Miguel Monjardino’s República
One of the best things — the very best thing, in fact — about traveling is getting to meet extraordinary people. It happened to me in the Azores, when, thanks to a reader of this blog, I met Miguel Monjardino and his wife Kika. Let me tell you about them, and about his extraordinary work.
Miguel teaches geopolitics at the Catholic University of Portugal, and writes a foreign affairs column for the Portuguese weekly Expresso. He was born and raised on the Azorean island of Terceira, to which he returned, with his mainland-born wife, to raise their kids. He commutes by airplane to Lisbon to teach his classes.
We met Miguel and Kika at a picnic table down by the harbor in Angra do Heroismo, the capital city. We arrived on Terceira for the island’s annual St. John festival. Over platters of limpets (sea snails) grilled in their shell, in olive oil and chopped garlic, we got to know each other. Miguel and Kika then took us all for a slow walk around the harbor, and talked to us of the history of the city, which was founded by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Miguel explained to us how the city was vital to Portuguese trade in the East Indies, and how much money had passed through the place during Portugal’s heyday as one of the world’s great colonial powers, given the Azores’ strategically important place as a Portuguese outpost in the north Atlantic.
Standing at the western edge of the bay, in the shadow of a Spanish fort, I thought about how the rise and fall of great nations. This place was once a gateway to a rich and powerful empire; now it is a sleepy town on an island most Americans have never heard of. I told one of my sons, who was walking with us, that this would be the fate of our own country someday. This is natural. This is the way of the world. We Americans are such a young and dynamic country that we have no feel for it. But there in Angra, and indeed all over Europe, the evidence is all around you.
“We are at a tremendous transition point in our civilization,” Miguel said as we walked up a hill and away from the harbor. “There’s no doubt about it.”
He sees America as turning inward and declining. He told me that he had written a column predicting that Trump would win the presidency, despite the fact that all the official signs indicated a Clinton victory. Miguel based his prediction solely by interviews with Azoreans living in the United States (there are big communities here). They were usually Democratic voters, but in 2016, every single one of his correspondents were planning to vote for Trump. Why? They were sick of political correctness. They worried about the fate of the working class. And they despised Hillary Clinton as an entitled representative of a dynasty.
The turmoil roiling American politics is going to be with us a long time, the professor of geopolitics predicts. But the challenges the US faces are relatively small compared to the massive problems coming hard and fast at Europe, in the form of African migration.
Look at this:
Where are those Africans going to go? They’re going toward Europe, which is depopulating. Miguel said that given the geography of the Mediterranean, it’s going to be very, very hard for Europe to keep African migrants from entering. I suggested that given the unwillingness of European elites to confront the hard facts of what’s happening, in part because it conflicts with their liberal ideology, this will make the inevitable reckoning even more violent and traumatic than it would otherwise be.
The massive migration of barbarians into the Roman Empire, in the 4th through 6th centuries, changed European civilization permanently. They caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and centuries later, the rise of a new civilization there, based on the descendants of old Roman stock and Christianized Germanic tribes. Will the latter-day descendants of those Europeans be able to hold back the “barbarian invasions” from Africa in the 21st century? Or will they have to do as the Romans did and absorb the strangers, and, over centuries, create a new civilization? These are the stakes.
We talked about the loss of historical consciousness in the contemporary West. In ordinary terms, we spoke of what it means that so many young people in the West today know nothing of the intellectual and cultural legacy of the West, much less care about it. Miguel has been troubled by the way Portugal’s educational system has been forcing students into STEM fields, leaving so many young people with little to no grounding in the humanities, which are the bearers of our civilization.
To combat this, he devised a program he calls República (The Republic). In this article from City Journal last year, he explains what it’s about: using ancient Greek texts to prepare students for a life well lived. Excerpts:
On a beautiful day in fall 2004, I walked up a mountain on Terceira Island in the Azores with six students. They were 15-year-olds, all enrolled in public high schools in the Azorean city of Angra do Heroísmo. I was 42. We talked about the Republic of Letters, a voluntary weekend program of readings and conversations that I was designing to prepare high school students for life in a university. At least, that was how I originally conceived of it. I was thinking conventionally: for most parents, academics, and politicians in Portugal, education is about skills, and jobs are the ultimate prize of a good education. As early as tenth grade, students must specialize in a particular field; grades and jobs are paramount.
But soon, I realized that I was wrong about what the Republic of Letters should be—especially as I reflected on a seminar that I had recently attended on Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. The seminar, conducted by Anthony O’Hear at the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon, had a huge impact on me, and I became convinced that my new program should not be about preparing students for university but preparing them for the challenges of living. Souls were more important than grades, skills, and academic degrees. Such a project, I felt, should intimately involve the ancient Greeks and classical notions of a liberal education.
But how to begin? The obstacles seemed formidable. For one thing, with the exception of Herodotus’s Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which I had read in graduate school, I knew nothing about Greek literature. I was busy raising a family, working as an international-affairs analyst for a cable news TV channel and a radio station in Lisbon, and teaching geopolitics and geostrategy at the Catholic University of Portugal. Unlike the U.S., Portugal had no tradition of liberal education. It was widely believed that Greek classics weren’t suited for high school students—they were too young, the books were too difficult, and besides, kids didn’t read books any more. What relevance could such works have for modern-day teenagers living on an island of about 56,000 people in the middle of the Atlantic?
I jumped in, anyway, and early in 2005, my first class began reading the Oresteia, Aeschylus’s trilogy about the curse on the House of Atreus and Athens’s transition from retributive justice to the rule of law. My instincts were confirmed: the students reacted as I had in Lisbon. They were shocked by the characters of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, unsure about who was right, what should be done, and how (and by whom) justice should be administered. Soon afterward, we encountered the mighty Homer—in Frederico Lourenço’s vivid translation, published by the late André Jorge of Cotovia in 2005—and we never looked back.
The program has been an amazing adventure. I made many mistakes but kept experimenting, determined to learn how an initiative like this could work in Angra do Heroísmo. The students helped me every step of the way. It was their idea to rename the Republic of Letters simply the Republic, a word that better reflects what happens in our weekly two-hour seminars, monthly walks in the hills, three formal dinners, and annual public reading of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Our Republic is divided into four classes—Barbarians (ninth grade), Helots (tenth grade), Argonauts (11th grade), and Hoplites (12th grade)—with reading lists for each year. Students come from all walks of life. The overwhelming majority wind up earning science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees at university. Some will study humanities. A few are artists.
As diverse as they are in background and outlook, though, the students respond to these ancient texts. They may cry with Andromache and Hecuba saying good-bye to little Astyanax in Troy, laugh with Aristophanes, or become furious with Agamemnon and Helen—or be shocked by Achilles, Medea, and the Bacchae, amazed by Nausikaa’s intelligence and Brasidas’s boldness in Thrace, made melancholy by what Thucydides writes about war, disturbed by Alcibiades’ betrayals and unbridled ambition, or engaged with Socrates in a lively conversation in Athens. I have yet to meet one who is indifferent. The ancient Greeks make you think. Sooner or later, they disturb you deeply, compelling you to confront life’s most profound questions.
The program is demanding intellectually and physically. I’m not particularly interested in grades. What matters in our four-year odyssey are the willingness to learn and discuss in seminars, the ability to adapt at the top of a hill on cold, rainy, muddy nights when everyone is exhausted, and the poise to make a speech or recite a poem at a formal dinner. In our Republic, education is about thinking and learning with some of the greatest poems, plays, and books ever written. It is also about who we are, the joy of companionship, the lives we would like to live, and the choices we will make.
Miguel goes on to talk in depth of what the program entails — it’s four years together for these kids — including the things they read, the conversations they have, and the way they leave the seminar rooms to take their work outdoors. Miguel told me how striking it is to observe how many of these students — especially the girls — say that República reintegrated them into nature. “One of them told me that for her, it was like a religious experience,” he said.
In April of this year, in a separate piece for City Journal, Miguel talked about the physical aspect of Republica. Excerpts:
In the third year, we devote two seminars to Thucydides’ spectacular account of the Spartan Brasidas’s military campaigns in 424–422 B.C. From Pylos, in the western Peloponnese, to Amphipolis, in Thrace, Brasidas achieved a stellar reputation as a diplomat and general. Every year, on the first Saturday of February, we cross Terceira Island on an 18-mile night walk named after him. In the preceding weeks, to prepare, Helots and Barbarians, who had been reading and discussing the Iliad and the Odyssey, were introduced to Thucydides, Brasidas, and the geography of the Peloponnesian War. Argonauts and Hoplites contributed with their stories about the longest and most feared night of The Republic. The walk has become the stuff of legend, a kind of badge of honor in our program.
More about the Brasidas walk:
Donald Kagan called Brasidas “the greatest of Spartan commanders, perhaps in all Spartan history.” Indeed, Thucydides shows Brasidas acting quickly and audaciously at night against Megara, Amphipolis, Torone, and Potideia. Brasidas clearly believed that operating at night offered tactical and operational advantages. But what happens at a physical and psychological level during those dark hours? We speak at length about this to prepare for Brasidas’s Walk.
Night, students quickly learn, changes everything. After the first four miles to Altares in the northern part of Terceira Island, there is no street lighting. Dawn was six hours off. Flashlights helped somewhat. At about two o’clock in the morning, we crossed knee-deep peat moss, making everyone tired and wet. “I died there,” a student told me later. “It felt so different and awkward to walk on that type of ground. I thought I was going to sink. My shoes were great but my feet were soaked and cold.” Then the terrain changed again when we reached Pico Gaspar, a small volcano in the center of the island. We stopped. The Hoplites had to reconnoiter. They had been here three times before but needed to adjust their senses and find the narrow northern path to the top. The volcano is different on every visit. Training and experience had taught the Hoplites that at night, things change quickly. Cues were crucial in their attempt to adapt. They took their time. It was their decision to make.
And at the end?
We ran with abandonment downhill with our gear and backpacks. Farmers and cows looked at us, puzzled. We pushed harder and ran for another half mile. We stopped at Guerrilhas’s small crossing, gasping for breath, and waited for the others. They laughed at what they had just done. “This is madness,” an Argonaut said.
Perhaps. But it is a special kind of madness—the feeling of being free. I’m grateful for it. I hope that the memory of Brasidas’s Walk will serve this year’s Hoplites, Argonauts, Helots, and Barbarians in real life—as it has served some of their predecessors in The Republic. Now, they have an idea of what night and nature can do to their minds and bodies. They have read Thucydides. And they have done some living, too.
Back to the original CJ piece. Here’s Miguel, one last time:
Fifteen years ago, in Who Killed Homer?, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath wrote: “It has often fallen to the ‘amateurs,’ then, to the David Denbys of the world—who, upon returning to college in his forties to read the Iliad, wrote passionately, of its beauty and its stark, existential challenge—to pass on the flame.” I became one of these amateurs by accident. I am not a classicist. I still can’t read Greek. But chance and curiosity presented me with the opportunity to start a small program of Greek classics in Angra do Heroísmo, and I’m glad that I took it.
One day, with the Argonauts of the class of 2018, I was talking about Odysseus and Calypso in Book V of the Odyssey. “What kind of man forsakes marriage with a nymph as beautiful as her and immortality in a paradise island such as Ogygia to return to his wife across a dangerous sea?” I asked. They were quiet. “Your eyes are shining,” observed a perceptive girl. She was right. I was thinking of how lucky I was to be there with them on a Sunday afternoon, talking about a poem thousands of years old, one that connected us across the ages. They are 16; my eldest son, Tiago, is one of them. I am 54.
I was also thinking about how the Hoplites, Argonauts, Helots, and Barbarians tend to look at our weekly adventure. As Joana Lopes, class of 2012 (“Athenians”) and now a medical student at the New University in Lisbon, put it in an e-mail to me after finishing the Republic: “Do I feel sadness or miss it? No. I feel somewhat anxious, something I find more disturbing. And I feel this way because the Republic gave me something that I realized is hard to find: intellectual freedom. Seminars in the program allowed me to talk and express opinions that in other settings would be considered unreasonable, arrogant, uninteresting, extraterrestrial, and stupid . . . . The Republic was as if someone opened a door and told me: ‘Come Joana. Here we can talk, discuss and debate freely.’ ”
With the benefit of hindsight, Tomé Ribeiro Gomes writes: “I miss the walks with my class [of 2011] a lot. . . . The walks were about a camaraderie that I miss very much. Out there, we get to know people in a very different way. And then there is something else that only now I realize: hours and hours walking, where conversation is real. No one around us is looking at his or her mobile phone. Interaction is face-to-face, not digital, as it usually is now.”
I hope that the books we have read and our endless conversations—especially those that have left us perplexed—will help these teenagers become adults.
Please read the whole thing. If you’re like me, you’ll find it thrilling.
In our final conversation, after a late Sunday lunch of seafood in a fishing village west of Angra, Miguel told me that it’s hard to know what to do to confront the chaos and confusion moving over our civilization. “It seems clear to me,” he said, “that whatever we do, it has to involve working with small groups, locally.”
I smiled broadly when he said that. My new friend has not read The Benedict Option, nor has he read Patrick Deneen’sWhy Liberalism Failed. Both of those books arrive at the same conclusion that Miguel Monjardino has done. Miguel’s República program is not religious; it’s based entirely on the Greek classics. But if you ask me, it is a profoundly Ben Op initiative, in the sense that it seeks to immerse young people in the world of the ancient roots of the Western tradition, and to make it come alive for them. It’s what classical Christian educators are trying to do in our schools and homeschools, though in an explicitly Christian sense that’s not there in República.
Notice too that Miguel invented this on his own. He didn’t wait for a university or an institution of some sort to contrive it. His own academic training is not in the Classics. He did it because he has a passion for the Greeks, and because of his love for the young people of his own island, who, in his view, are being failed by the institutions of their modern, technocratic civilization.
Here is a man, Prof. Monjardino, who is not content to rage against the dying of the light in the West, but who is doing something locally to preserve the tradition. República is like a monastery, in the sense I mean in The Benedict Option: it’s a living community of love and purpose, dedicated to living in and by the light of truth, goodness, and beauty, as seen by the ancient Greeks. I find this entirely compatible with The Benedict Option.
Miguel speaks flawless English. I encouraged him (@mmonjardino, if you want to follow him on Twitter) to write a book about República, so that we in America who admire his vision can adapt it to our own local circumstances. We need República here! If I were a conservative philanthropist, I would redirect the money I had that I give to political causes, and would pay for fifty classical high school teachers to fly to Terceira and spend two weeks being trained by Miguel to spread República to America. For that matter, I would do it if I were a liberal philanthropist too. Our young people desperately need what Miguel’s program, now in its 14th year, offers!
Miguel told me that it’s simply not true that young people these days don’t care about this kind of thing. It’s that they have never been given the opportunity to care. One of the most interesting, and important, parts of the program is watching the kids become anxious and agitated over having to think for themselves. They want the answers handed to them at first, but República is not about grades. Eventually they become comfortable with saying, “I don’t know,” and exploring the meaning of these questions. With República, Miguel gives them the space to explore ideas, to challenge each other and themselves, and to undertake intellectual inquiry in a spirit of adventure.
My sense from my conversations with Miguel is that Portuguese students are simply not introduced at all to the Greek achievement and the Western tradition. Here in the US, if they are introduced to it, it is often from the point of view of denigrating them as dead white European male oppressors. A few years ago, when I gave a talk about Dante to an audience, a graduate student asked me in Q&A what made me believe that a man from a culture that oppressed women, etc., has anything to teach students today. I thought the young woman was joking, but no, she wasn’t. After the talk, a professor in the audience approached me to say that I might not be aware of it, but that was the spirit in which Dante is taught in many places today … if he is taught at all.
República is the antidote to both the ignorance and contempt of the contemporary approach to the classics. Miguel Monjardino, working on a little island in the north Atlantic, is making those dry bones live again. He is a secular Benedict Option abbot, working to keep tradition alive through the new Dark Age. Maybe he’ll be like an St. Benedict of classical education, and his program on this island will spread throughout the West like stars cast into the sky.
Be of good cheer, reader. The times are dark, but there are men and women of good will working to guard and spread the light in the hidden places of the crumbling Empire. Local heroes like Miguel Monjardino, and his faithful wife Kika, who supports his work, will make a meaningful difference in the fate of the West.