Thursday, July 21, 2011

Relativism and Culture

The Times of Higher Education have a very nice article about combating relativism through the study of Classics.

Speaking at the Institute of Ideas Education Forum this week, Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby, argued that we are not "on the verge of a second Renaissance".

The enthusiasm for Classics among politicians such as Boris Johnson or Michael Gove was largely a result of misty-eyed nostalgia for their own "public or grammar school education", he said.

What this tended to miss out were the things that made the classical tradition genuinely important. Prominent among these was ancient philosophers' commitment to "objectivism" - "seeing things as they really are" - and an attendant "recognition of the need for a constant struggle against subjectivism, superstition and backwardness".

The core values of today's universities, continued Professor Hayes, are "counter to the classical spirit".

We find "a woolly-minded relativism that allows management to have their values, marketing (to have) another (set of values), teacher training departments another, academic faculties another", with "lecturers left to try to ignore or subvert these while pursuing their own values. This subjective muddle keeps going because there is no challenge to it."

It is here that some of the great classical authors can play a vital role, Professor Hayes said, arguing that students should be "trained in the tradition of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

"Plato destroys relativism in two pages," he continued. "Classics teaching often focuses on accuracy of translation, which means that even those who know Greek can miss the point.
You can read the rest here.

Now, many of you, my dear readers, may be wondering first what the philosophy of relativism has to do with culture and what the brontosaurus is Classics.

The latter, having a far shorter explanation, shall be expounded on first. The study of Classics is essentially the study of literature, politics, philosophy and culture of the ancient world, that is anything from the time of Zeus and the beginnings of civilization until just before the Dark Ages. And no, the Dark Ages were not a time where everyone was stupid and in the dark about everything, and went around in tin cans killing everything with their huge swords. In fact, we are probably living through the actual dark ages right now.

The study of Classics, while seemingly useless in our sadly utilitarian age, does require a rather substantial amount of working grey matter when it is studied at its highest level. It requires working knowledge of ancient languages, and that already is difficult in itself to pick up (believe me, I’m learning Latin and Ancient Greek now). Following sufficient mastery of these classical languages, you’ll need to translate the various texts in other to understand and provide analysis on them.

At a lower level, that could certainly be taken up by schools is to teach classical literature and philosophy in vernacular, rather than in the original language or have it compulsory to learn at least one classical language. Learning a classical language has great benefits to one’s mother tongue. Even if Classics was study in vernacular, it would put up quite a challenge for the students, since philosophy is always challenging and the literature will be a refreshing change from reading about the lives of modernist feminist ninnies and their problems with men in society. Just think about it! How much cooler is it to study about the trials, tribulations and adventures of Heracles (Hercules in latin) as he battles the hydra and heroic completes his twelve tasks in atonement for accidently killing his family despite Hera making him do it. It is not just ‘way cool’ and ‘awesome’ for the lads, it is instills a sense of virtue, courage and integrity in these young boys in lieu of today’s culture of trying to escape any sense of morality and justice, which is perpetuated by relativism. Of course, the girls aren’t left out either! Greek mythos are full of stories of heroic women to provide them with heroines to look up to and feminine virtues to follow.

That said, Classics go beyond Greek civilization and there are many other avenues of things that could be taught. More importantly, as the article mentions, the study of classics drives home the good habit of objective thinking. It also imbues an appreciation for culture, both present and past, by showing how culture has developed over time. Plus, come on, who doesn’t feel cool to throwing in a latin quote every now and then? Quare? Quia Ego sic dico. Quad erat demonstratum.

That brings us to our second point, on why relativism is bad for culture. Relativism is the epitome of a world where subjectivity reigns supreme. It runs on the idea that everything is valid as long someone can justify it or rather appear to justify it. It also brings with it the political correct idea that we should respect and accept another person’s beliefs even if we feel they are wrong, because….well….other people believe it they’re right.

Relativism is a result of the decline of Romanticism and is the bastard child of Modernity. When matched with Postmodernity, it has become a startling and furious force. It promotes apathy and emotionally charged opinion. Anything goes after and all and all is subjective. Group think has never become so dangerous, ‘if, so many people are doing it has to be okay.’

Culture and art have never been in greater danger. In this new relative world, anything can be art as a long as someone likes and appreciates it. It doesn’t matter if that poor sod has the taste of a four tongued teenage centipede on crack, it looks good to him, so it must be art. If you don’t believe me, famous postmodern art pieces include an installation made of toilet bowls, a shed that was turned into a boat and then back into a shed and pictures of Crucifixes in urine. Standards have long since departed, and because now culture is as anyone deems it to be, all sorts of banal music are promoted by the majority of society and this has since become a thriving market. The media has glamourized such music and most people think classical music is boring. That said, the reason why the enjoyment of classical music is taken as a sign of culture is because it is a very refined art and requires some form of education to appreciate it’s more subtle tones, themes and motifs it expresses and conveys. It’s like literature, everyone is able to read it, but to appreciate it on a deeper level, one must first learn and understand the basic literary devices.

We know that for something to be considered culture, it has to be refined and beautiful. We also know that there is a great distinction, a huge chasm between beauty and banality, let alone ugliness. It is something that we know innately to be true. Beauty inspires and not all art can beautiful and inspiring. It also has to be realised that to interpret art requires some training. They offer degrees in that sort of thing! Thus, just cause teenage centipede decides that his ‘art’ looks good doesn’t actually make it objectively good.

I hope all that makes sense! Go and save some culture today, listen to so Bach, read some nice poetry, or post all your facebook status updates in Latin. You know you want to.

H/T to the great Father Z for the article

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Dear Readers,

My apologies for the slow update of this blog. However, I do assure you there are more features coming your way! For those who can't wait, you can head over to my personal blog, Prelude, to read about customising your own stationery. For those who can, I will be heading over to the theatres on the first week of August and will be writing my reviews here! Also, there will be a feature of Verdi's Requiem. So watch this space!

In the meantime, do share this blog with your friends and like our facebook page! We thank you for your continuous support and do contribute ideas and articles! You can reach us via. our tag board or just leave a comment with your details!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor & His Legacy

Death as the great equaliser is indeed a potent notion that is embraced by some and resisted by others. One of the strongest rebels against the inevitable is none other than the first Emperor of China, 秦始皇 (Qin Shi Huang) who lived between 259 BC - 210 BC.

The great Emperor, whose personal name was 嬴政 (Ying Zheng), was obsessed with immortality. He was known to have gone enormous lengths to acquire the mythical elixir of life. Even after being defeated by Death, he continued to wage war by sending thousands of labourers to work on building a kingdom that he can rule in his afterlife - a jaw-dropping collection of terracota warriors, entertainers and animals were unearthed over 2000 years later in 1970.

To find out more about Qin Shi Huang's kingdom in the afterlife, I went down to the exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and got more than I expected! The exhibition was not only limited to one gallery but ACM had a whole package for the visitors. Even before I entered the exhibition proper, I was greeted by these interesting characters...

After raising an eyebrow or two, I realised that ACM cleverly prefaced the exhibition with a modern and light-hearted take on the afterlife. These sculptures, which were done by Justin Lee, certainly brought a smile to everyone and I personally felt that it was a great counterpoint to the seriousness of Qin Shi Huang's ambitions in creating a kingdom after death.

Aside from that cheeky teaser, I do applaud ACM's efforts to not only keep up with the times but to ensure that all visitors do get a hands-on experience of the exhibition. This is done by creating a wonderful iPhone/ iPad app (do download this app before going to the exhibition!) to complement the exhibition as well as placing replicas of the warriors just outside the gallery for visitors to piece together the armour together.

Interactive Replica
 On to the exhibition proper, I felt that the artefacts on display did cover quite a lot of ground as it tries to give us some insights into what Qin Shi Huang wanted as well as the life and times of that era.

Depiction of the process of creating an afterlife kingdom

Decorative dagger believed to be comissioned by Lu Buwei


Replica of the chariot that was found in one of the pits

Intricately carved incense burner
Crane as part of the garden created for the Emperor's relaxation
Armour of the soldiers during the Qin dynasty

Various soldiers of different ranks and position
 The exhibition certainly sheds light on the struggle of Qin Shi Huang to continually establish his power and to leave a legacy. Additionally it showcased the grandeur of the time as there are several exhibits of burial items that are incredibly valuable which were buried with the aristocrats of the time. It also showed the influence of this practice on the Han dynasty as burial items were common as well albeit much simpler and smaller in scale.

Yet, all his struggles for immortality were certainly in vain but he did leave us an awesome spectacle to behold in so doing.

For more information about this exhibition, please click here. If you would like to see more photos of the exhibition, check out and 'like' our facebook page . To read more from Isaac, visit his personal blog, Prelude.