Cornel West wrote an article in the Washington Post in response to Howard University and other universities getting rid of their Classics Department. Walter Isaacson interviewed him on Amanpour and Company about that. said that he believes it is important to preserve and read the classics. He emphasized that, it important to read the classics:
I am convinced we are living in a moment of spiritual decay and moral decrepitude in the American empire. We have to come up with countervailing forces and countervailing weight against the rule of money, rule of mediocrity, rule of military might, rule of narrow conformity, and rule of indifference and callousness. The best classics of any civilization, of any empire, of any culture have to do with trying to convince ourselves to get involved in a quest for truth, and beauty, and goodness, and then for some of us like myself, a Christian, the holy.
That is what the classics can help us to do. That is part of West’s religious quest in the modern age. West believes there has been a deep moral decline in the west and a deep intellectual narrowness has crept in, and that the classics can help us to resist this trend. He says, the reason it does that is
“The classics force us to come to terms with the most terrifying question we can ever raise which is what does it mean to be human? The unexamined life is not a life of a human according to Plato in his Apology in line 38a. “Human” comes from the Latin humando which means burial, we are disappearing creatures. We are vanishing organisms on the way to bodily extinction. Therefore, the question becomes, ‘who will we be in the meantime?’ What kind of virtue can we enact? What kind of vision will we pursue? What kind of values will we try to embody? And once you raise that question what it means to be human, then you begin to see on the one hand like Shakespeare and Dante have taught us, like Toni Morrison, and John Coltrane have taught us, it’s dark in our history! Most of our history is the history of domination and oppression. The history of hatred. The history of contempt. It is the history of fear driven cruelty. What is the best of our history? Counterweights against that. And that is everywhere you look. Every civilization. Every continent. Every race. Every religion. Every gender. Every sexual orientation. And once you come to terms with that, then the question becomes how do you become equipped? What kind of spiritual and moral armour do you have that allows you to think critically? That allows you to open yourself to others. That allows you to act courageously.”
Now if that is not a spiritual quest, I do not know what is. That is what I have been seekiing on my quest. I think I have found it. West used Frederick Douglas as an example of a man who did that. He discovered truths from foreign languages as well as anyone can do. He was already a freedom fighter, but the classics of other countries helped him to find the truth, beauty, and the good. According to West, “He teased out an eloquence. And what is eloquence? “Eloquence is wisdom speaking,” say Cicero and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (often referred to as Quintilian) a rhetorician and educator.
According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature.
As West said,
“We live in an empire my brother that has grown powerful and rich but has not grown up. F.O Mathieson used to say, “America would in some way be distinctive because it could move from perceived innocence to corruption without a mediating state of maturity.” The nation believes it is innocent. How can you be authorizers of devastation of indigenous people and African slaves and then view yourselves as innocent? James Baldwin said that innocence is the crime before you commit the crime. We need to grow up. This is not Peter Pan. This is not Disneyland. We gotta be mature. It is possible for any human being to be innocent, naïve, to be mature and separate childishness from child-likeness. Child-likeness is a sign of maturity. Childishness? You need to grow up.”
The classics taught West how to find truth, beauty, moral goodness and the holy. That is the spiritual quest in the modern age.