What is Literature, Part II: Grammar

Some reflections on what people have meant by the term grammar, from CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image, page 185 ff. in my Canto edition

To give an educational curriculum a place in the Model of the universe may at first seem an absurdity; and it would be an absurdity if the medievals had felt about it as we feel about the ‘subjects’ in a syllabus today. But the syllabus was regarded as immutable…; the Liberal Arts, by long prescription, had achieved a status not unlike that of nature herself.

‘Grammar talks’, as the couplet says; or as Isidore defines her, ‘Grammar is the skill of speech’. That is, she teaches us Latin….

Grammar… sometimes extended far beyond the realm it claims today. It had done so for centuries. Quintilian suggests literatura as the proper translation of Greek grammatike, and literatura, though it does not mean ‘literature’, included a good deal more than literacy. It included  all that is required for ‘making up’ a ‘set book’: syntax, etymology, prosody, and the explanation of allusions. Isidore makes even history a department of Grammar. He would have described the book I am now writing as a book of Grammar. Scholarship is perhaps our nearest equivalent.

I like all that because it is informative and helpful. I add what follows because it is amusing.

In popular usage Grammatica or Grammaria slid into the vague sense of learning in general; and since learning is usually an object both of respect and suspicion to the masses, grammar, in the form grammary comes to mean magic…. And from grammary, by a familiar sound-change, comes glamour — a word whose associations with grammar and even with magic have now been annihilated by the beauty-specialists.

One of the things that bothers me about contemporary language is the contradiction between text books and reality. If you study language in the books it tells you two things: 1. language is conventional, and 2. it is formed by the usage of the common people.

I deny both, at some level, but especially the second. It is disgusting the extent to which language is altered and manipulated by advertisers who are professionally indifferent to anything without a utilitarian defense (they would lose their jobs if they submitted to nature). Meanwhile, the human mind, human communities, and human souls deteriorate because the most powerful tool they have for development and growth is stolen from them.

What is Literature Anyway?

When we teach literature, if we must, our students should not encounter a general, bewildering sampling of all the types of writing, their philosophical roots, their representative masters, and their characteristic obstacles.

Such an approach teaches literary relativism. (I suppose the act of having a literature class probably already assumes a literary relativism, or at least that literature has a relative place in the curriculum.)

Instead, students should learn the nature of literature from a given philosophy or theory of literature. Even if that theory is wrong it will be better than this mythical neutrality and expertise that the textbook pretends to.

Let me press this just a little further. Literature, in the classical tradition, never had a class of its own and it certainly was never taught as a historical phenomenon. Both the class and the historical approach seem to have developed during the 19th century in Germany, where the modern school was born and nurtured in the short-lived incestuous relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

In the Christian classical tradition, children were taught grammar, which was a rich vein for the intellect.

Grammar comes from grammatikos: letters. It included what we mean by grammar, but that was considered a rather small, though foundational and important, portion of it. However, the word literature itself, which comes from the Latin litera: letters, is probably a better translation of what they meant by grammar.

So that would seem to be a direct contradiction of what I said earlier.

It seems that way because our minds are so fragmented, especially in the matter of languages.

Grammar was the close examination of literary texts.

There was the practical school of the Alexandrians, who developed what we think of as grammar precisely because people were unable to read Homer and they wanted to ensure that children could make the adaptations.

Then there was the more philosophical school of, for example, the Stoics, who believed that language was rooted in nature and therefore there was an ideal form that language should take.

They seemed to believe that Homer and possibly Plato had approached that form quite closely.

In both cases, when they approached grammar or literature (both mean “letters”), their purpose was to give the student a profound encounter with a great text.

They didn’t study very many texts. For example, one of my favorite educators, Vittorino de Feltre, took years to teach his students only a few books, such as Homer, Virgil, and a couple others. But they didn’t need to study very many texts for their purposes.

Their goal was to become “men of letters,” by which they did not mean that they had read lots and lots of “letters” by other people but that they were masters of their use. Such a goal requires a close analysis of a few texts, not a shallow introduction to a multitude of texts.

They placed a much higher value on intellectual skills (liberal ARTS) and the deep experiences that arise from close, sustained consideration of an idea than on a superficial acquaintance with a vast array of content.

They would have been puzzled by the compulsion to “get through the material.”

 But they were in a tradition, and I think this might be the critical point. They recognized that some texts were out of this world, came from another world, were works of heartbreaking genius and merited everybody’s attention and reverence.

As a result, they could feed on those texts for their whole lives without missing anything that mattered. Indeed, some of them could go on to produce their own works of immeasurable genius.

Since then, the tradition has been broken. Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls? Are there any schools filled with teachers who simply teach their students to contemplate beautiful and good things?

The worst of it is that once a tradition is lost, much of it can never be regained.

What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.

They do not demean literature by reading a bunch of novels because Shakespeare is too hard. And they recognize the full wealth of grammatikos, litera, letters, grammar.

This is what the president of Yale refered to in the 19th century when he said that the goal of eduation is to read Homer in the original.

James Schall on Getting Murdered by Your Students

Just read this in a marvel of an essay by James Schall that I appeal to you to read and contemplate:

Education means that we seek to know (and see and hear and taste and feel) what is. To do this, we must free ourselves. And we free ourselves by encountering the myriads of particular things amid which we live and whose ultimate cause of being we wonder about.

Here’s a link to the essay, from The University Bookman. Please read it.

Greek Paideia and the Bible

From Werner Jaeger’s Early Christianity and Greek Paideia

As the Greek paideia consisted of the entire corpus of Greek literature, so the Christian paideia is the Bible. Literature is paideia, in so far as it contains the highest norms of human life, which in it have taken on their lasting and most impressive form. It is the ideal picture of man, the great paradigm.


Classical Education in Corinth (I)

The Corinthian church of the first century has rather a bad reputation, but I wonder if people thought about her the same way back then.

Don’t get me wrong; they were a mess. In fact, the first Christian text we have from the Christian era that is not included in the Bible is a letter from Clement, the bishop of Rome, who wrote to them in something like 95 or 96 AD for the same sort of divisiveness Paul wrote to them about in something like 55 AD.

But those are epistles written by very holy people who occupy significant leadership positions in the church. I wonder what the popular opinions about them would have been. I suspect they were different from Paul’s.

I develop that hypothesis because of the type of city Corinth was and because of the problems Paul has to deal with.

We say, of course, that Corinth was an immoral city, and so it was. That’s our primary focus. In a way, I would compare it to a modern Las Vegas or New York.

But it wasn’t only known for its immorality. Corinth had been a very ancient Greek city. Oedipus, of Oedipus Rex fame, had been brought up there. The city sat on the cross roads of Hellene (what we call Greece). To the north was Macedonia and northern Greece. To the south, Athens, Sparta, and the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

But Corinth sat on an Isthmus, which meant 1. that to pass between northern and southern Greece, you had to go past Corinth, and 2. that it sat on the shortest route between east (Asia Minor and the Aegean or even Athens) and west (Italy).

The Greeks irritated the Romans, so in 146 a Roman general, Mummius, sacked Corinth, virtually completely destroying it and bringing its treasures to Rome.

Then sometime around 65 BC, Julius Caesar both rebuilt the city and had a canal cut through from west to east. Little time was wasted rebuilding Corinth into a trade center and a leader in Hellenistic culture, especially under its Roman expression.

It’s pretty obvious from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians that the leaders of Corinth, or at least a significant portion of them, had been classically educated. So given that they were rich, an Imperial city, founded by Julius Caesar, ruled by people with a fine education, a cultural center of sorts, I conclude that most people probably thought very highly of this successful Corinthian church.

I know we would today if such a church were in the news.

To repeat, at least some of the church leaders were classically educated. For one things, virtually everybody in leadership was so educated in those days. But Paul also indicates as much a number of different ways, some direct and some more oblique.

The whole passage from 1:17-2:5 is an extended critique of the confidence the Corinthians place in the “wisdom of words.”

The Christian classical school has to take this critique very seriously. After all, we teach our students logic and debate (i.e. to become “the disputer of this age”) and rhetoric (i.e. the wisdom of words), while preparing them for leadership (even though “not many mighty, not many noble, are called”).

You can’t just dismiss these words and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to us. That was pagan Corinth.”

No, these verses apply very explicitly to the Christian school – more, I think, to us, than to anybody else today.

For this reason, I have been meditating on these verses, indeed, on the whole book, off and on for years. Over the past couple weeks, some important matters have become very clear to me, so I plan on writing as often as I am able about it.

My reflections revolve around that ancient question of Tertullian (and every other Christian who has ever lived and thought): What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem, and Jerusalem with Athens?

In other words, what is the relationship between the things taught us by the Holy Spirit within the Christian tradition and the things discovered by people outside the church? What should we read and study? Should we read and study at all? Why?

One thing I will do my best to avoid, and that is to argue this very practical matter in the abstract. In other words, I’m not going to put an idea about Christian thought up against an idea about classical or secular (or whatever) thought.

I don’t think we’d learn much that way, because this isn’t a theoretical matter. It’s got everything to do with specific decisions by specific people about specific questions and decisions.

So by looking at I Corinthians in this light (and I believe Paul wrote this epistle with this question very much in mind, as I hope to demonstrate while I write), we can examine it not as a theoretical proposition, but as a practical matter we need to understand, apply, and internalize.

I haven’t worked out the details of my strategy yet, but my intent is to

  1. Take this very seriously
  2. Pursue wisdom with an eager and an open heart
  3. Approach the text synthetically (as a whole) instead of analytically. In other words, I want to see how the whole text deals with these questions, not exegete verses grammatically. I don’t have as much confidence in grammatical approaches to the scriptures as I used to, so while I will gladly submit to what grammar demands of me, I won’t expect it to reveal the hidden wisdom of God.
  4. Listen to what others have to contribute.

I have no idea whatsoever about the timeline for this pursuit. I have no specific goal except to ponder the question in the pages of Corinth. The less I have to worry about peripheral matters, the more I’ll be able to focus on this.

In any case, I do hope you’ll join me!

Aristotle, Rhetoric, and Freedom

I’ve been arguing for some time through this blog that we cannot be free people if we don’t master the arts of freedom, which were known historically as the liberal arts (not the modern evasion often called “general studies”). To Aristotle, freedom depended on people’s ability to communicate freely and effectively. So he wrote a handbook on rhetoric, which begins like this:

Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic. Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others.

The other day I quoted Adler to the effect that everybody is a citizen and a philosopher. I would add that to the extent we deny these roles, we are slaves.

If we do not participate in the governance of ourselves, our families, and our communities, we cannot be free people.

If we do not learn to think with our own minds, making decisions based on sound principles and seeking truth because it is good, we belong to the people who do this thinking for us.

Aristotle underscores this truth by emphasizing that rhetoric (our civic faculty) and dialectic (our philosophical faculty) are universal arts. We are all responsible for our use of them. If we neglect them, we are not free people and frankly don’t deserve to be free people.

It follows that a great way to eliminate freedom is to involve people so deeply in their work, school, or voluntary associations (that just triggered a really disturbing page I read in a book about Bolshevism – I’ll try to find and post it tomorrow) that they have no time to participate in government or philosophy.

If you love freedom, please devote yourself to the study of Greek so you can remind us about what we’ve lost. Odysseus poked out my eye and I’m afraid I’ve gone from no perspective all the way to blind.

How Christians can approach classical literature

Jacque-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, in a letter to Innocent XI

Logic and morals serve to cultivate the two principal operations of the human mind: the faculties of understanding and willing. For logic, we have drawn from Plato and Aristotle, not so as to serve vain disputes about words, but to form the judgment by solid reasoning, and we have restricted ourselves primarily to that part of logic that is used to find probable arguments, because these are the ones used in affairs of state. [NB, Bossuet is describing the curriculum for royal persons].

For the teaching of morals, we have mined the proper source: Scripture and the maxims of the Gospel. We have not, however, neglected to explain the morals of Aristotle, adn that admirable doctine of Socrates, truly sublime for his time, which may serve to give faith to the incredulous, and to make corrupt men blush.

Yet we have at the same time noted what the Christian philosophy condemns in it, and what she adds to it, what she approves, and with what authority she confirms the sane maxims of Socrates, and how she is superior to them, in such a way that the philosophy of Socrates, as grave as it appears, compared to the wisdom of the Gospel is but the infancy of morals.

As to philosophy, we have cleaved to those maxims that carry with them the certain character of truth, and which might be useful for the conduct of human life. As to the systems and philosophical opnions that are subjects for the vain disputes of men, we have limited ourselves to reporting them under the form of an historical recital, for we have thought that it was fitting to the dignity of a young prince to know the diverse and opposed opinions that have much occupied the great minds, while equally protecting the parties and refusing to share their enthusiasm or their prejudice. The one who is called to command should learn to judge and not to dispute.

Yet after having considered that philosophy consists above all in recalling the mind to itself in order then to raise one’s thoughts to God, we have first sought self-knowledge. This preliminary study, by presenting us with fewer difficulties, at the same time offers our researches the most useful and most noble end: for, to become a true philosopher, man must study himself, and without losing himself in the useless and puerile attempt to learn what others have said and thought, he need but seek into and ask questions of himself, and he will thus find the one who has given him the ability to be, to know, and to will.

Bossuet provides some provocative ideas in the foregoing. Things to think about, which isn’t why people visit blogs, I know. But take a few minutes some time to print this passage and reflect on it. You’ll grow doing so. It will benefit your students.

Our Education Platform

Anybody who cares about America’s future and about America’s children, both of which are causes of deep contemplation for thoughtful people and desperate action for active, knows that everything depends on education.

The stimulus bill famously set aside 100 billion dollars for America’s public schools. Plenty of people would argue that this is itself a desperate action by people with too much confidence in contemplation. But the present reality is that we have a public school system, that our children are compelled, under pain of law, to get something called an education, and that most of them attend these public schools.

What can be done for our schools? Purists say, shut them down. Save the $500 billion/year spent on them (equal to our federal deficit prior to this year, though not paid by the federal government) by entirely privatising schooling. The JS Mill side of me agrees. But it isn’t going to happen, so we have to look realistically at the world we actually live in rather than fuss and bother about one that will not exist for at least a century, if ever.

But what about the calls for reform. This Economist article about Arne Duncan reminds us that Bill Bennett once called the education bureaucracy “the blob” because it was so amorphous and ungovernable. Can Arne Duncan help? I’m watching anxiously.

Here’s what I want to see in the public schools, since they can’t be shut down:

  • Extensive provision of tax credits for school choice, such as that provided by Pennsylvania and a few other states on a small scale. Again, this article shows the flaw in vouchers: the government still maintains dictatorial power over the provision of the money and that leads to control of schools from impersonal government agents.
  • A great deal more support for charter schools, especially the classical charter schools that are doing so much good in, e.g. Colorado Springs and Fort Collins.
  • Breaking of the stranglehold on innovation by the teacher’s unions.
  • Breaking of the stranglehold on creativity by the accrediting agencies, especially the one that accredits the teachers colleges.
  • A deep reconsideration of the Pragmatic/Progressivist philosophy that has undercut every impulse toward discipline and creativity and knowledge. Actually, I’d prefer a rejection. This is a theme of our conference this summer.
  • Tremendous restoration of authority to the local communities. This is one area where I think the Economist article gets it completely wrong. They suggest that we have a problem because there are 16,000 local districts running schools.

In fact, this is one area that needs some extensive research. Education has centralized any number of functions that need to be decentralized and has decentralized some areas that might conceivably benefit from centralization.

But education has to turn from its military/industrial mentality, which is totally unsuited to its very nature, and return to more of an agrarian mentality, which is more consistent with its nature. Civilization has never been the product of armies and factories. It is the fruit of the always tenuous marriage of the farmer and the merchant. Education must restore this dynamic.

As with everything about the Obama presidency, there is reason for hope. Then let us hope with our eyes open.

Follow this link to read the Economist article: The Golden Boy and The Blob.

Three obstacles seem to hinder everything the schools do: the American history of racism, the unimaginably extensive Byzantine bureaucracy, and the fear and loathing of religion. Perhaps I’ll be able to develop each of these in later blogs.

What elements do we need to add to our platform?

JS Mill on education

A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleses the preominant ower in teh government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.

John Stuart Mill, quoted in E.G. West, Education and the State: A Study in Political Economy, Liberty Fund Books

Kern on Gamble on Clement on Anaxarchus on Sovereignty

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Anaxarchus the Eudaemonist wrote well in his book On Sovereignty: Wide learning is both of great advantage and great disadvantage to its possessor. It benefits the person of skill, it damages the person who lightly says anything in any company. You must know the limits of the appropriate moment. That is the definition of wisdom. Those who make speeches at the wrong moment, even if they are full of sense, are not counted wise and have a reputation for folly.”

Quoted by Clement of Alexandria in the Stromateis, selected by Richard Gamble in The Great Tradition.

The Great Tradition

The Great Tradition