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.

Marks of The Post-Human World

Migrant construction workers - Bangkok, city o...

I might need to add one of those “signs of the apocalypse” features to this blog. It would focus on developments and events that demonstrate the rejection of nature and the impact of that rejection on normal people – who become rapidly abnormal living in the vacuum so abhorred by nature.

This would be the first entry: Dating simulation game.

This is only funny in a limited sense.

The Sack of Truth: A Fairytale at the Heart of Redemption and Classical Education

Ruth Sawyer’s classic fairytale “A Sack of Truth” saved the lives of my sophomores and redeemed mine. Not only is the title brilliant and amped for discussion, but the tale smacks paradigmatic for classical education. It contains that which is really real and true.

I am now even more convinced of the power of fables and fairy tales to shape one into a right human being—and to truly educate by cultivating wisdom and virtue in the heart.

If you haven’t read the tale, I’ll briefly summarize:  There lives a king in Spain. His daughter is ill. A doctor says only the finest pears in Spain will cure her. The king asks for the finest pears from all over to be brought and the one whose pears heal his daughter will be richly rewarded.

A poor peasant with three sons has a pear tree that produces other-worldly golden pears. He sends his oldest son to the king with a basket of pears. On the road he meets a sad-faced woman carrying a little child who asks him what he has in the basket. Rather than offering the sad woman and child a pear to eat, he snubs her. It is a kind of test. The woman turns his pears into horns. When he arrives to the king with horns, the king throws him into a dungeon.

The second son is sent with a basket. He responds to the needy woman in the same way and fails the test. He is also thrown into the dungeon.

Importantly, when the third son is introduced, this is what is said of him: “No one had ever thought him very clever, only kind and willing and cheerful.” When he meets the sad-faced woman he thinks to himself, “I must not be greedy with those pears. There is the old saying—‘He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year.’” He uncovers the basket and gives a pear to the child.

He shows compassion and therefore passes the test and gets to the king. His pears heal the king’s daughter. The king offers him anything he wants. Again the story says, “he thought of the old saying: ‘gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.’ He asks for the release of his brothers.

The rest of the story involves the sack of truth, but I won’t retell that part here. Essentially, things work out well for the youngest son.

In my class, we discussed much concerning this. Here are some of the questions I raised:

I asked if they were admitted to our very-hard-to-get-into high school because they were clever or because they were kind, willing, and cheerful.  Clever was the obvious answer. I responded that as a result they have been admitted into an institution that desires to create the two older brothers.

Standard education is very interested in what a child can do or how much he or she knows (cleverness), not in who the child is.

I asked if the students’ very full and heavy backpacks were sacks of truth, sacks of knowledge, or sacks of BS :). We concurred that, unfortunately, they were not sacks of truth. And if they decided to call them sacks of knowledge, then through discussion we realized that it would have been better to call them sacks of BS because at least BS knows that it’s BS.

In other words, there’s a big difference between truth and knowledge. And there’s a big difference between knowing and knowledge. Notice that Aristotle said, “All men desire by nature to know.”  He did not say “all men desire by nature, knowledge.”

Why are our schools founded upon gaining knowledge and not on desiring to know?

I asked what the youngest son did when he faced his crises, his moments of temptation.

The students said that he recalled two old sayings: “He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year” and “gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.”

I asked if he looked the sayings up on the internet.

Students: No

I asked if a nearby animal shouted them out.

Students: No

I asked how he knew the old sayings.

Students:  he remembered them.

I asked where he got them:

Students:  in fables and fairy tales.

I asked them what lines will come to them when they find themselves in their moments of high temptation.

Will they be lines from the latest blockbuster movie or video game?

Or maybe, just maybe…

If we read enough of them in the next nine months…

Classic fables and fairy tales.

By which we will fill our sacks of truth.

And save our souls.  And a needy mother and child on the way… and maybe even the king’s daughter.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Part V)

Part 1

In my previous post, I argued, with David Hicks, that wisdom can be cultivated through writing when you move from the whole to the part, rather than from the part to the whole, or when you approach the task synthetically first rather than analytically.

I’m guessing that requires a bit of clarification.

The phrase Mr. Hicks uses to describe this process is contextual learning, by which he seems to mean something very broad, for he says later in the same paragraph that contextual learning “draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns.”

What then is contextual or synthetic learning?

It might help to think for a moment about the contrast between analytic and synthetic learning as it commonly plays out. You can easily see analytic learning at play, because it gives rise to the text book and the text book is supported by it.

Here’s what analytic learning looks like a little caricatured (but not as much as one might have hoped would be necessary):

You assign a story. When the students are done reading it, you give them a list of vocabulary words from the story and either tell them what they mean (if you don’t like learning at all) or ask them what they mean (if a trace of the love of learning has survived your education).

Then you ask them to list the characters and to describe each one: what they are wearing, their physical characteristics, maybe even some subjective elements like their motives or desires.

Not having recognized that the story is now dead (and the students interest in it), you proceed to discuss themes and motifs.

I hope you see the point, because just imagining/remembering this approach truly hurts me.

On the other hand, you can approach a story synthetically – as a whole from the whole.

Suppose I am going to read the fable of the tortoise and the hare. First, I would engage in a discussion about things they’ll encounter in the story that they have already experienced.

For example, depending on their CONTEXT (age, experiences, location, etc.) I’d ask them if they have ever seen or had a rabbit or a turtle. If so, I’d ask them to tell the rest of the group about the turtle and/or the rabbit. Do they like to pet their turtle? Do they ever race it?

I’d ask them if they’ve ever raced – especially a long race. Have they ever had to do a job that took what to them would be a long time (2 minutes for a kindergartner, 2 hours for a third grader, 2 days for a middle schooler, and 2 weeks for a high schooler).

What does it feel like to look at a big job at the beginning? etc. etc.

In other words, before engaging in the story itself, I would enter into the context of the story.

Next I would read it whole (if it is a huge story, like the Iliad, I’d read chunks of it whole). While we go through it, I’d watch for clues that some of them might not know words or anything else that causes them to stumble.

After reading the text, I’d do a little mini-analysis to heal the story. In other words, I’d make sure they didn’t fall into a ditch of incomprehension while we were reading and I’d pull them out. (If, while we were reading, the text became so difficult that some of the students couldn’t follow it, I’d stop and save them right then and there).

Here we could discuss (not define from a dictionary) what some of the words mean – always asking the students if they know or can determine before telling them.

After reading the story, I’d ask the core question that drove it. I WOULD NOT EVER TELL THEM THE MORAL OF THE STORY.

In the case of the tortoise and the hare, the moral is pretty obvious so it’s not as useful a fable as, say, The Ass’s Shadow. But there’s still a worthy discussion.

The driving question is, “Should the hare have rested?” This central question is always about a concrete action, not an abstract idea.

The fact is, the rabbit did rest. And so do we. So we need to figure out why it did so so that we can understand why we do.

So I urge my students to take a position and defend it or at least to argue both sides of the case. “Give me a few reasons why the hare should have rested,” I’ll say, and have someone write them down under an A.

  • He was tired
  • He was way in the lead
  • He didn’t need to hurry
  • His feet hurt
  • He felt confident
  • etc.

Meanwhile, I’m also asking why the hare shouldn’t have rested and having someone record the reasons under N.

  • He was arrogant
  • He was lazy
  • He lost
  • A hunter could have shot him
  • etc. etc.

Now notice something. I have begun to analyze the story. But I’m coming into the particulars from the whole (the context) rather than imagining that I can have much success working from the particulars analyzed out of their context to the whole (the context).

Now I’m going to read even more closely, but never leave the context. I’ll ask questions drawn from material logic and applied to rhetoric under the topics of invention.

  • What is a hare?
  • What is a tortoise?
  • What do you mean by rest?
  • How is the tortoise like the hare?
  • How are they different? in kind? In degree?
  • What is the relationship between the tortoise and the hare?
  • What caused them to race?
  • What caused the hare to rest?
  • What caused the tortoise to keep going?
  • What was the effect of the hare resting?
  • What was going on while the hare was resting?
  • Were there any experts or judges who had an opinion on this event?
  • Witnesses?
  • What other stories or characters does this remind you of?

The value of these questions varies from story to story, but the student who internalizes them is a good reader. He can do the analysis without even knowing he’s analyzing.

He does a character study, he learns the vocabulary, he examines the plot, he discovers themes and motifs – but all in a living context of reading the story as a story – not as a carcass to be dissected.

This matters enormously, because the task of the teacher is to arouse and direct the intellectual energy of his students. Teaching from the whole to the part makes this much easier.

Let me summarize.

Contextual learning, or teaching from the whole to the part, occurs when a person learns, as a person with a context, reading a book (or otherwise encountering ideas) that is a human artifact with a context of its own, in a context that brings the learner and the artifact together.

All three of those contexts are moral because they are human.

The opposite of contextual learning is reading, as a computer, a decontextualized text that contains information to be culled or, occasionally, understood at a very low level.

This approach gives rise to multiple choice tests which to prepare for undercuts the development of the students’ reading skills by compelling him to read in an unnatural, decontextualized manner with an extraordinarily narrow focus of attention.

It also gives rise to the sort of writing that a person brought up on that kind of teaching would be inclined to write, namely stories that can fit into an analytical test-taking context by avoiding moral issues and therefore compelling human interest.

Reading from the whole begins with the core question (Should….) and uses the analytical tools purposefully in order to answer the core question.

Good writing arises from good reading. You write to become wise when you read to become wise.

In my next writing post, I’ll explore how to put writing and reading in a symbiotic relationship.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part IV)

Here is: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies.

David Hicks: Norms and Nobility, page vi

Contextual learning is called by some synthetic learning. It is the learning that comes out of the whole to engage the part. It is the context that makes learning interesting, delightful, and profitable.

However, in the excessively analytical modes of thinking that dominate our schools, we are continually required to learn things out of their contexts, and therefore in ways that are less interesting, less delightful, and less profitable.

The archetype of the decontextualized lesson is the dissected frog. Wordsworth even treated this activity as a metaphor if not a synechdoce for modern education: we murder to dissect. We do it to Robert Herrick’s poetry as much as we do to the frog.

You don’t learn what a frog is by dissecting it. You have to experience it in context – at the pond, with its mates, etc.

All human action takes place in a moral context. Every human action arises from a human decision, and every human decision has a moral context.

Every historical or literary event, therefore, is fundamentally moral. Every story turns on an action by the protagonist and every action follows on a decision. In most stories it is the moral dilemma that drives the plot. Every story ends up celebrating some virtue, even James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or DH Lawrence.

For this reason, literature and history have always been seen as morally formative “subjects.” Fundamentally, as Mr. Hicks points out elsewhere, history and literature are driven by the same basic questions.

Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.


The question that drives the human spirit, that arouses thought in child or adult, and that makes an education worth getting is this very simple question, “What should one do?”

Writing, therefore, can be used to cultivate wisdom when we teach students to engage in this inquiry. It must not be taught in isolation, as a specialized, abstracted skill. It should be taught as a way to refine thinking about things that matter, like whether Huckleberry Finn should have helped Jim escape, whether the colonies should have revolted against George III, whether Brutus should have assassinated Caesar, whether the grasshopper should have spent his summer playing music, whether Edmund should have followed the White Witch, etc.

It should be contextualized. Notice what Mr. Hicks said above: “This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom.”

I’ll have more to say on how to do this in later posts, but this is an important starting point. Not only can writing be used to cultivate wisdom, it must be so used. When you use writing as a tool by which your students ask the question, “What should be done?” or more precisely, “Should something be done?” you have begun to do so.

You’ve also just made reading, writing, history, and literature exponentially more interesting, delightful, and profitable.

I don’t know if there is any other question that can properly integrate or synthesize the curriculum (Most attempts at integration fail because of their analytical bias. They try to integrate at too low a level, setting aside ethical and philosophical matters).

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.

The Tempest: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Freedom

I have the feeling Shakespeare has been shadowing me lately and writing his plays based on things I’m thinking about. You laugh, but think about this.

I’ve been reading the Tempest to prepare for discussions with the apprentices. So this morning, I read Act 5, and I come across lines like this:

Ariel: If you now beheld them/ Your affections would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, were I human.

Ah yes, he’s been thinking about next year’s conference theme: What is man?

But that’s not all. He goes on:

And mine shall.
Hast thou, which are but air, a touch, a feeling
of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

I think that we fail to realize how much Shakespeare’s philosophy and ethic enabled his poetry. Shakespeare was a wise man, a man of such profound insight that his literature tempts people like Harold Bloom to turn it into a secular literature.

He knew human nature. Notice the language he used, some of which would now be considered archaic because it does not reduce man to something kindless (unkind).

“Shall not myself, one of their kind… be kindlier moved than thou art?”

In other words, should I not, sharing the same nature/kind with these men, act as one who shares a nature/kind with them. Should I not act humanely, humanly?

Do you see how very high a conception of humanity Ariel has? “Mine would, were I human.” Where does it come from? Until this day, he’s only known two humans, Prospero and his daughter Miranda.

It reminds me of Miranda’s words when she sees the nobly dressed dukes and kings later in Act 5: “How beauteous mankind is. Oh brave new world that has such people in’t.”

She’s young and naive and has enjoyed the loving affection of a good father. By brave, she means wonderful, imaginative, splendid – bedecked in wonder might be a fitting expression.

She had not endured what her father had. He replies to her awe: “‘Tis new to thee.” He is less impressed.

And no wonder, he had been betrayed by a brother, “that entertained ambition, expelled remorse and nature.” Nevertheless, to this brother he says, “I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art.”

Ariel and Miranda are full of admiration for humans. Prospero less so. And yet, Prospero respects them more. He has one goal in mind, expressed a few different ways.

Line 36: Penitence.
Line 40: They shall be themselves
Line 197: To “requite them with a good thing” which restores a just order
And then, the very last word of the play, at the end of the last two lines:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free

In other words, the purpose of Prospero’s project (line 1) is that these human beings would realign themselves to nature and thus be set free.

Ironically, perhaps, it takes something more than nature to achieve that end.

Read the Tempest with these three themes in mind (but just read it for the pleasure of it) and you will be drawn deeper and deeper into truths that will open your eyes and, while they will “take the ear strangely” you will “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace.”