Quiddity is Moving!

The CiRCE Institute has a beautiful new website and Quiddity is part of it. Please click HERE to visit the blog and please update your links to Quiddity for the convenience of our mutual visitors. Thank you!

We hope that this new website (created with help from the fine folks at Blackwood Media Group) will enable us to more effectively provide you with information, inspiration, and insight that will, in turn, enable you to direct your students towards the True, The Good, and The Beautiful.

Of course, we’re still getting acclimated to our new digs and ironing out a few details. If you see any problems (like links that are dead, for example) please don’t hesitate to email us. If you are confused about the layout of this new site, or miss something about the old one, or if you are having a difficult time finding something, let us know and we will do our best to get it sorted out for you.

A few things you will notice:

1. Our blog is now incorporated into the layout the main website. Now all of our posts will be right here in the website, easily accessible, and clearly labeled and linked. As time goes on you will find that we will be publishing primarily four kinds of posts: our usual, daily posts, made up of less formal musings, quotations, videos, etc; profiles, which will introduce and detail the work of other organizations and groups who are doing great things in the world of classical and Christian education; features, which will be formal featured articles by guest writers; and book reviews (presented with help from ISI and Eighth Day Books).

2. You will notice that our store is still visually a part of the old site. This will be the case for a while until we get it moved over too. No worries – it still operates as it always did.

3. Please note the Nota Bene space on the right of the homepage. Here you will find links to the most recent news and blog posts. As soon as something is posted in one of those two sections it’s linked in this section – so check back daily to stay up to date.

4. Finally, if you scroll down to the bottom of the homepage, you will find a section titled “Your Feedback,”
made up the most recent comments from our readers. This is a great way to keep up with the ongoing conversations that are continually popping up and percolating around our blog.

If you’re a regular reader of Quiddity be sure to update your RSS feeds to the new blog, be sure to bookmark the new link, and please be sure to send us a note with any concerns you have about this transition.

Please note: we will continue to post here for a short time during the transition but will eventual post exclusively at the new website.

We hope that this new website leads to deeper conversation, more thorough exploration, and more passionate teaching. We hope that it operates as a tool, as an aid, for those of you dedicating your lives to the vision and mission of classical, Christian education.

We hope that it will allow us to seek first the Kingdom of God alongside you. As Aslan said in The Last Battle, let us go further up and further in!

Marriage Tactics

John Michael Wright

Image via Wikipedia

I suppose it must be theoretically possible to create an ethic without God or a god, but historically in the west it’s been a problem.

When Machiavelli developed the first utilitarian handbook on politics, that is to say, a book on politics that approached them without religion (except considered as a tool), he laid the foundations for Thomas Hobbes to develop his Social Contract.

Hobbes argued, following Machiavelli, that we are driven, not by reason, but by our appetites. That being the case, and to both it seems self-evident, though in Hobbes perhaps more explicitly so, society is not arranged around or by a moral law, but by people’s desires and passions.

The only way to organize such a society is through a continuous negotiation among its members. The fruit of this negotiation was the social contract. To maintain order, Hobbes argued, we need Leviathan.

Thus political tyranny and the whole western stream of politics-without-God walk hand in hand.

In the social contract we discern the basis of modern political theory, one that permeates economics as well, as it was applied by Adam Smith.

Without this notion of the social contract, we would have no Locke, no Rousseau, no American or French Revolution, no Marxism, and no special-interest industry negotiating their share of the social market with the representatives of the various parties appointed to oversee this great negotiation in Congress.

The reason the idea had such staying power in Machiavelli and Hobbes was twofold: one, much of the intellectual leadership of Europe was trying to escape the dominance of the Roman Catholic church and its appeal to a law of nature, and two, in a dynamic day to day sort of way, it is true that we are continuously negotiating the terms of our contract.

Under Machiavelli, Hobbes, and most other modern philosophers, the basis of that negotiation is personal advantage. We laugh at honor. We snicker at the idealist who would abandon his advantage for right and wrong.

Do not believe for a moment that I am referring primarily to financial transactions. On the contrary, I am talking about friendship, marriage, parent-child relationships, teachers and students, and so on.

Our underlying premise in every relationship is that we are engaged in a negotiation.

Think, for example, of the transition from the marriage covenant to the marriage contract. Think of the way people time their weddings to optimize tax benefits. Think of how parents are afraid to exercise their natural authority over their children for fear the children will reject the terms and hurt the parents.

I’m not sure, in such a context, good and evil are relevant terms. We have got “beyond good and evil,” to quote Nietzsche and Skinner.

Tom Wolfe expresses well the post-humanity of our condition in his 1998 novel A Man in Full:

Should he pour his heart?… Something told him that would be a tactical mistake. A tactical mistake. What a sad thing it was to have to think tactically about your own wife.

Sad indeed, and yet that is precisely how we are conditioned (and I use that word carefully) to approach these most foundational of human relationships.

Family, marriage, is a form. Form creates by limiting. We despise limits. Form is truth. Living in the form of the truth is virtue. Virtue is freedom.

We are no longer free to be married or to raise our children. Unless, of course, we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Then all is restored, no matter what is lost.

The Wizard of Oz and the Removal of Chests

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from The Wond...

Image via Wikipedia

The Wizard of Oz seems to be a fine movie from all I can tell, but the book strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that CS Lewis was talking about when he spoke of making “men without chests.”

Chapter XXI is called “The Lion Becomes the King of the Beasts.” After seeing the wizard and being given courage, the lion arrives, with the Woodman, the Scarecrow, Dorothy, and Toto at a forest that the Scarecrow finds gloomy but the lion finds “perfectly delightful.”

“I should like to live here all my life,” he says. See how soft he dried leaves are under your feet and how rich and green the moss is that clings to these old trees. Surely no wild beast could wish a pleasanter home.”

Leaving aside the question of whether a lion who has just received a chest (courage) would even notice a home with soft dried leaves underfoot and the nostalgic moss clinging to old trees rather than an opportunity to show off its newly gained courage, I proceed to tell you that, in spite of the fact that “no wild beast could wish a pleasanter home,” they don’t see any.

The next day, however, they resume their journey and soon hear a “low rumble, as of the growling of many wild animals.” (Baum seems to do this a lot: raise a problem that ends up not mattering, that demands nothing of the characters but the passing of time, that has nothing more than an accidental significance if any at all.)

And indeed the animals have gathered in a clearing where they came across hundreds of beasts in council. He quickly determines that they are in great trouble. But when he appears, the assembly falls silent and a tiger approaches him.

“Welcome, O King of Beasts, you have come in good time to fight our enemy and bring peace to all the animals of the forest once more.”

When he asks what their trouble is, the tiger tells him that they are threatened by a fierce spider-like monster, as big as an elephant, with eight legs as big as tree trunks. It has eaten every other lion in the forest, but none of them had been “nearly so large and brave as you.”

Then the newly brave lion asks, “If I put an end to your enemy, will you bow down to me and obey me as King of the Forest?” When they gladly agree, he heads off to “fight” the great monster.

“He bade his friends good-bye and marched proudly away to do battle with the enemy.”

In all the foregoing, I admire some of Baum’s story-telling tactics, though he is no Grimm. I have problems, but most of them can probably be responded to. But in the last paragraph of the chapter, he describes this battle, and I will tell you right now, I think it is badly done, and I think Baum betrays a harmful frivolousness that reminds me of Lewis’s opening words in Abolition: “We are not attentive enough to the importance of elementary text books.”

The great spider was lying asleep when the Lion found him, and it looked so ugly that its foe turned up his nose in disgust. Its legs were quite as long as the tiger had said, and its body covered with coarse black hair. It had a great mouth, but its head was joined to the pudgy body by a neck as slender as a wasp’s waist. This gave the Lion a hint of the best way to attack the creature, and as he knew it was easier to fight it asleep than awake, he gave a great spring and landed directly upon the monster’s back. Then, with one blow of his heavy paw, all armed with sharp claws, he knocked the spider’s head from its body. Jumping down, he watched it until the long legs stopped wiggling, when he knew it was quite dead.

The Lion went back to the opening where the beasts of the forest were waiting for him and said proudly, “You need fear your enemy no longer.”

Then the beasts bowed to the Lion as their King, and he promised to come back and rule over them as soon as Dorothy was safely on her way to Kansas.

Compare this “battle” with any other encounter in any other fairy tale or folk tale or fable and see if you can justify it.

The Lion is practical, he achieves his end. But he is not courageous, he is not noble, he is not worthy of a story for the simple reason that nothing worth learning about him or about virtue was displayed. It is not fitting to the world of fairy tales or children’s literature to read about such a conquest. We have had one more piece of our chests removed by reading and not resisting this story.

Give me Reepicheep, whom I can welcome into my soul with joy.

Thinking about the simple things

Simplified parse tree PN = proper noun N = nou...

Image via Wikipedia

I wanted to teach my class of 7th graders the very simple and basic difference between a common and proper noun.  They should already know this, so I considered the lesson largely to be review.

I drew a line down the middle of the board and asked the students to name nouns while I directed my assistants on what side of the line to write the nouns given by the class.  Common nouns went on one side and proper nouns on the other–but I did not tell the class this.  Then we began comparing.

It did not take long for the students to say the names “common” and “proper.”  The two primary things that I heard were that proper nouns have a capital letter, and are more important than common nouns.  Really?

I asked if the “Gators” (a sports team I suspect) are more important than “water.”

“Well, . . . uh, no . . . I don’t know . . . Oh no, Mr. Holler is playing his tricky mind games again.”  (Why do my students think I am playing a tricky mind game when I ask them to think?)

I discovered several things during this class.

1.  Students can enjoy thinking about grammar. Though, I already suspected this.

2. My students concluded that proper nouns are a unique thing within a larger class of common things.  They used the example of the word “restaurant” as a class of common things, and Arby’s, Bo Jangles, etc. as the unique things within the class of restaurants.  Beautiful.

3.  I wondered had they, or any of their teachers, thought this freely about common and proper nouns?  And this revealed something to me that might explain the unspoken prohibition junior high students have sworn an oath to by never capitalizing anything in their writing.

They have never been taught how to write proper nouns because they have never been taught what a proper noun is.  They have only been taught to recognize one on a worksheet or when they read it printed on the page.  Remember, they said, “It has a capital letter.”

How can you write if you do not know the thing you are attempting to write?  Thinking about the simple things will lead our students (even ourselves) toward writing and speaking of greater things.

On Proving the Existence of God

The great argument of the “new atheism,” as of most atheisms of the old stripe, seems to be that “you can’t prove the existence of God.”

In other words, using the tools of science, you can’t prove the existence of something that transcends science.

To think more clearly on the matter, it might be helpful to look at the word religion. It comes from the Latin – legio: to tie, and re: a broad prepositional prefix with too many possible meanings to be able to properly translate.

The idea is generally taken to be that of tying together.

A religion is not a conclusion to an argument. It is a teaching that ties everything else together, that harmonizes everything.

The most powerful religions are those that are able to tie the most together.

I am a Christian because, while I have great respect for other religions, they all seem to leave us with one or two irresolvable dichotomies that are reconciled in Christ.

The mother of all dichotomies might be that between the material and the spiritual realms. Naturalism, the religion of today, resolves it by denying the spiritual or giving naturalistic explanations for all things spiritual.

Gnosticism, the perpetual enemy of Christianity and, according to Richard Weaver at least, the painfully ironic foundational dogma of progressive education (Dewey, James, etc.) treats the spiritual as legitimate and important and the material as valueless.

Christianity tells of one who is big enough to weave all things together into a harmony that damages nothing and blesses everything: Christ, the incarnate logos: Spirit made flesh, God made man, the weaving together in one of all things.

Now, if a religion is true, it cannot simply dismiss what it doesn’t like. That is a sign of theological weakness. A true religion ties everything together.

But when a philosophy is based on a necessarily inadequate premise, as is naturalism, then it is hard for this Christian to see why he ought to abandon his foundations because the other guys have developed a sophisticated argument.

A premise is necessarily inadequate when it excludes what it doesn’t like at the beginning of the discussion.

God is not the conclusion of an argument based on naturalistic premises. He is the beginning of thought and the harmony of all truth. He is necessary to every other premise, but I don’t see how that can “prove” his existence. He is simply Necessary: to thought, to ethics, to beauty, to society, to physics, to marriage, to education.

Bad Theory and the Practice of College Composition

RV Young on changes in Freshman composition over the past 40 years.

HT Martin at Vital Remnants

Two Kinds of Freedom

Human history and the human psyche reveal two conditions that we describe using the word freedom. They are, however, very different conditions.

The first is what I will call, borrowing the word from Kierkegaard, “aesthetic freedom.” This is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the right to avoid making choices.

For example, the unmarried man is free to let his eyes and mind wander among the unattached females of the species, the uncommitted quasi-philosopher is free to wander among schools of thought, pretending to “not want to narrow himself to one position,” the undecided music critic is free to say, “I like all kinds of music.”

In each case, what the person is saying is that he is guided by his emotions or immediate needs, which, in turn are guided by his appetites. He is functioning slightly above the powers of an animal, but, in a way, not very far. Neither his will nor his reason have been decisively engaged.

To summarize, aesthetic freedom is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the absence of willful decisions.

The second kind of freedom, and here again I borrow the word from Kierkegaard, is ethical freedom and is characterized the act of choosing.

Any time I make a choice, I am choosing more than just one of many options. For example, if I choose to go to a football game instead of a drinking party, I haven’t only chosen football over the party. I’ve also chosen a self that would go to a football game instead of the party.

In this sense, because we are created persons with a will, we are continually choosing ourselves in every decision we make.

These choices can lead to ethical slavery, in which our decisions bind us to the appetite we indulge, or ethical freedom, in which our decisions create of us a free person who governs himself and walks the path of wisdom.

Perhaps most significantly, each choice we make can be a choice for the finite or the infinite. The aesthete tries to maintain an infinite variety of choices and in so doing limits his choices to only the finite options.

The ethical person chooses limits and commitments, and in so doing he chooses the infinite, for concrete love is the infinite act of an eternal being. Love gives life to the faculty by which we can love, and that faculty is not earthly, worldly, selfish, cynical.

Indulgence destroys that faculty, thus destroying the soul of the self-indulgent.

Ethical freedom is the act of choosing oneself. Aesthetic freedom is the act of indulging oneself. The former leads to finite but real life. In the act of an infinite choice to love another one is connected to the infinite. The latter is the negation of the self by virtue of the disempowerment of the will and reason.

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