Richard N. Frye
Aptly referred to as “dean of the world’s Iranists” among scholars, Richard Nelson Frye of
Harvard University has researched and taught the cultural history of Iran, Central Asia and
the Near East for over six decades.
copyright, 2006-2014, www.RichardFrye.org
Above: With President Khatami of Iran at Ilex Foundation and
Olga Davidson, founder, 2006
Left : Delivering inaugural address at Razi Lectrures held at
California State University, Fullerton, 2007
Apologia pro Vita Sua
Richard N. Frye
I grew up in a dinosauric world where education was supposed to produce persons who
aspired to be Renaissance scholars, rather than the highly specialized technicians of today.
I use the word technician advisedly, since numbers now dominate all fields of knowledge,
and one has to be a technician to understand the complexities of contemporary life. I do
not wish to imitate the complaints of the aged, for one cannot, or should not, return to the
past. Yet experiences and events of the past may, even in a small way, inform the endless
search to improve life here on earth. That is why I wrote my memoirs, to portray a life
with its foibles as well as accomplishments. For even personal history should be recorded
and not forgotten, since one cannot judge the effect on readers who may learn something
or even be entertained by experiences of one individual.
As I contemplate the changes which have occurred in the course of my life several stand
out as causes for worry as well as hope. The first is the community and humanity which
became eroded in the Western world, especially after World War II, but which continued in
the Middle East almost to the end of the century. The trust and hospitality which was
expected of one in the past has become a skepticism and isolation of the present. Doctors
no longer have patients, only customers. Lawyers have no clients, only customers and old
bonds of respect and trust are broken. Technology has made life easier in many respects,
but the machines are replacing the human element in decisions. For example, when one
finally reaches a human being on the telephone to ask a simple question, after punching
many buttons and listening to canned messages, one may be dismayed to find that the
human has become machine-like in answering your question. It seems we must all fit into
one mold in order to survive.
On the roads of formerly traditional societies today no one stops if your car has broken
down, because, just as in the USA, it is expected that some official organization will find
you and help. This is both efficient, safer and less costly of time and effort, but the loss of
friendly, human contact is sad. I would not think of stopping at anyone’s house in
Afghanistan or Iran today to ask for a bed for sleep and a meal as in the past. Facilities
now exist, or soon will, to take care of the traveler, and more and more they are becoming
standard all over the world, just as airports have to follow similar rules and regulations. It
is the sterility and sameness everywhere of so many facets of modern life that brings back
nostalgia for the ‘good old days.’ Much of the past was far from admirable, but the human
touch, I believe, is worthy of preservation and even development in the fast present world
of haste and globalization.
Second of the changes from the past is the demand for speed. If one is asked for
something today you are expected to deliver today and not tomorrow. Instant
communication is wondrous and amazing and not to be disparaged, but must one always
keep pace with the ever faster tempo of life dictated by the ever faster machines we
invent? Science should never be restricted in its quest for more knowledge about the
universe, but we need more time to investigate what is happening to our selves, our
feelings, our humanity in the age of machines.
So, since aged persons love to preach, my message to future generations is to guard one’s
individuality and humanity while controlling the technology which is changing one’s life.
While we must respect and preserve the various cultures in the world, or at least the
worthwhile parts of a culture, at the same time one should reject the concept of a clash of
civilizations. Throughout history we have had rather the clash of fanatics who seize power
and incite peoples and civilizations against one another. Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia
saw his power slipping so he had to rouse the people to conflict. Since most of the
population of his country had one language, one history, one society and culture he had to
find some facet with which he could inflame the people, and it was religion. In Central Asia
Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, feared for his power and sought something to stir up the
population. They had the same religion, Uzbek and Tajik, so language became the basis of
his key to incitement. Such fanatic rulers must be stopped and made to abide by laws
which do not permit the life-long holding of power.
Just as the genes of all people are almost 99% the same, so people all over the world
have the same aspirations and problems, and their differences are basically cultural, which
differences can and ought to be respected. But the tide of globalization cannot be stopped
nor should it. Work towards a world court, a world army and police force, a world currency
and a world government, but hold onto local cultural differences.