless we would be much poorer in beautiful things, delicious food and artful living if Italy and Germany and France and China and India and Spain and Persia had never ''occurred."

But we would still have Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and Archimedes and Sophocles and Pericles and Euripides and Euclid and Pythagoras and Thales and Hippocrates and, and,..Bacon and Newton and Darwin and Shakespeare and Milton and Churchill and Priestley and John Stuart Mill and Hobbes and Hume and Adam Smith and Keats and Dickens and Stephen Hawking and The Mother of Parliaments.

Personally--and this is just a personal observation--I would scarcely miss anything at all contributed by China or India (though I think Chinese art is exquisite and I have a faible for Hindu mysticism).  I would miss a good deal of art, literature, music and cuisine from France, Italy, Germany.

I would also miss many of the insights and world views set forth by thinkers such as Montaigne, Voltaire, Kant, Marx.

But the ground of my being would not be shaken by the absence of any of these elements.

I WOULD, on the other hand, be deeply shaken by the removal of Platonic philosophy, the Greek ideal of individual self-actualization, the Socratic quest for the limits of knowledge.  And how could I not be shaken by the loss of English common law, Anglo-Saxon economics, Newtonian physics or the Darwinian understanding of biology?  (COULD these discoveries actually be "lost"?)  Above all, of course, how could I even be ME without the English language and the whole corpus of literature that it affords?

So, Greece and England--I love you.

And I will miss you.

Because, I think you're on your way ''out." It's pretty clear, isn't it, that China and India will eventually acquire hegemony in human affairs, ending the long imperium of the Greeks, Brits and their collective disciples and satellites? A day, not far in the future, will bring very different philosophies, attitudes, languages, ways of life to our little planet. Since this is a natural phenomenon about which, in any event, very little can be done, the imminent shift  from one human paradigm to another must be accepted with grace and good will.  And yet, and yet...nostalgia is surely permitted.

I will be gone by then, gone before Socrates and Shakespeare and Darwin are superseded or supplanted by whatever is next in the continuing (let us assume it will be "upward") march of humanity.  But already, in advance, I miss Athens and London, almost like the ancient Jews missed the Golden Jerusalem of King David.  Bye bye, my beloved mother cities. Nothing gold can stay.


  1. Ah but I don't think the future is as purely saturated with Chinese culture as you would imagine! As China becomes more and more modernized, I can see the effect of Western philosophy in China growing stronger and stronger. Can we have a superpower without democratic ideals and an emphasis on individuality that (I think) inevitably comes from a self-righteous mentality that "we deserve it"?

  2. You're right, of course. I'm a little ashamed of this blog because it seems like the typical reflection of an old man: romanticizing the familiar, safe and--well--old (i.e, worn out). I've always thought that humans should be (cautiously) open to new ways and new ideas. And I'm pretty confident that any successful Asia-centered world civilization will embrace a great deal of the mentality we now call "western." Perhaps you're also right about individualism: we may have gone too far and forgotten that the individual exists, inevitably, within a social context. Still, if the individual doesn't "deserve it," who, exactly, does?

  3. Dear Mr. Kirkeby, Our family is once again living in Beijing and just recently vacationed in Paris. My husband heard me reminisce many times about you and how you used to try to inject some political philosophy into our dull brains while also teaching us verb conjugations. The language never stuck--I could barely speak a lick of French--but the philosophy lessons did, and you inspired me to study politics. So grateful to a teacher who actually made the effort to go the extra mile! Anyways, as we were looking at the beautiful European architecture and comparing it to Asian society, we also saw what you are talking about--a society that seems not to have promise as compared to one that has nowhere to go but up. At the same time, however, I think you misjudge the importance that Western influence has on the young and hopeful Chinese. They believe that things will get better for them because the West has been able to accomplish. Western ideals won't die because the Asians are embracing those ideals. I personally foresee a more hopeful future for the world--the Chinese and Indians will lift the Western societies that are stuck in a quagmire, as they cooperate and work together with the rest of the world. Come and visit us in Beijing so that you can experience it for yourself!

  4. I'm coming to Beijing in October and I'm very excited about it. I'm not discouraged about the future, for any branch of mankind. I look forward to my real-life introduction to Chinese culture, though I'm too old to be greatly affected by it, I suppose. In the little time that is left to me, I hope to learn more about the cultures of the East. I hope, too, that the East--as it grows and prospers--will cherish (better than the West has done for the East)--the very real contributions that Europe and America have made to human civilization. I.e., I hope that the Chinese will be kinder to us than we have been to them.