Topping: Renewing the Mind

March 17, 2019

Renewing the Mind
A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education
Ryan N.S. Topping (Ed.)
(CUA, 2015)
xvi + 397 p.

Where I live we have a government-funded system of Catholic schools which educates roughly half of the children in the province. The curriculum is set by the government, with approval from the bishops. Every school has a priest-chaplain, and the school body attends Mass together a few times each year. Sometimes the Rosary Apostolate comes to visit. Students can, and most do, attend these schools for twelve years and graduate knowing next to nothing about Catholic history, Catholic art and literature, Catholic theology, or Catholic ethics, and without any conspicuous adoption of Catholic spirituality or devotion. If the aim is to graduate students with a robust understanding of Catholicism and a strong personal commitment to Christ, these schools are a dismal failure. If the aim is more modest, if it is just that students graduate with a tenacious personal attachment to Catholicism, that the Catholic tradition, broadly considered and roughly speaking, is inherited and appropriated by the next generation, much the same conclusion follows. Clearly, something is amiss deep down.

The problems are multifarious. One, of course, is that the schools have largely surrendered their ability to hire teachers on the basis of religious commitment; teachers who are strongly committed to their faith — and there are some! — must be weighed against those who are wishy-washy or worse, and students can be pardoned for getting a mixed message. Another, no doubt, is the decision to adopt, or allow to be foisted, the self-same curriculum as is taught in the non-Catholic public schools; immediately whatever Catholicism is to be found in the Catholic schools is reduced to a patina. And this is tolerated, I believe, because we have largely lost sight of what a Catholic education should be: not just what it should teach, but why it should teach it, and how, and what it is supposed to achieve.

Into this amnesiac reverie comes this hefty, small-print reader on the philosophy of Catholic education. It is the sort of book about which one writes two paragraphs or twenty pages; my notes on it are the latter, but in this space I’ll steer toward the former.

It consists of a judicious selection of readings from the long tradition of Catholic thinking about education. The texts are grouped broadly into four categories: first, on the aims of education; second, on the subject matter of a Catholic education; third, reflections on effective methods of teaching; and, finally, a lengthy collection of essays and articles on our contemporary situation and signs of renewal in modern Catholic education. The selections are almost uniformly from the top shelf: starting with Plato and Aristotle — yes, they too are part of the Catholic tradition! — up through Augustine and Basil, Bonaventure and Aquinas, to Erasmus, Montaigne, Newman, and Clive Staples Lewis. Among those modern writers who make the cut are Christopher Dawson, Dorothy Sayers (with her Lost Tools of Learning, of course), John Senior, Maria Montessori, Jacques Maritain, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Some authors appear more than once; Plato and Aquinas, at thrice, share the honours at the top of the heap. There are 39 selections in all.

It is impossible to summarize this wide range of sources in a brief space, but let me mention a few highlights. I had never before seen the Ratio Studiorum written in the 16th century to guide the huge network of Jesuit schools; I cannot say I was greatly inspired by it, but it has been very influential and I was happy to read it. I relished the section from Newman’s The Idea of a University in which he discusses the challenges the Protestant tradition in English literature poses for English-speaking Catholics; I really must find time to read that great book in its entirety. And I was fascinated by Pope John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia, a 1962 encyclical in which he commended to all Catholic schools the importance of teaching and learning Latin! I wasn’t sure whether to be sad that a papal document of such authority could be such a thoroughly dead letter, or, given subsequent developments, encouraged for the same reason.

A more ambitious person than I would draw on this wonderful collection to synthesize the consistent and foundational principles of Catholic thinking about education through the centuries. It could be that the editor of this volume, Ryan Topping, has done just that in his book The Case for Catholic Education; I’d like to find out. The barest, briefest summation would be something like this: we are made to know and love God, and love of God, the highest Good, should guide and shape our study; the human mind desires to know and love truth, and this desire is not in vain; education has intellectual, moral, and aesthetic dimensions; and, finally, Rousseau was a flap-eared knave.

Facetiousness aside, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to readers with an interest in Catholic education. It is a rich feast.


Lenten difficulties

March 15, 2019

Just to collect one’s mind in prayer at a specified time and to pray inwardly, even though for only a moment, is more difficult than to occupy a city.

— Kierkegaard,
“Patience in Expectancy”.


Flagstad in spring

March 12, 2019

Sad songs about spring are something of a niche item, but have you ever heard one sadder or more beautiful than Grieg’s Våren? I recently heard this performance by Kristen Flagstad and it stopped me in my tracks. What a song, and what a voice!


Roman Civil War histories

March 10, 2019

Alexandrian War
African War
Spanish War
Anonymous
(Landmark, 2017) [c.45 BC]
150 p.

At the conclusion of his own account of the civil war, which brought the story up to the autumn of 48, Caesar had triumphed over Pompey at Pharsalus and, chasing him to Alexandria, had found him dead. Not content to rest on his laurels, Caesar had occupied the Alexandrian harbour and taken Ptolemy, the young Egyptian ruler, into custody.

We have no more history from Caesar’s pen, but we do have these three anonymous works — each by a different author — which relate Caesar’s consolidation of power in the years 48-45.

**

The most substantial of them is the Alexandrian War, which picks up where Caesar left off. We read about Caesar’s tactics, about his decision to permit Ptolemy to return to the Egyptian side as an ally, Ptolemy’s betrayal of Caesar, and the culminating battle at which Ptolemy was killed. In compliance with Ptolemy’s will, Caesar installed his sister Cleopatra in power. (Interestingly, the author says nothing about the romantic intrigues between the two.) Altogether, the Alexandrian campaign took about five months, ending in March 47.

The author then backs up and tells us what was happening elsewhere during the same time period: how Caesar’s deputy Domitius was defeated by Pharnaces in Asia Minor; how Caesar’s forces were triumphant in Illyricum; how Caesar’s men defeated the allies of Pompey the Younger (Gnaeus Pompeius) in Spain; and, finally, how Caesar, leaving Alexandria, went to Asia Minor and gave Pharnaces his comeuppance. The author is very well informed, and has largely succeeded in matching the quality of Caesar’s own historical books.

**

Late in 47 Caesar set sail for the northern African coast, where a trio of leaders loyal to Pompey — one of Caesar’s former lieutenants in Gaul, Titus Labienus; the Numidian King Juba; and the senator Metellus Scipio — remained at large with considerable forces at their command. The African War tells us what happened: how Caesar, in a series of brilliant strategic and tactical moves, emerged victorious over all three. The author, who demonstrates personal knowledge of Caesar and an understanding of his strategic decision-making, was probably a high-ranking officer under Caesar’s command. He does a good job of showing how Caesar gradually improved his position relative to his opponents, and how he responded in moments of crisis. (At the Battle of Ruspina, for instance, which took place on 4 January 46, Caesar was badly outnumbered and eventually completely encircled by Labienus, but improvised a new troop formation that allowed him to defend on all sides while simultaneously breaking the encircling ring at one point to permit escape.)

Interestingly, some of this activity took place during a period with no dates; Caesar had initiated calendar reform, including the insertion of an intercalary period to which no standard dates can be assigned.

**

Having returned to Rome in July 46 — the month of July, incidentally, was then still called Quintilus; it would not be named after Caesar until after his death a few years hence — Caesar again set out late in the year for Spain, where Gnaeus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, remained at the head of an armed force opposed to Caesar. It is difficult to discern the shape of the campaign from the Spanish War, for not only is the text corrupted in many places, but the author has not the qualifications of those we’ve seen thus far; he may have been a low-ranking officer, and is more interested in army gossip — who was defecting, what happened in minor skirmishes, where camps were moved — than in the overall arc of the conflict. What is clear is that the forces of Pompey and Caesar established opposed camps near Corduba (modern Cordova), and finally met in a decisive battle near Munda (the location of which is disputed today) on 17 March 45, nearly a year to the day before Caesar’s final mortal reckoning. It was a massive battle, with over 100000 men on the field, and the fighting was fierce. (Caesar said of the battle, “I fought not for victory, but for my life.”) Caesar’s army was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, yet he emerged victorious. Pompey escaped, but was discovered a few weeks later in a cave, and died fighting. This battle may be said to mark the end of Caesar’s civil wars. His enemies in the field were vanquished — though his enemies back in Rome were alive and well.

**

They form a modest pendant to Caesar’s military chronicles, but nonetheless I appreciated the chance to read these shorter works, which fill in important gaps and are engaging on a number of levels. They are included in The Landmark Julius Caesar, which I have been praising at every opportunity, and continue to praise at this one. If you’re at all interested in this history, and cannot read Latin, this is the edition to get.


Tangled in the web

March 4, 2019
  • Art thieves are the aristocrats of the crime world, retaining something of the aura of a dashing gentleman. Michael Finkel writes about Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the most successful — until he was caught, and caught again. Meanwhile the story of Vjeran Tomic, an art thief whom the French press called “Spider-Man” for his dramatic techniques, is told at The New Yorker.
  • Randy Boyagoda is a Canadian author whose new novel, Original Prin, is both “deeply Catholic and deeply funny”, says André Forget in The Walrus. I’m reading the book now, and Forget is right; the book is delightful — except, perhaps, for my wife, who has to put up with my late night guffaws.
  • Speaking of guffaws, James Geary writes in The Paris Review in defence of puns.
  • Puns may be the highest form of literary comedy, but literary hoax cannot be far behind. J.W. McCormack digs into the history of such hoaxes at Literary Hub.
  • Meanwhile, perhaps perpetrating a hoax of his own, Robert C. Koons argues at First Things that T.S. Eliot was a populist. Actually, his argument is an interesting one.
  • At Catholic Herald, Michael White writes about the premiere of a new piece for tenor and orchestra by Sir James MacMillan, The Hills and Vales Along, based on the war-time poetry of Charles Sorley, who was killed in WWI. We’re MacMillan enthusiasts around here.
  • To wrap up: if you’ve ever wondered if your construction worker might be a well-disguised liberal, or whether your journalist friend might be a secret conservative, put your musings to rest. Business Insider breaks down the political biases of different professions based on campaign contributions in the US. They look about how you’d expect, although it is interesting that the liberal professions (journalism, tech, entertainment, academia) tend to be markedly more liberal than the conservative professions (farming, construction, mining) are conservative. Actually, maybe that is what you’d expect.

For an envoi, let’s hear James MacMillan’s Ave maris stella, beautifully sung by a local parish choir:


Wodehouse: Psmith I

March 3, 2019

Mike at Wrykyn
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2012) [1909]
192 p.

This is the first half of Mike: A Public School Story; the full book was split into two by later publishers eager to distinguish the half that did not have the character Psmith (this half) from the half that did (below). Considering that it was originally part of a larger whole, it has a pleasing structure, beginning and ending at Mike Jackson’s breakfast table, and neatly wrapping up the main plot. Well done, Wodehouse.

Had I been subjected to a blind “name the author” test, I’m not sure I’d have guessed correctly. It is a comedy, certainly, and some of the Wodehousian sparkle is there, and even some of the calling cards (like references to Shakespeare), but overall it didn’t impress in the way his other books have. A major difference was the complexity of the plot; in the Jeeves novels, at least, there are usually several lines of development working in tandem, but here there is really just one — Mike’s fortunes as a cricketer at his new public (that is, private) school. And Mike, as a character, is from the rather dull side of the tracks, I’m afraid.

There is a good deal of cricket in the book, which makes it an amusing tale for a reader who knows nothing at all of the game. For the most part the cricket jargon just adds local colour, like the nautical terms in the Aubrey-Maturin books, but at the story’s climax — the big game — I can testify that ignorance of the rules and structure of the game makes it impossible to understand what is happening.

I confess that I read the book only as a prelude to the books about Psmith, which are the real object of my present interest, but it was reasonably good on its own terms.

***

Mike and Psmith
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2013) [1909]
214 p.

In this, the second half of Mike: A Public School Story, we meet Rupert Psmith — “the P is silent” — who was to become one of Wodehouse’s best beloved characters.

The story picks up where Mike at Wrykyn ended: Mike, removed from his former school for poor academic performance, is sent to a new school, where he meets another new boy, Psmith, and strikes up a friendship. Together they join the Archaeology Club, giving the stiff shoulder to the cricket team, and have a variety of adventures. At the story’s climax, Mike stands wrongly accused of having painted the headmaster’s dog red. We are here deep in the realms of profundity. All comes right in the end, and the novel closes with another mystifying bout of cricket.

This second panel of Mike is much better than the first; the writing livelier, the comedy more inspired, the prose smoother, the story more engrossing, the characters more distinctive. Psmith, especially, is a wonderful creation: loquacious, playful, and dignified; he enlivens every page on which he appears. I look forward to Psmith in the City, the next book about him.


Weinberg: String Quartet No.6

February 28, 2019

For me, the string quartets of Weinberg are essential listening. They bear comparison, I think, with those of Shostakovich, even if they suffer somewhat in the comparison. They are made of intensely interesting and thoughtful music.

Here is the slow movement from the String Quartet No.6, a six-movement work written in 1946. The sinewy lines, which are hard to predict but not capriciously so, embedded in a fairly rigorous imitative structure, offer a good example of what I find so valuable about Weinberg as a composer. Background and analysis here.


Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities

February 19, 2019

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2008) [1859]
386 p.

Somehow I managed to reach my ripe old age without having read this great novel, a defect that I am happy to have now rectified. Yes, even through these tears, I am happy.

The story is set during the final decades of the eighteenth century, the two cities are London and Paris, and the story follows a family that, with one foot on each side of the channel, gets caught in the crosshairs of the French Revolution. I suppose everyone knows this, although I did not.

It’s a wonderful book in pretty much every respect. The characters are excellent, even the rare female villain, and the amiable old banker, and the kindly old father, and the courageous young woman, and the principled young man, and, of course, the noble-hearted young lover. The writing is, even for Dickens, marvellous; there are sections — such as the passage about the storming of the Bastille, or that scene of spilled wine in the street, or that prophetic vision — that are like orchestral music. It has been ingeniously constructed, with key revelations concealed until the appropriate hour. At barely half the length of one of his typical novels, it is unusually focused and fleet of foot.

Dickens was clearly no friend of the Revolution — its rallying cry he always modifies to “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death!” — though of course he was no friend either to oppression and injustice. He saw the desire of the people for liberty as healthy, but the means followed to that end horrible. He is the patron novelist of the common Englishman, but was able to put a sympathetic aristocrat, and a French one at that, at the center of this book. In the end, he gave us a large-hearted story about the power of love, requited and unrequited, romantic and filial, to shine in the darkness, though the darkness does not comprehend it. I judge it one of Dickens’ best.


Weinberg: two things

February 13, 2019

This week my Weinberg listening project has been focused on music from 1946. This was a difficult time for him, as much of his family had been killed in the war. But the music, which included his clarinet sonata, second symphony, and third piano sonata, is wonderful.

Here’s something cute. In this year he published 21 Easy Pieces for piano. In this video the first, “Merry March”, is played by a talented youngster named Julia:

And here is something more elaborate: the adagio movement from his Symphony No.2:


Cicero: Murder Trials

February 11, 2019

Murder Trials
Marcus Tullius Cicero
(Penguin Classics, 1975)
[80-45 BC]

368 p.

Cicero was a statesman, an orator, an amateur philosopher — and a lawyer. This volume gathers together four of his most celebrated speeches given in the context of murder trials; in each case he was speaking for the defence. The earliest dates from 80, when Cicero was just 20 years old; the latest from 45, when he had, unbeknownst to him, of course, just two more years to live.

*

The first speech is in defence of one Sextus Roscius, accused of murdering his father. This was a particularly heinous crime for the Romans, being an assault on the Roman virtue of filial piety, and the guilty were punished in a particularly ghastly way: by being tied into a sack with several animals (a dog, a cock, a monkey, and a snake) and thrown into a river. Cicero’s defence consisted partly in blaming the accuser for having committed the crime himself.

The second speech, in defence of Aulus Cluentius Habitus, was given in 66. Cluentius was accused of murdering his stepfather. It is an especially celebrated speech; we have a letter from Pliny the Younger to Tacitus in which Pliny judges it Cicero’s finest oration. It is also, at 140 pages in this edition, the longest of Cicero’s surviving speeches.

In 63 Cicero was called upon to defend Gaius Rabirius for a murder alleged to have occurred 37 years earlier. The victim, Saturninus, had been a radical politician who got on the wrong side of the establishment, was shut into the Senate-house and killed there, presumably on orders from opposing Senators. When the politics of Rome swung around, however, Rabirius, a senator, was prosecuted. Technically the charge was treason, not murder, and the accused faced a crucifixion if found guilty.

The political situation had changed again in 45; Caesar had ascended, alone, to the highest position in the state. A minor eastern prince, King Deiotarus, was accused of plotting to murder Caesar himself when Caesar had been a guest in his home. Allegedly, Deiotarus had a group of men waiting for Caesar to enter a certain room, at which point they planned to stab him. (Had they succeeded, the world would presumably have been deprived, many centuries later, of either Macbeth or Julius Caesar!) Cicero spoke in Deiotarus’ defence, arguing his innocence in Caesar’s own home, with Caesar sitting as judge, a difficult assignment about which Cicero remarks:

“the task of defending a man accused of murder before the very person whom he is accused of murdering seems a formidable proposition, since few people could judge a threat to their own lives without showing greater favour to themselves than to the defendant.”

Arguing Deiotarus’ long and faithful service, the implausibility of the success of the supposed plot, and Caesar’s magnanimity, Cicero succeeded in this case of convincing Caesar to reserve judgment. But this was an exceptional outcome: if one was accused of murder in ancient Rome, one could hardly do better than hire Cicero as one’s advocate; his clients were usually acquitted.

*

With the exception of the last, I cannot say that I found these speeches particularly riveting. In fact, as I read, and reflected as well on my experience reading Cicero’s political speeches, I came to the reluctant conclusion that I am not at all a good judge of speeches. The most celebrated examples from modern times (such as, say, the Gettysburg Address or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) tend to be quite short, certainly by comparison with those included in this volume. High, extended oratory simply has no place in our culture today, and this lack of exposure surely at least partly accounts for the fact that I have no savour for the genre, and no great powers of discrimination.

Having said that, there were some interesting things to learn from these addresses. Perhaps the most surprising was that Cicero, as the defence lawyer, didn’t do the things we expect defence lawyers to do. He didn’t discuss testimony of witnesses; he didn’t discuss forensic evidence. In fact he dwelt almost entirely on motive, attempting to convince the audience that his client had no good reasons to commit the alleged murder. (In the speech before Caesar he added a healthy serving of flattery to his winning recipe.) This strikes us as an oddly limited way to proceed. It is also worth noting that we do not have the speeches of the prosecution in these cases, nor the records of cross-examination, so other aspects of the crime might have come out by those means.

The other peculiar feature of these speeches is how much effort Cicero devotes to constructing an alternative theory of the crime, rather than focusing narrowly on defending his client. In the long defence of Cluentius, for instance, only about one-third is actually specifically arguing his client’s innocence. These countermeasures are largely speculative in content, and no doubt contain their fair share of misdirection, the intention being not to build an air-tight case against another, but merely to raise enough doubts in the judges’ minds.

Cicero did also sometimes argue as a prosecutor. I was interested to learn that he would refuse to act as prosecutor if he thought the accused was innocent, yet he would argue for the defence regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused, “provided he is not really a depraved or wicked character”, on the grounds that

“popular sentiment requires this; it is sanctioned by custom, and conforms with human decency.”

**

Of the three volumes of Cicero I have read over the past few months, this was the one I enjoyed the least. It is convenient, therefore, that this is the last of Cicero that I have planned to include in my Roman reading project. Based on this limited experience, I would say that my impression of Cicero falls somewhat short of what his reputation would seem to warrant, and this is due in large part, I expect, to the fact that I am reading him in translation. I don’t know what it is like for an Italian or Frenchman to read Shakespeare in translation, but it can’t be much like reading Shakespeare in the original. I would like to read more of Cicero, but it really would be best to learn Latin first.