Stanford’s “thought warrior”

He listens to dead voices

Not many Americans read The Australian, the leading national newspaper Down Under. It’s a shame – they’re going to miss Janet Albrechtsen’s excellent profile of the man who has been called America’s leading humanist, born in what may be Homer’s birthplace – Izmir, Turkey. Stanford’s Professor Robert Pogue Harrison, a leading Dante scholar (we’ve written about him lots on the Book Haven), has taught literature at Stanford for almost three decades. His books include The Dominion of The Dead, where he explores how the living maintain a connection with those we’ve buried, and Juvenescence, where he considers how we are growing younger culturally, losing a very necessary reciprocity with our past.

Albrechtson writes: “Harrison is not part of the splurge of political podcasts waging war with the left or the right. One of the original long-form podcasters, before the word was born, Harrison started recording his meandering interviews, called Entitled Opinions, in 2005 in what he calls the catacombs of Stanford University’s radio station KZSU. He chooses “catacomb” deliberately. This is where, as he tells his listeners, new religions are born, his being ‘the persecuted religion of thinking.’”

A couple excerpts from the article:

Dead voices are writ large in Harrison’s life and work. He is concerned that the genius of innovation and change, now at speeds not seen over the course of human history, is breaching our connection with the wisdom of the past. “Genius liberates the novelties of the future, (and) wisdom inherits the legacies of the past, renewing them in the process of handing them down,” he writes in Juvenescence.

Harrison is too cool to be a ­curmudgeon. He recognises that being young is positive. “It’s ­vibrant, it’s energetic, it’s creative,” he tells me.

“But if we forget our cultural age and pretend like we’re children, then it’s really dangerous. And when you lose your cultural memory and connection with the past and with the dead voices that speak from the deep past, then you also, I think, lose the sources of rejuvenation. You can either rejuvenate or you can juvenilise. I don’t know how we can go forward into the future viably without a solid kind of foundation in the past.”

A radical kind of guy

Harrison draws on Dante to explain the dynamic synergy between genius and wisdom. “Dante in the Middle Ages is in a deeply Christian society, and he becomes the first person to write a Christian epic in the first person singular. That was very radical. That was very new. That opened up a whole new genre for the future. But he did not just invent it like Silicon Valley start-up companies say they are all about innovation. He found his way into the new possibilities of a Christian epic by the systematic study of Virgil, and with Virgil, the epic tradition that came from Greek and Roman sources,” he says.

He points to the same intellectual synergy between genius and wisdom when the Founding Fathers created a new nation. “Thomas Jefferson used to translate the Greek Bible into Latin and the Latin Bible into Greek when he was in high school. President Garfield, a century later, when he wanted to amuse his friends … he would take two pencils (one in each hand) and write Greek and Latin letters – sentences – at the same time.

“The framers of the American constitution … would go back and pour over the annals of the history of Rome and where Carthage went wrong. The whole new nation of America, the new republic, was thought up very deliberately by this constant persistent reference to antiquities and its models of the future.”


Translated Greek, Latin as a kid

He laments that education, especially the humanities, is deliberately trouncing dead voices. And he is unsurprised that humanities degrees at Australian universities have been penalised by a fee hike by the government.

He blames a cynical crusade over the past few decades where the humanities have become “more of a deconstructive enterprise rather than a reconstructive one. If we, the teachers, are the first ones to put into the tribunal all of the white males that represent the tradition, and invariably, when you put them in the tribunal, almost all of them are going to be indicted and proclaimed guilty, then it’s not unusual that governments should say, ‘Why should we fund a dead story?’”

What is a humanist? Obviously, Harrison is one. I’m not going to attempt a definition, but I will describe a characteristic. A humanist is someone who explores, explains, and inhabits literature, or philosophy, or history, or any of the other explorations are the essence civilization and human endeavor. They do this not (or at least not only) self-interested motives – a degree, a tenured appointment, a prize, or prestige as a PBS commentator – but because it is the world they inhabit, one that they wish to carry into the future by offering at least a single perishable link in an unbroken chain – not only for humanity’s sake, but also because it is their own lifeblood.

Read the whole thing here, if you can evade the paywall.

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