Nature and Convention and the culture wars

RV Young puts it this way:

According to the reigning heterodoxy, absolutely nothing is “for all time”; and works of literature do not bespeak the “soul of the age,” so much as they conceal, even while embodying, its ideological and economic imperatives. Hence the clamor from powerful forces within the academy of the”opening up” or dismantling of the “canon” of “classic” works, for the abolition of the very notion of “great books.” Should this view prevail, then the question, “Why we teach what we teach?”, would be no longer moot, but merely meaningless. Although pretexts for teaching this or that text would abound, there could be no reasons, since rational discrimination among the “products” of deterministic cultural hegemonies is impossible. If a work of art, literature, or philosophy is not intrinsically valuable, is not great on its own merits, then it can only be of interest as an event or phenomenon, exercising more or less influence over the course of history…. As Cicero points out, “All the arts, which pertain to humanity, have a certain common bond and are joined together among themselves as it were by a certain kinship.” It is this element of common humanity that is crucial to curricular decisions and is, indeed, the only basis for the integrity of university professors as scholars and teachers.

At War With the Word

The literary departments of our universities do not, generally, believe that humans share a common nature that can be refined by encounters with great works. Instead they argue that all artists need to be deconstructed to show their ideological convictions and how they were parasites on the powers of the day.

Shakespeare was neither “the soul of his age,” nor, “for all time” because that would require that an age have a soul and that human nature transcends an age. The truly great radical relativists are perfectly aware that their criteria apply to them as well. They realize they write because of their will to power. They make no apology, therefore, for their assertions of control.

In literature, as in grammar, we can see that unless we are governed by nature and nature’s law, we are necessarily either tyrants or slaves. We cannot be free people. That is why grammar and rhetoric are the necessary arts of a free people and why they must be taught according to nature and not merely according to conventions and usage: because grammar and rhetoric have a necessary and unbreakable link to politics. Human nature dictates it.

In short, if we are governed merely by conventions we are slaves. If those who govern us and we ourselves submit to nature, then, and only then, can we be free people. For to be free people, we must not only be free, we must also be people.

Like or as?

When I was a child, my creative writing teacher (the immortal Mrs. Holm) mentioned a then current cigarette commercial that used the tag line, “Winston takes good, like a cigarette should. So what do you want, good grammar or good taste?”

I had a way of being distracted from the point by the wonder of the sounds when I was a kid, so I never got this lesson. But in the last 40 years radical relativism has so overthrown human communication that the word like has become an un-informed, illiterate metaphysical confession from those who yearn to live in the shadow of the beat writers and the hippies. Like, you know what I mean, man?

But dude, we need to attend to our words. They, like, matter. So recently, being reminded of that commercial and disappointing myself with my inability to explain it, I decided to figure it out. Failing that, I looked it up in Strunk and White.

Did you know that there is a significant difference between like and as? I was surprised to see how simple it is: like is used before nouns and pronouns, and as is used before phrases and clauses.

Not, per Strunk and White, “We spent our evening like in the old days,” but, “We spent our evening as in the old days.”

Then I saw it! No doubt the genesis of the Winston commercial, there in Strunk and White!

Not, “Chloe smells good like a baby should,” but, Chloe smells good as a baby should.”

Now the radical relativists want us to believe that language is determined entirely by usage or conventions. They want us to believe that when something is popular, it must be right. I have argued a philosophical case against this position in an article that will be published in The Journal, the magazine of the Society for Classical Learning. Strunk and White give a practical response (page 51 in the fourth edition):

An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely musused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines.

The first principle of style

In his classic On the Art of Writing Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (pronounced more or less “Killer Coosh”) said this:

You have not been left altogether without clue to the secret of what Style is. That you must master teh secret for yourselves lay implicit in our bargain, and you were never promised that a writer’s training would be easy. Yet a clue was certainly put in your hands when, having insisted that literature is a living art, I added that therefore it must be personal and of its essence personal.

This goes very deep: it conditions all our criticism of art. Yet it conceals no mystery. You may see its meaning most easily and clearly, perhaps, by contrasting Science and Art…

Science, he explains, is impersonal and universal. Art is not so.

Style, therefore, must be personal to have value. Yet it cannot put the person at odds with nature and, unless needed, with his community.

That is why we must spend the early years of school laying a solid foundation in the rules of grammar and composition. They will never be able to use the tools to develop and express themselves if our students do not first learn the foundations of shared expression.