Thursday, June 22, 2017

Postmodernism - its foul pestilential breath infected every youthful ambition.

The Satyricon by Petronius, translated by J.P. Sullivan. Sound like the lamentations about the corruption of academics and the decline in our magnificent universities? Universities forced into self-disrepute through their cultivation of postmodernist critical theory? This isn't so much a reminder that all is as it ever was. Rather, it is a reminder that across cultures and ages, youthful folly is outgrown.

The opening paragraph.
'Our professors of rhetoric are hag-ridden in the same way, surely, when they shout "I got these wounds fighting for your freedom! This eye I lost for you. Give me a hand to lead me to my children. I am hamstrung, my legs can't support me." We could put up even with this stuff if it were a royal road to eloquence. But the only result of these pompous subjects and this empty thunder of platitudes, is that when young speakers first enter public life they think they have been landed on another planet. I'm sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of any use in everyday life. All they get is pirates standing on the beach, dangling manacles, oracles advising sacrifice of three or more virgins during a plague - a mass of cloying verbiage: every word, every move is just so much poppycock.

People fed on this kind of thing have as much chance of learning sense as dishwashers of smelling clean. If you'll pardon my saying so, you are mainly responsible for ruining good speaking. Your smooth and empty sound effects provided a few laughs, and as a result you took the guts out of real oratory, and that was the end of it. Young men were not tied down to the rhetorical exercises when it was Sophocles and Euripides who developed the proper language for them. Academic pendants had not addled their wits when Pindar and the nine lyric poets shrank away from the Homeric style. And apart from the poets I can cite, I certainly cannot see Plato or Demosthenes going in for this sort of training. The elevated, what one might call the pure style, is not full of purple patches and bombast: it is lifted up by its intrinsic beauty. It is not so long since the long-winded spouting of yours travelled from Asia to Athens and its foul pestilential breath infected every youthful ambition. Once the rules go, eloquence loses vigour and voice. In short, who since then has equalled Thucydides or Hyperides in their reputation. Why, not even poetry has shown a spark of life. All forms of literature have been faced with the same diet and lost their chance of a ripe old age. Even the great art of painting has met the same fate since the unscrupulous Egyptians invented short cuts for painters.

Agamemnon, after his own sweat in the classroom, did not allow me to hold forth in the colonnade for longer than himself.

'Young man,' he said, 'your opinion shows extraordinary good taste and you have that extremely rare quality - a love for intellectual merit. So I shall not baffle you with any expertise. Of course teachers are making immemorial concessions with these exercises - they have to humour the madmen. If the speeches they make do not win the approval of their young pupils, as Cicero says, "they will be the only ones in their schools".


"What's the answer? It's the parents you should blame. They won't allow their children to be properly controlled. In the first place they sacrifice everything, even their hopes, to their ambition. Then in their over-eagerness they direct these immature intellects into public life. They will tell you that there is no mightier power than oratory and they dress their boys up as orators while they are still drawing their first breath. If only parents would not rush them through their studies! Then young men who are prepared to work would cultivate their minds with solid reading, mould their characters with sensible advice, and prune their words with a stylish pen. They would wait and listen before they tried themselves and they would realize that an adolescent taste is quite worthless. Then the noble art of oratory would have it's true weight and dignity. Boys today are frivolous in school; young men are laughing-stocks in public life; and, the greatest shame of all, even when they are old they refuse to give up the mistakes they learnt earlier.
We've got it all in the Roman first century AD. Dunning-Kruger effect, youthful idiocy, public discourse polluted by the platitudinous, hack professors, debasement of values, decline of the humanities and even helicopter parents.

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