Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Ebony Column: Classics, Civilization and the African American Reclamation of the West

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Ebony Column: Classics, Civilization and the African American Reclamation of the West

Article excerpt

Eric Ashley Hairston, The Ebony Column: Classics, Civilization and The African American Reclamation of the West. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2013.

Reviewed by John Berteaux

In today's world, one has to defend any university course that does not instantly lead to a specific career or occupation. In a recent New York Review of Books article, author Marilynne Robinson states, "There is a great deal of questioning now of the value of the humanities, those aptly named disciplines that make us consider what human beings have been, and are, and will be" (Robinson 28). Robinson's article makes plain why I often find myself defending my chosen discipline - Philosophy. After all, a university education is expensive and, moreover, once the student leaves the university, food, clothing, and a place to live don't come cheap; one has to make a living. Hence, students, administrators, and parents ask: "Philosophy? What can you do with that?" If questions about the usefulness of the humanities are apropos, then Professor of English, Law, and Humanities Eric Ashley Hairston asks a far more compelling question in his book, The Ebony Column. Given that we live in a society in which race matters socially, politically, and economically, Hairston asks us to consider the value or usefulness of a classical education for today's black American student.

In defending my chosen discipline, generally, I turn to philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) for support. The essence of Hairston's argument, however, intimates that I could just as easily have turned to African American sociologist, historian, and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963). In The Value of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, a contemporary of Du Bois, considers what it is that makes philosophical questions unique and worth taking the time and effort to think about. Russell writes, "The 'practical' man . . . is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body, but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind" (Russell 154). He insists what makes philosophy special is that it aims at a kind of knowledge that "gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs" (Russell 154).

In fact, Eric Hairston (159) insists that W. E. B. Du Bois's "analysis of the opportunities, dangers, and challenges African Americans face clearly pits the pursuit of the good life and its meaning, wisdom, and culture - the virtuous life - against the barbaric pursuit of wealth, power, and possessions." For example, he reports that Du Bois draws on the classical myth of Hippomenes to demonstrate that virtue and liberty can be destroyed by materialism. One version of this story is that Hippomenes fell in love with Atalanta. Atalanta did not want to marry.

As a result, she set up a test. She was known to be a very fast runner. She conceded to marry anyone who could beat her in a foot race with the caveat being that anyone who tried to beat her and lost would be punished by death. Atalanta raced all her suitors save one: Hippomenes. In the end, she agreed to race Hippomenes. He defeated her by placing three golden apples in her path. When Atalanta stopped to pick up the apples, Hippomenes passed her and won the race and her hand. Hippomenes's desire to possess Atalanta unfortunately led to their doom.

While Bertrand Russell claims the utility of philosophy is found in its indirect effects on the lives of those who study it, similarly, W.E. B. Du Bois saw the classics as an antidote to vulgar materialism. In sum, then, both Russell and Du Bois were concerned that we integrate or balance our practical and intellectual pursuits. They were critical of applying a wholly practical or economic meaning to the term "useful" (Hairston 160; Russell 153).

Hairston observes that "an actual examination of Du Bois's education reveals remarkable depth and a significant investment in classical texts and subjects" (Hairston 167). …

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