A Classic Revisited

A lot has changed since 1908, but F.M. Cornford's guide to academic politics is as good as new.

July 14, 2005

It always comes as a surprise to learn that otherwise savvy and well-informed people in higher education have not read -- in fact, have usually never even heard of -- the compact treatise on campus politics known as Microcosmographia Academica. The short pamphlet with the grand title was written by F.M. Cornford, an eminent classicist at the University of Cambridge, and first published in 1908. After the better part of a century, it remains as sharp as ever: parts of it might have been written last week.

The Microcosmographia is written in the voice of a wise old don addressing the young academic politician. "I shall take it that you are in the first flush of ambition," Cornford declares, "and just beginning to make yourself disagreeable."

The most important advice is to avoid becoming a "Young Man in a Hurry" -- that is, someone who believes that reforms are not just desirable, but feasible, even overdue. (That pre-feminist assumption about the gender of the reader is the most easily remedied of the book's Edwardianisms. Its arguments apply just as well to the Young Woman in a Hurry.)

Such an individual is "afflicted with a conscience, which is apt to break out, like measles, in patches." The typical specimen is "a narrow-minded and ridiculously youthful prig, who is inexperienced enough to imagine that something might be done before very long, and even to suggest definite things."

Down that path, futility lies. The Young Persons in a Hurry "meet, by twos and threes, in desolate places, and gnash their teeth."

Instead, the ambitious academic politician must understand and accept the natural order of things. "While you are young," counsels the Microcosmographia, "you will be oppressed, and angry, and increasingly disagreeable." That is as it must be. But with time, you will become mellower, if not exactly more pleasant.

"When you reach middle age, at five-and-thirty," the advisor continues, "you will become complacent and, in your turn, an oppressor; those whom you oppress will find you still disagreeable; and so will all the people whose toes you trod upon in youth. It will seem to you then that you grow wiser every day, as you learn more and more of the reasons why things should not be done, and understand more fully the peculiarities of powerful persons, which make it quixotic even to attempt them without first going through an amount of squaring and lobbying sufficient to sicken any but the most hardened soul." (From context, one can determine that Cornford's "squaring" is today's "networking.")

In due course, the academic politician ripens into "a powerful person" with "an accretion of peculiarities" your colleagues must at least tolerate.

"The toes you will have trodden on by this time will be as the sands on the sea-shore; and from far below you will mount the roar of a ruthless multitude of young men in a hurry." writes Cornford. "You may perhaps grow to be aware what they are in a hurry to do. They are in a hurry to get you out of the way."
In one rare citation of the Microcosmographia from recent years, a professor stated that it was a product of Cornford's own conservatism. I am keeping that fact in a special file, along with other evidence  suggesting that many academics have to be kept at a safe distance from satire. (Likewise, small children should not, as a rule, be allowed to play with knives.) The voice of the advisor in the book is a persona -- a mask through which the author speaks.  

While Cornford did translate The Republic, his approach to ancient philosophy was the sort of thing that would (decades later) give Allan Bloom the heebiejeebies. He was part of a circle of scholars at Cambridge who were reading classical literature through the lens of then-current research on anthropology. That meant treating the Greeks, not as proto-Europeans (as, in effect, Victorian gentlemen avant la lettre), but rather as a tribe not that different from the "primitives" found around the world.

Apply whatever strictures you want to the imperialist worldview of anthropology a hundred years ago .... still, this was some radically perspective-shifting work. It was similar to what Friedrich Nietzsche had suggested in The Birth of Tragedy. No coincidence there: Cornford acknowledged the influence. He was also indebted to the sociological theory of Emil Durkheim and his disciples in France.

It was the kind of scholarship that dons of a more old-fashioned sort tended to call "brilliant" -- by no means a term of praise. After all, Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde had been brilliant. That was the first step to abject disgrace. (Better to be "solid.")

And Cambridge itself was undergoing any number of wrenching changes, from the admission of women to disagreements over campus expansion. The on-campus context of Microcosmographia Academica was vividly described by Gordon Johnson in his short book University Politics: F.M. Cornford's Cambridge and His Advice to the Young Academic Politician, published in 1994 by (appropriately enough) Cambridge University Press.  

Johnson portrays a kind of rolling crisis in university life at the close of one century and the start of the next. The library was getting overcrowded. There weren't enough cadavers for the medical students. Educational standards were in decline, or at least growing very worrisome. One professor noted that students reading Thucydides "studied the construction of the speeches" quoted by the ancient historian "but did not confuse themselves by trying to study their drift.... They read the Thaetetus, but did not know what Plato was driving at, or what Protagoras meant. They read twenty or thirty letters of Cicero -- they took care to read selected letters -- but they did not look into a Roman history in connection with them." Meanwhile, the science faculty were getting really good at carving out big slices of the budget for their research.

Nor was it realistic to expect the university community to sort things out. A joke had it that the Geological Museum and the faculty senate were similar: Both were "receptacles for fossils."

It was a blend of commotion and stagnation. In writing his satirical response, Cornford displayed some of the qualities found in his scholarly work. Microcosmographia is, as Johnson puts it, "light and tone, and deftly written; there is a fundamental seriousness about it, and its argument is profound."

The gist of his analysis of the university is that mere rationality will never be all that effective. Even the most coherent, forceful, and well-argued proposals for change will soon hit up against one firm law of human interaction: For every argument to be made in favor of doing something, there are several arguments for doing nothing.

As the Microcosmographia puts it: "Even a little knowledge of ethical theory will suffice to convince you that all important questions are so complicated, and the results any course of action are so difficult to foresee, that certainty, or even probability, is seldom, if ever, attainable. It follows at once that the only justifiable attitude of mind is suspense of judgment; and this attitude, besides being peculiarly congenial to the academic temperament, has the advantage of being comparatively easy to attain. There remains the duty of persuading others to be equally judicious, and to refrain from plunging into reckless courses which might lead them Heaven knows whither."

Cornford provides a general survey of the varieties of argument for doing nothing. The typology is so exact, yet also so capacious, that I doubt anyone will ever improve on it.

There is, for example, the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent: "You should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time."

There is also the Fair Trial Argument ("Give the present system a fair trial") and the Principle of Unripe Time ("The time is not ripe"). One canny move is to announce that a given measure "would block the way for a far more sweeping reform."

A really skilled academic politician will be able mix and match the various principles -- thereby creating unique and original arguments for doing nothing at all.

Many of the references and allusions are, of course, specific to Cambridge, circa 1908. But Cornford's insights apply, not just to academic politics, but to life in any large organization. (I halfway suspect any number of magazine and newspaper editors of being very close students of the Microcosmographia.)
"Beneath the elegant and witty prose," writes Gordon Johnson, "lies a profound (if somewhat pessimistic] argument about human political behavior: reason plays but a small part in politics, for people are driven more usually by prejudice and fear.... Cornford's essay bears the marks of a guileless and open-hearted man recollecting in a mood of resignation how that which needs and should be done is checked, thwarted, and threatened, by fear, by the inadequacies of others, and by the play of the political system."

The treatise is so perfect, in its way, that it comes as little surprise to learn that Cornford, who died in 1943, declined all opportunities to revise or update it -- and that he listed it alongside his major works of scholarship, most of which are still highly regarded. Copies of Microcosmographia Academica sometime turn up in used bookstores, and it appears as an appendix to Johnson's University Politics. The text is also available online.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


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