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“The Higher Naiveté” and the Revolution of Modern Learning

At the end of last school year, Joshua Gibbs suggested some of the benefits to our technological age. In a lecture on the Dark Ages of Greece, Yale professor Donald Kagan explains his gullibility towards the ancients:

…Well, prior to the late eighteenth century when German scholars began to look at the Homeric poems specifically, very, very carefully, and then really very, very skeptically, they made all sorts of suggestions that the poems we have are really not to be thought of as the work of a single poet, Homer, who had–wrote them both out together. But who began to divide them up into early and late elements, which I thought drove the field of classics insane for about 100 years, while folks argued about the unity of Homer, the unity or not the unity of one of the poems and so on. But it began a critical study of the poems for the first time and critical methods were applied to history for the first time ever, really, in the early nineteenth century and thereafter. And it became common to reject any ancient story that wasn’t really nailed down very, very firmly by some device.

…And so there is this critical school that says, “I won’t believe anything unless it is proven to me.” At the other extreme, there’s me, the most gullible historian imaginable. My principle is this. I believe anything written in ancient Latin or Greek, unless I can’t…Otherwise, you’ve got to convince me that they’re not true.

He points to the discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann to make his point. Schliemann, the unlearned businessman, did not merely believe in Homer, but he believed in the gods and in the events of the Homeric epics, and at a time when the academic world relegated such things to the fictions of great works. Then he found Troy and the Mask of Agamemnon. Though his belief is more tempered with reason, Kagan admits that he’s arrived at a position called the “Higher Naiveté” (an idea to which Gibbs also pays tribute). But Kagan says we finally come to the Higher Naiveté, to the place of scholastic humility, by way of the revolution of higher education:

…Now, you might think of this as, indeed, gullible. A former colleague of mine put the thing very, very well. He spoke about, and I like to claim this approach, the position of scholarship to which we call the higher naiveté. The way this works is, you start out, you don’t know anything, and you’re naïve. You believe everything. Next, you get a college education and you don’t believe anything, and then you reach the level of wisdom, the higher naiveté, and you know what to believe even though you can’t prove it. Okay, be warned; I’m a practitioner of the higher naiveté. So, I think the way to deal with legends is to regard them as different from essentially sophisticated historical statements, but as possibly deriving from facts, which have obviously been distorted and misunderstood, misused and so on. But it would be reckless, it seems to me, to just put them aside and not ask yourself the question, ‘Can there be something believable at the root of this?”

What is the “higher naiveté” but simply another name for credulitas? Here Kagan puts skepticism in its proper place. Thus, the full revolution of modern learning has been achieved. To borrow Chesterton’s mighty image in Orthodoxy, the student goes out in search of giants; in college he is told they don’t exist, only to find at the return of his long scholarly pilgrimage that he was living on the grandest of all giants the entire time.

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