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One of the great joys of my life is watching speeches and interviews given by great intellectuals. It was in pursuing this pleasure that I happened upon an episode of the ABC’s panel discussion show, Question and Answers. Coming out of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, the four people on the panel – the traditional conservative, Peter Hitchens; the feminist writer, Germaine Greer; the American writer, Hanna Rosin; and the gay rights activist, Dan Savage – spent an hour discussing tops ranging from western civilisation to modern hook-up culture.
It became quickly apparent that the intellectual stature of the four panellists was not evenly matched. Hanna Rosin and Dan Savage were less rational, less mature, and more ignorant than Peter Hitchens and Germaine Greer. By comparison, Hitchens and Greer gave carefully considered answers to most of the questions asked. Hitchens, in particular, gave responses based on careful consideration, rational thought, fact, and wisdom. (This is not to say one is required to agree with him)
It was the behaviour of the audience that proved the most alarming, however. Like most Questions and Answers audiences, it was comprised mostly of idealistically left-wing youth. Their primary purpose for being there was to have their ideological presuppositions reinforced. With no apparent motivation to listen to the answers to their questions, these youngsters would clap and cheer like trained seals whenever someone makes an ideologically-correct statement.
How has our society become so stupid? Why do we no longer see being wise and knowledgeable as virtues in and of themselves? Part of the answer comes from a culture of self-hate and contempt promulgated by left-wing intellectuals. Accordingly, Christianity is regarded as archaic (unless, of course, it promotes left-wing beliefs), inequality is caused by capitalism, and the problems of women come as the result of the “patriarchy.” Even the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge are rather conveniently blamed on “trauma” emanating from the Vietnam War (rather than the actions of Pol Pot and his band of murderous, communist brutes).
This continuous, unrelenting assault on Western civilisation has led to a general estrangement from Western culture. The common people have been robbed of their inheritance because scholars and intellectuals have reduced their culture into a caricature to be dismantled at will. As a result, they are no longer exposed to the great works of art, architecture, literature, music, philosophy, poetry, sculpture, theology, and theatre that the Western world has produced.
The modern proclivity for ignorance and stupidity comes out of a very special kind of arrogance. It is the kind of arrogance that makes people believe that all those who came before them must be dumber than they are. It does not acknowledge that our modern “enlightenment” is built on the works of those who came before us. Our forebears would be dumbfounded to find a world where, despite having greater access to information than anyone else in history, people have closed their minds to learning.
What all this boils down to is a rejection of wisdom. If you believe that all those who came before you are dumber than yourself you are unlikely to believe they have anything worthwhile to contribute. As such, you are unlikely to believe in wisdom as a universal good. As Neel Burton over at Psychology Today pointed out: “in an age dominated by science and technology, by specialisation and compartmentalisation, it [wisdom] is too loose, too grand, and too mysterious a concept.”
We have made phenomenal advancements in all areas of human knowledge. Sadly, our successes have also made us arrogant and self-righteous. If we are to take full advantage of our potential, we need to reignite our cultural past and find the humility to learn from those who went before us.
Once a week, King Alfred Press will be examining a work of Western Culture. These works can include literature, poetry, film, art, music, or anything else considered ‘cultural.’
This week we will be examining the poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. The poem was published in 1648 as part of a volume of verse entitled Hesperides, written by lyrical poet and cleric, Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674). (It was one of twenty-five-hundred poems Herrick would write in his lifetime).
Over the course of his eighty-three years, Herrick lived through the reigns of Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603), James I (1566 – 1625), Charles I (1600 – 1649), and Charles II (1630 – 1685), as well as the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) and the subsequent English Commonwealth (1653 – 1660) under Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658).
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
The opening line, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, provides clues to the poem’s influences. In the Wisdom of Solomon (chapter two, verse eight), the phrase: “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.” The closing line of De Rosis Nascentibus, attributable to either Ausonius or Virgil, is:
“Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes,
et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum.”
In English, this translates to: “Maidens, gather roses, while blooms are fresh and youth is fresh, and be mindful that your life-times hastes away.” Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) the Faerie Queen has a young man in the Bower of Bliss sing:
“Gather therefore the Rose, whilest yet is prime,
For soone comes age, that will her pride deflowre:
Gather the Rose of love, whilest yet is time,
Whilest loving thou mayst loved be with equall crime.”
Whilst, Shakespeare’s (1564 – 1616) sonnet eighteen begins with the couplet:
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease has all too short a date.”
Interestingly, the title of Herrick’s poem may provide us with a clue as to its intentions. The poem’s title addresses itself to ‘the virgins’ – young, beautiful woman – and advises them ‘to make much of time’ – use their beauty and their youth while they still have the chance.
Herrick’s poem is one of the most famous examples of ‘Carpe Diem’ type sentimentality. The term, ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’, is a Latin sentiment attributable to the Roman lyrical poet, Horace (65BC – 8BC). We are asked, by Herrick and Horace, among others, to understand the brevity of our lives and to make the most of what ever precious moments happen to be presented to us. In this sense, to the Virgins is an advisory poem, an attempt by Herrick to impart some wisdom to us. “The sun is only going to shine on you for a brief moment”, Herrick appears to be telling us, “so make the most of it.” Even beauty and youth fades: “and this same flower that smiles today/ to-morrow will be dying.”