I have been in Cambridge University for the last month on a research visit to write and speak with the philosophers and theologians here.
During my stay I could not help but go back to the summer of 1946. At that time, just after the end of WWII, Cambridge received a distinguished but also a somewhat unusual guest from Greece: Nikos Kazantzakis.
This period of Kazantzakis’ life is little known, but the story deserves to be told.
Kazantzakis arrived in Cambridge armed with a questionnaire which he wished to put to Cambridge’s dons and scholars. Some of the questions he wished to ask included: ‘Do you believe we are living at the end of an historic epoch or at the beginning of a new one?
And in either case, what do you think are the characteristic traits?’ ‘Can literature, art or theoretical thought influence the present movement of history?
Or do they merely mirror existing conditions?’ ‘What is the foremost duty of the intellectual and the artist today and how can they contribute to the peaceful cooperation of all peoples?
How would today’s students and scholars at Cambridge answer these questions? I wonder if they would react in the same way the Cambridge scholars reacted in 1946.
Back then the reaction was one of bewilderment, if not outright anger. This is brought out in a famous incident at the illustrious King’s College, where Kazantzakis met the College’s Provost, John Tresidder Sheppard.
Known as a theatrical buffoon, Sheppard put on a performance in his meeting with the Cretan writer, playing the part of an elderly and limping ‘servant of the spirit’ who refused to answer any of Kazantzakis’ questions.
Similarly disparaging responses left Kazantzakis disillusioned. He wrote back to Greece: “The English intellectuals are passive, sceptical, worn out by everyday life, extremely hard.”
But in his travels through Cambridge Kazantzakis could also see what I have seen during my short stay here: the wonderful love of learning against the backcloth of a rich and cherished tradition, moving at a slow but assured pace through the speed and confusion of the modern world.
What one finds here is not simply the pursuit of a narrow field of study, but something broader and deeper. In his travel journal from Cambridge, Kazantzakis wrote:
“The students do not emerge from here as specialists – doctors, lawyers, theologians, physicists, or even athletes… They stay here two or three years to acquire the ‘harmony’, the balanced physical, spiritual, psychic training of the perfect man, no more. At Oxford or Cambridge one does not receive a diploma for specialised study. One receives the Diploma of Man.”
This is, of course, a grand and romanticised vision of Cambridge. But I like to think that I have witnessed some of it here: in the seminars on Plato and Aristotle, where students would debate the meanings of the original ancient Greek texts; in the lavish candlelit formal college dinners, where the conversations on poetry and art would continue long into the night; in the inspiring and haunting Requiem Mass sung in a fourteenth-century chapel, and so on.
It is here that some of the best elements of our Greek culture survive and thrive, where character and not merely specialist knowledge is created. For here, as Kazantzakis pointed out in his travelogue, one is not asked, “What do you know?” but “What are you?”
Dr Nick Trakakis teaches Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monash and Deakin Universities. His most recent book is The End of Philosophy of Religion, published by Continuum in London.