First Person
February 24, 1998 / 28 Shevat, 5758

Feigning Cultural Amnesia

By Kevin Hasson

I WAS IN BORDERS Bookstore and AristotleI was frustrated. All I wanted was a copy of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, a short treatise named after the great philosopher's son, Nicomachus, on how to lead a good life. The Ethics, of course, are the classic source for the idea that virtue is the mean between two extremes. Generosity, for example, lies between the vice of stinginess, on the one hand, and the vice of being a patsy on the other. That this now seems to be common sense, even by those who have never read Aristotle, attests to the idea's influence. The Nicomachean Ethics are part of the bedrock on which the Western Tradition rests.

But I couldn't find even a Penguin paperback of it. I counted some sixty shelf-feet in Borders' Philosophy section. They had copious amounts of Kant. There was a decent selection of Descartes, a little Leibniz, and far too much Foucault. There was even some Richard Rory. But Borders' Philosophy section lacked a single work by Aristotle.

Convinced that this simply couldn't be, I looked again and then a third time. No Ethics. No Aristotle. Then I noticed a small sign that Borders had helpfully taped to the shelf. "Aristotle," it read, "is in ancient history."

Ancient History? Aristotle was in ancient history? I immediately began to worry about Jefferson --- was he in Political Theory, a subject which he had almost single-handedly transformed, or had he been similarly exiled? I couldn't bear to look.

Worst of all, this cultural vandalism seemed to be the work, not of some vast barbarian conspiracy, but of Borders' marketing department. They had apparently made an economic judgment that their last bit of philosophy shelf space was best assigned to various postmodern thinkers; Aristotle could be tucked away elsewhere. Better to perplex the occasional Aristotelian than disappoint the (currently) more numerous fans of Foucault. Borders' supply, in other words, had been arranged to meet its demand. And that was truly worrisome.

Every culture has its intellectual tradition, a received wisdom that it abandons at its peril. Both Scripture and bitter experience admonish us to "Remove not the ancient landmark which your fathers have set." (Pr. 22:28). America's intellectual tradition has been reinventing itself almost annually for the last few decades, and has gotten decidedly mixed results. Now I am not arguing that rearranging bookstores' shelves is the answer. Nor am I arguing for a return to Aristotelian fundamentalism. Borders really should sell any philosophy (even, I suppose, Rory) that its customers wish to explore. Postmoderns have the same freedom of expression as anyone else. They should be listened to, and disagreed with, respectfully. But being respectful and open-minded is not the same thing as feigning cultural amnesia. We should remember who we are. And intellectual novelties should be made to run the gauntlet of our tradition.

The English word "idiot" comes from the Greek word idiotes, which means a private person, that is one who refuses to take part in the life of the polis. The typical self-obsessed, post-modern loner refuses not only to take part in current society; he also refuses to join the great conversation that is our intellectual tradition. So Aristotle wouldn't hesitate to label him an idiot twice over.

Yet another reason the wise man should be rescued from ancient history.


2/16/98: Resting unpeacefully in Boca Raton

Kevin Hasson is President of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a bi-partisan and ecumenical public interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions.

©1998, Kevin Hasson