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Gilbert Highet on Civilisational Transmission

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Gilbert Arthur Highet (June 22, 1906 – January 20, 1978) was a Scottish American classicist, academic writer, intellectual critic, and literary historian.

An excerpt from, “Gilbert Highet, the First Celebrity Classicist” By Robert J. Ball, Antigone, May 24, 2022:

Most eloquent among the sons of Scotland, educated at Glasgow and Oxford, you have for the last forty years enriched the world of classical letters with the richness of your scholarship. You have been at once a support and an ornament to humane learning in this, your adopted country. Generations of Columbia students can testify to the scope of your erudition and the precision of your wit. In nearly a score of books – doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis – you have charted the enduring forms and themes of literature, with a spirit as indefatigable as it is passionate. A Varro in learning, a Cicero in eloquence, you have not only defended the vitality and grace of the classical tradition, you have also embodied it.

So spoke President William McGill at Columbia University’s 1977 commencement as he awarded a D.Litt. to Gilbert Highet (1906–78), regarded in his day as the most celebrated Classical scholar in America. In an era without the internet or podcasts or YouTube, Highet became a household name, with his distinctive voice reaching a worldwide audience through his books and lectures, heard even over the airwaves.

An excerpt from the lecture below by Gilbert Highet on the value and significance of the transmission of knowledge between civilizations, giving the example of Japan in the late 19th century:

I suggest that we might understand a great deal of history by looking at groups of people as learners and teachers. I believe that much of the most drastic and potent change in our own public lives and in the history of the last two or three thousand years has been an educational and intellectual change, not a power change and not a wealth change except indirectly.

Let’s take some examples. The most drastic example I can think of at present is one where a nation of thirty million people deliberate put itself to school and by doing so changed its own history and the history of the world.That was Japan.

In 1868 or say in the 1860s Japan had been sealed off from the rest of the world almost completely for many generations. That is, it had refused to learn anything from the rest of the world or teach anything to the rest of the world. There had been no communication.

Now, you and I all know the tremendous effects of what is called the opening up of Japan but what was that opening up. Did we impose power on them? Not that chiefly. Nor did they on us at that time. Did we begin to extract wealth from them or exchange goods and services with them? Yes, but that wasn’t the most important thing.

The most important thing was that they suddenly decided to learn from all the rest of the world by a conscious policy. In 1868 the Emperor took an oath which was the beginning of modern Japan. It’s called the Charter Oath. It ended with this extraordinary phrase. Imagine this as part of the Constitution of a country. This is the last phrase, “knowledge shall be sought for throughout the world.” And that was the real meaning of Japan’s opening up.

From then they had no Constitution, they had no army, they had no navy, they had no money, they had no calendar, they had no sciences except the most primitive kind. And between 1868 and roughly 1890 they sent out dozens of missions to learn from the rest of the world and imported no less than five thousand teachers into Japan to teach them all these things.

They had no Constitution, they sent out a commission which toured the United States of America and Europe and came back with a Constitution learned from the Kingdom of Bavaria.

They had no bank, no money system, they quite soon found the disadvantages of that when the Westerners got in, so they sent out another commission which came back with a model for the Bank of Japan from the Bank of Belgium. They learned how to have a bank and a finance system.

They had no army, they had a collection of clans, they sent over, as you would expect, to Germany and brought back a German military mission which created within a matter of ten years an army powerful enough to win a dangerous civil war.

They had no navy, they sent a mission over to Britain, which at that time was the leading naval power, and you know the subsequent effects of the Japanese navy. 

They had no proper calendar, they had only the Chinese calendar, they learned that also from Western nations. And so forth. 

That was, you see ladies and gentlemen, not really a political move, not an economic move, it was an intellectual move. And that changed history.

If you wish to think how much it changed history, ask yourself what would happen if other nations of the same approximate size and strategic position, say Burma or Java or Egypt, had determined as strongly to learn from Western nations.

Video Title: Gilbert Highet on Civilisational Transmission. Source: Maximus Lollius. Date Published: August 21, 2021. Description:

Gilbert Highet radio broadcast from March 1954. 

In it he discusses how the history of the world is the history of civilisations. And that inter-civilisational education and learning is a key component of a civilisation’s totality.

Skip to the 3:55 mark for the lecture.


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