Our Great Philosophical, Literary, and Aesthetic Tradition

Here, I beg indulgence. I was trained as a professor of English and Comparative Literature, and I enjoy most the study of the History of Ideas, as it is called. The contributions to human life, understanding, and enrichment by many other cultures have of course been impressive in their own right. But my preferences are clear. The cumulative human search for goodness, truth, and beauty in the Western tradition is unique, something to marvel at and defend, and the recent root and branch attack on it – mostly by egalitarian, post-modern radicals – to be energetically rebuffed.

For there simply is no other culture that has produced works of the mind and heart, of philosophy, literature, music and art, as grand and fruitful as those of the Western tradition. From Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine and Aquinas; from the insight and beauty of the King James Bible to the soaring cathedrals – Westminster, Winchester, Chartres – angelic choir voices descending; to the glorious music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Tchaikovsky – and countless others; to our great literature from Beowulf to the Canterbury Tales – and yes, all that very fine French and German and Spanish literature , old and new- to virtually all of Shakespeare, to the great tradition of the novel from Fielding to Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to Joyce and Faulkner (I haven’t kept up with the moderns) to the ringing songs of our poets, and yes, all those gorgeous visual forms, and paintings – the Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, all of Rembrandt, Turner, much of Van Gogh, almost all the French Impressionists, our own fine Group of Seven – whole continents of stunning modern painting and sculpture …Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, oh, my heart.

And of course our lofty English – of all languages, the most ample, most flexible, the most free and open to innovation – has, precisely because of this adaptive freedom become the new lingua franca, as they say. Open and ample? A famous professor of French boasted to us in a Stanford lecture that he could find all or part of every word of the French language, somewhere in the English language. Flexible? Resourceful? No language has over the last millennium taken over and absorbed as its own so many words from other peoples. It is now the universal language. The Oxford English Dictionary is the still the largest and most astonishing glory of all the world’s dictionaries, the miraculous endeavour of its assembly after a century of labour a signal tribute to the English people’s love of their language.

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