Sunday, February 3, 2019

On the eloquence of the ancients

One of the frequent complaints about modernity that both reactionaries and conservatives agree upon is the lamentable decline in the standards of public discourse. This is pretty clearly true, and you can show it in various different ways.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and could also read Spanish and Greek. The highly educated Barack Obama spoke... just English.

If you want a non-political example, consider Paul Fussell's observation about World War I poetry. Wilfred Owen, when writing his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est", could write as the ending lines to his famous poem, an untranslated Latin phrase from Horace, with confidence that his audience, which included privates in the army, would know what he meant.

Or, if you think I'm cherry-picking this, price-onomics computed the reading grade-level of the State of the Union address over time. If you plot it versus the starting year of the president's term, this is what you get:

Which, I will readily acknowledge, looks a lot like a slow descent into idiocracy.

And, to be fair, this is my depressing first order assessment of how the matter stands.

But, if I were to put a small positive spin on this, it would be the following.

Suppose that the level of reading education has declined precipitously. Conceptually, this could be because
i) The total amount of education has declined. 
ii) The efficiency per hour of education has declined. 
iii) The fraction of education devoted to reading has declined

Out of these, I'm pretty sure #1 isn't the case. We spend more time in school and college than ever. Not only that, but the biggest increase is probably among the least educated, who once upon a time would have gone straight into agricultural jobs, etc.

The second part I'd be willing to believe. We spend endless time on pozz and diversity propaganda, whereas back in the past they were probably drilled on the important stuff and didn't screw around.

But I think the biggest underappreciated factor is #3.

In particular, it's easy to forget just how enormous the increase in education was in quantitative disciplines. I suspect, but can't prove, that the fraction of people that are learning calculus, chemistry, and physics is a lot higher. In particular, without a calculator, a lot of these disciplines become much more labor intensive in terms of how many calculation examples you can give to illustrate a principle. 

There's an even more concrete example.

The field of statistics as we know it didn't really exist until Sir Francis Galton invented it in the mid-19th century. Don't believe me? He came up with standard deviation, correlation, regression, and regression to the mean. Try, if you will, to imagine what your statistics class would have been like before that. There's the mean, the mean?

And without these tools, think how many other discussions become impoverished.

Economics doesn't have any data without computers. But without regression and correlation, it doesn't have any meaningful way to discuss causation, or to resolve arguments with data (even if you were willing to do it by hand). Hence the whole discipline becomes only theory. And theory back then was largely essays. Economics didn't become mathematical until Von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern and Paul Samuelson, all of whom did their major work after World War 2. Finance as a serious academic discipline didn't exist before Harry Markowitz, around the same time. And this is without discussing the disciplines that trivially didn't exist, like computer science, and those that only became formalised later, like psychology.

Take out all of the high school and college education devoted to these subjects, and ask yourself - what's left to do other than read the classics and learn languages? Not only this, if you could erase all your knowledge of the above subjects and replace it with more eloquence and knowledge of the classics...would you? Would the bargain seem worth it?

To me, it's not obvious at all.  

As I wrote about a while ago - expressions of a desire to do some self-improvement task are pretty much like a politician's unfunded campaign promises. That is, unless you specify exactly what in your week it is you're willing to give up in order to make it happen, it's not actually a serious plan. And just like in politics, the two standard answers are both bad. I'll get rid of waste and duplication! In your life, like in politics, there is assuredly waste and duplication, but it's similarly assured that you probably won't get rid of it. Or you'll just run a budget deficit by sleeping less. Which works in the long run about as well as you'd expect.

So it is with the importance of a classical education. It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It just means that simply cutting out the modern leftist propaganda from the curriculum won't turn you into Jefferson. You've got to cut much closer to the bone, into subjects that actually do matter.

The other lesson, of course, is that Sir Francis Galton was a god damn genius, and is criminally underappreciated. It's hard to imagine the social sciences existing without him.


  1. As someone who recently learned Latin to a fairly proficient level on the wrong side of 30, I would not hesitate to trade my C++ skills for Greek, or even just better Latin.

    Learning Latin is not just about learning to read Vergil. It's about learning to think like a Roman would have, which means learning to think in the terms a Roman would have. This is why Jefferson was made to do so. It's almost as though people back then knew things.

    For example, we have this thing called "tradition" which happens to be the lifeblood of a social order, but in 2019 sounds shitty and old. The Roman of 150 BCE would not (could not) have understood this sense of "tradition". This is, in some measure, simply because he had a different term for the same idea: "mos maiorum", the literal translation of which is "custom of the ancestors". Crucially, the term maiores ("ancestors") was also synonymous with "superiors". So--far from considering tradition as "what you do when you have chronic myopia", or whatever the 2019 sense is--for our Roman to be anti-traditional would be to oppose himself to the "way of his betters", which was for him what it is for the 2019 bugman to be anti-science, to disagree with the experts, or perhaps, even (dii avertant!) to throw economics and statistics over in favour of something useless like Latin.

    But if I'd only ever read De Natura Deorum in English, all that would have flown under the radar.

    1. Huh. This is definitely the best case for reading Latin that I've come across. To out myself on the issue, I start out generally skeptical on the question. My rough perception is that the work required to not only be able to read Latin, but read Latin to a point where I pick up more nuance than a very good English translation by someone else, seemed far more work than could possibly be justified by the difference in learning outcomes. You're making me reconsider, but probably not enough to actually carve out the hours in a week to make it happen. Had we but worlds enough and time, as Andrew Marvell put it...

    2. I couldn't blame anyone for not learning Latin, because it earns its reputation as a monumentally hard task. I started learning it for the same reason some people train to run a marathon, or climb a mountain--just to see if I could. Only later did I find out that the etymological and linguistic paths down which it has led me have been as revelatory as anything I've read by de Maistre, Filmer, etc.

      But you have to be prepared to "put in the hard yards", as they say. There would be a lot fewer of these yards if you were, say, 6 years old. And with the added bonus that these linguistic paths would be well-trodden by the time you got to the age of majority. All the more reason to reintroduce it into the curriculum.

      As it turns out, men of old actually did know things.