Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Wine or the Bottle?

It seemed as though the earth were shaking off the rags of its antiquity, to clothe itself anew with a white mantle of churches.
   [Quoted in Albert Guerard, France—A Short History, W.W. Norton, 1946, p.85, attributed to Raoul Glaber, an eleventh century monk of Burgundy.]

In times when a culture is growing, in its Spring Time, people create institutions spontaneously. It is the spirit that matters then, not the containers made to hold it; they come about spontaneously. But later, as a culture begins to decline, people come to believe that it is the ancient institutions that were the source of virtue. Therefore if things are going awry, something is wrong with the institutions; they must be fixed, reformed, renewed, and modernized. Democracy coincided with the growth of the United States to the status of a world power; therefore we must now reform democracy, make it more direct. Or it is said that the old institutions have been abandoned; our troubles arise from that; let us therefore return to the basics, to the fundamentals. The truth is that a spirit must be present to create its own container, and when it has lost its savour, it isn’t there any more. Therefore when all the talk is about reform—when mechanics are to the fore, when we’re messing with the process—it means that the spirit has fled. Charter schools, educational waivers, teacher’s salaries or teacher’s performance assessment? If social arrangements could produce a cultural élan, then matter could also produce a soul. Neither works. At times like that one minds one’s knitting and simply waits.

To see a contrast to the eleventh century quote above, I suggest, at Brigitte’s suggestion, reading Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”; it was written about 800 years later. Here is a link.

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