Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

Image via Wikipedia

We think to determine three things: whether something is true, whether something should be done, and whether something commands our appreciation. In other words, we think to know truth, goodness, and beauty.

In each case, a judgment is made. A judgment is embodied in a decision and expressed in a proposition.

When we know the truth, we don’t need to think about it so much as to enjoy it. When we know what is good, we need to act, which will arouse a thousand more questions, few of which will reach the conscious mind. When we know what is beautiful, we need to adore.

Thinking begins when we feel a contradiction. This is because thinking, as we generally experience it, is the quest for harmony, that is, a mind without contradictions. Thus Socrates: “Great is the power of contradiction.” It makes us think.

How then does The Lost Tools of Writing teach thinking? Mainly by pushing the responsibility for making decisions back to the students. Every essay involves making a decision – whether so and so should have done such and such, whether X should do Y, etc.

But if you want to undercut thinking in a hurry, give someone a responsibility without the tools to fulfill it. In my view, this is the cause of over 95% of students’ laziness. Therefore, LTW does not drop the task on the student, telling him to bear a burden that his teachers won’t bother carrying, and then walk away. It provides the tools to make decisions.

First, it provides the topics of invention. These are the categories of thought, without which one cannot possibly think about any issue adequately. It provides practice using these categories (topics) in real world issues, but not issues that concern them directly. They have not yet learned how to think based on principles, so I don’t want them getting emotionally involved in issues they cannot understand yet.

Because thinking takes practice.

It also takes order, and that’s what the canon of arrangement teaches. I’m not sure people generally appreciate how important order is to sound thinking. After all, the object of thought is a harmonious solution to a question, and the only way we can know if our solutions are harmonious (i.e. lacking contradictions) is if we see the parts in relation to each other.

Thought also requires judgment or assessment. The thinker needs to know if the form of his thought is sound, if the proportions and emphases match the reality about which he is thinking, if the more important parts are given their due emphasis.

This tends not to come under the Progressive reduction of thought to “critical thinking” but it is an essential element of clear and honest thinking.

In the canon of Elocution, LTW teachers yet another mode of thinking: the quest for the fitting expression, which requires a subtlety of judgment that cannot be gainsaid.

Here’s the thing: we can only appreciate what we can perceive. What we perceive depends on two things: the thing we are perceiving and the eyes with which we perceive it.

Now by “the eyes with which we perceive it” I do not mean only the eyes of the body, but also what Shakespeare called “the mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye perceives what it perceives as it perceives it because of the concepts it possesses while it perceives it.

When I listen to music, I cannot hear what my good friend John Hodges can hear. He is a composer with a tremendous and informed gift for music. But notice that he has an informed gift. He knows music. As a result, his experience of music is very different than mine.

In fact, he once converted me about a piece of music. When first I saw Les Miserables, I thought of it mostly in political terms and judged it to be sentimental claptrap. But when John explained the musical qualities, how characters had their own tunes, how the story put melodies out in one place, then withdrew them, the reinserted them in other places to tell the story through the music, I came to understand why it is regarded by those who can perceive these things as a masterpiece.

I was informed. My mind’s eye could see better. My appreciation grew.

Even so, modern readers (and that means most of us) struggle to read great poetry, while we can watch movies with incredible complexity. Why? Because since we were very little we have gone to the theatres and learned how to watch movies. We understand the art form without even having to think about it very much.

Poetry is not what it used to be, at least not in the classroom. The conventions are regarded as evil, the forms as tyrannical. Consequently, nobody reads Longfellow anymore.

But LTW is a classical curriculum. If that means anything it means that we respect the conventions. 2500 years of artistry gave us quite a remarkable treasure trove of riches. In elocution,  we teach students schemes and tropes so they are capable of appreciating Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, and by appreciating their artistry, they can enter into the astounding insights that lie between their paradoxes and dilemmas.

Through LTW students begin or continue to grow toward a perceptive, insightful, and refined mind. Standardized testing and critical thinking become fleas they snap off their shoulders because they are on to important things, like making decisions and acting on them, adoring the beautiful, and knowing truth.