American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 10


Peter Conn
Thomas Crow
Barbara Jeanne Fields
Ernest S. Frerichs
David Hollinger
Richard Rorty
Catharine R. Stimpson

The “West,” the Liberal Arts and General Education

Sabine MacCormack
Stanford University

Let me begin my discussion of tonight’s theme by mentioning two interdependent questions which are often implied in current discussions about the humanities, but are rarely considered in their own right. First, there is the question of how the components of the cultural tradition we ascribe to “the West” have been assembled, and how therefore we understand the origins of the culture of “the West.” Second, what authority should we attribute to this cultural tradition, and with what weight should we endow it in relation to other cultural traditions? Whether one agrees, for instance, with Lynne Cheney, that texts from the Western tradition should be read “for their transcendent truths,”1 or whether one agrees with Hillis Miller, that diverse or contradictory contemporary theories of reading are making available to us “new readings” of those texts,2 some attitude toward our two questions underlies those divergent views.

Regarding origins, let me start with one of those playful yet serious anecdotes Plato was so fond of telling. In the Timaeus, he recounts how the Athenian legislator Solon visited the Nile delta and told myths of the first foundation of Athens to the Egyptian priests he met there. Although in Solon’s view these myths went back to a very remote antiquity, one of the priests pointed out that Egyptian historical traditions were older. “You Greeks are always children, there is no such thing as an old Greek,” the priest teased Solon. “You are young in soul,” he continued,3 by way of comparing Greek historical traditions to the infinitely more ancient and grander traditions of Egypt. The priest then related to Solon the true story, as he saw it, of the origins of Athens which he said the Athenians themselves had forgotten. This “true” story of Athenian origins, told by a foreigner, provides the framework for Plato’s discussion in the Timaeus of God and man, of space, time, and eternity.4

Plato’s anecdote is one of many Greek stories, both legendary and historical, recounting what had been learnt or borrowed from elsewhere. The Romans likewise, whether for reasons of their own or under Greek influence, looked far afield to the Etruscans, the Greeks, and even the Trojans, to explain their history and culture.5

Influences and borrowings moving from one culture to another are of course a worldwide phenomenon. What I wish to highlight here is the interest that Greek and Roman mythographers, philosophers, and historians repeatedly demonstrated in taking stock of cultural imports. Their preoccupation with this issue shows that otherness was part and parcel of Greek and especially of Roman cultural self-definition.

This is not to say that the Romans, like the Greeks before them, did not often experience and act on xenophobia. Nonetheless, they did not choose to rewrite their history in such a way as to eliminate the memory of foreign contributions. Indeed, ongoing foreign contributions served to document a certain connectedness, a sense of cultural belonging and identity on the map of human achievements that the inhabitants of the Roman Mediterranean world carried in their minds.

In the field of education, however, the Romans did not look beyond Greece. Young Romans studied a corpus of Greek and Latin epic poetry, history, philosophy, and political oratory that changed little between the first and the fifth centuries CE. Some Greek classics were translated into Latin, but we know of few translations from languages other than Greek. The most important of these is the Hebrew Bible, which was, however, translated for Jewish and Christian religious use, and not for any cultural or educational purpose that was recognized as valid in Roman society at large. We are thus faced with a dichotomy in Greek and Roman attitudes to cultural identity and education. While cultural identity was delineated in relation to landmarks on a farflung canvas of earlier civilizations, in education what counted was the authority of Greek and Roman authors.6 For education provided the means of projecting to Roman subjects the hegemony of Rome backed by the culture of Greece.

This position was modified once Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman empire. Christians were able to build on earlier Jewish endeavours of integrating the history and culture of Israel with those of Greece and Rome. But unlike the Jews, Christians looked for converts. For Christians, God’s covenant with Israel, described in the Hebrew Bible, was merely the prelude for his covenant with all human beings. As a result, Christian revisions of the Greco-Roman past in the light of their own preconceptions were more ambitious and far-reaching than Jewish antecedents. It is difficult to underestimate the vast change in the content of culture and in styles of cultured expression that Christian interests and preoccupations entailed. To render the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian histories and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world compatible with each other proved to be a complex and controversial enterprise that occupied men of letters in Europe from the fifth century down to the 18th and indeed beyond.7 In the 16th century, moreover, this European discussion expanded into a discussion among exponents of religions and cultures worldwide. Besides Greece and Rome, there were now the civilizations of the Americas, of India, China, and Japan to claim the attention of the learned. The outcomes of their thinking affect us still, for it was in the 16th century that the question of hegemony—be it political or religious, cultural or economic once more entered the arena of general education.8

Throughout Christian medieval Europe, general education covered two branches of learning, the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian. The Greco-Roman canon of texts was reworked into the seven liberal arts that constituted the core of medieval education, while the Judeo-Christian branch of Europe’s heritage from classical antiquity became the separate discipline of theology. The liberal arts trained mind and imagination, and theology was expected to teach one religious truth.9 But it did more than that. Theology was anchored in the study of the Biblical texts, most of which expressed the ideas and values of ancient Israel, a polity that differed profoundly from the Greek city states and the Roman empire. The Biblical texts were vehicles of revealed and sacred knowledge, and at the same time broadened the scope of what was knowable in strictly secular terms. This is why, even during the Renaissance and as late as the 17th century, European historians and political thinkers derived exemplars of how power should be exercised both from the Greco-Roman classics and from the Hebrew Bible. Moses was as much a statesman as Caesar and Augustus.10

The sacred texts of the Bible were therefore read both as theology and as history. Their authority was twofold. They guided the soul. But frequently, they were also called upon to guide secular affairs.

Given that the Bible is inter alia a sacred text, capable of conveying a more far-reaching authority than the secular Greco-Roman canon, some scholars have thought that it should be studied according to different rules from those applying to other writings. Where thus Renaissance and later scholars enquired freely into the chronology of Greek and Roman historians, the same freedom did not apply to the study of Biblical texts. For such enquiry raised questions regarding date and authorship which were liable to undermine the Bible’s sacred and prophetic authority. We have for instance learnt that, contrary to appearances, the Book of Daniel was not written in the sixth century BC, but in c. 164 BC, and that therefore most of its prophecies are retrospective. This is only one of many areas where a scholarly and secular approach to the Bible was in conflict with but prevailed over a theological and devotional interpretation.11

Nonetheless, a theologically oriented reader of sacred texts is still likely to endow them with an authority higher than and different from that attributed to them by a secular reader. Also, secular and theological readers will learn from such texts in different ways, because secular and theological reasoning use different procedures. Finally, precisely because sacred texts are endowed with a more absolute authority than secular ones, a sacred canon or corpus of texts tends to be more rigorously defined than a secular one.

In the course of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, not to mention subsequent centuries, the corpus of secular texts being studied by cultured persons underwent far-reaching changes. In particular, from the 14th century, all over Europe, vernacular texts were added to the established corpus of works read in Latin. By contrast, during the same period the canon of the Christian Bible changed hardly at all.

“The West” is thus heir to several distinct approaches—sacred or secular, universal or specific to one culture—to the task of compiling and agreeing upon materials that should figure in general education and general knowledge. Although we are considering a very long period indeed, one can still pinpoint some trends. For example, the secular component of general “Western” education has changed more profoundly than the sacred one. A late antique and a contemporary American Christian are unlikely to agree on many topics, but they will be reading more or less the same Biblical texts. But if the same two individuals turned to the secular corpus of texts they share, they might at most both know Homer, Plato, Vergil, and perhaps Cicero. While even this much continuity is astonishing, we must recognize that it does not cover a large area of thought and experience. The issue is, the secular corpus of authoritative texts has shifted over time to reflect the profound changes the societies of “the West” have undergone. Different texts were selected at different times to sustain ideas capable of rendering change intelligible. The first major transformation of the secular corpus occurred after Roman imperial rule came to an end in Western Europe. The corpus of authoritative secular texts that came to be studied in post-Roman Europe reflected the new social and political order.

Perhaps the changes now confronting us have something in common with that transformation. Or perhaps what we are seeing resembles more closely the inclusion, during the 14th century, of the new vernacular literatures into the purview of general culture and education.12

At any rate, new texts are now competing for space in a corpus or canon which is all too easily regarded as more rigid than it ever was in reality. With new texts come new interpretations that reflect changes in our self-definition and political experience. Perhaps we should recognize here the recurrence of an ancient tension in how Western cultural identity has been perceived. We could then try to reformulate the old Greek and Roman dichotomy between locating part of one’s cultural identity beyond the confines of one’s own society while at the same time focusing education exclusively on texts produced within that society. We might do this by taking stock of conflicts over participation and hegemony within American culture without either discarding that culture’s Western components or smothering the new with the old. Seeing how vitally other cultures have in the past contributed to Western self-perceptions and achievements, now is the time to relearn an old lesson.

Finally, in discussing liberal arts and general education, I am discussing what has become, beginning in the Renaissance, a secular enterprise. This is why whatever “transcendent truths” may be discernible in a given text seem to me to be dependent on the historical situation in which that text is read, and on whatever sacred or theological value may from time to time be attributed to it.

The fact that we, or some of us, might nowadays be able to see a transcendent truth in, say, Plato’s writing, is the outcome of a certain continuity or possibly only a perceived continuity between his world and ours. Although many basic notions which Plato took for granted are next to unintelligible to the unschooled contemporary reader, there do remain a few of these basic notions which he and we ourselves do still share. It is much harder for us to see any transcendent truth in, say, the writings of Confucius or the sayings of Buddha, both near contemporaries of Plato, for our culture as it now stands is in no sense continuous with their cultures.

A further issue arising here concerns the fact that concepts such as “transcendent truth” are more at home in theology than in the secular world of general education and the liberal arts. To resort once more to Plato, a method of opening up a question for discussion which he used more than once was to challenge and indeed to dispose of a “transcendent truth.” The Egyptian priest who, according to the anecdote with which we began, spoke to Solon and called the Greeks children, apparently meant to criticize the Greeks for having historical memories so much shorter than the Egyptians did. Yet this same priest also praised the ancestors of the Greeks for their noble achievements. Possibly, therefore, it is not entirely off the mark to see in the remarks of the Egyptian priest a certain admiration for the very naiveté, for that childlike boisterousness of the Greeks which overtly he criticized. Perhaps we are able to learn from this Greek quality ourselves.


1. The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 8, 1989. [Back to text.]

2. ACLS Occasional Paper no. 6, p. 29 f. [Back to text.]

3. Plato, Timaeus 22 b2 ff. [Back to text.]

4. Martin Bernal, Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation, Vol. 1, Rutgers (1987). [Back to text.]

5. Arnaldo Momigliano, How to reconcile Greeks and Trojans, in his Settimo Contributo alla Storia degli Studi classici a del Mondo antico, Rome (1984), pp. 437–462. [Back to text.]

6. R. A. Kaster, Guardians of Language, The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity, Berkeley (1988). [Back to text.]

7. E. Auerbach, Literal Language and its Public in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, London (1965); F. E. Manuel, The Eighteenth Century, Confronts the Gods, Cambridge, Mass. (1959). [Back to text.]

8. J. H. Elliott, The Old World and the New 1492–1650, Cambridge (1970); B. Bucher, Icon and Conquest. A Structural Analysis of the Illustrations of De Bry’s Great Voyages, Chicago (1981); S. MacCormack, The Fall of the Incas. A historiographical Dilemma, History of European Ideas 6 (1985), pp. 421–445. [Back to text.]

9. B. Smalley, English Friars and Antiquity in the Early Fourteenth Century, Oxford (1960). [Back to text.]

10. Two seminal political thinkers, Machiavelli in The Prince and Hobbes in Leviathan, thus illustrate their arguments with examples from the Old Testament. [Back to text.]

11. See Arnaldo Momigliano, The Origins of Universal History, in his Settimo Contributo, pp. 77–103, reprinted in his On Pagans, Jews and Christians, Middletown (1987). For one of the most incisive early modern critical evaluations of the biblical texts, see B. Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, chapters 8–11. [Back to text.]

12. E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Princeton (1953). [Back to text.]