I happened to see these words by Jona Lendering, and although there is something in this, I feel that I need to disagree profoundly. It seems that some people in the US consider that Obama is the anti-Christ, rather than merely yet another dodgy politician mouthing lies while emptying our pockets. Biblioblogger Jim West posts a chunk of Greek on who the anti-Christ is, and deliberately doesn’t translate. “No need for speculation”, he says.
I long ago learned that people who post untranslated Greek intend to intimidate rather than educate, and like most people I despise such point-scoring. But Jona remarks:
… his joke to keep the relevant lines untranslated, goes straight to the heart of an important matter, which is not just a problem to theology. Ancient history suffers from it as well: too many people think they can understand ancient texts without having the proper qualifications. Such as learning a dead language.
This is an odd idea. I would not like to go to an amateur dentist. No politician would pay for the experiments by amateur particle physicists. But if ancient texts are involved, expertise is suddenly unnecessary. Books by “self-educated historians” or theological code-breakers are printed by publishing houses that are, essentially, selling out scholarship to make a few quick bucks.
One of the reasons is, of course, that ancient texts are accessible and delightful to read. You easily get the impression that you can make sense of them. There is little to do against this – fortunately, because there is nothing against enjoying a good book. Yet, I would appreciate it if publishers stopped presenting Plato as if he were a normal writer whose books deserve in the bookstores a place between Sylvia Plath and Chaim Potok. He deserves a book with explanations and a lot of footnotes, nothing else.
No, no, and a thousand times NO!
History is not and should never be the special preserve of some specially trained cadre of priests, who alone understand how to interpret the sacred texts, and to whom we all must humbly apply to be permitted an opinion. In a society where education is general, history belongs to everyone. History is not some place far-away. It is our own past.
The doings of Cicero and Caesar do not belong to Dr Herbert Nose-in-the-air, recently graduated from the university of Osoimportant, on the basis that — according to the other priests — he alone knows the sources well enough to be permitted to speak. No, no and a thousand times NO! Petrarch would have burned his books, if he knew that his efforts to rediscover the ancient world would be stranged by such elitism.
Education is for everyone. It is true that not everyone will do it equally well. In the sciences, we perforce allow only trained specialists to enjoy special esteem. Yet even here, the gifted amateur may make a contribution; and no scientist would make the kind of claims to exclude the public that we see above. It is merely impractical for most to do so.
But in the humanities, we do not respect the scholar nearly as much, and nor should we. As we all know, the consensus of scholars on matters of controversy is often shaped by profoundly non-scholarly considerations, such as those who make appointments and their prejudices. The humanities are the property of the educated world, and will always be so.
Let us remember who pays for all this book-sniffing. The poverty-stricken pensioner widow, eking out her miserable existence on a few score dollars a week and wondering whether this week to heat or eat — for a greedy government makes doing both at the same time difficult — pays of her limited funds to keep a group of people in education as teachers and researchers. It is, in truth, barely moral that this should happen. But governments exact from all, careless of the cost. This exclusive priesthood that some would like to create, is funded by the many. And why? So that their work should be valuable to all, because all can benefit. It does not exist by divine right. The humanities is a government utility for the supply of education and culture, nothing more. Nor has it ever been different, except that private patrons replaced the government. Before we praise our new priesthood to the skies, let us reflect on what we really mean; a bunch of hirelings.
If history can only be known by pronouncements by some self-appointed Pope, then history is bunk, and there is no reason for our wretched widow to pay for it. Better that the scholars be hanged, than that the poor lady starve.
But the truth is otherwise. A man who knows no Latin can master the thought of Cicero. So it is, so it should always be. The expert should have an advantage, the original language must always be superior; yet in truth I find that knowledge of these languages is often more prated of than possessed, and too often is merely a cloak for a man who uses a translation as a crib. Where precisely are these scholars, who read Migne for fun? Few, few indeed. Let us praise those who can. Let us listen to what they say. And let us stick their heads down the toilet when they profess, on such slender grounds, to instruct us in how to read the bible, and how to vote. Down with such elitism. As a Tory of the highest and driest kind by temperament, let me raise the red flag.
I don’t want to pillory Jona, for I know that he has something specific in mind, and that something annoys me also. He wants to raise the standard of popular understanding. He’s tired of the quantity of crude myths in circulation, and the confidence with which some of them are uttered. He’s right in this. There is too much dross out there.
But the answer is not the creation of a Royal Priesthood, or perhaps, a State Priesthood, to mediate the holy mysteries of what Disraeli had for breakfast to us! It is better education all round, better access to data, better access to scholarly books — all currently paid for by the public, and all sedulously protected by copyrights to keep them from the public.
Few, indeed, have done more to aid this process than Jona himself. This makes it ironic that he calls for a system under which his own website would be shut down as being produced by someone not in the magic circle, by one “not in holy orders”, by an educated enthusiast!