Losing our religion

Who knows about classics and the Bible these days?

Jeremy Paxman observes that during his 16 years as host of University Challenge, he has found that contestants "know less and less about classics and the Bible, and more and more about science and computing".

Who can doubt it? But this modern lack of awareness of two fields that were regarded as essential to a good education for so long is little noted -- even though it must count as one of the greatest transformations in our culture in the past half-century.

When Enoch Powell made his infamous "rivers of blood" speech in 1968, he could have assumed that the wider audience would know that the quotation was from Virgil's Aeneid (Mary Beard analyses the reference brilliantly here).

Similarly, Tony Benn could still be certain that a sizeable number of his potential readers would understand why he titled his 2004 memoir Dare to be a Daniel; that they would be aware of the Old Testament prophet of that name, if not necessarily the Salvation Army hymn.

But that would have been the older proportion. For younger browsers, the first Daniel to come to mind would probably be the Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. Benn acknowledges as much in his book: "I often forget that few people now have a biblical background or knowledge of the different Christian traditions. Biblical and religious references that slip into my speeches and articles are not necessarily always understood."

To lament the passing of these corpuses of knowledge out of the realms of popular discourse and their retreat into the citadels of scholars is not to make any comment about levels of religious belief: after all, a classical education was never intended to encourage consultations with oracles or sacrifices to Zeus. It is, instead, to mourn the breaking of a connection with millennia of history, references to which were the common currency of art, literature, music and even conversation.

Is speech the poorer for our no longer being able to assume familiarity with the works of Homer and the precise gradations of office in the Roman senate? Yes, I think so. More serious, though, is that a proper understanding of much of the fine art produced in Europe over the past 2,000 years is simply not possible without knowledge of the Bible. This not just about the subject matter, but about the positioning of people, objects, shadows -- all allusions lost on those unversed in Christianity.

Likewise, the joys of Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem are severely impaired if one does not know why, as the countertenor aria has it, "He was despised, despised and rejected", or what the sounding of the trumpets in the "Dies Irae" -- the Day of Judgement -- are heralding. Questions of rights, philosophy, the existence of evil -- all these matters are frequently approached afresh, which may be a good thing in itself. What is less commendable is the latter-day ignorance about the Christian and classical thinkers who spent long decades pondering and writing about them. There just might be something to be learned there.

I am not suggesting that all need attain the easy expertise in the classics of a Boris Johnson or the ability to cite Old Testament chapter and verse possessed by my late grandfather, a Methodist who frequently spent a good couple of hours debating scripture on the doorstep when Jehovah's Witnesses came to call. But for these vast libraries to slip from the mind within a generation or two, and for no one to call "Stop!" and urge us to consider what we are losing, feels like carelessness of monumental proportions.

Does it really not matter that we no longer know what, until very recently, our ancestors took for granted?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Michel Barnier is Britain's best friend, but the Brexiteers are too shallow to notice

The right's obsession with humilating a man who should be a great British asset is part of why negotiations are in a mess. 

Sam Coates of the Times has the inside track on what Theresa May is planning to say in her big speech in Florence tomorrow: a direct appeal to the leaders of the European Union’s member states over the head of Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator.

I explained some of the problems with this approach in my morning briefing earlier today, but just to reiterate: the major difficulty is that Barnier’s mandate as a negotiator hasn’t emerged fully formed from the mind of some scheming bureaucrat in the European Commissio, but after discussion and agreement by the heads of member states. There are problems with the EU approach to sequencing talks, but the chances of changing it by appealing to the people who set it in the first place seems unlikely, to put it mildly.  

Barnier seems to occupy a strange position in the demonology of right-wing Brexiteers, I suspect largely due to ignorance about how the EU works, and in some cases Francophobia. The reality is that Barnier is the single politician outside of the United Kingdom with the most to lose from a bad Brexit deal.

If the Brexit talks end badly, then that will be the first line of Barnier’s obituary. Back in his native France, the centre-right is in opposition and none of the candidates vying to lead the Republicans are are going to give him a big domestic job to save his reputation.

His dream of parlaying a successful turn as the EU27’s chief negotiator into running the Commission relies not only on the talks succeeding, but him cultivating a good relationship with the heads of government across the EU27. In other words: for Barnier to get what he wants, he needs both to secure a good deal and to keep to the objectives set for him by the heads of member states. A good deal for all sides is a great deal for Barnier. 

As a result, the Brexit elite ought to see Barnier as what he really is: their best friend on the other side of the table. Instead, they are indulging in fantasies about tricking Barnier, undermining Barnier, and overcoming Barnier. In short, once again, they are bungling Brexit because they don’t want to think about it or approach it seriously. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.