Monday, February 6, 2012

Calvin Coolidge on Classics

Is 1921 really so long ago? It doesn't seem so. They had motorcars and electricity, indoor plumbing and pantaloons. Alright, clearly much has changed but so much so that a speech given 90 years ago would be shocking today? Apparently.

There is little in Calvin Coolidge's 1921 speech at the Second Annual meeting of the American Classical League at the University of Pennsylvania that wouldn't create a stir today. The first surprise is undoubtedly the thought of a classicist politician in the 20th century. I must admit I am quite skeptical of, and generally concerned about the competence of, presidents without a classical education. The thought of making political judgments without having read Thucydides, moral judgments without having read Plato, and just plain thinking without having read Aristotle makes me wince. Magnify that concern by the authority vested, wisely or not, in the office of the president and you have an uneasy citizen. This is not to say a classical education is a prescription for virtue or ability. In my own life study of the classics has led primarily to gratitude, humility, conservation, and moderation, but it might just as easily lead one to hubris and grandiosity. That too might not be all for ill. The classically-trained Founding Fathers certainly took a big, liberal step. In either case though, one acts informed. Not to see the modern world in the light of the world from whence it came is quite simply not to see it. We may then safely say that a classical education is at least a prerequisite for prudence.

Returning to "Silent Cal," how surprising it is to see a politician so lovingly and earnestly speak about the classics.  More noteworthy is how forcefully he recommends.
For many centuries, in education, the classics have meant Greek and Latin literature. It does not need much argument to demonstrate that in the western world society can have little liberal culture which is not based on these. Without them there could be no interpretation of language and literature, no adequate comprehension of history, no understanding of the foundations of philosophy and law.
Coolidge is not at all at pains to speak of the necessity of the classics.
No question can be adequately comprehended without knowing its historical background. Modern civilization dates from Greece and Rome. The world was not new in their day. They were the inheritors of a civilization which-had gone before, but what they had inherited they recast, enlarged and intensified and made their own. . .
Here Coolidge is tying self-knowledge to learning and that's when we realize something unusual: he's talking about actual ideas. Not the flapping platitudes and political pablum we are used to, but actual ideas. Ideas worth exploring, I think, at least because it is hard to imagine any politician saying them today. Consider the following passage:
The present age has been marked by science and commercialism. In its primary purpose it reveals mankind undertaking to overcome their physical limitations. This is being accomplished by wonderful discoveries which have given the race dominion over new powers. The chief demand of all the world has seemed to be for new increases in these directions. There has been a great impatience with everything which did not appear to minister to this requirement.
Can you imagine any politician making such a defense of a liberal education? Defending "impractical" education? What about suggesting there is more to life than physical, material concerns? What about the following, a legitimate swipe at commercialism?
The age of science and commercialism is here. There is no sound reason for wishing it otherwise. The wise desire is not to destroy it, but to use it and direct it rather than to be used and directed by it, that it may be as it should be. not the master but the servant, that the physical forces may not prevail over the moral forces and that the rule of life may not be expediency but righteousness.
Now Coolidge doesn't deride commercialism but he does knock it down a few pegs, suggesting it is of less importance and moreover that it can be a danger, and still more that it can be a consuming danger. The phrase, "that it may be as it should be" would probably not go over well today. First, it is compact and requires one to unpack it and think on it. Second, it implies there is a natural order, that commercialism simply occupies a lower rung in the hierarchy of man's goods. "Expediency," that is, convenience, is not man's greatest need. Could George W. Bush, who told Americans after 9/11 to go out and shop, or President Obama, whose economic plan is spending for the sake of spending, have made these remarks?

Coolidge continues to make some genuinely conservative comments which would be alien and tendentious to current crop of "conservative" politicians.
It is impossible for society to break with its past. It is the product of all which has gone before. We could not cut ourselves off from all influences which existed prior to the Declaration of Independence and expect any success by undertaking to ignore all that happened before that date. The development of society is a gradual accomplishment. Culture is the product of a continuing effort. The education of the race is never accomplished. It must be gone over with each individual and it must continue from the beginning to the ending of life. Society cannot say it has attained culture and can therefore rest from its labors. All that it can say is that it has learned the method and process by which culture is secured and go on applying such method and process.
There can be no city on a hill, no new era or order or deal. Every society and every man has both an inheritance and a burden. No new plan will remedy all or forever rather it is the duty of each generation and each person to learn, do, and pass on. Culture and education are not objects to be acquired but processes. What a conservative and even elegant thought that puts to shame, to scandalous shame, the "spend more money on education" policy we endure today. How inestimably impoverished the latter! Coolidge continues on education.
Education is primarily a means of establishing ideals. Its first great duty is the formation of character, which is the result of heredity and training. This by no means excludes the desirability of an education in the utilities, but is a statement of what education must include if it meet with any success. It is not only because the classical method has been followed in our evolution of culture, but because the study of Greek and Latin is unsurpassed as a method of discipline. Their mastery requires an effort and an application which must be both intense and prolonged. They bring into action all the faculties of observation, understanding and reason. To become proficient in them is to become possessed of self control and of intelligence, which are the foundations of all character.
The first end of education is not fame and profit? No, but Coolidge does not dismiss the need of profit to support oneself. Again he simply rearranges the hierarchy: the first goal of education is to develop character. Working, then, becomes a subset of who you are, not all you are. Faculties then have two goals also, utility and self-control. Self-control, a virtue? Good heavens! Notice also how Coolidge has managed to make some significant claims here without actually waxing philosophical.

How unusual, too, for a politician ever to use the word culture. When was the last time one acknowledged the existence of culture, of looking at people through a lens not political or social per se, but for the whence and wherefore of their world.

Coolidge now asks a penetrating question, "How are we to justify the existing form of government in our Republic?" which he thusly answers, "The beginnings of modern democracy were in Athens and Sparta. That form of human relationship can neither be explained nor defended, except by reference to these examples and a restatement of the principles in which their government rested." What a far cry from the mindless endorsements of democracy without reference to any value which democracy is supposed to further. Speaking of the loss of those values,
Both of these nations speak to us eloquently of the progress they made so long as their citizens held to these ideals, and they admonish us with an eloquence even more convincing of the decay and ruin which comes to any people when it falls away from these ideals. There is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character.
With this reference to character Coolidge has linked his political philosophy to his philosophy of education and the lynch pin to both of these is classics. Only a classical education can show you the ideas which justify or condemn. Only a classical education can give you the tools of self control and intelligence to form a character, and only a character can let you weather the suffering of poverty and the temptations of prosperity.

In the most conservative section of the speech Coolidge continues to tie together classical education, the individual, society, and culture:
We do not wish to be Greek, we do not wish to be Roman. We have a great desire to be supremely American. That purpose we know we can accomplish by continuing the process which has made us Americans. We must search out and think the thoughts of those who established our institutions. The education which made them must not be divorced from the education which is to make us. In our efforts to minister to man's material welfare we must not forget to minister to his spiritual welfare. It is not enough to teach men science, the great thing is to teach them how to use science.
Being American is not simply being born in America but too a process. Being American requires you to follow American ideals, in a nice turn of phrase, to "think the thoughts of those who established our institutions." Thus being American too is a process of education, and being conservative is a process of inheriting and passing on ideas. Coolidge concludes the paragraph by reducing yet another star of the modern world often seen as an end in itself, science, to its status as a tool.

Coolidge concludes with an exceptional exhortation:
Unless Americans shall continue to live in something more than the present, to be moved by something more than material gains, they will not be able to respond to these requirements and they will go down as other peoples have gone down before some nation possessed of a greater moral force. The will to endure is not the creation of a moment, it is the result of long training. 
The speech culminates in the idea that everything is a process, and thus that the "now" is never everything. Man must have transcending goals and transcendent values.

Finally, how does Coolidge propose to further the classics? A modern speech would conclude with the promise to have the government support their study, but Coolidge lets the burden rest on the people: "If they are to be maintained they will find their support in the institutions of the liberal arts." It is up to individuals, to "those who believe in America, in her language, her arts, her literature and in her science. . . to perpetuate them by perpetuating the education which has produced them."

This speech from then Vice President Coolidge would make a much-needed splash today. It reclaims the dignity of the individual by restoring character over its replacement, the ego. It makes culture and not politics the essence of living. It restores use to education by insisting on purpose. It reduces tools like science and values like materialism to their proper status and Coolidge weaves these values together with the thread of classics, the discipline that enlightens, scolds, warns, that discipline ever challenging, ever rewarding, ever necessary.


  1. Fascinating analysis, especially considering Coolidge is best known for the dictum, "The business of America is business." I find myself unable to imagine a contemporary American politician (or European for that matter)ever make that sort of speech.

    The real culprit here are the universities, whom the right have abandoned and the left have taken hostage. To restore a genuine American culture, conservatives must regain higher education.

    Here is a great line from Tocqueville's "Democracy in America":

    "All who aspire to literary excellence in democratic nations ought frequently to refresh themselves at the springs of ancient literature; there is no more wholesome medicine for the mind."

    In the early 19th Century, Tocqueville already understood the necessity of a classical education and its benefit to democratic life.

  2. Hello again and thanks for your great comment! You know it's funny that much more famous saying didn't even occur to me though I think one can reconcile the difference by seeing that Coolidge, as I think many of his age and earlier did, recognized different spheres of life.

    Indeed the loss of classical education has been of inestimable detriment to education. What was once called "progressive education" to distinguish it from the norm, what is now called "classical education" is now simply "education." To be lost is one thing, forgotten another, and buried something altogether else!

    That Toqueville is indeed quite apt and I think there comes a time in one's education and life that the thought of making a decision without certain knowledge becomes downright frightening. The quote also reminds me of one from Jefferson which I now must search for. . .

    Thanks again so much for reading and staying to comment!

  3. I mention Leo Strauss because his life's work was aimed primarily in trying to address the inherent "nihilism" of modern philosophy. The Socratic tradition (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas) is radically different from the moderns (e.g. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke*) in that it holds human nature to be teleological.

    Existentialism, the logical conclusion of a non-teleological philosophy, denies a specific human nature. According to the likes of Nietzsche and Sartre, we must impose our own values on a world that's essentially blank.

    Science, and to a certain extent "business", do not have any ethical direction proper. The aim of science is to explain the laws which govern nature. How we go about doing so, and what we do with the knowledge we've acquired, science is mute. One can be a brilliant scientist and an absolute devil, there is no contradiction.

    Strauss tried to bring awareness to this issue through Socrates who, or the story goes, began as a naturalist before rejecting the study of the cosmos as "rubbish", focusing instead solely on living the good life.

    Anyways, I'm rambling now, but I highly recommend you reading Strauss's "Natural Right and History." It's a dense work, Strauss is incredibly erudite, but it's very enlightening. Of particular interest to you is his claim in the introduction that the only contemporary institution which still believes in Natural Right is the Catholic Church.

    One final note: Leo Strauss is generally known because of his alleged connection to certain "neo-conservatives" who were active in the first Bush administration. It's true some of them were his students (along with Alan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, Harvey Mansfield to name a few) but the suggestion that his philosophy somehow influenced the policy to attack Iraq or Afghanistan is preposterous. Steven B. Smith from Yale has done a remarkable job at explaining why.

  4. I don't know if that was a ramble but either way it's a very good one! Strauss' endeavor certainly appeals to me and there would seem in there to be a necessary questioning of Liberal political philosophy, a matter which has been on my mind rather often since reading Bloom's "Closing of the American mind." I believe Bloom had some Strauss lectures now available on YouTube (which I in fact passed over some time ago) so perhaps I'll take a peek there. Again thanks so much for your thoughtful comments!