Thinking about the simple things

Simplified parse tree PN = proper noun N = nou...

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I wanted to teach my class of 7th graders the very simple and basic difference between a common and proper noun.  They should already know this, so I considered the lesson largely to be review.

I drew a line down the middle of the board and asked the students to name nouns while I directed my assistants on what side of the line to write the nouns given by the class.  Common nouns went on one side and proper nouns on the other–but I did not tell the class this.  Then we began comparing.

It did not take long for the students to say the names “common” and “proper.”  The two primary things that I heard were that proper nouns have a capital letter, and are more important than common nouns.  Really?

I asked if the “Gators” (a sports team I suspect) are more important than “water.”

“Well, . . . uh, no . . . I don’t know . . . Oh no, Mr. Holler is playing his tricky mind games again.”  (Why do my students think I am playing a tricky mind game when I ask them to think?)

I discovered several things during this class.

1.  Students can enjoy thinking about grammar. Though, I already suspected this.

2. My students concluded that proper nouns are a unique thing within a larger class of common things.  They used the example of the word “restaurant” as a class of common things, and Arby’s, Bo Jangles, etc. as the unique things within the class of restaurants.  Beautiful.

3.  I wondered had they, or any of their teachers, thought this freely about common and proper nouns?  And this revealed something to me that might explain the unspoken prohibition junior high students have sworn an oath to by never capitalizing anything in their writing.

They have never been taught how to write proper nouns because they have never been taught what a proper noun is.  They have only been taught to recognize one on a worksheet or when they read it printed on the page.  Remember, they said, “It has a capital letter.”

How can you write if you do not know the thing you are attempting to write?  Thinking about the simple things will lead our students (even ourselves) toward writing and speaking of greater things.

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.

The Lost Tools of Birthing

Between Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales who died in 1400, and Edmund Spenser, who published The Sheapherd’s Calendar in 1576, you will scan your anthologies of English verse in vain for a renowned poet.
Why did English literature blossom in the 14th century only to enter an aesthetic dark age until Spenser? And why did the late 16th century, the Elizabethan age, experience a flowering that many students of English literature still consider a golden age? How did nearly 200 obscure years disappear in the radiance of Spencer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so many great poets, writers, explorers, and scientists?
Grammar and rhetoric.
In 1540, King Henry VIII issued an Executive Order that every school throughout the realm should teach a uniform grammar. In the 1544 version, the following “letter to the reader” explains why he issued his history-altering decree:
“His majesty considering the great encumbrance and confusion of the young and tender wits, by reason of the diversity of grammar rules and teachings (for heretofore every master had his grammar, and every school diverse teachings, and changing of masters and schools did many times utterly dull and undo good wits) hath appointed certain learned men meet for such a purpose, to compile one brief, plain, and uniform grammar, which only (all others set apart) for the more speediness, and less trouble of young wits, his highness hath commanded all schoolmasters and teachers of grammar within this his realm, and other his dominions, to teach their scholars.”
Every English school child in Elizabethan England memorized this famous “Lily’s Grammar.” Even earlier, Dean Colet had re-founded St. Paul’s school in London, where he implemented a curriculum and text books written and assisted by his friend, Erasmus. By the time Shakespeare reached the Stratford Grammar School in 1571, the curriculum and methods of St. Paul’s had spread throughout England. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the manner of teaching:
“The method prescribed unremitting exercise in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar dominated the lower forms, logic and rhetoric the upper. In all forms the order was first to learn precepts, then to employ them as a tool of analysis in reading, and finally to use them as a guide in composition…. The boy must first be grounded in the topics of logic through Cicero’s Topica before he could properly understand the one hundred and thirty-two figures of speech defined and illustrated in Susenbrotus’ Epitome Troporum ac schematum et grammaticorum et rhetoricorum”
The assumption behind this Renaissance curriculum is the same assumption that an athlete or a painter or a dancer makes when he seeks excellence: virtue requires “unremitting exercise,” which is to say, disciplined mastery of the craft.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a shadow of the curriculum Erasmus and Lily established in 16th century England. It is hoped that this shadow, learned by eager students and taught by humble teachers, can plant the seeds of a thousand individual Renaissancen.
The Lost Tools of Writing rests on the conviction that our world is populated by geniuses and intelligent people who fail to realize their genius or fulfill their intelligence for lack of disciplined training in the craft of writing. When the insights and epiphanies come, the unprepared mind has no vessel to preserve it.
The more intelligent the student, the more frustrating the experience.
Perhaps it strains the point to insist that writing is a craft with tools that empower the craftsman through practice, that writing produces artifacts that can be objectively assessed for their consistency with the principles of the art, and that the goal of instruction is for the student to attain self-mastery, which is synonymous with freedom.
If American education is going to be reborn, if the United States are going to experience a much-needed rebirth of freedom, it will only occur through a wide-spread commitment to the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Could William Faulkner Write?

I don’t like to travel without an interesting compelling time-filling book, and I’m driving up to PA tomorrow in what is still called a car because that is what the people over at Hertz call it – a bright cool air-conditioned chamber with the windows all closed because as a man I realize that hot air prevents coolness from spreading and the open window will let more heat than cool in – so I was glancing over my office qua study bookcase covered with anthologies of great books and poems and individual novels from which life-changing insights broke in random gusts, breaking the backs of cultures on the rack of history and I made the mistake of picking up Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. I read the first page and a half and thought, “This demands a response.”

So, even though I have no time for it, and even though I can’t possibly say anything intelligent, I am going to take a few moments and respond to this page and a half.

My first thought, by the time it formed itself into a proposition, sounded something like this: “How does such a book find a publisher?”

It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to be published, it’s just that it breaks every rule in the publishers library of rule books. How did the first editor get past the second page? This book, were it handed in to a college professor, would have almost certainly been dismissed as ridiculous.

But the error would have been the professor’s, I guess, because its now among the great books in the American canon.

My trouble, and the trouble is mine and it is a vice, is that when I pick up a book to read on my own, I want to know it will be worth my time. I am a distressingly pragmatic reader. I want to take something out of the reading and I want to do it quickly.

So when I read, “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with ….” I wonder:

How do I know Faulkner isn’t playing a joke on me?

The thing is, it may be that Faulkner is writing this exactly as it needed to be written given the reality he is embodying in this description. It may be that unless we see all these things interpenetrating each other verbally we can never perceive how they interpenetrated each other in reality. In other words, maybe high school essay prose won’t express the idea Faulkner is trying to express.

So I flip randomly and end up on my head. Then I flip the pages of my book randomly and end up on page 87, where I read this:

“She must have seen Judith now and Judith probably urged her to come out to Sutpen’s Hundred to live, but I believe that this is the reason she did not go, even though she did not know where Bon and Henry were and Judith apparently never thought to tell her.”

And just as I’m about to plunge into despair, he follows that with this:

“Because Judith knew. She may have known for some time; even Ellen may have known. Or perhaps Judith never told her mother either.”

He can write short sentences – but he won’t write in a perfectly linear way, that’s evident. Every phrase seems to be a qualification of the preceding one.

Now, being a child of the age, I prefer to read fast and to get on to the next book, but it’s pretty obvious that if I’m going to read Absalom, Absalom I’m going to have to slow down and think about what I’m reading. I’ll probably even, horror of horrors, have to read it more than once.

Who’s got time for that? There are 54 great books in the great books set and this isn’t even one of them! Plus I have to read Hicks, Plato’s Phaedrus, and The Tempest for the apprenticeship, study Latin, study poetics for LTW development, and read things for next year’s conference – etc. etc.

Who’s got time for a leisurely read?

It reminds me of Emo Phillips doing the triathlon. He swims for about five minutes and then thinks, “This is stupid, the bike is getting rusty.”

So who knows, maybe I’ll read Faulkner or maybe I won’t. I know that until I do I can’t be considered educated, but that’s the way the cookie bounces. I blew my chance to get educated when I went to school as a child. Now I just do what I can.

But it does seem to me that the effort would be worth it. For one thing, I would have to read in a manner I’m not accustomed to reading and that’s always a good thing to do. Reading is an almost miraculous activity in that it opens the mind, not only to new ideas, but to new forms of thinking, to new patterns of perception.

I like the standard clear strong manly English sentence with a subject, predicate, direct object. I like the periodic sentence too, where the verb (imitating Latin and German), till the end of the sentence, is withheld. It seems to hold the attention while the reader, anxious to see whether the sentence will heal or wound itself with its ending, poised on a balance beam, waits; and the writer, heels over head, dismounting the same beam, nothing promises.

But Faulkner: what is he doing?

Here’s how it appears to me. He is not writing, or so it seems to me from the two pages I’ve read, about actions or about the world outside. He seems instead to be writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.

His form, therefore, while it is not easy, would seem to be essential, as much a part of the story as the words themselves. It will be demanding, as much poetry as prose. But if I ever have the time and if I ever feel like it, I might well read this book. For now, I’m happy with my Spider-Man comic.

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).

A Lovely Afternoon Walk with Socrates and Phaedrus (Via my new Boeing Time-Traveling Vessel)

David Wright

Recently I had the fortuitous opportunity to travel back to the fifth century B.C. and take a lovely spring walk with Socrates and Phaedrus, just outside the walls of Athens. Coincidentally, Phaedrus had just arrived from a long morning walk and talk with Lysias when the door of my Boeing time vessel hemorrhaged open from a rather skittery landing.

I recognized Phaedrus immediately from the wry look of love on his handsome Athenian face. He couldn’t stop smiling and repeating lines from a speech about love. And you can always tell when someone is in love or talking about love because it is at the heart of reality.

Surprisingly, he paid little attention to my time-craft or my explanation of how I’d journeyed from the future. The speech and the idea were the logos of his entire essence; so much so that very little could distract him.

I greatly admired this—for my current cultural epoch is one of distraction; it is almost anti-speech and anti-idea. Furthermore, this was such a blessing, for I wished to be hardly noticed. I merely wanted to meander with them and take part in their discussion—the one that Plato recorded in his Phaedrus dialogue—without disturbing the moment because of my clothes or language. It all played out quite nicely.

My how green and rustic it was on the outskirts of Athens! Absolutely lovely. The insects whistling and the plantlife breathing fostered not only contemplation but also eloquence. For who would want to disturb such harmony with imprecise words? For nature speaks its own high language with perfect propriety.

Fortunately (actually once-in-a-lifetime-lucky), Phaedrus and I ran into Socrates sauntering near the west gate looking confused. It was really quite funny; he was extremely deep in thought and mumbling to himself—and having difficulty deciding whether to head toward the city center or toward the country. We quite easily convinced him to join us for a country stroll. And of course I had a small mp3 recorder. Our conversation proceeded as follows:

SOC: What were you doing there? Lysias was entertaining you with his eloquence, I suppose?

PHA: You shall hear, if you can spare the time to go with us. Oh, by the way, this is David, he’s from quite a ways away, though I’m not sure where. He’s very cordial and interested in discussion.

DAV: The pleasure is all mine. So nice to meet you. I hope you can spare the time to come with us.

SOC: Spare the time! Don’t you realize that to me an account of what passed between Phaedrus and Lysias is, to use Pindar’s phrase, ‘a matter which takes precedence even over business’?

PHA: Come along then.

SOC: Your story please.

PHA: Well, Socrates, what I have to tell you is very much in your line, for the subject on which we were engaged was love – after a fashion. Lysias has written as speech designed to win the favor of someone who is not in love with him. That is the clever thing about it; he makes out that an admirer who is not in love is to be preferred to one who is.

SOC: Noble fellow! I desire to hear your account of the speech.

DAV: I’d love to as well.

PHA: I’m an amateur. How can I reproduce such a perfect speech?

SOC: Don’t be coy. I know you’ve been out here walking and repeating the speech so much you have it memorized! That’s why you’re outside the city walls. Now you’ve met another man who likewise has a near disease-like passion for speeches. So get on with it!

DAV: Your fidelity to speeches is remarkable, as is your commitment to memorization and recitation, two canons of rhetorical discourse sorely lacking in my culture.

PHA: Let’s sit on the pretty grass in the shade below this tree. A gentle breeze is blowing.

SOC: Lead us on.

PHA: Tell me, guys, isn’t there a story that Boreas abducted Oreithyia from somewhere here on the banks of the Ilissus?

SOC: No, it was some quarter of a mile downstream, where one crosses to the temple of Agra; an altar to Boreas marks the spot, I believe.

PHA: But seriously, Socrates, do you believe this legend?

SOC: The pundits rejected it, so if I rejected it I’d be in good company. In that case I should rationalize the legend by explaining that the north wind blew Oreithyia down the neighboring rocks when she was playing with Pharmaceia, and that her dying in this way was the origin of the legend that she was abducted by Boreas.

But though I find such explanations very attractive, Phaedrus and David, they are too ingenious and laboured, it seems to me, and I don’t altogether envy the man who devotes himself to this sort of work, if only because, when he has finished with Oreithyia, he must go on to put the Hippocentaurs into proper shape and after them the Chimaera.

In fact he finds himself overwhelmed by a host of Gorgons and Pegasuses and other such monsters, whose numbers create no less a problem than their grotesqueness, and a skeptic who proposes to force each of them into a plausible shape with the aid of a sort of rough ingenuity will need a great deal of leisure.

Now I have no time for such work, and the reason is, my friend, that I’ve not yet succeeded in obeying the Delphic injunction to ‘know myself’, and it seems to me absurd to consider problems about other beings while I am still ignorant about my own nature. So I let these things alone and acquiesce in the popular attitude towards them; I make myself rather than them the object of my investigations, and I try to discover whether I am a more complicated and puffed-up sort of animal than Typho or whether I am a gentler and simpler creature, endowed by heaven with a nature altogether less typhonic.

DAV: I’m sorry, but I just have to comment here. Socrates, you have said several salient points. First, you mention that the pundits reject the myth, and that rejecting it is the popular thing to do.

In fact, they de-miracle-ize the legend don’t they?  Or as you say, they “rationalize” the legend by saying that a north wind blew Oreithyia down or else she fell from the Areopagus. But as you rightly say, these kinds of explanations are attractive but too ingenious and labored.

The slope of skepticism is a slippery one. Once a person begins this sort of cutting and trimming to fit his rational and empirical expectations and assumptions, he must continue to force all other phenomena into this machine—as you say, to put the centaurs and chimaera into proper shape.

This machine, by the way, becomes the dominant machine in about nineteen centuries, during a period called the Enlightenment. And once the machine is created, it can’t stop growing—it seems to feed itself.

You wouldn’t believe how indomitable the machine becomes in my century, entirely ruling the universities and the socio-political culture. Each successive generation since the Enlightenment has added a mechanism to the machine—a monistic gear, a materialist ball joint, an empiricist lever—and of course the fuel for the machine is an uncritical belief in technological progress.

And I love how you connect this to knowing oneself. The creation of this machine comes at the expense of the Delphic injunction. To ‘know thyself’ is vital; for man himself is the centaur and the Chimeara, a multi-faceted complexity who, ironically, defies and contradicts the very machine we have created.

To focus on the mystery of man and his soul is to watch the machine disintegrate. Your commitment to contemplating your own nature, Socrates, is in fact the greatest gift you will give mankind. For you and your commitment to the examined life is actually one of the few beacons, along with Christ the coming Messiah, that save philosophy.

Yes, you actually save it from the tyranny of negating systems such as sophistry, skepticism, nihilism, and many others. Indeed, true philosophy is rarely practiced in my era, and it’s almost nonexistent in schools, universities, and philosophy departments.

Unfortunately, because you are a point of light and a kind of savior, you will have to suffer for this. But I’m only telling you because I have a feeling you already know…

PHA: This is the place to rest and discuss.

SOC: Indeed a lovely spot for a rest. The plane is very tall and spreading, and agnus-castus splendidly high and shady, in full bloom too, filling the air with the finest possible fragrance. And the spring which runs under the plane; how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. The figures and other offerings show that the place is sacred to Achelous and some of the nymphs. I choose to lie down. Now read the speech of Lysias to me.

PHA: Why a lover not in love is preferable to lover who is in love. First, lovers repent the kindnesses they have shown when their passion abates, but for those not in love, there never comes a time for such regret. They behave generously, not under constraint, deliberately calculating their own interests.

Relieved from the disadvantages that being in love brings, nothing remains for them but to do cheerfully whatever they think will give their partners pleasure.

Second, lovers are apt to value any new love who comes along more than the old.

Third, lovers admit that they are mad, not sane; they know that they are not in their right minds but cannot help themselves. How then can one expect that designs formed in such a condition will meet their approval when they come to their senses?

Fourth, if you choose the best from among your lovers, you will have few to choose from, but if you look for the one who suits you best in the world at large, you will have a wide field of choice, and so a much better chance of finding one worthy of your friendship.

The fifth point concerns reputation. Lovers are easily offended by on another and incur worse reputations than non-lovers.

Sixth, lovers are more prone to quarrels and jealousy than non-lovers.

Seventh, with lovers, physical attraction precedes knowledge of character or circumstances, so it is uncertain whether they will want to remain friends when their passion has cooled. But for those not in love, who were friends before they formed a liaison, are in no danger of finding their friendship diminished as a result of the satisfaction they have enjoyed.

Eighth, lovers approve words and actions that are far from excellent and praise things which do not deserve the name pleasant—passion impairs their judgment.

Ninth, those not in love have an eye more to future advantage than to present pleasure, thereby laying the foundation of lasting affection.

Tenth, if you are possessed by the notion that firm friendship is impossible unless one is in love, then we should have little regard for our sons, fathers, and mothers.

And the eleventh and final point is that it is not the most insistent suitor that one should favor, such as a desperate lover, but one best able to make a return.

Well, what do you think of my speech, Socrates and David, isn’t it a wonderful piece of work, especially the diction?

SOC: More than wonderful. Divine. I concentrated on you and saw how what you were reading put you in a glow. I followed your example and joined in the ecstasy, you inspired man.

PHA: Do you think this is a laughing matter?

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

DAV: I’m having trouble taking you seriously, too, Socrates.

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

PHA & DAV: No.

SOC: Well, approving of the speech’s matter is one thing, and its style another. If you want to approve of the former, it is you who must take the responsibility. I can only admire its style, the clarity, shapeliness, and precision with which every phrase is turned. The matter I don’t suppose even Lysias himself could think satisfactory.

DAV: This ought to be good.

SOC: It seems to me, Phaedrus and David, that he has said the same things two or three times over, either because he couldn’t find sufficient matter to produce variety or from sheer lack of interest in the subject. The speech struck me as youthful exhibitionism; an attempt to demonstrate how he could say the same thing in two or three different ways.

PHA: Nonsense, Socrates. If the speech has one merit above all others, it is that no single aspect of the subject worth mentioning has been omitted; no one could improve on it in either fullness or quality.

DAV: I have a feeling Socrates may be able to improve on it.

SOC: Wise women and men of old have written on the subject more soundly.

PHA: Who are they?
SOC: Either lovely Sappho or wise Anacreon or some prose writers. And I can compose a better speech because I, in my ignorance, have been filled with external inspiration, like a jar from a spring.

DAV: Your acknowledgment of those who have come before is both humbling and vital to the great conversation. Nothing is new under the sun. We all absorb and build from those who have come before. I am excited for your speech.

SOC: Come, shrill Muses, help me in my tale. In every discussion, there is only one way of beginning in order to come to a sound conclusion—that is to know what one is discussing.

DAV: You must mean the crucial topic of Definition in the canon of Invention.

SOC: Right. Most people are unaware that they are ignorant of the essential nature of their subject. Believing that they know it, they do not begin their discussion by agreeing about their use of terms, so as they proceed they fall into self-contradictions and misunderstandings.

Do not let us make the same mistake. The subject we are discussing is whether the friendship of a lover or non-lover is preferable. Let us begin by agreeing upon a definition of the nature and power of love and keep this before our eyes as we debate whether love does good or harm.

Love is a kind of desire. But we know that one does not have to be in love to desire what is beautiful.

In each of us there are two ruling and impelling principles whose guidance we follow: a desire for pleasure, which is innate; and an acquired conviction which causes us to aim at excellence.

Sometimes these two are in agreement within us and sometimes at variance. The conviction which impels us toward excellence is rational, and the power by which it masters us we call self-control; the desire which drags us toward pleasure is irrational and when it gets the upper hand in us its dominion is called excess.

The conclusion to which all this is leading is obvious. When the irrational desire that prevails over the conviction which aims at right is directed at the pleasure derived from beauty, and in the case of physical beauty powerfully reinforced by the appetites which are akin to it, so that it emerges victorious, it takes its name from the very power with which it is endowed and is called eros or passionate love.

Now, let me summarize Lysias’s speech. The man who is under pleasure and a slave to pleasure will inevitably try to derive the greatest pleasure possible from the object of his passion. Hence, he will wish for his object to be inferior in all ways— in intelligence, in physical appearance and bearing, in possession of wealth, in number of friends and family members—so he can ensure total dependence from the object.

There is no kindness in the friendship of a lover; its object is the satisfaction of an appetite, like the appetite for food. One who is in love is faithless, morose, jealous, and disagreeable, and will do harm to one’s estate,  harm to one’s physical health, and harm above all to one’s spiritual development, of which nothing is or ever will be more precious in the sight of God and man. There, my speech is over.

DAV:  So you agree with Lysias? I detect a strong level of irony in your speech, Socrates. For one, it seems too “ingenious and labored,” to use your words about the pundits from earlier. It seems you’ve made an effort to trim love of its wings to fit it into a physical and rational box. I’d like to hear a speech from you in favor of love and being in love.

PHA: I also expect to hear just such a speech. For some reason, I don’t feel like you’re showing all of your cards…

SOC: OK, I confess, that even while I was speaking some time ago I felt a certain uneasiness; I was afraid that I might be ‘purchasing honor with men at the price of offending the gods’. Now I see where I went wrong.

PHA & DAV: Where?

SOC: Our speeches were dreadful, guys, dreadful—both the speech of Lysias and the speech you made me utter. They were silly and more than a little blasphemous. What could be worse than that?

DAV: Even the speeches themselves lacked love. What you are about to say is what I came here to hear. Let it fly!

[The rest of our conversation on that lovely spring day outside of Athens will be revealed in a subsequent post.]

The Place of Logic and the Place of Philosophy

My pocket Aristotle includes these words in the introduction by Justin Kaplan:

[Aristotle] devoted his life to codifying and rationalizing what was then the sum of human knowledge.

Kaplan goes on to list some of Aristotle’s accomplishments and the obstacles he had to overcome to achieve them. Then this:

And underlying all these achievements was this: he was a logician of subtlety and strength, and a searcher after the knowledge that transcends and exists independent of all other knowledge. He called this knowledge “first philosophy” or “wisdom.”

May I draw your attention to two words in the quotations above? First, quotation one: the word “rationalization.” Then in quotation two, the word “and.”

I hope the word rationalization continues to maintain the meaning it expresses in Kaplan’s sentence in the days to come, because it is a hint to an ancient meaning that is more authentic than the modern meaning. To “rationalize the sum of… human knowledge,” is an impressive goal, but it does actually mean something.

Aristotle was attempting to bring all the knowledge he had access to into a harmony, a whole in which every part had its place and in which the place of every part served for the flourishing of every other part. His vision of reality was musical. Discord argued for error. How different from what we think of as “cold rationalism” today.

Aristotle saw truth as flames of fire enlightening the soul.

Thus my highlighting the word “and” in the second quotation. I was afraid, when I read the first clause, that it would be followed by a period, that Kaplan would suggest that the underlying force of Aristotle’s thought was his logical power.

And indeed, Aristotle was a logical genius of the first rank. His development of the syllogism (which Kaplan argues “now has little real function”) and his Organon make up the earliest sustainable handbooks for thinking the world ever saw. They remain unmatched in their breadth and depth.

But Aristotle was not a mere logician. He was a seeker after wisdom, a philosopher. The difference is significant.

Here is how I would seek to express the difference between a logician and a philosopher:

The philosopher seeks to PERCEIVE the essence of things, to know them according to their natures, and to treat them appropriately. He seeks, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, to rightly order and to appropriately judge. For the philosopher everything turns on what Plotinus, at least, and I think Plato and Aristotle as well, called “intelligible form.”

The form of a thing is its essence, the fishness of fish, the redness of red, the justice of justice, etc.. “Intelligible” means understandable, but much more than that in Aristotle. It means that the form or essence of the thing is perceivable by what came to be called “the mind’s eye.”

But the logician, inasmuch as he is a logician and not a philosopher, only has the tools of logic to work with. These tools support philosophy and assist the philosopher, but logic is not philosophy and can only deal with what it is given. Logic, in this sense, is not the same as reason either.

Logic looks for consistency in the statements or propositions with which it is dealing. It is valuable only insofar as the statements carry truth. Logic seeks validity in an argument, not truth itself.

In a way, logic is like a game. Or maybe it would be better to say, logic is the rules of the game. But then, a game is defined by its rules, so to say it is a game, is to say it is the rules of the game. Even so, baseball is a game defined by its rules.

But logic is not about perception. Sensory perception (what we see with our eyes, touch with our hands, etc.) is a starting point for logic, but by no means all it has to work with. Intellectual perception can also provide material to the logician, but this comes from an experience higher than the rules of the game of logic.

In short, logic is not the highest authority on reality, just a tool to help us think about it consistently.

That is why I can constuct logical nonsense, such as:

All Puddleglums are blue things
All blue things are foxtrots
Therefore all puddleglums are fox trots

Logical, yes, but meaningless except as the form itself carries meaning.

So while the philosopher’s foundational concept is intelligible form, for the logician that foundational concept is the universal.

While the form is perceived by the mind’s eye, the universal is more like a chess piece or a counter in a game. “All Puddleglums” is merely a thought. So is “all Rhinoscopes.” In fact, you could even say that “all foxes” is merely a concept in the head of the thinker.

But this is precisely where the great historical argument between the philosopher and the logician breaks out. The philosopher says, “Yes, all foxes may be merely a concept in the head of the thinker, but foxness itself is not. “Fox” is the form of every fox and is what makes the fox a fox.”

The logician, since as logician he cannot perceive forms or essences of things, says, “No, there is no essence of fox. Fox is a name we give to all the things that share the same characteristics because it is convenient and helpful for us to do so.”

This argument is often described as the argument over universals. I would suggest that that is a misnomer, almost certainly coined by someone who takes the side of the logician. It isn’t the argument over universals, but over form vs. logic.

And it only becomes an argument when logic attempts to do more than it is able to do, that is, to do philosophy or theology. Logic is a vice-regent with vast power. But it cannot be the emperor for the simple reason that it cannot see far enough.

Ironic things arise from the uprising of logic (which took place in the middle ages, especially under Peter Abelard and William of Ockham (Occam if you prefer)) including the rise of nominalism, the obsession with the particular that gave rise to empiricism and the scientific revolt, the breakdown of thought into disparate specialized subjects, and the neglect of philosophy and theology.

It’s strange, because the philosopher is a formalist who believes in a knowable reality within which men can be free and powers can be limited, but the logician rapidly bows to the empiricist or the rationalist who always ends up believing that reality is not knowable, there is no law above the state, and freedom is an illusion that they are unable to see.

This distinction between philosophy and logic is very difficult and precise, but very important. Had the logician never exalted himself so far, we wouldn’t have to climb up to remind him of his place. We could rejoice in the ability of the common man to see truth (the essence of things) because his soul is attuned to it (he usually calls it common sense) and he knows what freedom and justice are before his teacher comes and clouds his perceptions.

Teach logic and teach it well. Enable your students to learn its powers and its limitations. Just remember that it doesn’t see forms, it analyzes universals. It may well be the child who sees forms the best, so the philosopher is always trying to become like a little child.

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.

Weaver on Educational Gnostics

In Richard Weaver’s book Visions of Order, available through ISI, he includes a chapter called Gnostics of Education in which he demonstrates the parallel teachings of the Progressive educators who dominate American thought and the gnostics of the first two centuries.

For one who is opposed to the enemies of the human soul, this essay is enlightening, somewhat discouraging, and even invigorating. Here’s something:

First, we may turn to the objects of learning. Traditional education has always been based on the assumption that there is a world of data, a fixed reality, which is worth knowing and even worth reverencing. The content of education therefore reflected the structure of an antecedent reality. This in fact was education…. The world is there a priori [i.e. it comes first]; the learner has the duty of familiarizing itself with its nature and its set of relations.

Now all of this has been reversed. The main concern of modern educationists is not knowledge of an existent reality, but rather the mastery of a methodology. The aim of the methodology is to “grow through experience.” These are key terms requiring some examination.

Indeed they are. Here you see a pretty fair summary of progressive education compared to that which arises from the Christian classical tradition. Reality cannot be known, says the progressive, and people who try to make it knowable are a problem. Therefore, let us build a school system on the premise that reality cannot be known.

Read that last sentence again.