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Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe

Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education

Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe
    Book Description:

    Although the essential books of Western civilization are no longer central in our courses or in our thoughts, they retain their ability to energize us intellectually, says Jeffrey Hart in this powerful book. He now presents a guide to some of these literary works, tracing the main currents of Western culture for all who wish to understand the roots of their civilization and the basis for its achievements.Hart focuses on the productive tension between the classical and biblical strains in our civilization--between a life based on cognition and one based on faith and piety. He begins with theIliadand Exodus, linking Achilles and Moses as Bronze Age heroic figures. Closely analyzing texts and illuminating them in unexpected ways, he moves on to Socrates and Jesus, who "internalized the heroic," continues with Paul and Augustine and their Christian synthesis, addresses Dante, Shakespeare (Hamlet), Molière, and Voltaire, and concludes with the novel as represented byCrime and PunishmentandThe Great Gatsby.Hart maintains that the dialectical tensions suggested by this survey account for the restlessness and singular achievements of the West and that the essential books can provide the substance and energy currently missed by both students and educated readers.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13052-2
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)

    • CHAPTER ONE Athens and Jerusalem
      (pp. 3-13)

      In this chapter we will be considering the creative tension that arises between Athens and Jerusalem and the fundamental importance of that tension for Western civilization. Yet the idea of creative tension may also be applied to individual psychology. It may well be that thought itself, considered in its very nature, arises out of the experience of contradiction, that thought is the response of the mind to the experience of contradiction. Thus Emile Durkheim was struck by the apparent paradox of the fact that the suicide rate rose not during periods of economic depression but during periods of rising prosperity....

    • CHAPTER TWO Athens: The Heroic Phase
      (pp. 14-34)

      Plato, four centuries after Homer’s epics were written down, tells us that Homer was the educator of Greece. It was this authoritative standing that moved Plato to try to displace Homer and project a new ideal of nobility for Greece and, beyond Greece, for mankind. Plato fully absorbed Homer and was inspired by him but tried to go beyond him, knowing that his contest with Homer was epic in character. As against the older nobility of the battlefield, Plato proposed the superior heroism of the mind.

      The name Plato was a friendly nickname for a youth who must have been...

    • CHAPTER THREE Moses as Epic Hero
      (pp. 35-72)

      Like Achilles, Moses is a great epic hero, indeed a Bronze Age hero roughly contemporary with Achilles, but his story cannot begin in the middle of things as does the story of Achilles. Monotheism is at the center of Moses’ life, and challenged at every side, monotheism cannot be assumed in the narrative but must be established at the beginning. This was the first task of the narrators who shaped this epic material, and they undertook it in Genesis.

      In theMosead,as I have suggested it might be called, the great epic hero does not appear until the second...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Socrates and Jesus: Internalizing the Heroic
      (pp. 73-104)

      Socrates and Jesus now become absolutely central figures. Socrates brings the central tendency of Athens to a sharp focus and Jesus does the same for Jerusalem. Socrates, as we see him in Plato’s accounts, internalized the Greek heroic tradition that came down to him as refracted through Homer. The heroism of the battlefield and the pursuit ofaretébecame heroic philosophy and the pursuit of truth, even at the cost of life itself. Socrates embodied in pure form the heroism of cognition or knowing. Jesus radically internalized the heroic tradition of the patriarchs, Moses, and the Prophets, refining it to...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Paul: Universal Synthesis
      (pp. 105-122)

      Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus stands at the center of a mighty transformation, the coming together of biblical tradition and Greek philosophy. Needless to say, he did not accomplish this alone, but he was the energizing figure amid powerfully converging currents of thought. He is not so dramatic a figure as either Socrates or Jesus; how could he be? And what comes down to us about him is much more fragmentary. Yet he is the major figure there at what, without exaggeration, can be called the birth of the Western mind, shaping events and shaped by them.

      Four preconditions made...


    • [Part 2 Introduction]
      (pp. 123-126)

      DESCRIBING THE FORMATION OF THE ATHENS-Jerusalem dialectic has been the job of the first part of this book, which brought us as far as Paul and touched upon the important debate between Clement and Origen, who were open to classical learning, and Tertullian, who led the party opposing it. My argument here is that the Athens-Jerusalem dialectic is unique to Western civilization and that the shifting balance within that dialectic, resulting from tensions in the mind and heart, underlies the restlessness and the achievement of that civilization: the glory of its science; the depth of its insights; the special character...

    • CHAPTER SIX Augustine Chooses Jerusalem
      (pp. 127-137)

      In theConfessions,written during his middle years, Augustine (A.D. 354–430) searched deeply into the inner life, and in this pursuit he exemplified the pursuit of inner perfection demanded by the Sermon on the Mount. He came to Christianity, however, chiefly through the Platonic tradition, which was most immediately expressed for him by Cicero and Plotinus. He also considered that the truth about the cosmos is to be found in the operations of mind. This inner exploration, which Augustine shared with many of his contemporaries but of which he is the master, marks an important shift from the temper...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Dante, Rome (Athens), Jerusalem, and Amor
      (pp. 138-168)

      Along with Homer and Shakespeare, Dante is more than a major poet. By consensus, by our inspection, and by the measure of centuries of commentary, he is, with Homer and Shakespeare, one of the three greatest poets in the Western tradition. A poet such as this seems always to rise out of a rich cultural matrix. Homer had his context in the epic tradition of the Near East. Shakespeare had Chaucer, the medieval festival drama, the sacred stage, and his surrounding example of the Elizabethan theater. We can take account of the poetic and other cultural material available to Dante...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Hamlet’s Great Song
      (pp. 169-186)

      The Cambridge scholar E.M.W. Tillyard made an excellent point when he argued that William Shakespeare wrote the finest English epic poem, but that he did so in a sequence of five-act history plays rather than in the epic form familiar since Homer. Shakespeare, that is, brought the mind and energy of the English Renaissance to the Elizabethan stage, and his epic, which we could call theHenriad,consists ofRichard II, Henry IVparts 1 and 2, andHenry V.The final play in the cycle actually begins with an invocation to the Muse in the epic manner: “O for...

    • CHAPTER NINE The Indispensable Enlightenment: Molière and Voltaire
      (pp. 187-206)

      The period known as the Enlightenment, sometimes referred to as the Age of Reason (from about the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth), attempted something new and indispensable in human history. In its central thrust, it tried to shift the mind of the West away from Jerusalem and in the direction of Athens, away from a biblical understanding of human nature and history and toward philosophy (newly defined) and science. Some of its major thinkers considered that philosophy and science might, by themselves, give a fully adequate account of human nature, history, politics, and the...

    • CHAPTER TEN Hamlet in St. Petersburg, Faust in Great Neck: Dostoyevsky and Scott Fitzgerald
      (pp. 207-240)

      When we think about the post-seventeenth-century novel as a literary form and ask what assumptions underlie it, I think we must answer that it is different in important ways from all previous literary modes. We certainly find no rosy-fingered dawns here, and gray-eyed Athenas put in no appearances. Gods of any kind are difficult to smuggle into a novel. No rule of twelve or twenty-four books is laid down, and, in fact, rules about form seem absent. Much less than previous literature does the novel depend upon or refer to tradition. It does not observe literary ritual. The world of...

  7. Afterword: Today and Tomorrow
    (pp. 241-250)

    I first saw the Columbia University campus as I climbed up out of the New York City subway at 116th Street and Broadway, up from men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind. And there was the university, McKim, Mead, and White’s buildings and geometrical lawns and paths austerely beautiful in their varied neoclassicisms. This was not Arnold’s Oxford, “steeped in sentiment . . . spreading her gardens to the moonlight” nor Fitzgerald’s neo-Gothic Princeton, that “meadowlark among the smoke stacks.” This was not alma mater but dura matter, insisting on its place, a fortress within the swirling...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 251-262)
  9. Index
    (pp. 263-271)