In defense of dead white literature

photo provided by Isaiah Mitchell

photo provided by Isaiah Mitchell

My good friend and archenemy Manfred Wendt wrote an article a couple of Trinitonians ago calling for another mandatory great books course, namely with more Plato and Shakespeare (assumedly metonymically, with Plato and Shakespeare standing in for a wide range of great Western authors). I typically would think that a response to a response to an article is stretching it a bit because I don’t want to treat our school newspaper like a Facebook comment section. Also, I tend to keep my literary distance from Manfred, partially because of the smell, but mainly because he’s a smart, mostly alive guy who can defend his own opinions. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is less able to defend himself, so I thought I might interject.

The whole “hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ has got to go” thing has been going on since at least the eighties, so I feel that that there aren’t many new arguments to be made about it at this point. Evidently, Carl Teegerstrom feels the same way, as he relies on the tried-and-true “dead white guys” argument. I get that the racial argument may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s nonetheless the only argument he provides. There is no criticism of aesthetic value, and no offered alternatives of what to read. There is only a vague suspicion that inclusion of “dead white guys” must mean exclusion of — well, something. He doesn’t say what, or how.

What Teegerstrom does offer is a single sentence from an essay by Michel de Montaigne, whose essays — I must admit — I had never read before: “But as to effects, a thousand little countrywomen have lived lives more equal, more sweet, and constant than [Cicero].” If you open his link, the first thing you’ll see in the header is a picture of Plato and Aristotle in detail from Raphael’s “School of Athens,” so that’s good for a laugh. More substantially, I looked into the essay, which begins by analyzing a quote from Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura: nam cupide concultatur nimis ante metutum.” Roughly, it means, “For that which was excessively revered before is eagerly trampled.” Teegerstrom’s linked translation — which nowhere includes the quote he cited — translates it: “For people eagerly spurn that of which before they were most in awe.” I found it remarkable happenstance of sentiment — Teegerstrom joins the ranks of many in American universities who would trample the foundation of knowledge and beauty which upholds them, a literary foundation which we once revered. I can only hope Teegerstrom intended for the scrutinous reader to stumble across such a coincidence.

The original text of the essay can be found here, the quote in section 489: “Et, quant à l’effect, mille femmelettes ont vescu au village une vie plus equable, plus douce et plus constante que ne fust la sienne” (Teegerstrom’s linked translation is accurate). Like I said, I have no extensive knowledge about Montaigne, so I’m treading on thin ice, but he does seem to be making the argument, at least in that paragraph, that we can learn about religion and morality from nature. That is a far cry from the claim that “we don’t need more dead white guys’ literature,” which Montaigne seems to greatly appreciate, referencing Seneca, Epictetus, Homer and even Lucretius (again) directly after Teegerstrom’s quote. I’m sure any classics major would agree that Cicero’s dryness doesn’t mean Western literature isn’t edifying.

Also, bewilderingly, the description of Plato and Shakespeare as disparate sits right next to the criticism that they are “rather homogenous.” I tend to agree more with the former assessment, especially since I really feel for Ben Jonson — maybe it’s just because I’m a middle child — who bragged that Shakespeare had “small Latin and lesse Greeke,” indeed making him an “illiterate barbarian” to Plato. Also, it’s true: the breadth of the Western canon is diverse, though I will admit that Teegerstrom is responding to a common tendency to homogenize. On the racial side of things, Plato was probably as swarthy as any Greek, while Shakespeare was pretty pasty — but hey, they were both bald and European, so they’re basically twins. On the literary side of things, anyone who has read or seen the simple, fast-driven Greek tragedies knows that Shakespeare’s varied plot lines make them look like Teletubbies episodes. Despite this, admirers and haters both tend to homogenize, and here they are both wrong to do so. The Western canon — from Plato to Shakespeare and all in between — deserves more than the reductive labels of old, dead and white.