Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

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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.

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How To Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Pt. 3)

Part 1 is here and part 2 is here

Given the earlier, practical, description of wisdom, the question arises, “How do we get wisdom?”

There are four essential acts that we must perform to gain wisdom, and each grows in importance as we climb to the more advanced forms of wisdom.

First, we must believe in wisdom. If we don’t believe in wisdom and if we don’t believe it matters, we won’t seek it. This sounds silly, but the truth is, very few people believe in it. Most people want their immediate tensions resolved, and that is all the wisdom they believe matters. But if you believe in truth, your immediate tensions take their place.

Believe in wisdom. Get wisdom.

Second, since wisdom really exists and since I don’t have it, and since wisdom is bound to truth, and since truth exists independently of me, I must begin my quest for wisdom by opening my eyes. It’s not enough to desire it. I must seek it. It is not enough to long for it. I must will it.

Open your eyes. Get understanding.

I speak of the powers of perception. Wisdom arises from seeing things as and for what they really are.

Third, since my eyes are cloudy, befogged, dysfunctional, once I open them I encounter discomfort and unease. I am confronted with a choice. I can either close my eyes again, or I can clean them.

If you would walk the path of wisdom, you must have your eyes cleaned. I speak of purity.

Fourth, if my eyes are open and cleaned, I still find that my vision is short and that the room is dark. I need to turn on the lights.

I speak of contemplation. With open and receptive eyes, I must behold what is (the truth), I must seek out its glory (the good), and I must love its radiance (the beautiful).

If I take this quest seriously, I have to begin at the simplest level. I should “simply” let the tree be a tree and not seek to insert it into my paradigm or worldview. I should let a story tell itself, so I can learn the truth of the story. I should let a painting be a painting first, not an expression of a philosophy.

We do see through paradigms, I understand that. But that is why we need our eyes cleaned. Wisdom submits to the nature of what it observes, knowing that there is no other way to know that thing.

For example, if I have a philosophy on what a woman should be and I continually impose it on my wife, spite of her nature, God help us both. If that philosophy does not arise from and cannot be corrected by actual women, then it is false, evil, and ugly.

It is not wise.

Wisdom that comes from above, therefore, is first gentle. It does not overthrow what it is learning about. It loves it. There is no other way to know anything.

Thus to become wise, we must begin by believing in wisdom, and with a vehement appetite, we must open our eyes, purify them, and turn on the lights.

And writing can help us do those things.

Why the Short Story?

When I was in high school I remember feeling some strange disappointment when I would come across a book of short stories by an author whose novel’s I admired or when I was assigned a story for school.

I loved to read and always had, and did so a fair amount, but I found that I much preferred the long form of the novel to that of the more brief, inherently and uniquely reserved, short story. I certainly enjoyed, for the most part, what I read of author’s like Flannery O’Connor (who I today consider one of America’s greatest writers ever), mostly, I’m sure, for her weirdly ambiguous endings and mysterious characters.

Yet, I seem to have found the lack of unique plot twists and of distinctly moving moral situations so common in the short form to be a negative. I’ve been wondering why. Today, I prefer few novels to a wonderful short story (and no, it’s not because a short story does not surpass the 300 page limit I often say I don’t read beyond, jokingly of course).

Don’t get me wrong. Good short stories, and certainly O’Conner’s, do contain moving moral situations. But they are necessarily reserved in their immediate implications towards the reader. Since, in the short form, the author is limited regarding how much information they can provide, how much background they can introduce, how close they can make the reader feel to the situation or characters, such moral dilemmas can only mean so much to the reader. In other words, since you can’t know Mr. Smith from Joe White’s The Made-up Story as well as you could have had the story been a novel, then the fact that he is about to burn down his home and join a militia group is going to be less meaningful than it would be if you did know him as intimately as a similarly plotted novel would allow.

(Note that I said that short stories are limited in their “immediate implications.” Further contemplation and interpretation certainly will open up a world of implications to the thoughtful, observant reader.)

So, it would seem, the short form is concerned above all with the “why?” of the tale and the novel above all with fact, incident – the “what” of the story.

Of course, part of my lack of affection for the short form back then probably derives from the fact that novels – and the good one’s especially – are uniquely capable of creating plot-based excitement and anticipation, emotionally transfixing moral conundrums, and characters whose many layers offer insights into the human existence. Things that the short story simply cannot provide in the same way. The short story writer must work within the confines of their form and therefore they must say what they want to say, or rather show what they want to show, in a much less complicated – though, hopefully, no less thoughtful – fashion.

Necessarily, therefore, the short story, since it cannot do all the work itself, demands much more of the reader than the common novel (there are exceptions, of course). This is probably why, as a high school student, I didn’t much appreciate the form. I didn’t want to have to work as much as was being demanded of me.

I love this quote by Harold Bloom (from How To Read and Why) that, I think, sums the idea up pretty well, and provides some advice to boot:

Short stories favor the tacit; they compel the reader to be active, and to discern explanations that the writer avoids.The reader… must slow down, quite deliberately, and start listening with the inner ear. Such listening overhears the characters, as well as hearing them; think of them as your characters, and wonder what is implied, rather than told about them. Unlike most figures in novels, their foregrounding are largely up to you, utilizing the hints subtly provided by the reader.

From Turgenev through Eudora Welty and beyond, short story writers refrain from moral judgments… The most skilled short story writers are as elliptical in regard to moral judgments as they are in regard to continuities of action of the details of a character’s past life. You, as reader, are to decide if moral judgment if relevant, and then the judgment will be yours to make.

The short story provides some unique challenges for both writer and reader, challenges that they must, in effect, confront together, in concert with each other.

In it’s own meta-fictive way, reading a short story is a bit like solving a mystery. The clues are laid out for us (one hopes) and it is our job to make sense of them.

It is for this reason that I love reading a good short story.

And I suppose, therefore, that writing a short story is something like creating a puzzle, perhaps one of the crossword variety even. It is the job the writer to set forth pieces whose shapes will appropriately fit together. With just the right amount of ambiguity of course.

I for one hope the short story makes a comeback.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part 2)

Click here to see Part 1

To understand how to cultivate wisdom, we need to understand what wisdom is. Now, any number of definitions are available, but I want to look at this from the practical angle.

In other words, if we’re going to think about “how” to do something, we need to think of it as the end of actions. If it can’t be seen that way, then there is no how to.

For example, if redness is simply a state of being and there is no way to become or make something red, we’d be wasting our time trying to think about how to become red.

Looked at from this angle, there are three ways to look at wisdom that all mean the same thing but are worth expressing in three different ways.

First, wisdom is the knowledge of causes.

Second, wisdom is the ability to order and to judge.

Third, wisdom is the ability to perceive the nature of things so as to know how to appropriately relate to them.

These definitions help us see that there are different kinds of wisdom.

There is what I call, for lack of a better term, mechanical wisdom, which is characterized by great precision and regularity. It is guided by the principle of effectiveness and its end is utility. The standard of excellence for this form of genuine wisdom is usefulness.

Then there is artistic wisdom, which is less precise and therefore requires more judgment. It is guided by the principle of propriety and its end is creative human production. The standard of excellence is the beautiful.

Next comes ethical wisdom, which is even less precise and requires even more judgment. It is also guided by the principle of propriety, but its end is human action itself. The standard against which human action is measured by this wisdom is virtue.

Even higher comes philosophical wisdom, which is amazingly imprecise though its foundations remain absolute. It is the knowledge of first causes or principles. It requires astounding judgment. Philosophical wisdom is guided by the principle of truthfulness and its end is knowledge of truth; therefore it is measured by the standard of the truth.

The highest wisdom of all is theological wisdom, which becomes knowledge of the unknowable. It is the knowledge of Him who transcends knowledge. No judgment can reach this knowledge and all other forms of wisdom are subject to it. The standard by which it is measured is, if there can be one for here I am speculating far beyond my capacity, the harmony of the useful, the beautiful, the virtuous, and the true.

If that is what wisdom is and if these are the kinds of wisdom, the next question becomes, “how do we get it?”

More on that in my next post!

I’m Singing This Note ‘Cause It Fits In Well

Education is not a specialized subject. If you try to understand it by isolating it and studying it as a specialized activity, you will have guaranteed that you will never understand what you are studying.

Yet, to a large extent, teachers’ colleges and even educators conferences treat it as such a specialized subject. They seem to make a common modern error – that of thinking that reality itself is empirical or analytical. It is not. It is formal. Reality is not an experiment, it is a symphony.

Therefore, when we seek to know it, we seek an ever-expanding harmony, not a list of research based conclusions about discrete elements, and not a lab report on a series of experiments.

The experiments and the research are valuable sources of information about reality, and they can certainly fit within reality, but they are not the whole of realityand they are far from the most informative manner of perceiving reality.

That explains why we do the CiRCE conference the way we do. We don’t try to present leading experts in their field who have done “the research” and performed the experiments. We draw on speakers who have seen truth with their own eyes.

It ends up being a lot like a jazz performance, actually. If a better musician organized it, then it might be like a symphony. But my instincts are more like jazz, at least so far as I can understand something musical. We lay down a theme. We explore it together. Individuals go on their trails, and come back.  A lot of improvisation takes place. There is no predertermined outcome.

But each year it seems something beautiful happens because we’re all committed to the same idea.

Based on most of the feedback, that is what happened again this year. We thought about liberty. We had an overarching theme and even a contra or anti-whattayacallit thing.  A number of sub-themes arose: the need for mentors in a free society, the liberation of the teacher who uses a Christian classical pedagogy, the different types of freedom, the false freedoms that seduce us into slavery, modes of teaching that set students free, the need to think to be free, and so on.

A crescendo was reached, I felt, when, on Saturday morning George Sanker addressed on the elephant in the living room – the need for African-Americans and minorities to experience a Christian classical education as well as suburban whites. One more workshop and a coda brought the conference to an end.

These reflections are retrospective, probably because I’ve come to realize lately how reality is formal and not logical, scientific, or empirical. It is beautiful, and only human folly has brought ugliness into it.

Then let’s seek the wisdom to make something beautiful, harmonic, melodious, unified, flourishing, rhythmic, and ultimately integrated, healthy, and pleasing.

Next year we’ll sing a new theme: What is Man? A contemplation of Imago Dei. Will you sing with us?

Man the Arts

Among the unique and extroardinary abilities of humankind, surely his ability to create ranks first or nearly first. I have concluded that a Mozart or a Rembrandt inhabits every neighborhood, just waiting to be cultivated and directed in the direction of their gifts.

Think of how many people you know with beautiful voices that go unheard, with a natural capacity to see that never makes it to canvas, with a grace of movement that never sees the dance floor. 

When you consider how many people do make it to the big time on the wings of parental or pedagogical vanity, imagine what we would experience if our wings were grace and devotion to the God who is glorified when Freddy Mercury sings or Picasso paints or, yes, Christina Aguilera dances.

And there’s the trouble. Our creativity is an expression of the Image of God within us; it is among our highest joys because it is in our creativity that we are most like God in His creativity. It is what we are made for.

But the creative genius continously finds himself drawn to himself, since this talent is within him and mysterious. Rather than honor His creator, his temptation is to feature himself and to honor himself first.

As a result gifts are misdirected, their value diminished, and the staying power of their products disabled. One hundred years from now, it is not likely that many of the current superstars will be remembered – though some will, because they are so extraordinarily creative that the impulse to watch their performance is satisfying in itself.

I think, for example, of Karen Carpenter, whose music style rarely does much for me, but whose voice is unmatched in popular recorded music.

Last night I was re-visiting the Susan Boyle phenomenon on YouTube, where I discovered that they did a show about her life in Britain. I was not aware that Simon Cowell had produced a CD of her singing and that it sold 4.5 million disks in the first two weeks of distribution.

Susan Boyle has a marvelous voice and she is able to express deep emotion and beauty through it. People like to say she is no Ruthie Henshall, which is so utterly beside the point that it shows that they don’t understand what is happening when Susan Boyle sings. Amanda: “It was  a complete privilege listening to that.”

The same thing happened with Paul Potts. Listen to his version of Nessun Dorma. If you compare it to Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Mario Lanza, or even Aretha Franklin, you might complain that they are all better. Well, except for the last two. But it doesn’t matter.

Susan Boyle and Paul Potts are great singers who are now learning to sing even better. It may well be that Paul Potts is now equal to Domingo if not Pavarotti. I don’t know. I have great respect for the years of training that goes into the creation of any great artist. So I can see why some people might even be offended by the very (naive, I am sure) suggestion that it is possible that Potts has attained so great a stature. I wish we valued the arts enough to train more artists more thoroughly, but when the Image of God goes, the arts go.

But Paul Potts is in Germany right now, astounding people with his gift.

There is something magical about a sincere and modest soul being discovered in front of everybody’s eyes. It vindicates some deep hope we all hold onto, that the human spirit really does have something incomprehensibly great about it.

Have you seen Andrew Johnston?

When we enter into glory, we won’t be directing all our attention, as we do here, to making sure we have another meal tonight. In glory, we’ll be consumed by the arts: singing our hearts out in a music so pure Bach would be jealous, beautifying, decorating, revealing, unifying, harmonizing, communicating – all in ways that transcend the power of the words we use here to express them.

Here, the arts give us a foretaste of that glory and joy. But just a foretaste.

These considerations lead us to two challenges:

First, we need to cultivate our children’s artistic abilities, of any stripe, with eagerness and joy and devotion.

Second, we need to learn how to think wisely about all of the arts, knowing that they move our souls and direct our cultures and sustain our communities.

In short, man the artist needs to man the arts with wisdom and virtue.  Our well-being depends on it.

The Best Read Ever

Would you like to see how reading a great story humanizes and edifies and unites us? If you do, read this and if you don’t read it anyway.