From pre-socratics through postmodernism, Western tradition dialectical at its core.

Author:Rapp, Carl
Position:Reviews - Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education - Book Review

Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education, by Jeffrey Hart. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. 271 pp. $26.95.

In this lucid and gracefully written book, Jeffrey Hart has produced a brilliant defense of the Western tradition, which has been under assault for some time now by intellectuals who regard themselves as postmodernists. According to these intellectuals, the Western tradition is simply too parochial or too monolithic to be worth considering in any extended fashion, and we would do well to view it condescendingly as a tight little unity or as an easy-to-identify nexus of closely related biases (sexist, elitist, racist, logocentrist), detected at last and appropriately exposed by our own more sophisticated modes of critical thinking. The cultural catastrophe referred to in Hart's title is precisely the mistake of supposing, as we now do in many of our schools and universities, that we are educating our students when we urge them, on the basis of a crude caricature such as this, to belittle or ignore the masterpieces of Western thought and literature.

Hart's main contention, which he establishes concretely through a series of careful readings, is that the Western tradition is essentially dialectical. It cannot be pinned down easily, because it is full of tensions, complexities, varieties of emphasis, and precarious balances which are always under scrutiny (and sometimes under sharp attack) from within the tradition itself. Indeed, the Western tradition, as Hart shows us, has always been supremely self-critical. It is constantly refining its own elements, and it is constantly factoring into itself whatever new elements it discovers or makes contact with. Of course, this is obvious to anyone who has made a serious effort to study the literature and philosophy of the West, but sadly, as Hart reminds us, many of the great books have been dropped from the curriculum and are now virtually unread, even by persons who call themselves professors. Hart's remedy is to trace the dialectical oppositions in at least some of these books, from the Iliad and the Pentateuch to The Great Gatsby. Through Hart's fresh and insightful readings, we get a synopsis of Western culture from beginning to end, including the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, the early Christians, the medievals and early moderns, and, finally, the late moderns, who carry forward into our own time the deep divisions and conflicts that...

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