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Are Shakespeare and Dante Dead White European Males? Part 1

by David B. Gosselin

The answer to the above question is of course no. Shakespeare and Dante are not dead because every true poet is immortal.

However, much of our contemporary thinkers seem to be under the impression that they are dead, and that they are not as relevant and talented as first thought, but that rather their qualities were simply exaggerated because they happened to belong to a ‘historically dominant gender and ethnic group’. However any discerning eye will notice that such a ‘dead white European male’ argument avoids actually taking on the content of a Shakespeare’s or Dante’s ideas, which in fact have a continuity spanning over thousands of years, through the Golden Renaissance, through the Dark Ages, back to the times of ancient Greece and the Homeric epics. Moreover these ideas address some of the most fundamental questions concerning the human condition.

However, before we continue, I can hear protests saying that the canon above mentioned, really only refers to dead white European males. But the truth is that this kind of humanist thinking has parallels in virtually every culture, from the Confucian traditions in China, to those of Tilak and Tagore in India, to those of Ibn Sina of Persia and the many bards of Moorish Spain. There are great thinkers from cultures across the world.

Therefore, what the contemporary brand of thinking is really dismissing, is not a specific grouping or period, as the ideas embodied by these individuals span virtually as far back as recorded history, but rather they are witting or unwittingly dismissing those humanist ideas traced throughout history.

Unfortunately much of what is referred to by the ‘contemporary’ and modernist schools of thinking,renders itself largely irrelevant by virtue of the fact that they wish to treat the recent decades of modernist thinking, which span mere seconds on the scale of human history, as some isolated phenomena detached from the entirety of that continuity out of which it unfolded.

Were they to compare those few seconds with the universal arc of history, they would quickly discover the relevancy of a Shakespeare or Dante’s ideas.

Take but one small example from Shakespeare, which in only 14 lines manages to capture and develop the most fundamental of paradoxes underlying our individual mortal existence:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
    Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
    To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare opens by saying we are all attracted to beauty and long for it, and desiring ‘increase’ i.e. to reproduce, yet even in the first two lines, it’s stated that this beauty fades and that even the fairest of creature’s is no match for time. Yet, in recognizing that this beauty does fade, only then is one ready to discover an even higher order of beauty:  the power to generate new beauty.

What does a world look like, where each individual is acting with the conscious idea that they are responsible for the re-creation and continued development of the human species; that they are not a mere individual but are defined and in turn define themselves by this eternal process for which they are now a mediating part. What does that look like vs. someone who has a baby because they made a mistake or someone who does not want children because it takes to much time and costs too much? What image of beauty are they after?

The truth is they have not truly considered the paradox of their mortality, likely, they refuse to face it, and prefer to hang on to that ever fleeting image of earthly beauty, which so entices the senses, but ultimately 'eats itself by the grave and thee.'


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