A few months ago in this space I lamented that I had allowed the governor of Utah, as he promoted his hope that more of us would get degrees in science and technology, to intimidate me into going along with his retelling of an old joke about how liberal arts majors can’t get good jobs.
Gary Herbert: “You know what philosophy majors say, don’t you?”
Me: “You want fries with that?”
What I should have said, of course, was, “Let me make you one with everything.”
But even if I had had the presence of mind to use the alternate punch line, it can be difficult to quantify an argument that a classical education serves society as well or better than studying the STEM subjects.
Difficult. But, as recent events demonstrate, necessary.
Saturday, a thug with an AR-15 and a handful of smaller firearms burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed 11 worshipers. It recalled the incident back in 2015 when an extremely troubled young man carried out a similar assault on a predominantly black congregation in Charleston, S.C., killing nine. As well as an incident more recently when a white man out to kill black people found that he couldn’t get into an African-American church in Louisville, Ky., and consoled himself by murdering two black folks in a nearby supermarket.
In addition to the obvious evils, one thing these murderers clearly had in common was an insufficient classical education.
In “Hamlet,” William Shakespeare taught us a key lesson: If you kill your enemy when he is at prayer, you send him straight to heaven.
In Act III, Hamlet clearly has the drop on his murderous Uncle Claudius, who is, apparently, kneeing in prayer. If Hamlet offs him now, just as he is communing with God, Claudius gets the eternal reward that was denied Hamlet’s father, he having been murdered by surprise, unable to confess his sins, clear his soul and go to heaven.
Hamlet, who spends most of the play coming up with reasons not to do things, at that moment resolves to wait until Claudius would be, if he died then, bound for hell.
“When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t.”
Spoiler alert: It all comes to an unhappy end for everyone.
Less tragic is “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare’s sad tale of antisemitism interspersed throughout a 16th century rom-com. In that one, only Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, faces an unhappy ending, losing an investment, his daughter and the freedom to practice his faith.
Jonathan Miller, the genius comedian and actor who directed a BBC version of the play with Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, told Dick Cavett many years ago that the play is not antisemitic, but that it is about antisemitism. In the way that Huckleberry Finn is not racist but is very much about racism. Harold Bloom, one of the world’s great scholars — of Shakespeare and everything else — says, sorry, no, the play is just flat antisemitic. Even if Shakespeare himself wasn’t.
All this runs together because it seems clear that the fascists who inhabit the White House and so much of our social media have stepped up their antisemitic dog whistling by trying to tie the “caravan” of migrants marching from Honduras to the U.S. — a sad assemblage that threatens nobody — to their favored boogeyman, financier and liberal moneybags George Soros, who has all the fearful tags like “globalist” (i.e. Jew) hung on him.
If the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh attack did know the “The Merchant of Venice,” there would at least be some hope that he would have been influenced by one of the most beautiful utterances in the history of the English language, Portia’s speech explaining how it is divine to show mercy, but only by choice, because it cannot be compelled.
This nation is now under the leadership of a president who thinks mercy is for wimps and only various forms of racism, including antisemitism, are strong. While there are many scientists and engineers who see how wrong that is (Rogue NASA, for example) knowing something of our best literature is key to building a just society. And while respect for other people’s faith is basic, it can be better to learn from works of fiction, because we are free to draw different lessons without feeling a need to kill those who see it differently.
So, what does an English major say?
“Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, can also recite long portions of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter, @debatestate