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‘Dead White Guys’ ideas still relevant

bookWhatever our denominations or religious beliefs, many of us are familiar with the old adage of this season: “Peace on earth, good will toward men (with “men” meaning “all people).” Spoken by an angel to shepherds near Bethlehem, these sentiments sound comfy as a pair of slippers and a cup of hot chocolate. Very inclusive. Very P.C.

And very much a mistranslation.

Correct translations of this passage from Luke read as follows: “Peace on earth toward men of good will” or “On earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

“Good will toward men” doesn’t cut it. Given the history of our planet, these words never did measure up, and today’s world proves no exception.

As we enter this Christmas season, we are engaged in a world war. It is not a war of frontlines and identifiable enemies, it is not a war that differentiates between civilians and soldiers, it is not a war that honors the Geneva Convention, but it is a war and it is being fought around the globe. Europe, Mali and other countries in Africa, select countries in the Middle East, Indonesia, Australia, the United States: these nations and regions are under siege by Muslim radicals who believe their religion gives them the right to kill, enslave or brutalize those of other faiths.

Meanwhile, a recent Reuters/Ispos survey reveals that 58 percent of Americans “don’t identify with what America has become.” Lest you think this figure consists of disgruntled conservatives, please know that 45 percent of those who no longer recognized their country as their own were Democrats. (Self-disclosure: I haven’t identified “with what America has become” for at least 20 years). 

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These two circumstances — our shadow war with Islamofascism and feeling like strangers in our own country — are surely linked. Wars are often won or lost because of ideas, and the West has spent the last 50 years turning its back on its own history and culture. Many among our elite urge us to tolerate other cultures whose practices would have once raised our contempt — stoning adulterers, throwing gays from rooftops, killing children — while at the same time denigrating Western ideas. Only a quarter of a century has passed since Jessie Jackson and a band of his followers protested the Western Culture Course at Stanford University with “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go.”

Ah well, no worries there. In campuses around the country the teaching of Western culture and history doesn’t have to go anymore. It’s long gone.

And yet … some defenders of Plato, Aristophanes, Jefferson and others are still battling in the trenches. One of these brave souls is Matt Burriesci. In Dead White Guys: A Father, His Daughter and the Great Books of the Western World (Viva Editions, 2015, 250 pages, $17.95), Burriesci presents a lively defense of the Western canon and the value of the liberal arts in Western civilization. 

Burriesci decided to write Dead White Guys after his daughter, Violet, was born prematurely and nearly died. He intended the book as a gift for Violet’s eighteenth birthday, by which time, he writes, the ideas of the authors he discusses “will be more important than at any point in human history.” He adds that “these authors will teach you how to think, not what to think.”

In 26 chapters, each of which he  devotes to writers as varied as Plato and Karl Marx, Burriesci tells us why these dead white guys remain important and why our failure to value them and their ideas may have disastrous consequences both for the West and for the world. For example, in a chapter titled “Who Should Be In Charge?” Burriesci gives us Plutarch’s study of Lycurgus, a man who by his sterling character and wisdom reformed a dysfunctional Sparta. In addition to offering Violet tips for life to be gained by such a study of such books, Burriesci subtly reminds the rest of us what happens when clowns and the corrupt lead a country (think of the candidates in all parties now running for president). 

Another example: from Plutarch’s Alexander the Great, Burriesci cites the importance of courage, using his own failed courage as counterpoint. While in college, a gang of drunken frat boys attacked Burriesci in a bar. His friend, Sean Lee, came to his rescue, but while the drunks were beating Sean Lee, Burriesci stood by without helping. He writes:

“I stood there watching. I did nothing. I was terrified.

“Hours later at the emergency room, Sean sat on an examination table. His face was swollen, his lip was fat and bleeding, his nose looked broken, and both his eyes were black and blue. I had a relatively minor cut on the side of my head.

“He lit a cigarette in the emergency room. Man, that guy was cool! Before the doctor came and told him to put it out, he exhaled a long train of smoke and looked up at me.

“’Why didn’t you do anything?’ he asked.”

Burrieschi then goes on to discuss the importance of Alexander’s courage in inspiring and leading his soldiers.

Throughout Dead White Guys, Matt Burrieschi artfully draws life lessons from these great thinkers, lessons in prudence, justice, faith, all of the essential parts of character. He shows us the crucial part played by such ideas in our lives. In this book he has given his daughter a wonderful gift.

More importantly, perhaps, Burrieschi reminds the rest of us that the ideas of thinkers as diverse as Plato, Saint Augustine, Montaigne, John Locke and others provided the basic building blocks for Western culture. They were ideas worth fighting for and even dying for. 

And they still are.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. His novel, Amanda Bell, is available on Amazon and at area bookstores. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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