We have embraced the wrong gods, says Mark Vernon, and we are suffering as a result
The abandonment of the A-level in classical civilisation is tragic in a strict and precise sense, not least as the axing comes in the week after the disposal of archeology and art history too. It’s a tragedy that speaks clearly of the spirit of our age, the gods to which we submit, the fate to which western civilisation seems bound.
The tragic happens when no-one wants it, and yet it happens anyway. It can’t be resisted. Those who had benefited from studying classical civilisation, archeology and art history didn’t want the A-levels gone. The exam board that set them didn’t either. Celebrity champions of the old ways, like Tony Robinson, dutifully complained. And it seems that most ordinary folk sensed the loss too. They might have noticed that few students took the courses, but still sensed that the economic logic which drove their demise is a curse on us too. Another thing of intangible value, trashed.
That’s tragedy. It’s not up to us. It’s up to the gods we worship. They are the powers that turn our stars, that confuse and wreck us. Further, now, the gods in control don’t have the grandeur of Zeus or the beauty of Diana or the charm of Apollo or the fun of Dionysus. Ours gods are estimates and balances, budgets and spreadsheets. They are cool, impersonal, merciless. If there’s no financial case, they destroy – not in a fury about which a dramatic tale can be told, but in a quiet act of confiscation.
They leave us feeling disconnected, small, frightened. They are beings without soul, without imagination. They can calculate but not contemplate. They are the ones who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Think hard Brexit, Trump’s billions, the bank’s credit, oil’s corruption. These are the powers now reigning on Olympus. We are apparently incapable of withstanding their suffocating embrace.
If there is a way out, or at least a method of resistance, then classical civilisation might teach it. Yes, our forebears knew of the excesses of chrimataphilia too. There were ancient Greeks and Romans who also skimmed off the cream of wealth to leave their fellows with watery milk of emptier lives. But I think it is the case that money never became exclusively omnipotent, or only temporarily. The powerful would stamp their heads on one side of silver coins. But they’d ensure a true god was remembered on the other.
A similarly active imaginative life ran alongside their study of the world. One of my favourite examples is provided by Anaximenes of Miletus. He was a philosopher though he never lost his soul to dry rationalism or the Research Assessment Exercise. His science remained enchanted – an enchantment with nature that might remind us faintly of gods, of other values.
Consider an experiment he performed. He blew on his hand in two ways. First, with his lips pursed. Then, with his mouth open. He noticed a difference. When his lips were pursed the air felt cool. When his mouth was open, it felt warm. And then he thought to ask, why? What’s the difference? How’s that?
Now, this was remarkable. Presumably countless individuals had felt the same difference before. But no-one thought to ponder why air could feel first cold and then warm. He’d discovered what we now call Boyle’s law. When gases under pressure expand, they cool. It’s the principle behind fridges and air conditioners. (I was reminded of Anaximenes because the week in which A-levels were falling was also a week in which the fragility of the planet was in the headlines too, threatened by our use of hydrocarbon refrigerants.)
But Anaximenes didn’t stop there. He didn’t call the patent office thinking, a discovery ripe for economic exploitation: where’s the market! He sought to muse on his experience.
Hot and cold, he thought. They are odd qualities, strange spirits, because they are not actually opposites. Put it like this. Cold is a lack of heat. But heat is not a lack of cold. If you want to warm up, you put more heat in, as when sitting by a fire. But if you want to cool down, you can’t put more cold in – which is why it is so surprising to find a phenomenon that pulls off the trick of reducing temperature.
Anaximenes contemplated further. Is not heat like life, and cold life death? So maybe life and death have an asymmetric relationship too. Again, you can hear it. You can say, in the midst of life we find death. But you can’t say, in the midst of death we find life. Life seems to have a prior claim, like heat. It feels truer, fuller, a more real quality – and the poorer relations, death and cold, are more like absences, spaces, removals.
The classical mindset was alert to the inner meaning of things. It could accept that what was implicit and animating was more important than what was explicit and verifiable. The ancient world knew that life rested in the hands of forces beyond control. They knew that to thrive meant developing a relationship with the gods. They could be wrestled with for a blessing.
Our loss is that we’ve ditched them. Though maybe classical civilisation is not yet so distant that we can’t begin to relearn its wisdom. We might notice still the subtle influence of gods that are good to worship. We might open up to soul once more.