The “body” (literally) of the Western Tradition

Yesterday, I ranted on behalf of the classics; today I’m following up with the single most beautiful metaphor I have ever heard to explain–really, really explain–the Western tradition, our tradition. It just so happens that this metaphor is another powerful reason, should any of you still need one, to get off our butts and go back to the old stories from Greece and Rome.

It comes from Professor Phillip Cary, and in particular from Lecture 13 in this course on the Western Intellectual Tradition.

Professor Cary wants to give us an “image that will help conceptualize the whole shape of the Western tradition.” That image is a body, which has a left leg, a right leg, a torso where the two legs come together, a left arm, a right arm, and a neck and head on top. Any old body, in other words. Your body.

The right leg, he suggests, is the Bible, religion, the Judeo-Christian tradition, Jerusalem, Moses, Job, Jesus. We live in a right-handed and right-footed culture, so this is a strong leg. It’s also, he suggests tongue-in-cheek, the leg that right-leaning types in our tradition tend to stand on. It is the conservative leg, the leg that gives quick and certain answers, not the one that asks difficult questions.

The left leg is Athens and Rome, the classics, Socrates, philosophy and enquiry. It tends to be the leg that intellectuals stand on, people who prefer to ask probing and embarrassing questions (as Socrates did). But it’s not purely intellectual. It’s also sensual and mythological. Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio are part of it.

The two legs are joined, of course, in the crotch. If you had to give the crotch a year, it would be 313 AD, when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, thus formally bringing together the two traditions, biblical and classical. The crotch, of course, is a) phenomenally fertile and b) embarrassing and awkward for most people. So has been that union in our tradition ever since.

The torso is the Middle Ages. That’s when the two traditions were thoroughly blended and mixed in our monasteries and palaces.

The right arm sticking out from the top of the torso is the Reformation, Luther and Calvin, the yearning to go back to a purer form of the right side, back to the right leg, the Bible.

The left arm sticking out is the Renaissance, the simultaneous yearning to rediscover the classics, the wisdom of Greece and Rome, their beauty, art, philosophy–and their stories.

On top is the neck, the Enlightenment, which supports the head, Modernity.

So there we are: the head, looking down for self-knowledge, all the way to our toes. Would anybody volunteer to cut off his or her left leg and either topple over or hop around crippled? Didn’t think so.

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