Monday, 14 March 2011

Arendt and English

Been re-reading The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. I say re-reading because marginal marks indicate I've read it before, but for all the memory I have of it I might as well not have bothered -- these days I have to make notes if I’m to get anything out of a book.

A big theme in the book is the idea of the public sphere, as opposed to both family and intimate relations on the one hand and, on the other, the general mainly work-based swirlings around that constitute ‘society’, a formation and a notion that have emerged only in modern -- post-Renaissance, scientific etc -- times. In ancient Greece, she says, there were only the prized public sphere of the polis, where men (only) could be fully human, and the despised family or household sphere where women and slaves performed the labour (including that of procreation) necessary to sustain mere animal life. Virtue, honour, morality all related to one’s conduct in the public sphere, one’s action (e.g. in war) and one’s speech (in legislative and judicial deliberation).

It’s surely those features of Greece (and of Rome -- essentially similar in its ideas and values, she says, apart from eventually losing democracy) that made classical education so irrelevant to people of my generation who got a load of it at grammar school. The likes of us were a good two centuries into a world -- society, capitalism, individualism, prizing of intimacy -- to which ancient social structures and values were irrelevant. Horace feeling fulfilled because in his poetry he’d ‘built a monument more lasting than bronze’ -- how could a British teenager be expected to care about that? Or glory in war?

The British ruling class in the 18th and 19th centuries still, it’s true, maintained its adherence to classical ideals: politicians wearing togas in their statues, Parliament seeing itself as the equal of the Roman Senate and so on. But that adherence was already being undermined by the quite different set of ideas, values and preoccupations embodied in the new novels, such as those of Fielding and Richardson.

So, classics being no longer capable of performing its traditional educational function, English had to be invented -- though it took some time for novels to gain the valued position within it that they now, rightly, hold.

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