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[Publisher’s Note]

Civilization in Peril

“The former president is but a symptom of a deeper degradation in the body politic.”
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on September 6, 2022. Translated from the French by Elettra Pauletto.

In May 1975, after my first year of college, I got a job at Columbia University’s main library, where I was surrounded by the hundreds of thousands of books that make this imposing structure one of the greatest centers of learning and knowledge in the United States. Since I had no professional experience, my department head, Vera Carter, asked me to perform a decidedly non-pedagogical task: taking stock of all the typewriters at the headquarters of Butler Library, as well as at the campus’s many satellite libraries, each one attached to its own graduate school.

Armed with an inventory compiled by a distant predecessor, I set out to work with an obvious lack of enthusiasm, my preference being for books. I’ve loved libraries and reading ever since childhood. My favorite library at Columbia was the one on the sixth floor of Butler, where aspiring librarians pursued their master’s degrees in the prestigious Library and Information Science department. What better place to study than among people trained to be as silent as Trappist monks?

I also found myself hanging around the School of Architecture’s wonderful library, where I rummaged enraptured through shelves and shelves of edifying tomes, without bothering with the prosaic task of finding and listing the typewriters in the administration office. My inattention led to a humiliating failure: the unfinished inventory was a mess, and after two weeks, Ms. Carter called me in to express her discontent.

I now had to meet with the big boss, the head of General Services, to explain myself. My pleas were futile. Martin Colverd, a Briton with the classic accent of an English scholar, gave me the bad news: I was being fired for my unsatisfactory work. Mr. Colverd even went one step further in his condemnation of my conduct, saying: “If you really believe in Western Civilization, you’ll understand that such tasks are necessary to preserve it.”

With this frankly pompous declaration, one could say that Mr. Colverd, in a way, had overstepped his role. But I didn’t take it that way, because at the time my mind was already steeped in Western tradition. Martin Colverd accused me of having shirked my civic duties, but even worse than that was my failure as a disciple of the Church of Western Canon, so dominant among undergraduates at Columbia. This tradition weighed heavily, and visibly, on the entire university community.

Engraved on the neoclassical façade of the Butler Library are the names believed to be the most important in Greco-Roman, Renaissance, and Enlightenment philosophy and literature. In order to receive my degree, I had to read texts by the majority of these eighteen authors. The fact that Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Voltaire were white males hardly mattered to the all-male and mostly white college students (until 1983, Columbia College was an all-male institution), and we took what we were taught more or less seriously. The basic university program was almost sacred; if Butler Library (and its typewriters) was a pillar of this grand civilizing program, according to Mr. Colverd, I was a small bit of mortar.

Absurd metaphor? These days, Western tradition has been under siege from all sides, at least if we trace it back to its founding in Ancient Greece and the city-state of Athens. The cultural and political ideal Colverd and my professors espoused assumed a common understanding of “freedom” and “democracy”—a consensus that does not now exist in the United States.

Patrick J. Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, holds that “the foundational texts of the Western political tradition focused especially on the question of how to constrain the impulse…of tyranny” and that they were generally in line with the promotion of “virtue and self-rule” as a way to stem “tyrannical temptation.” Deneen writes that “the Greeks especially regarded self-government” as essential to maintaining the “virtues of temperance, wisdom, moderation and justice.” However, for the great Greek minds of the time, self-rule and self-governance went hand in hand—without “continuity” between personal and government conduct, a free and harmonious society could not function. Patrick J. Deneen sums it up perfectly when he says: “Self-governance in the city was possible only if the virtue of self-governance governed the souls of citizens.”

On that note, let us consider Donald Trump’s conduct in order to understand our civic and national crisis. Here is a man who is clearly incapable of curbing his worst impulses, whether sexual, financial, or tyrannical. Luckily, he has neither the patience nor the attention span required to become a dictator. Nevertheless, the former president is but a symptom of a deeper degradation in the body politic. The Greeks emphasized education as an antidote to tyranny—political and narcissistic. Yet more than 74 million people in 2020 voted for a presidential candidate who was openly corrupt, thoughtless, and illiterate in matters of the U.S. Constitution.

In the end, I’m flattered by Martin Colverd’s criticism. It seems that he believed me capable of learning. And my Trumpist fellow citizens? We can’t just fire them all.

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