Athenians vs. Visigoths

Thanks to Joe Carter for posting this commencement address (which he never gave) by the late media scholar Neil Postman. Read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that set forth the basic paradigm:

I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them—Democritus by name—conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology. . . .

The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders—ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics. . . .

Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us—in this hall, in this community, in our city—there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.

To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question—these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind’s most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth’s language aspires to nothing higher than the cliche.

To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.

To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word “idiot.” A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths. And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Jonathan

    Natural-born Visigoths, indeed. Simul Athenian et Visigoth?

  • Jonathan

    Natural-born Visigoths, indeed. Simul Athenian et Visigoth?

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Given what’s happened to many of our universities, I’m thinking that the Visigoth might well be more comfortable than Aristotle these days……

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Given what’s happened to many of our universities, I’m thinking that the Visigoth might well be more comfortable than Aristotle these days……

  • Joe

    Can I just point out that the Visigoths are being a little misrepresented above? They had a very detailed legal system that included such ideas as property rights for women – in fact the Visigoth property system greatly influenced Spanish property law (they ruled the Iberian until the Moors showed up), which in turn heavily influenced American property law (especially the former Spanish areas). If you live in a state that has either community property or marital property laws (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin) then your life is being influenced by the Visiagothic legal code even today.

    For those who don’t know – community property laws states that each spouse owns 1/2 of all property or money acquired during a marriage. So even if my home is titled in my name only – my wife legally owns 1/2 of it.

  • Joe

    Can I just point out that the Visigoths are being a little misrepresented above? They had a very detailed legal system that included such ideas as property rights for women – in fact the Visigoth property system greatly influenced Spanish property law (they ruled the Iberian until the Moors showed up), which in turn heavily influenced American property law (especially the former Spanish areas). If you live in a state that has either community property or marital property laws (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin) then your life is being influenced by the Visiagothic legal code even today.

    For those who don’t know – community property laws states that each spouse owns 1/2 of all property or money acquired during a marriage. So even if my home is titled in my name only – my wife legally owns 1/2 of it.

  • Cincinnatus

    Joe: While I, too, believe that the Gothic portion of our legal, political, and cultural inheritance is vastly under-appreciated, I don’t think historic0-theoretical precision was Neil Postman’s point.

  • Cincinnatus

    Joe: While I, too, believe that the Gothic portion of our legal, political, and cultural inheritance is vastly under-appreciated, I don’t think historic0-theoretical precision was Neil Postman’s point.

  • Dennis Peskey

    As a Visigoth by heritage, I offer the following observation: On this upcoming holy day of remembrance (aka, the Memorial Holiday), will your family celebrate with Greek cuisine or will your tastes trend toward beer and brats on the barbeque?
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dennis Peskey

    As a Visigoth by heritage, I offer the following observation: On this upcoming holy day of remembrance (aka, the Memorial Holiday), will your family celebrate with Greek cuisine or will your tastes trend toward beer and brats on the barbeque?
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Joe

    Cincy – I understand that but I believe that if you are going to try to make a point via historical reference and analogy you have an obligation to actually get the history right.

  • Joe

    Cincy – I understand that but I believe that if you are going to try to make a point via historical reference and analogy you have an obligation to actually get the history right.

  • Cincinnatus

    I don’t know, Joe: I think the sedentary, established, sophisticated Greco-Roman culture (or imaginative image thereof) in contrast to the nomadic, marauding, rough-shod band of Germanic tribes whose most memorable accomplishment is the external dismantling of the former culture serve as fairly helpful and memorable avatars for the general point he is attempting to make. Would you suggest better ones?

  • Cincinnatus

    I don’t know, Joe: I think the sedentary, established, sophisticated Greco-Roman culture (or imaginative image thereof) in contrast to the nomadic, marauding, rough-shod band of Germanic tribes whose most memorable accomplishment is the external dismantling of the former culture serve as fairly helpful and memorable avatars for the general point he is attempting to make. Would you suggest better ones?

  • Cincinnatus

    In other words, the distinction he’s making is simply the classic one between civilization and barbarism. The particular representatives of those categories he selected are incidental, and the fact that the latter boasts accomplishments of some importance to the Western tradition–one might highlight the non-trivial ideal of “Anglo-Saxon liberty”–doesn’t change the purely metaphorical point Postman is stressing. What he’s doing is exactly the rhetorical strategy Aristotle and Herodotus, among many others, too when describing the superiority of the political achievements of the Greek polis over what little the corrupt and barbaric Persians had achieved. No one claims that Aristotle was historically correct in his depiction of the Persians, but that isn’t the sort of accuracy we’re after, is it?

    What Postman is doing is also identical to the efforts of Alasdair MacIntyre and other contemporary philosophers who seek to recover the “Greek” elements of our political tradition in the face of the “barbaric” (a word that originally stood only for Persian foreigners, and later was ascribed to the Gothic tribes) and destructive efforts of modernity.

  • Cincinnatus

    In other words, the distinction he’s making is simply the classic one between civilization and barbarism. The particular representatives of those categories he selected are incidental, and the fact that the latter boasts accomplishments of some importance to the Western tradition–one might highlight the non-trivial ideal of “Anglo-Saxon liberty”–doesn’t change the purely metaphorical point Postman is stressing. What he’s doing is exactly the rhetorical strategy Aristotle and Herodotus, among many others, too when describing the superiority of the political achievements of the Greek polis over what little the corrupt and barbaric Persians had achieved. No one claims that Aristotle was historically correct in his depiction of the Persians, but that isn’t the sort of accuracy we’re after, is it?

    What Postman is doing is also identical to the efforts of Alasdair MacIntyre and other contemporary philosophers who seek to recover the “Greek” elements of our political tradition in the face of the “barbaric” (a word that originally stood only for Persian foreigners, and later was ascribed to the Gothic tribes) and destructive efforts of modernity.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    I thought the Visigoths and Athenians were quite literally nations, that each descended from forefathers and that they were adapted over time to the conditions in which they lived. And further that their cultures arose from those adaptations. They were not ideas, rather they created ideas in response to their environment.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    I thought the Visigoths and Athenians were quite literally nations, that each descended from forefathers and that they were adapted over time to the conditions in which they lived. And further that their cultures arose from those adaptations. They were not ideas, rather they created ideas in response to their environment.

  • Cincinnatus

    Geez, this thread is filled with a bunch of rigid historical thinkers.

    I REPEAT: POSTMAN IS NOT MAKING AN HISTORICAL CLAIM OR PROVIDING AN HISTORICAL NARRATIVE.

  • Cincinnatus

    Geez, this thread is filled with a bunch of rigid historical thinkers.

    I REPEAT: POSTMAN IS NOT MAKING AN HISTORICAL CLAIM OR PROVIDING AN HISTORICAL NARRATIVE.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    From the linked article:

    “Addendum: Before the historical nit-pickers complain that Athenians weren’t such brilliant linguists or that the Visgoths weren’t so . . . I don’t know, viscous? . . . keep in mind that Postman used them as metaphors. It’s intended as a graduation speech, not a Wikipedia entry, so historical accuracy wasn’t the primary objective.”

    Clearly.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    From the linked article:

    “Addendum: Before the historical nit-pickers complain that Athenians weren’t such brilliant linguists or that the Visgoths weren’t so . . . I don’t know, viscous? . . . keep in mind that Postman used them as metaphors. It’s intended as a graduation speech, not a Wikipedia entry, so historical accuracy wasn’t the primary objective.”

    Clearly.

  • http://wherepoetrygoestodie.blogspot.com/ W.B. Picklesworth

    I had the same reaction to the comparison as Joe did. And not because I’m interested in upholding the honor of the Visigoths. The metaphor was clumsy and oversimplified. He oversells the Greeks. Our contemporary culture is dealing with similar clumsiness. There are many “Greeks” who are happy to look down their noses at the barbarians and feel perfectly happy to do whatever necessary to acheive their “enlightened” ends. It isn’t difficult to connect the political dots.

    That said, populism has its own set of problems. The point the guy is trying to make is a good one, aspire to nobility of thought and purpose in all that you do. But I would add, make it a very private goal. Don’t assume your enlightenment includes some kind of droit de seigneur. To that end, perhaps charity is the most important aspect of this nobility of thought.

  • http://wherepoetrygoestodie.blogspot.com/ W.B. Picklesworth

    I had the same reaction to the comparison as Joe did. And not because I’m interested in upholding the honor of the Visigoths. The metaphor was clumsy and oversimplified. He oversells the Greeks. Our contemporary culture is dealing with similar clumsiness. There are many “Greeks” who are happy to look down their noses at the barbarians and feel perfectly happy to do whatever necessary to acheive their “enlightened” ends. It isn’t difficult to connect the political dots.

    That said, populism has its own set of problems. The point the guy is trying to make is a good one, aspire to nobility of thought and purpose in all that you do. But I would add, make it a very private goal. Don’t assume your enlightenment includes some kind of droit de seigneur. To that end, perhaps charity is the most important aspect of this nobility of thought.

  • Cincinnatus

    sg: I assume you’ll next endeavor to convince us that the Iliad is not an historically accurate description of events in the eastern Mediterranean circa 1200 B.C.

  • Cincinnatus

    sg: I assume you’ll next endeavor to convince us that the Iliad is not an historically accurate description of events in the eastern Mediterranean circa 1200 B.C.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Sorry, Cincinnatus. While I realize he is merely positing these two sides for metaphorical use — “An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea.” — I think his examples fail somewhat by his own standards.

    After all, Postman tells us that “In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety.” And that to the Visigoth, “history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.” He also said, “To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question—these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform.”

    So to dismiss those questioning Postman’s dichotomy’s underlying structure vis-a-vis historical accuracy … seems to miss the larger point he is arguing for, perhaps.Oh, sure, he’s not arguing for pedantry, no. Not as such.

    But his own examples appear to be ham-fisted — and, as such, Visigothic — in contrast with his call to action.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Sorry, Cincinnatus. While I realize he is merely positing these two sides for metaphorical use — “An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea.” — I think his examples fail somewhat by his own standards.

    After all, Postman tells us that “In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety.” And that to the Visigoth, “history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.” He also said, “To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question—these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform.”

    So to dismiss those questioning Postman’s dichotomy’s underlying structure vis-a-vis historical accuracy … seems to miss the larger point he is arguing for, perhaps.Oh, sure, he’s not arguing for pedantry, no. Not as such.

    But his own examples appear to be ham-fisted — and, as such, Visigothic — in contrast with his call to action.

  • http://wherepoetrygoestodie.blogspot.com/ W.B. Picklesworth

    The point keeps coming up that he wasn’t trying to do history, but provide a metaphor. Clearly. But the point he was trying to make is clumsy too. That’s why the history rankles.

  • http://wherepoetrygoestodie.blogspot.com/ W.B. Picklesworth

    The point keeps coming up that he wasn’t trying to do history, but provide a metaphor. Clearly. But the point he was trying to make is clumsy too. That’s why the history rankles.

  • Cincinnatus

    tODD: I’m not even sure of the point you’re trying to make, as you make no attempt to “correct” the historical account yourself (which, I might add for the googolplexth time, would be irrelevant anyway).

    When Postman says “Athenian,” he is referencing an idealized cultural symbol that, in any case, anyone up to at least the early 1900′s would have understood immediately: the culturally sophisticated and active citizen with a concern for personal virtue, public decorum, aesthetic standards, etc. These were all extrapolations, accurate or not, from an allegedly real group of Athenians that allegedly exited at some point in history. But it’s not important whether they did, and whether there ever actually was an Athenian who satisfied Postman’s exacting standards. This is merely the cultural archetype we’ve created under the demonym “Athenian,” and it was a shared cultural standard for many in Western society for centuries. The same applies to the image of the Visigoth. He’s not grounding his depiction of “Athenian” in an objectively accurate (whatever that means) historical standard, but in a cultural ideal. It is, to paraphrase, Nietzsche, a “monumental history” in “service to life,” not “antiquarian history.” This, too, is one of the “uses of history for life.”

    In other words, if you accused Postman to his face of being historically ham-fisted, I’m quite sure he’d agree. And then he’d point out again that you’re missing the point. Indeed, our obsession with historical “accuracy” might just be evidence of a peculiarly modern barbarism. To borrow from Nietzsche again, “we murder to dissect.”

  • Cincinnatus

    tODD: I’m not even sure of the point you’re trying to make, as you make no attempt to “correct” the historical account yourself (which, I might add for the googolplexth time, would be irrelevant anyway).

    When Postman says “Athenian,” he is referencing an idealized cultural symbol that, in any case, anyone up to at least the early 1900′s would have understood immediately: the culturally sophisticated and active citizen with a concern for personal virtue, public decorum, aesthetic standards, etc. These were all extrapolations, accurate or not, from an allegedly real group of Athenians that allegedly exited at some point in history. But it’s not important whether they did, and whether there ever actually was an Athenian who satisfied Postman’s exacting standards. This is merely the cultural archetype we’ve created under the demonym “Athenian,” and it was a shared cultural standard for many in Western society for centuries. The same applies to the image of the Visigoth. He’s not grounding his depiction of “Athenian” in an objectively accurate (whatever that means) historical standard, but in a cultural ideal. It is, to paraphrase, Nietzsche, a “monumental history” in “service to life,” not “antiquarian history.” This, too, is one of the “uses of history for life.”

    In other words, if you accused Postman to his face of being historically ham-fisted, I’m quite sure he’d agree. And then he’d point out again that you’re missing the point. Indeed, our obsession with historical “accuracy” might just be evidence of a peculiarly modern barbarism. To borrow from Nietzsche again, “we murder to dissect.”

  • Cincinnatus

    W.B.: It’s fine to critique Postman’s actual point (and I thank you for actually addressing the point), but I’m not sure I agree. Postman isn’t issuing a call to elitism. He’s issuing a call to elevate our own personal standards, which, for him, is the only medium through which a wider cultural recovery is possible.

  • Cincinnatus

    W.B.: It’s fine to critique Postman’s actual point (and I thank you for actually addressing the point), but I’m not sure I agree. Postman isn’t issuing a call to elitism. He’s issuing a call to elevate our own personal standards, which, for him, is the only medium through which a wider cultural recovery is possible.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Cincinnatus, I still contend that Postman operates under the false premise that we can just choose to be Athenian or Visigoth. People cannot choose to be what someone tells them to be, even those who by their nature are extremely compliant. I can’t choose to be musical, poetic or credulous. I inherited my stature and disposition and abilities. I am bound by my human condition.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Cincinnatus, I still contend that Postman operates under the false premise that we can just choose to be Athenian or Visigoth. People cannot choose to be what someone tells them to be, even those who by their nature are extremely compliant. I can’t choose to be musical, poetic or credulous. I inherited my stature and disposition and abilities. I am bound by my human condition.

  • Cincinnatus

    Quite true, sg. But aren’t both the Visigothic and Athenian conceptual categories, habits, mores things we have in fact inherited as our own that, conflicting though they may be, are actually part of “who we are.” Postman isn’t arguing that we can “choose” to be Athenians because human beings are fonts of endless, groundless self-creation but rather because we, as Americans in the Western tradition (so-called), have not yet discarded “the Athenian” from our shared cultural inheritance.

  • Cincinnatus

    Quite true, sg. But aren’t both the Visigothic and Athenian conceptual categories, habits, mores things we have in fact inherited as our own that, conflicting though they may be, are actually part of “who we are.” Postman isn’t arguing that we can “choose” to be Athenians because human beings are fonts of endless, groundless self-creation but rather because we, as Americans in the Western tradition (so-called), have not yet discarded “the Athenian” from our shared cultural inheritance.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    And no, for the record, I can’t think of better examples to fit Postman’s argument here.

    But that is because I largely reject his argument here. It is a classic either/or scenario he posits, and those almost never actually bear out with real people.

    His speech is a classic good-vs.-evil call to arms: “sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.” (Even if he were right about this “you must pick one” scenario, surely the time to choose sides happened well before graduating from college! If forced to, I could likely sort high schoolers, at least into those two rigid categories.)

    Oh, he tells us all the qualities of Good People. And then spends a compulsory amount of time detailing what the Bad People do. He tells us where things stand, population-wise: “there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians.” (Oh no, the Good People are outnumbered! Will they lose the war?) He warns you that choosing to be a Good Guy, to fight for the rebels, isn’t easy or automatic: “I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees.” He even hints that there are traitors among the ranks of the Good People: “I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths.”

    “Closet Visigoths”! But who are they? We must out them, now! Gather your pitchforks and torches, Good People!

    And then he hits you with the altar call: “Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other.”

    You can almost hear what should have followed:

    If anyone here tonight has felt the Athenian ideal stirring in your heart, and you want to dedicate your life to such ideals, won’t you just come on down the aisle to the front of the podium here, and one of these men in the puffy black robes will talk with you about career options while the rest of us pray?

    Because, see, it’s not a simple choice. You don’t pick one camp to be with — certainly not once in your life, and certainly not so late in life as to be after graduating from college.

    Jonathan hit on the truth when he said, echoing Luther, “Simul Athenian et Visigoth”. We are all traitors to the “Athenian” ideal, “closet Visigoths”, daily. And no, I’m not necessarily using this as a thin veneer over a purely religious comment. Even if we ignore spiritual truths (never the best idea, but let’s do), the fact remains that every choice we make every day is laden with this Athenian-Visigothic split.

    In short, Postman’s speech appears to lack the nuance of real life, choosing instead to paint in the broadest of terms. And thus setting us all up for a fall when we fail.

    Pity, I thought the guy worked some wonders with words in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    And no, for the record, I can’t think of better examples to fit Postman’s argument here.

    But that is because I largely reject his argument here. It is a classic either/or scenario he posits, and those almost never actually bear out with real people.

    His speech is a classic good-vs.-evil call to arms: “sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.” (Even if he were right about this “you must pick one” scenario, surely the time to choose sides happened well before graduating from college! If forced to, I could likely sort high schoolers, at least into those two rigid categories.)

    Oh, he tells us all the qualities of Good People. And then spends a compulsory amount of time detailing what the Bad People do. He tells us where things stand, population-wise: “there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians.” (Oh no, the Good People are outnumbered! Will they lose the war?) He warns you that choosing to be a Good Guy, to fight for the rebels, isn’t easy or automatic: “I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees.” He even hints that there are traitors among the ranks of the Good People: “I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths.”

    “Closet Visigoths”! But who are they? We must out them, now! Gather your pitchforks and torches, Good People!

    And then he hits you with the altar call: “Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other.”

    You can almost hear what should have followed:

    If anyone here tonight has felt the Athenian ideal stirring in your heart, and you want to dedicate your life to such ideals, won’t you just come on down the aisle to the front of the podium here, and one of these men in the puffy black robes will talk with you about career options while the rest of us pray?

    Because, see, it’s not a simple choice. You don’t pick one camp to be with — certainly not once in your life, and certainly not so late in life as to be after graduating from college.

    Jonathan hit on the truth when he said, echoing Luther, “Simul Athenian et Visigoth”. We are all traitors to the “Athenian” ideal, “closet Visigoths”, daily. And no, I’m not necessarily using this as a thin veneer over a purely religious comment. Even if we ignore spiritual truths (never the best idea, but let’s do), the fact remains that every choice we make every day is laden with this Athenian-Visigothic split.

    In short, Postman’s speech appears to lack the nuance of real life, choosing instead to paint in the broadest of terms. And thus setting us all up for a fall when we fail.

    Pity, I thought the guy worked some wonders with words in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “we, as Americans in the Western tradition (so-called), have not yet discarded “the Athenian” from our shared cultural inheritance.”

    I think we have discarded much of what is necessary to perpetuate it. We no longer teach it to our children when we get up in the morning, as we go through the day or when we go to bed at night. If he is arguing we should return to doing so, sounds good to me.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “we, as Americans in the Western tradition (so-called), have not yet discarded “the Athenian” from our shared cultural inheritance.”

    I think we have discarded much of what is necessary to perpetuate it. We no longer teach it to our children when we get up in the morning, as we go through the day or when we go to bed at night. If he is arguing we should return to doing so, sounds good to me.

  • Cincinnatus

    Good comment, tODD. Maybe I’m coming across as a fanboy here–probably a deleterious side effect of my deep admiration for Amusing Ourselves to Death–but two retorts:

    1) It’s a commencement address. I don’t know if it’s fair to except a profoundly nuanced argument. The point of such a speech is to communicate a single powerful, practical, admonitory point in as brief a space as possible to a group of folks with rather short attention spans. Maybe this is a cop-out used to excuse the inexcusable in this case, but I think it should temper our critique a bit.

    2) That said, does Postman ever imply or state that one can simply choose once and for all to be wholly Athenian or wholly Visigothic? He’s not erecting the cliched and useless “two paths diverge in the wood” or “choose your destiny” analogy. I rather thought that the entire point of his address was to provide a simple framework for making choices in the average everydayness of our lives as concerned citizens. This is why he stresses the difficulty of being “Athenian.” Each time we are given a choice, we must ask ourselves, according to Postman, what is the Visigothic and what the Athenian course of action: take an interest in public affairs, be courteous, value the power of language, etc. None of these things are defined by singular mental decisions. Being “Athenian” is no more and no less than the aggregation of our concrete, individual choices to act Athenian over the course of a long and active life. To make my own not-at-all-veneered spiritual point, isn’t that essentially what we mean when we claim that someone is or ought to be “Christlike”?

    But maybe I’m just being too charitable…

  • Cincinnatus

    Good comment, tODD. Maybe I’m coming across as a fanboy here–probably a deleterious side effect of my deep admiration for Amusing Ourselves to Death–but two retorts:

    1) It’s a commencement address. I don’t know if it’s fair to except a profoundly nuanced argument. The point of such a speech is to communicate a single powerful, practical, admonitory point in as brief a space as possible to a group of folks with rather short attention spans. Maybe this is a cop-out used to excuse the inexcusable in this case, but I think it should temper our critique a bit.

    2) That said, does Postman ever imply or state that one can simply choose once and for all to be wholly Athenian or wholly Visigothic? He’s not erecting the cliched and useless “two paths diverge in the wood” or “choose your destiny” analogy. I rather thought that the entire point of his address was to provide a simple framework for making choices in the average everydayness of our lives as concerned citizens. This is why he stresses the difficulty of being “Athenian.” Each time we are given a choice, we must ask ourselves, according to Postman, what is the Visigothic and what the Athenian course of action: take an interest in public affairs, be courteous, value the power of language, etc. None of these things are defined by singular mental decisions. Being “Athenian” is no more and no less than the aggregation of our concrete, individual choices to act Athenian over the course of a long and active life. To make my own not-at-all-veneered spiritual point, isn’t that essentially what we mean when we claim that someone is or ought to be “Christlike”?

    But maybe I’m just being too charitable…

  • Louis

    I tend to go with Todd & Joe here. Using easily disproven popular myths in an attempt to support higher learning and culture is defintely, in Todd’s terms, ham-fisted.

    But, by the Romans’ and contemporaries’ accounts, the most “backward” and “barbaric” of all the tribes to descend on the Empire were…

    The Saxons and Angles…. :)

  • Louis

    I tend to go with Todd & Joe here. Using easily disproven popular myths in an attempt to support higher learning and culture is defintely, in Todd’s terms, ham-fisted.

    But, by the Romans’ and contemporaries’ accounts, the most “backward” and “barbaric” of all the tribes to descend on the Empire were…

    The Saxons and Angles…. :)

  • Joe

    Cincy @ 8 “The particular representatives of those categories he selected are incidental …”

    I get what his point was, but my point is that when you chose to use particular examples to support your point your examples must actually support your point.

    Further, they are not incidental. Other than argument by analogy to these groups he offers nothing else. Take away the references to the Athenians and the Visigoths and you have a one sentence speech that says, “love knowledge, language, art and the common good.”

    It would be one thing if he made a passing reference to these peoples to emphasis his point, but he didn’t. He attempted to demonstrate his point ONLY by creating a detail dichotomy between these two peoples.

  • Joe

    Cincy @ 8 “The particular representatives of those categories he selected are incidental …”

    I get what his point was, but my point is that when you chose to use particular examples to support your point your examples must actually support your point.

    Further, they are not incidental. Other than argument by analogy to these groups he offers nothing else. Take away the references to the Athenians and the Visigoths and you have a one sentence speech that says, “love knowledge, language, art and the common good.”

    It would be one thing if he made a passing reference to these peoples to emphasis his point, but he didn’t. He attempted to demonstrate his point ONLY by creating a detail dichotomy between these two peoples.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    And what did the Saxons and Angles say about the Romans?

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    And what did the Saxons and Angles say about the Romans?

  • Cincinnatus

    Even so, Joe, the Athenians are traditionally depicted as those who most prominently exhibited a love for “knowledge, language, art, and the common good” within the context of the broad Western tradition. This stereotype, I submit, is not wholly inaccurate. Even philosophers like Martin Heidegger, whose project is essentially a systematic destruction of the Greek tradition, admits as much. Meanwhile, though I’m the first to agitate for reclaiming our Anglo-Saxon liberties, the barbarian Visigoths vis-a-vis the crumbling edifice of Greek culture as embodied in the remnants of the Roman empire were, in fact, a nomadic tribal culture whose public aim was quite literally to sack and destroy what counted for civilization at the time. It’s no coincidence that their success was followed by a dark age that, while shorter than anti-medievalists claim, did actually happen.

  • Cincinnatus

    Even so, Joe, the Athenians are traditionally depicted as those who most prominently exhibited a love for “knowledge, language, art, and the common good” within the context of the broad Western tradition. This stereotype, I submit, is not wholly inaccurate. Even philosophers like Martin Heidegger, whose project is essentially a systematic destruction of the Greek tradition, admits as much. Meanwhile, though I’m the first to agitate for reclaiming our Anglo-Saxon liberties, the barbarian Visigoths vis-a-vis the crumbling edifice of Greek culture as embodied in the remnants of the Roman empire were, in fact, a nomadic tribal culture whose public aim was quite literally to sack and destroy what counted for civilization at the time. It’s no coincidence that their success was followed by a dark age that, while shorter than anti-medievalists claim, did actually happen.

  • SKPeterson

    Postman’s metaphors are apt, if limited, to describe the clash of civilization and barbarism. Could other metaphors be used? Of course. Would they be more accurate, historically? Perhaps. Would they be oversimplifications used for illustrative purposes? Most likely. What is important is that Postman’s metaphors work – everyone on this post has understood the implications of Postman’s language and is now squabbling over the true approbations deserved by the Visi (what’s with Postman’s anti-Ostro bias?) Goths or by the Athenians.

    He could have used Athens v. Sparta, or Greece v. Persia, or even taken it down to the level of the Athenian polis – Dictatorship v. Democracy or the progression from the latter to the former.

    Finally, though, it should be noted that Postman never gave this address – perhaps, he too, recognized it’s limitations and decided in good Athenian fashion to refrain from using it.

  • SKPeterson

    Postman’s metaphors are apt, if limited, to describe the clash of civilization and barbarism. Could other metaphors be used? Of course. Would they be more accurate, historically? Perhaps. Would they be oversimplifications used for illustrative purposes? Most likely. What is important is that Postman’s metaphors work – everyone on this post has understood the implications of Postman’s language and is now squabbling over the true approbations deserved by the Visi (what’s with Postman’s anti-Ostro bias?) Goths or by the Athenians.

    He could have used Athens v. Sparta, or Greece v. Persia, or even taken it down to the level of the Athenian polis – Dictatorship v. Democracy or the progression from the latter to the former.

    Finally, though, it should be noted that Postman never gave this address – perhaps, he too, recognized it’s limitations and decided in good Athenian fashion to refrain from using it.

  • Louis

    sg – They probably just grunted.. :)

    Seriously though, the situation described by Postman generally only exists only in the eye of the aggrieved. Reality tends to be far more complex.

  • Louis

    sg – They probably just grunted.. :)

    Seriously though, the situation described by Postman generally only exists only in the eye of the aggrieved. Reality tends to be far more complex.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Louis, why disparage the Angles and Saxons with such demeaning characterizations?

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Louis, why disparage the Angles and Saxons with such demeaning characterizations?

  • Louis

    sg – I’m playing around with popular myths to illustrate the point. I actually like the Angles and Saxons – and have little bit of Saxon blood myself, as I’m likely to be descended, amongst many others, from Waer’s people.

  • Louis

    sg – I’m playing around with popular myths to illustrate the point. I actually like the Angles and Saxons – and have little bit of Saxon blood myself, as I’m likely to be descended, amongst many others, from Waer’s people.

  • Pete

    Did I hear the news correctly that the Athenians are currently bankrupt and are being bailed out by the industrious and, relatively more prosperous Visigoths? Just sayin’. Getting in touch with my inner Visigoth. Gotta go saddle up.

  • Pete

    Did I hear the news correctly that the Athenians are currently bankrupt and are being bailed out by the industrious and, relatively more prosperous Visigoths? Just sayin’. Getting in touch with my inner Visigoth. Gotta go saddle up.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Nah, both Athenian and Visigoth are being bailed out by the Saxons.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Nah, both Athenian and Visigoth are being bailed out by the Saxons.

  • Louis

    Pete – hah! – except that the Visigoths originated from present-day Ukraine, and settled in present-day Spain. The power house(s) in Europe, now as during the last 1500 years, are still the descendants of Franks and Saxons, mainly (ie, Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Austria, France and England). And I’ll throw Lars and Bror a bone by saying the Vikings and their descendants aren’t doing to badly either…. :) .

    But the future does look up for the Poles and Czechs too….

  • Louis

    Pete – hah! – except that the Visigoths originated from present-day Ukraine, and settled in present-day Spain. The power house(s) in Europe, now as during the last 1500 years, are still the descendants of Franks and Saxons, mainly (ie, Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Austria, France and England). And I’ll throw Lars and Bror a bone by saying the Vikings and their descendants aren’t doing to badly either…. :) .

    But the future does look up for the Poles and Czechs too….

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    siding with Joe and tODD. I just like Germanic culture too much to let the insult slide.
    Though I agree with the overall thrust of the critique. I do think it undermines itself. As the whole time reading it, I was thinking, well he certainly has a romanticized view of the Greeks, and for an Athenian who is to pursue knowledge and history for the joys of it, he seems not to know much of what he is talking about when it comes to the Visigoths.
    And by the way, it was these Germanic tribes who ultimately saved civilization. Sure they sacked Rome. Then they settled and shedding their arian heresy over time, came to be the rulers of the empire they sacked. Which empire showed itself in the east to be incapable of standing up to the muslim hordes, and then requested help from the Germanic hordes that had taken over in the west.
    Perhaps they didn’t develop the civilization all themselves. They greatly modified it with their own codes of conduct and laws. But they appreciated the culture and largely adapted it. So even the Visigoths it seems wanted to be Athenians, at least in part.
    And one might argue that the athenians were not so innocent of going to war to support their own civilization.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    siding with Joe and tODD. I just like Germanic culture too much to let the insult slide.
    Though I agree with the overall thrust of the critique. I do think it undermines itself. As the whole time reading it, I was thinking, well he certainly has a romanticized view of the Greeks, and for an Athenian who is to pursue knowledge and history for the joys of it, he seems not to know much of what he is talking about when it comes to the Visigoths.
    And by the way, it was these Germanic tribes who ultimately saved civilization. Sure they sacked Rome. Then they settled and shedding their arian heresy over time, came to be the rulers of the empire they sacked. Which empire showed itself in the east to be incapable of standing up to the muslim hordes, and then requested help from the Germanic hordes that had taken over in the west.
    Perhaps they didn’t develop the civilization all themselves. They greatly modified it with their own codes of conduct and laws. But they appreciated the culture and largely adapted it. So even the Visigoths it seems wanted to be Athenians, at least in part.
    And one might argue that the athenians were not so innocent of going to war to support their own civilization.

  • Rob

    I have to agree with Todd – more than a little bit ironic that the same person who says we ought to deeply value reason and history sacrifices both in order to make an emotional plea.

    It seems that Cincy’s counter-argument is that Postman’s speech, as a commencement speech, was intended to inspire rather than inform and thus we shouldn’t care if he’s being reasonable or historically accurate. There certainly were philosophers in Athens who valued rhetorical and emotional impact over truth. They were Sophists. And I don’t think that’s who Postman intends to lionize.

    Perhaps the best construction is SKP’s: this may be why Postman’s speech was never delivered.

  • Rob

    I have to agree with Todd – more than a little bit ironic that the same person who says we ought to deeply value reason and history sacrifices both in order to make an emotional plea.

    It seems that Cincy’s counter-argument is that Postman’s speech, as a commencement speech, was intended to inspire rather than inform and thus we shouldn’t care if he’s being reasonable or historically accurate. There certainly were philosophers in Athens who valued rhetorical and emotional impact over truth. They were Sophists. And I don’t think that’s who Postman intends to lionize.

    Perhaps the best construction is SKP’s: this may be why Postman’s speech was never delivered.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Did not Dr. Veith write a similar article about Plains indians and Pueblo Indinas?

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Did not Dr. Veith write a similar article about Plains indians and Pueblo Indinas?

  • http://lastdanceofthejackalope.blogspot.com JD Loofbourrow

    Personally I can’t say I fit in either class. I can relate to the Athenian appreciation more than the Visigoth but I rather think that when Christ shows up the Greeks look pretty much the same as everyone else. So I submit a third class. This would be the Hebrews; those people who looked not just at the beauty and wisdom of the light where it met the ground (which is what the Athenian ideal seems to me to be here) but looked back along its path to its source. True, they did not claim to “invent” philosophy or science but they did discover theology. And, I would say, theology is the only solid foundation for science and philosophy.

    I wonder if it may be that the Athenian who’s chief end is the enrichment of man through knowledge and art will find, ultimately, all his works and knowledge are meaningless because man is contingent. Perhaps he will find that the knowledge of evil is more pleasant (to the unregenerate) than the knowledge of good. In that case I wonder if “Athenianism,” pursued for merely humanistic purposes, may actually lead to “visigothianism.” Whatever the case may be, it seems to me that, where the Hebrew plays the Visigoth, he glorifies God (in repentance) as he testifies to Gods grace; and where he plays the Athenian he glorifies God (being at the Masters table for the Master more than for the meal) in that he testifies to the knowledge of God, His goodness and His majesty.

    From my perspective Athenianism is as dead as visigothianism when its end is purely for the good of man. They are both “dead religions”. Christ sees both the Athenian and the visigothian as being in need of regeneration and salvation. Fortunately for me, from these two he made one new people, the “Hebrew,” or more commonly known as the Christian. And I would say that, really, Humanistic Athenianism is to Christianity what Visigothianism is to Athenianism.

  • http://lastdanceofthejackalope.blogspot.com JD Loofbourrow

    Personally I can’t say I fit in either class. I can relate to the Athenian appreciation more than the Visigoth but I rather think that when Christ shows up the Greeks look pretty much the same as everyone else. So I submit a third class. This would be the Hebrews; those people who looked not just at the beauty and wisdom of the light where it met the ground (which is what the Athenian ideal seems to me to be here) but looked back along its path to its source. True, they did not claim to “invent” philosophy or science but they did discover theology. And, I would say, theology is the only solid foundation for science and philosophy.

    I wonder if it may be that the Athenian who’s chief end is the enrichment of man through knowledge and art will find, ultimately, all his works and knowledge are meaningless because man is contingent. Perhaps he will find that the knowledge of evil is more pleasant (to the unregenerate) than the knowledge of good. In that case I wonder if “Athenianism,” pursued for merely humanistic purposes, may actually lead to “visigothianism.” Whatever the case may be, it seems to me that, where the Hebrew plays the Visigoth, he glorifies God (in repentance) as he testifies to Gods grace; and where he plays the Athenian he glorifies God (being at the Masters table for the Master more than for the meal) in that he testifies to the knowledge of God, His goodness and His majesty.

    From my perspective Athenianism is as dead as visigothianism when its end is purely for the good of man. They are both “dead religions”. Christ sees both the Athenian and the visigothian as being in need of regeneration and salvation. Fortunately for me, from these two he made one new people, the “Hebrew,” or more commonly known as the Christian. And I would say that, really, Humanistic Athenianism is to Christianity what Visigothianism is to Athenianism.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Louis,
    thanks for the bone, but let’s realize something here, England was lost to the Norsemen in the Normandy invasion….

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Louis,
    thanks for the bone, but let’s realize something here, England was lost to the Norsemen in the Normandy invasion….

  • Cincinnatus

    Rob@35: Actually, no, that was not my argument at all. Thanks for putting the worst construction on it, though. As SKPeterson noted, Postman could just as easily have made the comparison one between Greeks and Persians, Romans and Huns, Athenians and Spartans, Americans and Soviets, stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen and barbaric Nazi Germans, Templars and Moors, [choose your own analogous adventure]. The general comparison holds in most of these cases, and the analogy, while highly simplified, is still rhetorically helpful, no? Are we to discard all such simplified historical analogies because they do not conform absolutely to all the complexities of historical fact? Fact #1: in broad outline, Postman’s comparisons are valid in a very broad perhaps somewhat superficial sense from a particular standpoint; Fact #2: historical details are mostly irrelevant here. We’re dealing in historical generalizations here for the purpose of communicating a rhetorical point–something that is neither unprecedented nor unacceptable. Yeah, the Visigoths had some great ideas; the Athenians had some bad ideas. That doesn’t sink Postman’s larger point. That Hobbes and then Hegel and then the Marxists depicted the “bourgeoisie” in a generalized manner that is rhetorically helpful and generally accurate from a particular standpoint doesn’t mean, of course, that all members of the bourgeois behave as these thinkers insisted, and pointing that fact out isn’t a satisfactory critique of the ideas of these thinkers. In fact, I would argue that it’s impossible to communicate much of anything of political importance without resorting on occasion to generalizations that, by definition, don’t account for all particularities and aberrations.

    Here’s what you, tODD, and others are doing: Let’s say it’s 1942 and I’m giving a commencement address at a British university. I say something like the following: “Let us embrace our character as Englishmen: respect for law, public decency, private virtue, and courage in all endeavors! Only in this way can we defeat the Germans among us: the barbaric, the technocratic, the vulgar, the wicked!” After which you oh-so-clever critics point out that “the Germans are, traditionally speaking, actually a highly-civilized people who have accomplished amazing things, and besides they have Dietrich Bonhoeffer on their side. Meanwhile, the English can be coarse and brutal. It’s just unacceptably simplistic and historically inaccurate to make the ham-fisted analogy you’re asserting.” And I would say: “Sure, but really?”

    Louis: Are you actually employing in ethnically-determinate stereotypes? FOR SHAME/HYPOCRISY.

  • Cincinnatus

    Rob@35: Actually, no, that was not my argument at all. Thanks for putting the worst construction on it, though. As SKPeterson noted, Postman could just as easily have made the comparison one between Greeks and Persians, Romans and Huns, Athenians and Spartans, Americans and Soviets, stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen and barbaric Nazi Germans, Templars and Moors, [choose your own analogous adventure]. The general comparison holds in most of these cases, and the analogy, while highly simplified, is still rhetorically helpful, no? Are we to discard all such simplified historical analogies because they do not conform absolutely to all the complexities of historical fact? Fact #1: in broad outline, Postman’s comparisons are valid in a very broad perhaps somewhat superficial sense from a particular standpoint; Fact #2: historical details are mostly irrelevant here. We’re dealing in historical generalizations here for the purpose of communicating a rhetorical point–something that is neither unprecedented nor unacceptable. Yeah, the Visigoths had some great ideas; the Athenians had some bad ideas. That doesn’t sink Postman’s larger point. That Hobbes and then Hegel and then the Marxists depicted the “bourgeoisie” in a generalized manner that is rhetorically helpful and generally accurate from a particular standpoint doesn’t mean, of course, that all members of the bourgeois behave as these thinkers insisted, and pointing that fact out isn’t a satisfactory critique of the ideas of these thinkers. In fact, I would argue that it’s impossible to communicate much of anything of political importance without resorting on occasion to generalizations that, by definition, don’t account for all particularities and aberrations.

    Here’s what you, tODD, and others are doing: Let’s say it’s 1942 and I’m giving a commencement address at a British university. I say something like the following: “Let us embrace our character as Englishmen: respect for law, public decency, private virtue, and courage in all endeavors! Only in this way can we defeat the Germans among us: the barbaric, the technocratic, the vulgar, the wicked!” After which you oh-so-clever critics point out that “the Germans are, traditionally speaking, actually a highly-civilized people who have accomplished amazing things, and besides they have Dietrich Bonhoeffer on their side. Meanwhile, the English can be coarse and brutal. It’s just unacceptably simplistic and historically inaccurate to make the ham-fisted analogy you’re asserting.” And I would say: “Sure, but really?”

    Louis: Are you actually employing in ethnically-determinate stereotypes? FOR SHAME/HYPOCRISY.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@22) asked:

    Does Postman ever imply or state that one can simply choose once and for all to be wholly Athenian or wholly Visigothic?

    In a word, yes. He said in his introduction:

    I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

    The choice part is explicit. And he holds fast to the rigid dichotomy in the rest of his speech, of course. But notice how he also places it in a single point in time — and then states that said time is coming soon.

    Surely if the choice was something we made every day, in many ways (and have all been making since well before we even matriculated in college), it wouldn’t be a choice whose time lay in the unspecified near future.

    And if I may beat a dead horse, a good rhetoritician (an “Athenian” quality) knows how to pick good examples, good metaphors, to convey his point. But Postman here picked an example that detracted from his point, as the comments make clear.

    He made very explicit, specific appeals to historicity, but we are apparently expected to overlook anything he got fudged or wrong, because it was all a metaphor? Isn’t that just bad rhetoric? Maybe Visigoths just grab metaphors out of the air (“Me, Gundemar, smash flowery Greek poems like … small smashable rock!”), but surely Athenians think things through, even if they suspect their hearers might not.

    I think he could have smoothed things over by making explicit his “I’m fudging facts and appealing to (formerly) universal tropes we all know to be simplistic” approach that only you seem to have picked up on. Or he could have invented two groups, which would have allowed the facts of the example — acknowledged as contrived — to match up perfectly. But that’s just a critique of his tactics, not his argument, per se.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@22) asked:

    Does Postman ever imply or state that one can simply choose once and for all to be wholly Athenian or wholly Visigothic?

    In a word, yes. He said in his introduction:

    I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

    The choice part is explicit. And he holds fast to the rigid dichotomy in the rest of his speech, of course. But notice how he also places it in a single point in time — and then states that said time is coming soon.

    Surely if the choice was something we made every day, in many ways (and have all been making since well before we even matriculated in college), it wouldn’t be a choice whose time lay in the unspecified near future.

    And if I may beat a dead horse, a good rhetoritician (an “Athenian” quality) knows how to pick good examples, good metaphors, to convey his point. But Postman here picked an example that detracted from his point, as the comments make clear.

    He made very explicit, specific appeals to historicity, but we are apparently expected to overlook anything he got fudged or wrong, because it was all a metaphor? Isn’t that just bad rhetoric? Maybe Visigoths just grab metaphors out of the air (“Me, Gundemar, smash flowery Greek poems like … small smashable rock!”), but surely Athenians think things through, even if they suspect their hearers might not.

    I think he could have smoothed things over by making explicit his “I’m fudging facts and appealing to (formerly) universal tropes we all know to be simplistic” approach that only you seem to have picked up on. Or he could have invented two groups, which would have allowed the facts of the example — acknowledged as contrived — to match up perfectly. But that’s just a critique of his tactics, not his argument, per se.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Ok, my brother points out that it was actually the anthropologist Ruth Benedict who wrote about Pueblo and Plains Indians. But Dr. Veith wrote about what Dr. Benedict wrote about: http://www.worldmag.com/articles/2959.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Ok, my brother points out that it was actually the anthropologist Ruth Benedict who wrote about Pueblo and Plains Indians. But Dr. Veith wrote about what Dr. Benedict wrote about: http://www.worldmag.com/articles/2959.

  • Louis

    Bror – Norman, not Norsemen, that is, a collection of Norse, Danes, Anglo-Danes from Danelaw, Orkneyians etc., all who had a habit of marrying into the local populace asap.

  • Louis

    Bror – Norman, not Norsemen, that is, a collection of Norse, Danes, Anglo-Danes from Danelaw, Orkneyians etc., all who had a habit of marrying into the local populace asap.

  • Cincinnatus

    tODD@40: Your point is still well-taken, but again I assert that his analogies are historically accurate in a highly general and rhetorically useful way. See my comment @39 and elsewhere. It’s not like the analogy bears no relation whatsoever to historical reality (again, whatever that means).

  • Cincinnatus

    tODD@40: Your point is still well-taken, but again I assert that his analogies are historically accurate in a highly general and rhetorically useful way. See my comment @39 and elsewhere. It’s not like the analogy bears no relation whatsoever to historical reality (again, whatever that means).

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@39), keeping in mind that this is now a discussion about the rhetorical devices themselves, you said…

    Fact #1: in broad outline, Postman’s comparisons are valid in a very broad perhaps somewhat superficial sense from a particular standpoint.

    Hmm. Damning with highly qualified, faint praise? I actually think his historical comparisons suffer from the very fact that the Visigoths and the Athenians never had anything to do with each other. He posits these as two ideologies competing for the minds of the world, and yet he picks two groups that never actually went at it, separated as they were by not a little time and space. Why not equally pick, oh, the American revolutionaries and, I don’t know, the Nazis?

    Fact #2: historical details are mostly irrelevant here.

    A “fact” that is proven false by Postman’s explicit references to … historical details! “The first group lived about 2,500 years ago.” “One of them—Democritus by name—conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist.” And so on. His speech is riddled with actual historical facts. He — or you — can’t therefore just pretend it’s pure metaphor.

    Look, I get that commencement speeches are all supposed to be the same, inspiring for the future with one or two points and a lot of flowery and/or humorous appeals to the learnedness of the audience. Maybe wise people, therefore, should just avoid the medium altogether.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@39), keeping in mind that this is now a discussion about the rhetorical devices themselves, you said…

    Fact #1: in broad outline, Postman’s comparisons are valid in a very broad perhaps somewhat superficial sense from a particular standpoint.

    Hmm. Damning with highly qualified, faint praise? I actually think his historical comparisons suffer from the very fact that the Visigoths and the Athenians never had anything to do with each other. He posits these as two ideologies competing for the minds of the world, and yet he picks two groups that never actually went at it, separated as they were by not a little time and space. Why not equally pick, oh, the American revolutionaries and, I don’t know, the Nazis?

    Fact #2: historical details are mostly irrelevant here.

    A “fact” that is proven false by Postman’s explicit references to … historical details! “The first group lived about 2,500 years ago.” “One of them—Democritus by name—conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist.” And so on. His speech is riddled with actual historical facts. He — or you — can’t therefore just pretend it’s pure metaphor.

    Look, I get that commencement speeches are all supposed to be the same, inspiring for the future with one or two points and a lot of flowery and/or humorous appeals to the learnedness of the audience. Maybe wise people, therefore, should just avoid the medium altogether.

  • Joe

    Cincy – said: “We’re dealing in historical generalizations here for the purpose of communicating a rhetorical point–something that is neither unprecedented nor unacceptable.”

    Your are correct, but the question is it effective? I say no. I was barely a two paragraphs in before I decided that this guy has no idea what he is talking about and is probably not worth listening to.

  • Joe

    Cincy – said: “We’re dealing in historical generalizations here for the purpose of communicating a rhetorical point–something that is neither unprecedented nor unacceptable.”

    Your are correct, but the question is it effective? I say no. I was barely a two paragraphs in before I decided that this guy has no idea what he is talking about and is probably not worth listening to.

  • Joanne

    If Postman means to be broadly generic, he needs to use broadly generic terms. In this particular instance, he should have used Greeks versus barbarians, the standard generic terms for this type of comparison. We know by our shared western education that Greeks vs. barbarians is a trope for civilized vs. uncivilized, by which we understand the conversation is not likely to be about actual Greeks.

    However, Portman specifically names one Greek city at one point in time and one nation of barbarians at one point in time. He then makes remarkably generic statements about them. If one is up on one’s knowledge about either or both groups, it’s almost impossible to hear anything else Mr. Portman may be saying. “Doh, when were the Goths ever in Germany, unless the Vistula area is counted as part of Germany in the first century.” The Goths were Romanized and Christianized in the fourth century. Alaric I was the Roman general of Illyricum at one point. Cassiodorus wrote the history of the Goths from their ballads. And, Wulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic, the Codex Aureum, which Gustavus Adophus brought back from Prague as war booty and is on display at the Carolina Redivia in Uppsala. Granted, the Ostrogoths seem to be a tab more accomplished than the Visigoths, Theodoric having grown up at court in Constantinople.
    Still, one would expect that the Vandals would be the usual target of a generic attack for barbarism. Who cares a fig for the Vandals?
    I’d also like to point out that one man’s Athenian is another man’s Philistine. There is good developing archaeological evidence that around 1000 BC, Mycenean Greeks shortly after the Trojan wars, left Egypt and settled the littoral of Palestine. The Hebrews apparently called them Philistines and thought they had no culture at all.

  • Joanne

    If Postman means to be broadly generic, he needs to use broadly generic terms. In this particular instance, he should have used Greeks versus barbarians, the standard generic terms for this type of comparison. We know by our shared western education that Greeks vs. barbarians is a trope for civilized vs. uncivilized, by which we understand the conversation is not likely to be about actual Greeks.

    However, Portman specifically names one Greek city at one point in time and one nation of barbarians at one point in time. He then makes remarkably generic statements about them. If one is up on one’s knowledge about either or both groups, it’s almost impossible to hear anything else Mr. Portman may be saying. “Doh, when were the Goths ever in Germany, unless the Vistula area is counted as part of Germany in the first century.” The Goths were Romanized and Christianized in the fourth century. Alaric I was the Roman general of Illyricum at one point. Cassiodorus wrote the history of the Goths from their ballads. And, Wulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic, the Codex Aureum, which Gustavus Adophus brought back from Prague as war booty and is on display at the Carolina Redivia in Uppsala. Granted, the Ostrogoths seem to be a tab more accomplished than the Visigoths, Theodoric having grown up at court in Constantinople.
    Still, one would expect that the Vandals would be the usual target of a generic attack for barbarism. Who cares a fig for the Vandals?
    I’d also like to point out that one man’s Athenian is another man’s Philistine. There is good developing archaeological evidence that around 1000 BC, Mycenean Greeks shortly after the Trojan wars, left Egypt and settled the littoral of Palestine. The Hebrews apparently called them Philistines and thought they had no culture at all.

  • SKPeterson

    Having obtained a degree from the University of Idaho – I happen to care several figs for Vandals.

  • SKPeterson

    Having obtained a degree from the University of Idaho – I happen to care several figs for Vandals.

  • Joanne

    U of Idaho Vandals is it then? I guess that means there isn’t anyone around to feel properly offended for them — poor Vandals. And, you can vandalize your athletic opponents and not have to go to jail. Neat.

  • Joanne

    U of Idaho Vandals is it then? I guess that means there isn’t anyone around to feel properly offended for them — poor Vandals. And, you can vandalize your athletic opponents and not have to go to jail. Neat.

  • Richard Muller

    Hmmm.

  • Richard Muller

    Hmmm.


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