Who Are We – And How Are We To Live?
Ideas have consequences and it's up to all of us to get engaged, perhaps at The Academy, says Alan Miller
He cannot answer of course, in the most obvious sense, although we are in constant dialogue with his ideas – whether we pursue them forcefully daily or merely meander through life; the ideas that inform our every notion and cultural landscape have been forged and carved by so many preceding giants.
I feel as though I cheated myself somewhat while at University. There I was, all ready to absorb and learn and understand, yet I was demoralized by the pedestrian nature of higher education. A slice of economics here, a piece of epistemology there; some psychology and geography with history seeming insular and far off all meant a superficial dipping in – without much depth. The demise of what the Academy should be has sadly continued much further since then. Students are 'consumers' who must be 'edutained'. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is out and MOOC's (Massive Open Online Courses) are all the vogue. Hard work, striving, painful pursuit of the truth have been replaced with a dumbed down edu–lite certificate. Still, I had no excuse – I could still read more, work harder and pursue further. There is little around in our archipelago of thinking to encourage such behavior. Sadly today the entire ethos and spirit of higher education has been emptied out of much of its worth and meaning – like so many other institutions in the western world.
This is why I've signed up to once again be a part of and attend The Academy, an initiative by UK outfit The Institute of Ideas. For three full days in July, attendees who have spent several months reading as much as they can go to discuss the ideas and work of some of the giants that have shaped our intellectual world.
We are told so often today that "it is all relative" or "I don't want to judge," yet the cultural conformity and lack of exploration of ideas is astounding. We think we are free, yet are we everywhere, to paraphrase Rousseau, in our own chains? My inspiration to explore the world of the classics, great literature and history is utterly selfish; I want to be better. Also though, I happen to think that a by–product of being more informed about where exactly we have come from, what ideas have paved the way for our current juncture also positions us very well to understand it – and understanding something is always the precursor to changing it.
Over the past couple of years, I have had my breath taken away by Frankenstein, been carried away with the passion of Wuthering Heights, struggled and raced with Moby Dick, and fallen in love with Goethe's Faust. Exploring the identity of the individual, reflecting on Robinson Crusoe, wondering about family life and the role of women and the changing map of society in Jane Eyre, Madam Bovary and Fathers and Sons.
I knew nothing, to speak of, about Rome and the relationship between the Greeks and the Hellenistic world, Christianity …and today. When Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door I got to see how an entire world becomes transformed gradually – then extremely quickly. From The Renaissance through to The Enlightenment there is a trajectory, where humanity goes on a voyage of discovery. Alasdair Macintyre's mindblowing After Virtue invokes Aristotle and the Greek idea of Fortuna to take issue with much of how we think today. Machiavelli's The Prince provides a piercing glimpse in to early mercantilist attitudes to ruling. These and more have helped choreograph an understanding and deeper knowledge of the world we inhabit today.
So when David Cameron declares that what Britain requires is further evangelism – or indeed when much of the world declares that the problem with the world today is religion – I have a bit of a heads up. The problem of a ‘web of meaning' – and of whether or of how to live The Good Life, if at all – is really the profound disillusionment in belief per se and a disdain for commitment to any ideas (and to anything much else too).
In relationships, we find it hard societally to commit these days. The very notion of a commitment – an honour bound agreement – is usually smirked at or outright scoffed at. Marriage? Well, y'know, we have 'lifestyles'…
So reading The Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides has been an absolute revelation. Not only does the author sound like he is speaking today, one is catapulted into the trials and tribulations of how a society should be – What do we mean when we say honour? What is virtue? What does it look like to live freely? How should we understand the moral life? How are we to, in fact, live.
I find myself excitedly engaging with Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism – having only read captions previously – and finally struggling honestly with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. I am overwhelmed with Aquinas and yet determined; all these names and minds that have had such a profound affect on how we understand ourselves today…
It is not as though when I read Thucydides he provides the answer to the conflict in Ukraine. We form our own ideas – and mine are that the West should step away and stop interfering in the region exacerbating tensions and local issues. However, reading the warnings of war and its consequences when parties debate back and forth in this most early of historical novels can leave nobody unclear of the gravity of war.
The most extraordinary idea though – is that we make the world every day. It is quite simply put, after all the reading and discussing, up to us. We choose. We are free. What are we then thus to do? It is with this in mind that I am also to embark on reading Being Cultured: In Defence of Discrimination by Angus Kennedy who is one of the organizers of The Academy. I shall no doubt have much to think about and say – and I invite each and all of you at The American to come join us and to participate from July 19 to 21. After all, ideas have consequences…
Alan Miller is Director of The NY Salon and Co–Founder of London's Old Truman Brewery cultural center, MD of The Vibe Bar & is headed to Cannes with some films… Twitter: @alanvibe
The Academy, run by The Institute of Ideas, runs from July 19 to 21: www.instituteofideas.com/academy2014.html