restricted access 7. Why the Classics Today?Lessons from Gadamer and de Bary
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

141 7.  Why the Classics Today?      Lessons from Gadamer and de Bary We live in a fast-paced age; in fact, the pace of change—at least in the so-called advanced societies—seems to be constantly increasing. Technological innovations that were unheard of just a few decades ago are briskly overturned and rendered obsolete by newer inventions of still more staggering magnitude. Using the parlance of videotapes, some observers have described our age as moving in “fast-forward.” The question that remains to be pondered, however, is whether speed is an adequate gauge for the quality of human life. Clearly, no matter how germane it is to certain technical developments, fastness by itself does not adequately capture the peculiar rhythm of a life well lived. Actually, many things in life—perhaps the most important ones—require not speed but slowness and patience, such as the time required to allow understanding to mature, relationships to grow, and good dispositions to take hold. Nature’s own rhythm gives us a cue; it is a rhythm that unhurriedly follows the sequence of the seasons and permits trees to grow and flowers to blossom at their own pace. How could human life be radically different, given its embeddedness in the cycle of birth and death, a cycle encompassing the so-called ages of man (infancy, adulthood, old age)? In the field of education, the sequence of human ages is reflected in the relationship between teacher and student. In past centuries, this relationship was a close and intimate bond of apprenticeship (paradigmatically captured in the Indian formula of guru-shishyaparampara ) in which the teacher transmitted to the student not only information but also the continuity of a tradition of learning, the fruits of the slow labor of intellectual and moral seasoning (far removed from clever dexterity).1 A short label for these ripened fruits of learn- 142 A Pedagogy for Our Troubled Times ing is the “classics,” and in this sense, every major cultural tradition on earth can boast a storehouse of classical texts and insights. What needs to be remembered, however, is that classics is not simply a synonym for oldness or for wisdom construed in the past tense. Treated in this manner, the classics would be a pastime reserved only for teachers and older people, which would vitiate the need for continuity of transmission . In this chapter, I first clarify the meaning of the classics, using as my chief guide the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (who passed away in 2002). Combating antiquarian leanings or the tendency to reduce the classics to museum pieces, Gadamer eloquently accentuated the continual “timeliness” of classical teachings, that is, their location in every time rather than outside of time or in a particular time frame (that of antiquity). He also underscored the critical potential of these teachings: their role as an antidote to the ideological manipulations, or idola fori (idols of the market), of a given time and place. The same potential was also the hallmark of the classics in East Asian thought, as has been shown by Confucian expert William Theodore de Bary in several of his writings. I conclude with de Bary’s plea to contemporary readers: to allow the classics to guide us toward wen (civility) rather than wu (warfare). Gadamer and the Meaning of the Classics In Gadamer’s magisterial work Truth and Method, the topic of the classics surfaces in a somewhat unexpected context: namely, in the course of his discussion of hermeneutics and of the effectiveness of historical experience. Here, hermeneutics means basically the insertion of human understanding in an interpretive learning process, and effectiveness refers to the temporal quality of such understanding, its mediating role between past and future. As can be seen, Gadamer immediately distances the topic from its customary frames of reference —especially from an archaeological study of antiquity, but also from a narrowly historicist treatment that, insisting on rigid periodization , assigns the classics to a specific historical period (that of ancient history). As he notes, such modes of construal have indeed been prominent in modern Western history, especially during the age of Romanticism and the ensuing rise of historical consciousness (epito- Lessons from Gadamer and de Bary  143 mized by historicism). As a result of these construals, the notion of the classics, or the classical, was reduced to either a mere stylistic genre or a label for an admired but hopelessly bygone era. Consequently, Gadamer complains, “classical” turned into the name for “a phase of historical...


pdf