Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Lewis: The Abolition of Man

October 17, 2019

The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis
(Fount, 1978) [1943]
63 p.

Lewis mounts a critique of the view that moral judgements are not objective, and defends what he calls the Tao: the basic, objective moral order that underwrites and secures our practical moral reasoning.

His argument is partly empirical, inasmuch as he compiles a raft of citations from texts, philosophical and religious, from Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, and Indian cultures to argue for cross-cultural agreement on basic moral norms regarding beneficence, duties to parents and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, justice, truth-telling, mercy, and magnanimity. These we may, for the sake of the argument at least, take as the content of “the Tao”, although not exhaustive. Synonyms in world traditions for this body of moral norms are “Natural Law”, “First Principles of Practical Reason”, or “First Platitudes”. The Tao consists of the axioms of moral reasoning, on which all moral judgments ultimately rest.

His main line of argument, however, is not just that the Tao is common, but that the Tao is inescapable, and that attempts to deny it are secretly relying on it at a deeper level. (He thus accuses moral relativists of committing a particular fallacy — denying your opponent a premise that you yourself rely on — that I’m sure must have a name, but that I cannot think of.) Those who profess to debunk objective values themselves harbour values that they think immune to debunking. To be sure, their values are not always precisely those which they deny, but Lewis contends that all the first principles of moral reasoning are equally self-evident, and that therefore every effort to pit one against another can be motivated only be desire, not by reason. The Tao is a unity that stands or falls together.

This is not to say that criticism of the Tao is not possible, but he distinguishes two types: from within and from without. Criticism from within he compares to a poet using the resources of a language to enrich it. Distinctions are made; understanding is refined. Criticism from without is mere “debunking”: a clumsy exercise in arbitrariness and a failure to understand what is being destroyed, for “only those who are practicing the Tao will understand it”.

His point is that moral judgments of any kind rely on there being a moral reality: the kingdom of “ought”, the realm of obligation. This is the Tao. Without it, there can be nothing obligatory at all, nothing properly moral. We cannot derive it from any consideration of utility or appeal to instinct, for these cannot generate an “ought” without implicitly relying on one. We can’t get here from there. Any “ought” — including the claim that we ought not to make moral judgments, or that we ought not to believe things that are not true — affirms the Tao and the objectivity of value. Those who try to escape it have nowhere to go:

“Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.”

The only course, therefore, open to those at war with the Tao — and there are, of course, many — is the total refusal of it, an abandonment of a relationship between reason and action, exile from the kingdom of ought. What remains to them is only strength and will — a will, ex hypothesi, bereft of any reference to “good” or “bad”, and therefore either arbitrary or governed by appetite. In human society, this would devolve to some class of persons exercising power over the others, conditioning the populace, using techniques savvy or crude, for its own purposes, a world of social engineering and the reduction of human persons to artefacts:

“Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

If this is so, I should be motivated to honour and uphold the Tao. I should acknowledge the objectivity of moral judgments — not always their correctness, of course, but even incorrectness only makes sense within a realm of objectivity. The horizon of the good is the background against which my moral life is lived out; I should respect and love it, for the intelligibility of my moral life depends on it. Paraphrasing Lewis: things merit, and do not merely receive, my reverence or contempt. I should abandon the pretence that my will can define what is right or wrong. In our time, we fall under a particular obligation to clear the mind of cant.

Indeed, the nature of the interior moral life is dramatically dependent on whether or not one accepts the objectivity of the Tao. St Augustine — who lived under the Tao — defined virtue as ordo amoris, ordered love. Ordered to what? To real value. The moral life is loving more worthy things more and less worthy things less, and progress in the moral life consists in conforming ourselves more and more to this objective order, so that we live in greater harmony with it, rather than trying to bend it to our will.

Augustine’s framing of the moral life in terms of love — rather than, say, duty — is important, because virtue consists not merely in thinking rightly about goodness and badness, but in feeling rightly about them. Moral education, in fact, consists largely, and maybe preeminently, in training ourselves to have the right sorts of emotions about things: love and affection for good things, and repulsion and disgust for bad things. And this is the consistent testimony of our pre-modern inheritance:

Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

I am going to pause and read that again.

Apart from the Tao, our emotions cannot be fitting or just, and we cannot have reasons (real rational reasons, not just desires) to prefer them in ourselves or encourage them in our children. But without just and fitting healthy emotions, human beings have a tendency to fall apart: some into their heads, where they suffer that particular lunacy which, as Chesterton said, “consists in losing everything but their reason”, and others into their bellies, the realm of appetite. It’s all there in the Republic:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

This image is the origin of Lewis’ famous coinage, from this book’s magnificent first chapter, of “men without chests”, meaning those without appropriate emotional responses rooted ultimately in respect for what is real.

**

Two apparent weaknesses in the argument deserve some scrutiny. One is the claim that the moral realm is entirely distinct from the realm of “fact”, and that no bridge between them is possible. No “is” implies an “ought”. But Aristotelian moral philosophy, based on the virtues, seems to be an effort to establish such a bridge, and an impressive one. For Aristotle, morals are derived from observation of what is good for human beings, what allows us to flourish as the kind of thing we are, together with the premise that we “ought” to do those things — a very modest premise which all other creatures endeavour to follow naturally. It does rely on some conception of what is good for us, but Aristotle, I believe, thinks this can be discerned by a careful study of our nature. It is not clear that this moral theory can survive a thoroughly materialist Darwinism, but, averting that course of hari-kari, seems to me a challenger to Lewis’ general account of things. Perhaps he is right, though, that Aristotelianism moral counsels never do quite rise to the level of obligation, but are always counsels of prudence, and, if so, this does seem to be a weakness.

The second weakness is his claim that the Tao, consisting of a set of basic moral premises, is indivisible and one, such that one cannot use one part of it to deny some other part. In logic, of course, it is always possible to reduce the number of independent premises one reasons from, so his claim cannot be strictly logical. His principal justification for the claim is that the basic premises are equally self-evident, and so there can be no rational grounds for pitting one against another, or for accepting one and denying another. But are they equally self-evident? How many basic premises are there? (St Thomas thought that the basic moral premise was “Seek good and avoid evil.” Lewis seems to think the Tao is more elaborate and specific than that.) How do we know that a particular moral principle is truly basic and therefore immune to further analysis? At what deductive distance from the basic premises do moral counsels become susceptible of doubt and scrutiny? None of these questions are really addressed by Lewis, but I suspect he would answer that such is the subject matter of moral philosophy. Indeed, if we peer into St Thomas we might well discover the answers we seek.

**

Lewis argues that if the Tao be rejected then the consequence, at a societal level, must devolve to the exercise of power of a few over the many: a tyranny of social engineering. But this is to see it from the point of view of the few, who see and understand what they are doing. But what would it look like, and feel like, to the many? This is a question that Lewis doesn’t really address, but it seems to me an interesting one. The many would be governed by behavioural norms imposed by their elites, which, though not properly moral norms, might seem so to the unreflective or uninformed. An appeal to the “good”, cynically made for the sake of social order or to achieve a certain end, might seem genuine to those to whom it was addressed. But appeals to something that might be mistaken for a transcendental good would be dangerous for the powers that be, so undesirable behaviour or thoughts would be best enforced by social means, perhaps through appeals to the importance of getting along, cultivation of a taboo against moral judgment in those realms where the regime is at odds with the Tao, or through shaming or intimidation. Evidence that one was living under such a regime would be that moral norms would be protean, always evolving, or, to use a suggestive term, progressive.

**

It’s a small book, but one on which the commentary has been voluminous. As a critique of what Alastair MacIntyre would later call “emotivism” in morals, as a defence of the natural law tradition, broadly speaking, and as an eloquent presentation of the metaphysical preamble to moral education it is justly honoured. And it’s beautifully written too.

**

[Education and the Tao]
The educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’. The latter course involves them in the questionable process of creating in others by ‘suggestion’ or incantation a mirage which their own reason has successfully dissipated.

[Magic and science]
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…

The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins.

Wodehouse: Summer Lightning

October 9, 2019

Summer Lightning
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1929]
320 p.

At the end of the previous Blandings Castle adventure, young Psmith had replaced Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s personal secretary, and a principal question on my mind was whether he would continue in the post long enough to play a role in this rollicking tale. Sadly, he did not. Baxter, in fact, was back, or coming back, in his own efficient manner.

The intertwining stories in this book require close attention to keep straight. There is, of course, the matter of the prize pig, Empress, whose gigantic, near-spherical form doesn’t prevent her going missing. Then there is the Hon. Galahad Threepwood’s project to write his tell-all youthful memoirs, an occasion of sure embarrassment for all the Shropshire nobility. Then there is young Ronnie, the nephew of Lord Emsworth, who has fallen for a London chorus-girl, and there is his cousin, Millicent, who, though intended for Ronnie, has eyes for a member of the domestic staff. And there is the private detective who lurks in bushes and climbs drain-spouts to no great effect. All pile in and are swirled around to create something delectable. Amazingly, Wodehouse hit upon a single brilliant stroke in the final chapter to resolve all of the competing interests. It could not have been more elegant.

Usually the American versions of Wodehouse’s books were given inferior titles, but in this case the American edition was called Fish Preferred, which is not half bad.

Shikibu: The Tale of Genji

October 3, 2019

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu
Translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker
(Everyman, 1993) [c.1000]
1224 p.

The Tale of Genji
William J. Puette
(Tuttle, 1983)
196 p.

A thousand years ago, at a time when European high culture had precious few ornaments in its crown, and was slowly emerging from a long time of trial, a woman in the Japanese imperial court wrote this intricate and refined story about the world in which she lived, a world worlds away from anything known in the West at that time, and quite different in tenor from even the high cultural achievements of Western antiquity.

The Tale of Genji has been called “the first novel”, and indeed Murasaki Shikibu’s careful tracing of psychological complexities and social niceties are worthy of Henry James, but it’s not clear that the designation is quite apt. The book lies wholly outside and antecedent to the tradition of the novel. Though it has roots in Japanese literary traditions, it stands apart as a staggeringly ambitious, in both scale and subtlety, attempt at literary realism. It is, I am told, considered a great classic of Japanese literature, and I am not surprised; had we something of comparable vintage and comparable greatness we’d consider it a classic too.

Although it is sweeping in scope, with over 400 characters, at least a few dozen of them having some claim to being central, the story mostly follows Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji”, a son of the Emperor and a concubine, whose parentage makes him a rather minor member of the imperial court. We follow his many romantic dalliances with ladies in and around the court, his marriages (for this court is determinedly polygamous), and then, as the story progresses, the lives of his children, for whom he does his best to provide, a faithful if distant father. A convenient prècis of much of the story might be this:

It was a difficult world, which refused to give satisfaction. Among his ladies there was none who could be dismissed as completely beneath consideration and none to whom he could give his whole love.

The setting of the story, the Heian court circles, is one of immense delicacy and refinement. Manners are impeccable, conversation is elaborate and polite, voices are hushed. Women remain veiled from sight behind screens. Letters, carefully written and scented with perfumes, are exchanged quietly. I was startled when I realized that most of the social action of the story takes place at night, when all is a play of shadows and light.

This delicacy carries over to the prose, at least in the translation I have read, by Edward Seidensticker. (There are now, I believe, four English translations available.) The voice Seidensticker gives Shikibu is fragile and minimal, smooth, and emotionally stable. I actually found myself turning the pages of the book gently and with unusual care, so as not to ruffle the placid surface, nor disturb the mood with something so rough as a rustling page. As time went on, and I night after night returned to Genji’s tale, I found myself looking forward, with real appreciation, to entering that quiet, carefully managed world again, as though I were entering a poem.

And thoughts of poetry are fitting, for though the story itself is told in prose, the pages are sprinkled with short poems — about 800 of them, I believe — which characters compose for letters or, spontaneously, in conversation. These poems are of a particular type, the tanka, consisting of 31 syllables, and have a literary effect not unlike that of the haiku. Seidensticker in his translation converts these poems into two English lines, confessing that much of the wordplay and poetic resonance is inevitably lost. They are often magnificently oblique, it being a kind of impoliteness, it seems, to come right out and say what one means.

I can perhaps give an impression of the style by providing a short example. This passage begins with Genji entering a room where a woman, Chujo, has been sleeping, whereupon they exchange poems:

Chujo was having a nap in one of the east rooms. She sat up as he came in. A small woman, she brought a sleeve to her face, bright and lively and slightly flushed. Her thick hair, though somewhat tangled from sleep, was very beautiful. She was wearing a singlet of taupe-yellow, dark-gray robes, and saffron trousers, all of them just a little rumpled, and she had slipped off her jacket and train. She now made haste to put herself in order. Beside her was a sprig of heartvine.

‘It is so long since I have had anything to do with it,’ he said, picking it up, ‘that I have even forgotten the name.’

She thought it a somewhat suggestive remark.

‘With heartvine we garland our hair — and you forget!
All overgrown the urn, so long neglected.’

Yes, he had neglected her, and he was sorry.

‘The things of this world mean little to me now,
And yet I find myself reaching to break off heartvine.’

There still seemed to be one lady to whom he was not indifferent.

The rainy Fifth Month was a difficult time.

Suddenly a near-full moon burst through a rift in the clouds. Yugiri chanced to be with him at this beautiful moment. The white of the orange blossoms leaped forward in the moonlight and on a fresh breeze the scent that so brings memories came wafting into the room. But it was only for a moment. The sky darkened even as they awaited, ‘unchanged a thousand years, the voice of the cuckoo.’ The wind rose and almost blew out the eaves lamp, rain pounded on the roof, and the sky was black once more.

‘The voice of rain at the window,’ whispered Genji. It was not a very striking or novel allusion, but perhaps because it came at the right moment Yugiri wished it might have been heard ‘at the lady’s hedge.’

‘I know I am not the first man who has had to live alone,’ said Genji, ‘but I do find myself restless and despondent.’

The two poems set off by line breaks are in the tanka form, but the other poetic fragments (three of them in this section) enclosed in quotation marks are allusions to extra-Genjian poetry, with which Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been intimately familiar, and with which she expected a comparable familiarity in her reader.

*

By almost any measure, The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece. Like many great achievements, it is not easily enjoyed; much is asked of the reader. I have already mentioned the many characters, the mastery of whom is complicated by the fact that the same character is often referred to under several different names or titles; most of the names, in fact, seem not to be proper names at all, but names of flowers, which characters have adopted as monikers. Seidensticker errs in the direction of greater naming consistency than do some translators, and this was a mercy. Even so, I found it difficult to keep track of all Genji’s lady friends, most of whom ended up blurring together in my mind. The great exception to this rule was Murasaki, his concubine and greatest love (but this relationship posed difficulties of another order, for Genji first fell in love with her when she was only ten years old).

Then, too, the story cannot be said to have a superabundance of narrative momentum. Much is revealed by the existence of a scholarly dispute about whether the chapters were composed in order, for although there are narrative threads that span the life of Genji, and a legion of recurring characters, the story is somewhat episodic, each chapter being only loosely tied to its neighbours. There is also a dispute about the story’s ending: intentionally abrupt or unfinished? Without any claim to expertise in literary conventions of the period, I feel confident saying that a modern reader is going to find the ending abrupt in an unfinished kind of way.

Finally, the book’s overall effect seems to me marred by a tremendous disruption in the narrative that happens about 800 pages in. Remember how in Les Miserables there is a narrative gap in which we transition rapidly from young Cosette to adult Cosette, and are introduced to a new set of young revolutionary characters, and so many things have changed that we are tempted to put the book down? The problem here is similar, for we leave behind Genji and focus instead on the romantic escapades of Kaoru, a son of one of Genji’s nephews. Granted, this part of the story has certain resonances with the story of Genji’s own youth — in some sense, it could still be read as being about Genji — but I found it difficult to make the transition, and I confess I didn’t read the last chapters of the book as attentively as the first.

*

Many of the difficulties of the book were ameliorated for me by keeping William Puette’s A Reader’s Guide on my bed-table. He provides a brief introduction to the historical setting, describes the poetic traditions which Genji draws on, provides lists of characters and clues to their relationships, comments on the relative strengths of the English translations (only Seidensticker and Waley, those being the only two available at the time the book was published), and, best of all, he gives chapter-by-chapter summaries of the story. I found the book helpful, a valuable safety net, and am not sure that I would have persevered without it.

It is natural, I think, having finished a novel that competes in scale with War and Peace, to speak well of it; the alternative is to admit that many precious hours of life were wasted. Determined to be unswayed by such thoughts, I will, nonetheless, speak well of The Tale of Genji, and allow its long-standing reputation to justify my praise, rather than the other way around.

Lewis: Space Trilogy

September 25, 2019

On my first attempt on Lewis’ Space Trilogy, over twenty years ago, I mostly disliked it — disliked it enough, at least, that I abandoned (space)ship after the second volume. When I mentioned this to a friend a few years ago I was told (to vary the metaphor) that I had left the wedding just as the best wine was being served. So I thought that I would give the series — the entire series — another try, and I have finally made good on that decision.

***

Out of the Silent Planet
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1938]
158 p.

Lewis wears his debt to the science fiction of H.G. Wells on his sleeve. Out of the Silent Planet will remind Wellsians of The Time Machine and especially The First Men in the Moon on account of its speculations about other rational species and varieties of social organization conjoined to a marked lack of interest in the niceties of rocketry and thermodynamics.

The premise, if anyone should be ignorant of it, is that Ransom, an English academic, is kidnapped and taken via makeshift spacecraft by two mad companions to Mars — which, as we soon learn, is called Malacandra by all rational creatures save ourselves. The story follows Ransom as he lands on Malacandra, escapes from his captors, and lives for many months among the native species, learning their ways.

The book is partly an imaginative exploration of several of the themes of his great non-fiction book The Discarded Image — that is, an exploration of pre-modern astronomy and cosmology. We learn from Ransom, for instance, that our modern conception of interplanetary space as “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness” is inept, the ancients’ name for it — “the heavens” — being much more suitable. The book is also, more thoroughly and specifically, an attempt to think through Christian and Platonic ideas about embodiment, rationality, morality, and the hierarchy of being(s). It attempts, in fact, to take many of the elements of medieval cosmology and adapt them to the new world-picture given us by modern astronomy. The Christian doctrine of the Fall, for instance, plays a central role: Earth is the silent planet, whose creatures and presiding spirits have been “bent” and fallen out of contact with the other rational beings who inhabit the solar system.

In addition to Ransom, the book introduces us to two other characters, Weston and Devine, who reappear in subsequent volumes and are, in their own villainous ways, central characters in the trilogy.

It’s a good book, better than I remembered. I think that my younger self was put off by the somewhat corny and unconvincing handling of the scientific elements of the story — this has always been an obstacle to my enjoyment of science fiction — and he, my younger self, was also probably not astute enough to appreciate Lewis’ larger and more learned interests and concerns.

**

Perelandra
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1943]
192 p.

It was Perelandra that crashed my spacecraft on my first attempt on these books. My memory of exactly what went wrong was, I would have admitted, hazy, but if pressed I’d have pointed first to that garish sequence in which Ransom, now spirited away to Venus, witnessed a herd of pastel-coloured beasts, long-legged and flimsy, like a cross between a Star Wars Walker and one of Dr Seuss’ more whimsical creations, galloping across a field of lily pads. This was just too much for my sober imagination.

All of which would have been quite amusing, because, as I now discover, there is nothing like this in the book. Where these lurid imaginings came from I cannot now say.

I had this much right: Ransom goes to Venus. He is summoned, and knows not why. Eventually he learns that his arch-nemesis, Professor Weston, is also there, intent on colonizing the planet, destroying whatever native life he finds there, bringing evil and sin to a world where it does not yet exist, and Ransom infers that his task is to prevent it.

Misapprehensions being corrected, I find that there is actually much to like about the book, which is clearly deep in conversation with Lewis’ beloved Paradise Lost. His Venus is Edenic, an unfallen world, complete with its own Adam and Eve, and some of the images he uses are echoes of Milton’s own. It has often been said that it is easy, for us, to imagine and describe evil, but to do the same for goodness, to make goodness alluring and involving, is strangely elusive and difficult. Lewis here does his best to climb that endless mountain.

A great strength of the book is Lewis’ portrait of Venus, the watery planet. He gives us vast floating islands like lily pads (there they are!) which flex as waves pass beneath them, and stunning mountains, and cataracts, and, in one memorable sequence, intricate networks of caves. Of course, the fact that he calls his planet Venus, rather than, say, Planet X35, is complicated by what we now know of Venus, but, that aside, it is an impressive attempt at cosmic world-building.

Perelandra is also a very theological and philosophical novel. The Space Trilogy is much concerned with bringing Christian theology to bear on matters typical of science fiction — other worlds, alien creatures — and Perelandra is focused closely on the nature of original innocence, and how temptation might appear to it, and what sin actually is, and also on how the Christian story, seen from an Earthly perspective, might fit into a larger cosmic story which is, nonetheless, still ultimately the Christian story.

Lewis was a more than competent theologian and had a keen philosophical mind, so this is quite excellent on the whole. It does, however, make the novel quite wordy and discursive. I didn’t always mind this — the long peroration with which the book ends is a fine example of Lewis’ high rhetoric on a high theme — but overall I found it delayed and disrupted the action of the story. The book also, I think, has a problem of narrative structure, with too little to happen and the reader often at sea (as it were) about the direction in which the narrative wind is blowing.

**

That Hideous Strength
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 2003) [1945]
384 p.

That Hideous Strength returns to Earth, to England, where the cosmic conflict anticipated in Perelandra is beginning to play out. Lewis sub-titled this volume “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, and it is true that the science fiction elements of the previous volumes are here largely set aside in favour of something more wondrous strange.

We are introduced to the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), a suitably Orwellian name for a quasi-government agency with loads of money, lots of political clout, and high ambitions to transform society along progressive lines using propaganda, scientific methods, and — this being a fairy tale — magic. In the novel’s early stages they are attempting to recruit a promising young sociologist, Mark Studdock, and it is primarily through his eyes that we, as readers, come to know about the inner workings of the N.I.C.E.

Meanwhile Mark’s wife, Jane, is being pulled in quite another direction: she has begun to experience peculiar, disquieting dreams and, in an effort to get to the bottom of them, is quietly and providentially drawn into the orbit of Ransom, around whom a small group of people has formed who are determined to resist the advance of the N.I.C.E.

Having read the previous volumes, we are not surprised to learn that the N.I.C.E. is, in fact, the instrument by which the bent presiding spirit of Earth (aka Lucifer) intends to advance an inhuman ideology and political programme designed, ultimately, to erase from humanity the imago Dei by a thorough reconstruction of human nature and society, and that Ransom, a friend and servant of the unfallen planetary intelligences — the eldila — is the keystone in the counterplot. The story plays out as an escalating conflict between the two sides.

To a large extent the book continues the dialogue between Christianity and secularism that was begun in the earlier volumes, but here Lewis adds an unexpected third partner to the dance: the Arthurian tradition, which plays a key role both theme-wise and plot-wise. I’m not quite convinced that this is entirely successful, on the whole; unless I missed it, there was nothing in the earlier books about Arthur, and its introduction feels a little ad hoc. (This despite Lewis’ attempt, late in the book, to frame the Arthurian elements as simply a manifestation of England’s true self, the natural form which her native genius takes.) On its own merits, I rather enjoyed the Arthuriana, but artistically it’s a tad awkward — though perhaps no more awkward than having a fairy tale conclude a science fiction adventure.

Readers familiar with Lewis’ other writings are likely to notice how ideas in That Hideous Strength remind them of Lewis’ other books, so much so that I began to think of the novel as a kind of Lewisian ouvre in miniature. Essays like “The Inner Ring” and “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” are obvious points of reference, and I also picked up ideas which are familiar from The Discarded Image, The Abolition of Man, and even The Chronicles of Narnia.

Naturally, it’s quite gratifying to read a novel in which progressive causes are bad. Lewis had a life-long aversion to social planning and scientific, “rational” disruptions of traditional ways of life, and, as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, shared none of modernity’s characteristic fascination with the newfangled.

In the end I found That Hideous Strength, like the trilogy as a whole, to be a quite fascinating attempt to combine things not normally treated together in fiction: theology and science, technology and magic, Arthur and Wells, sociology and sophiology. It makes one think about the intellectual and spiritual currents which contend against one another in our times, just as they did in Lewis’, and to consider, like Mark and Jane are forced to do, where one’s allegiance lies. The ambitious — indeed, cosmic — scale of the storytelling is attractive, and, I think, a necessary preparation for the story that the final volume wants to tell.

*

I cannot help noting that there is today, in the UK, an organization called N.I.C.E.! I guess not everybody reads.

**

I’m so pleased to have finally read this trilogy in its entirety, after so many years of intending to do so. Lewis is an unimpeachable stylist, always graceful and civilized, always a pleasure to read. The trilogy is better than I had judged on first acquaintance, even if it is not likely to rank among my favourite of Lewis’ writings. This is what is called “praising with faint damnation”.

***

For an envoi, we must listen to the song “Out of the Silent Planet” by King’s X. They made an entire album called Out of the Silent Planet, but this song comes from what I think is their best record, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. It must be played loudly.

Wodehouse: Something Fresh

September 12, 2019

Something Fresh
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2005) [1915]
284 p.

This is the first Blandings novel, and it ranks with the very best of Wodehouse. Everything about it is top notch, from the smoothly-oiled machinations of the ingenious story to the raft of eccentric characters to the buoyant mirth of the prose. If I had migrated from the Jeeves stories with some expectation of a decline in delight, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and encouraged.

The plot circles around the recovery of a precious Egyptian scarab “of the fourth dynasty”, which has been absentmindedly removed from the collection of the American millionaire J. Preston Peters by Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a doddering man who believes he received it from Peters as a gift, but of course Peters wants it back. The matter is delicate because the children of the two men, Freddie Threepwood and Aline Peters, are engaged to be married, and to accuse Lord Emsworth of theft would be a faux-pas of the first magnitude.

When a prize is offered by Peters for its recovery, three parties decide to make a try: Ashe Marson, writer of detective fiction, who engages himself to Peters as valet; Joan Valentine, old school friend of Aline and struggling actress; and R. Jones, an obese fix-it man. When the rivals, Ashe and Joan, begin to fall in love, the plot thickens!

There are other factors in the mix too, most notably the ill-luck of Baxter, the suspicious personal secretary to Lord Emsworth. Lest there be any concern on the point, everything works out beautifully, and Wodehouse’s manner of spinning the yarn yields pleasures on every page. Superb.

Virgil: Aeneid

September 4, 2019

Aeneid

Virgil
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
(Penguin Classics, 1997) [19 BC]
480 p.

Aeneid, Book VI
Virgil
Translated from the Latin by Seamus Heaney
(Faber & Faber, 2016)
xiii + 53 p.

What Diomede, nor Thetis’ greater son,
A thousand ships, nor ten years’ siege, had done:
False tears and fawning words the city won.

Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates; Virgil might well have titled his poem Aeneid, with Constant Reference to Homer. Not only do many episodes in Homer find echoes and analogues in this poem, but the story itself is the mirror image, as it were, of the Odyssey: both launch from the sack of Troy, but whereas Homer follows the victorious Greeks as they return home, Virgil follows the defeated Trojans as they seek a new homeland in which to found a new city, great Rome itself.

We join the story in medias res, Aeneas and his men having been blown off course on their journey and landed at Carthage in North Africa. There they are feasted at the court of Dido, and the Aeneid relates, in verse that is grippingly dramatic, the backstory of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy. Sent into exile, they endure various hardships and adventures before washing up at Carthage. (One amusing episode has them land on the island of the Cyclops. A Greek comes rushing unexpectedly out to meet them, begging them to take him on board. This, it turns out, is a sailor left behind by Odysseus when he visited the island a few weeks before! (Odyssey, IX)) During the telling of this tale Dido falls in love with Aeneas, but when he insists that the gods have destined him for other things, she commits suicide. This tragic love story forms one of the more satisfying sub-plots in the poem.

Pressing on toward Italy, they eventually make landfall, but despite their intentions to build a new city and live in peace, their neighbours, inflamed by the ill will of Juno, march to war against them. The entire second half of the poem is devoted to this war, and the poem ends abruptly when Aeneas at last kills his rival, Turnus:

He rais’d his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain’d his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound.

*

If you have ever wondered why Dante chose Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, you need only turn to Book VI, which relates the journey of Aeneas to the underworld in search of his father. Each time I read it, my hair stands on end, and I can feel the atmosphere again of Dante’s epic, through a glass darkly. It is among my favourite parts of the poem, so I was pleased to supplement my reading of Dryden’s translation with the recent translation of Book VI which Seamus Heaney made shortly before his death. He says he undertook it partly as a way of reflecting on his own father’s death, and on the birth of his granddaughter, but also as a way of honouring his childhood Latin teacher.

Heaney’s version has not the incantatory power of Dryden’s, but I nonetheless found it very good on its own terms. He writes in blank iambic pentameter. Let’s compare a few passages.

When Aeneas makes his first entry to the underworld, Dryden writes

Obscure they went thro’ dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.
Thus wander travelers in woods by night,
By the moon’s doubtful and malignant light,
When Jove in dusky clouds involves the skies,
And the faint crescent shoots by fits before their eyes.

while Heaney gives us

On they went then in darkness, through the lonely
Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,
Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king —
Like following a forest path by the hovering light
Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,
While the colours of the world pall in the gloom.

In this case I think I prefer Heaney; the ‘shoots by fits’ in Dryden sounds awkward, but ‘clouds and unclouds’ is a nice phrase, and I think Heaney, with his ‘darkness’, ‘shadowing’, ‘nowhere’, ‘deserted’, ‘pall’ and ‘gloom’ captures better the desolation of the place.

Moving downward, Aeneas comes upon a mysterious tree which Dryden describes in this way:

Full in the midst of this infernal road,
An elm displays her dusky arms abroad:
The God of Sleep there hides his heavy head,
And empty dreams on ev’ry leaf are spread.

and Heaney:

$\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ Right in the middle
Stands an elm, copious, darkly aflutter, old branches
Spread wide like arms, and here, it is said,
False dreams come to roost, clinger together
On the undersides of the leaves.

That ‘darkly aflutter’ is a nice touch, but I think the rhymes in Dryden add to the solemnity of the moment. Heaney, though, does tell us that the dreams are on the undersides of the leaves; I don’t know what this means, but it does seem an important detail, if indeed it is in Virgil.

For one last comparison, let’s take one of the more gruesome moments. Aeneas sees, Tityos, ‘the foster-son of Earth’, bound to the ground while a vulture of perpetual appetite perpetually consumes his liver. Writes Dryden:

There Tityus was to see, who took his birth
From heav’n, his nursing from the foodful earth.
Here his gigantic limbs, with large embrace,
Infold nine acres of infernal space.
A rav’nous vulture, in his open’d side,
Her crooked beak and cruel talons tried;
Still for the growing liver digg’d his breast;
The growing liver still supplied the feast;
Still are his entrails fruitful to their pains:
Th’ immortal hunger lasts, th’ immortal food remains.

Fantastic! And Heaney:

Tityos, his body stretching out
Over nine whole acres while a huge, horrendous
Vulture puddles forever with hooked beak
In his liver and entrails teeming with raw pain.
It burrows deep below the breastbone, feeding
And foraging without respite, for the gnawed-at
Gut and gutstrings keep renewing.

It’s good, but for me it’s simply not as good.

**

Toward the end of Aeneas’ underworld sojourn, the shade of his father, Anchises, foretells the future history of Rome, from the city’s founding down to the reign of the mighty and stupendous Augustus. When I have read the poem in the past, I have stumbled through this section, needing constantly to refer to the notes. But this time, rafter having spent the better part of two years reading Roman history, I read it with understanding! A nice pay-off.

To my mind the Aeneid is front-loaded with its best material. I love the story of the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy in Book II, and the fateful romance of Dido and Aeneas in Book IV, and the journey to the underworld in Book VI, but once the Trojans make landfall in Italy and begin the long process of forming alliances and fighting battles with the locals it seems to lose its forward momentum, becoming a blur of minor characters and shifting allegiances. I feel about the first half as I feel about the Odyssey, but about the last half as I do about the Iliad.

This was my first time through the poem with Dryden; in the past I have read the Fitzgerald translation. There is no contest: Dryden prevails. His poem has the high epic tone. He carries the reader aloft. By all means, let there be other translations, but for English-speaking readers I am convinced he is essential. It is one of the few examples of a translation that stands on its own as a poetic masterpiece.

Hicks: Norms and Nobility

August 20, 2019

Norms and Nobility
A Treatise on Education
David V. Hicks
(University Press of America, 1983)
167 p.

When one begins reading around in educational literature, one comes, from time to time, upon “classical education”. What is meant varies, or at least appears under different descriptions. Sometimes it means an education focused on appropriation of the Greco-Roman inheritance; sometimes it seems to be used to describe an education emphasizing a mastery of language, and the art and craft of writing and speaking well; sometimes, following the medieval model (and Dorothy Sayers), it refers to an educational programme divided into stages — grammar, logic, rhetoric — suitable for age-stratified progression as students develop.

Hicks, too, is writing about classical education, but he largely avoids these common approaches to the subject. His approach is deeper; he is working on the foundations. For him, classical education is, among other things,

“a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and conscience through myth.”

As this description makes plain, it is an education concerned not only with knowledge — though certainly that — but also with ethics and aesthetics. Entering on this terrain, therefore, we find ourselves enveloped by pre-modern habits of thought, in which a full human rationality involves truth, goodness, and beauty, all three, because this corresponds to our nature, but also because these three are, at the deepest levels, unified.

This pre-modern orientation is indeed a key to Hicks’ project, which draws on the ancients not so much as to subject matter, but as to sensibility and manner. Much of his exposition unfolds as a dialectic between ancient and modern, to the general detriment of the latter, but this method is itself instructive, and indeed illustrative of the kind of education he champions.

*

We do not know how to educate a child unless we have in mind the kind of person we want the child to become. From this modest beginning Hicks draws out several key features of classical education.

One has already been stated: we want the child to develop and flourish fully as a human being, exercising rationality in the fullest and richest sense, and therefore we instruct and discipline her in what is true, and what is lovely, and what is good. It is likewise true that we will address and honour all dimensions of the child’s being: personal, social, and religious. We will not construct an education simply around the future economic value of the student to society; this can be a legitimate consideration, but not an organizing idea. We will not pretend to teach “value free”, as though the child did not possess an inner life and stand in need of moral guidance to live well. We will not claim that religion is a private matter, not susceptible of public, rational inquiry, or a matter of negligible importance, not worthy of public recognition. Instead, we will do our best to cultivate an integrated life in the student, in which each of these dimensions is given due weight and treated with appropriate seriousness.

Since classical education is, therefore, necessarily in the business of teaching virtue, it considers how best to do so. The tradition proposes, broadly speaking, two methods: the philosophical and the rhetorical, logos and mythos. The former is didactic, argumentative, seeks clarity, and draws conclusions; the latter is imaginative, aspirational, and alluring. Both methods are important, and they co-exist in a fruitful dialectical tension. The rhetorical tradition, Hicks argues, is especially important for classical education on account of its reliance on what he calls “the Ideal Type”, an exemplar of virtue, “a metaphorical incarnation of wisdom and truth” — in brief, a hero. In the Ideal Type a student sees a man or woman who is better and wiser than he, but whom he can and should emulate, and, by emulation, become. And not just one man or woman, but many, exemplifying the many varieties of excellence:

“Classical education eventually fills the young person’s head with the sound of voices: the impassioned debate of the great figures of myth and history concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent in man. Through his imagination, the student participates in this dialectical confabulation, and his thoughts and actions become literally involved with the Ideal Type.”

Most of these exemplars the student will encounter in stories, and the stories in books, but there is, ideally, one example closer to hand: the teacher. Hicks places great personal demands on the teacher: he is to be living in the light of the Ideal Type as well, and is, we hope, further advanced along the path that leads to it. He is not dispassionate, but deeply involved in the very questions with which his students are contending. They wrestle together, and he learns alongside them. Classical learning thus cultivates a kind of friendship between teacher and student, for they are together focused on something of interest and importance to both, yet without undoing their unequal status.

Furthermore, Hicks argues, in one of the book’s most challenging sections, that the relationship of teachers and students in a classical school embodies the dialectical structure of classical education, and indeed the dialectical structure of thought itself. This dialectic is Socratic, and it is dogmatic in the sense that it requires both teachers and students to be committed to certain positions in order to test those commitments against experience. It is precisely the dialectical challenging of commitments that leads to intellectual and moral growth in students. This kind of teaching, and this kind of learning, is intrinsically personal, not analytic or abstract. It teaches students to read, for instance, not just to understand an author’s motivations, or to discover the main outlines of an argument, or to identify a leading theme — though these activities might legitimately form part of the process — but in order to become a better person, wiser, more sensitive, more courageous, or more just. A book is engaged with not at arm’s length, but intimately, as having personal significance.

There is a danger lurking here, of course. We are familiar with the habit of mind that merely “challenges authority” or “sees through things”. If indulged, it will strip-mine students’ souls and leave nothing behind. The point of the dialectic that Hicks advocates, as I understand it, is not to undermine dogma and personal commitment, but to search and find those dogmas worthy of committing oneself to, those founded most firmly in friendship with what is truly good, beautiful, and rational, and then, having found them, to hold to them tenaciously. Absent that transcendental posture, if pursued merely in a revolutionary distemper or out of cynicism, the dialectical method, precisely because of its effectiveness, leads on to disaster.

*

I was struck by Hicks’ stress on the normative, dialectical, personal nature of teaching and learning because I don’t know that I have ever experienced it myself. No, that is not quite true. There are certain books that, as I have read them, I have felt were reading me. Their effect on me has gone deeper than the merely intellectual. I can also think of one or two occasions on which a teacher — not a classroom teacher, mind you, but someone to whom I was disposed as student to teacher — posed a personal, existential challenge to me, exposed me to the penetrating, alluring light of the transcendentals, when I could sense the deep waters beneath my little lifeboat. But I wish this happened more often, and I believe that I do have an habitual analytic approach to what I read, and, for that matter, experience, that places a barrier between myself and the world. Hicks, I think, regards this as a vice, not in itself, but when not joined to a more passionate, rounded engagement with those from whom I could learn. And, quite honestly, I think he has a point.

If I flip it around, putting myself in the role of teacher, I see the value of his position more clearly. What teacher would not want to touch the souls of his students rather than just instruct them? Who would not be grateful to offer his students what he truly believes to be beautiful, good, and true, and to find his students receiving it with gratitude, finding himself a humble instrument in the service of something that falls on teacher and student alike as a benediction? Well, I don’t know that it would be possible to do this kind of thing consistently – the wind blows where it will – but that there could be an educational approach which aims at it, prepares the sails, and waits in readiness I did not suspect.

**

I believe that I have rounded out the main qualities of classical education as Hicks describes it: aiming at full human flourishing along both relational dimensions (personal, social, religious) and transcendental (knowledge, ethics, aesthetics), normative, dogmatic and dialectical, anchored to an Ideal Type. Such was, he argues, the best of the educational practice of the Athenians and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Romans.

**

It is worth asking about how Christian culture appropriated, or failed to appropriate, this tradition. We know from our readings in the history of Catholic education that early Christian thinkers, especially the Church Fathers, were themselves educated in the classical tradition. They didn’t think of it as ‘the classical tradition’; it was just ‘education’, and so they largely adopted it. In fact, Hicks argues that in several important respects the Christian tradition resolved long-standing issues that had dogged classical thinkers.

A principal problem for Greek educators was that the Ideal Type, around which so much of the education orbited, though beautiful and inspiring, lacked a transcendent justification or warrant. It was, in important respects, a merely human work of art, a beautiful dream, a creation of the mind, not something real or given. It was therefore fragile, vulnerable to doubt. Without the Ideal Type, however, the highest thing was merely the realm of the human, all too human, which bred in students a self-centeredness that undermined the development of virtue and fostered uncertainty in teacher and student alike. Hicks argues that though in some ways Christian culture in Europe failed to generate its own convincing heroes – the closest it came, he believes, was the chivalric knight, the legends of saints being too fabulous and simple – it did provide educators with the ultimate Ideal Type: Jesus himself, a real man, not an imaginative creation, having Divine authority, on whom the whole educational project could be focused.

A second problem for classical educators had been the problem of desire: an Ideal Type was all very well, but some positive force was needed to spur students toward it:

“The greatest part of education is instilling in the young the desire to be good: a desire that sharpens and shapes their understanding, that motivates and sustains their curiosity, and that imbues their studies with transcendent value.”

Plato had proposed eros as this positive force, the longing for goodness, truth, and beauty. Christianity agreed that love was the key, but went further by uniting love to faith, uniting knowing the good to doing the good, and, by understanding both as infused virtues, acknowledged both as having a transcendental source and warrant outside the will.

*

If the Christian tradition was not responsible for the loss of the classical tradition, what did happen to it? Modern education in the West springs from different sources; the thread has been cut. What happened?

The story is complicated, but for Hicks the dismantling of the classical tradition began in the early modern period. Descartes inaugurated a passion for clear, distinct ideas, and classical education’s Ideal Type, whose power was rhetorical rather than analytical, could not meet the standard. Modernity preferred a statistical mean to a Golden Mean. Rousseau, of course, was a watershed figure; he attacked directly the Ideal Type: if all men are equal, how can one be better than another? “What need has he of correction, to say nothing of conversion?” If, in a democratic society, each person is to be his own authority, the Ideal vanishes.

The advent of science also undermined classical habits, shifting the aim of education from self-knowledge to power over the world. The moral, aesthetic, personal, and religious aspects of a classical education were hard to align with this project. Indeed, as the sensible methodological limitations of the sciences began to morph into metaphysical blinders the sciences rendered European society increasingly unable to address moral, aesthetic, etc. issues rationally.

By the nineteenth century it was obvious that the sciences provided unprecedented control over nature, but equally obvious that they could not justify how that power should be used. The technological project therefore began to assume the qualities of an ideology: power not allied to reason. Materialists asserted that man is a wholly material being, and that therefore whatever defects he suffers are material and technology can improve them. In this way, technology can create a more perfect and orderly world. A grand social project was launched to do just this, and of course it has brought us many benefits, but things were lost too. The move from prescriptive and transcendent educational goals to immanent and technological severed us from the classical tradition. The power of the sciences does not extend so far as to make normative questions disappear, of course; each new generation of students continues to ask them. Teachers have just lost the means to answer them.

Given the damage that modernity did to what had, for thousands of years, been a consistent educational tradition, why were teachers, in particular, so ready to adopt the modern project as their own? If knowledge is really about power, then education is just a means to enhancing power, and this, on the face of it, is not noble or inspiring. Hicks identifies three reasons. One was simply that teachers, too, were members of society, and felt the allure of the technological project as others did. A second was that revolutions, whatever their ultimate outcome, will draw on a rhetoric of liberation, and Hicks argues that Europeans experienced the overthrow of the Ideal Type as a kind of liberation, a relief of responsibility. Finally, and perhaps paradoxically, a technological ideology gave a new power to the teaching vocation, making it a key enabler of the continued progress of society toward a more rational, comfortable, and free future by technological means.

A good case study of the sea change is the place of mathematics in the curriculum. In classical education mathematics was essential because it moved the mind from lower to higher levels of being, from the contingent and changeable to the necessary and immutable. It was evidence that the mind could know realities beyond the empirical, and it trained the mind to think clearly and systematically about abstractions, which ability was a preparation for the study of philosophy and other high matters. But in modern education the vertical dimension of mathematics has been flattened as the subject has been turned to technological ends, at least for most students. We study math so that we can calculate and build this or that.

Perhaps the clearest difference between classical and modern education can be stated this way: classical education educated for leisure, and modern education educates for work. The classical ideal was to cultivate in the student the ability to think and wonder about high things, to know the good and serve it, to act virtuously in the world, to accept responsibility for governance of himself and his affairs. Modern education, like modern society, has lost the capacity to speak about normative ideals; making a virtue of necessity, it adopts the pretense of ‘value-free’ education. It speaks instead about social utility, economic advantage, and democracy, justifying the educational project itself on largely utilitarian, and wholly immanent, grounds.

*

Given this state of affairs, what place can there be in the modern West for classical education? In a democratic, utilitarian society, classical education is asked to justify itself on democratic and utilitarian grounds:

“Of what value to society is an elite culture anyway? How does culture further the chief ends of modern industrial democracy, ensuring prosperity, security, and equal opportunity for all? … How does culture prepare him for the complications of day-to-day living in a highly bureaucratized, technological society?”

The truth is that the charges against classical education – that it is elitist and impractical – are true. But Hicks, in a neat turning of the tables, argues that it is, precisely for those reasons, what our democratic society needs. Athens, after all, the birthplace of classical education, was also a democracy. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles boasted that an Athenian citizen

“is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.”

In what way is this inconsistent with the modern democratic ideal of self-governance? In fact, Hicks argues, what democracy needs to function effectively and wisely is citizens with elite, aristocratic souls. A society in which classical education were extended to as many students as possible would be one with citizens well-equipped to participate in democratic governance, precisely because they were rounded, thoughtful, conscientious, and articulate.

The sense of this paradoxical proposal becomes clearer if we look at from the other side: what kind of education would be especially apt to produce citizens who cannot govern themselves? Hicks argues that it would be precisely one which stressed rights, for if rights are seen as prior to duties (rather than dependent on them) they produce people who feel entitled to freedoms that they can exercise without need for justification. It is the old story with which we are all too familiar, because this is the kind of education we give, and the kind of political culture we get in consequence.

A second reason why classical education is especially suitable for modern society is that the modern industrial state has created the conditions in which a large proportion of the population has the leisure which, in ancient Athens, was available only to the aristocracy. It would make sense, therefore, for us to educate our citizens as the ancients educated their aristocrats:

Education, therefore, must impress on the citizen a lively sense of the responsibilities attending these privileges; his responsibility to the past, his obligation to govern and discipline himself, to contribute in every way he can to the preservation and development of his society’s purpose and sense of values, his duty to love the law and to carry himself before his compatriots in an exemplary manner, and the opportunity to use his leisure for the realization of his marvellous human potentials.

Those who argue that classical education’s elitism is inconsistent with our society – either from the elitist or populist side – both wrongly see the individual as having value principally in relation to society and the state – whether as custodian or worker – whereas in fact her value is intrinsic, and it is on the basis of that dignity that she merits the fullest, richest, most humane education that we can muster.

*

Another objection comes to mind. Even if we are convinced of the superiority of classical education, surely this whole project is quixotic? The entrenched powers are so formidable as to be invulnerable. It’s just not going to happen.

Hicks sees this objection as sophistical, in the sense of Sophistical:

A Sophist tended to accept the “givens”: an advocacy system that had lost the understanding of justice, a mob opinion no longer sensitive to the demands of truth and beauty. He taught his students simply how to do what had to be done to get along: how, when necessary, to make the weaker argument the stronger.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, therefore, he recommends critique and a refusal to limit the discussion to the terrain where the opponent is most secure. The ‘givens’ are contingent, and vulnerable in the long term.

**

Such is, I believe, a fair summary of the argument, although I have left out much of secondary or tangential interest. In broad outlines, we have a presentation and defence of classical education, and an unflattering contrast with modern education. The positive case is the most valuable; I’ve learned a good deal from it. Like Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, which is the only other book on classical education known to me that is of comparable depth, the approach is learned and humanistic, in the best sense. More superficial treatments of classical education might lead one to think it’s a matter of curriculum materials or staging (‘first teach them about the world, then how to argue, then how to persuade’), but these two books flesh out the deeper ideas and implications.

Of the case against modern education, I think it sound in its broad outlines. That modernity was a rupture with the classical and medieval traditions is hardly a new idea; that science has metastatized in the meantime from methodology to ontology is likewise a commonplace; that education has become less normative and personal and more technological and practical is touted in the public square by politicians who see it as a virtue. But I am concerned that he has drawn the contrast too sharply. Even granting that we are comparing apples and oranges, and prefer apples, one still must be careful not to compare only the ripe apples to only the rotten oranges. My education was partly in the modern tradition, and although I readily grant that it had defects – what I have been doing in this space for the past decade or more could be reasonably understood as an attempt to remedy those defects – I also believe that it gave me much of real value. I never understood myself to be a mere economic cog in a machine; no particular ideal for emulation was given me, but then school was not the whole of life, and I received that kind of inspiration elsewhere. My children have been in the public schools for a few years, and their experience has been, by and large, reasonably good. Not great – not so great as to keep them there, at any rate – but not terrible either. The truth is that schools founded on the modern principles are probably better than they have a right to be, just as our society at large is. Yes, at a theoretical level modernity has laid waste the intelligibility of beauty, denied itself the transcendental horizon of the good, and boxed itself into an immanent frame, but in practice people are still people, still prone to flourish along Aristotelian lines, still sensitive to the cross-currents of the wind that blows where it will. There is a crack in everything, as the poet said. That’s how the light gets in.

It is also worthwhile, I think, to consider a caution along the lines of ‘Be careful what you wish for’. It may be good and right to call for a normative education that challenges and forms the conscience of students, but if we try to imagine what might happen were it actually tried today, I think we would simply turn our schools into factories for social justice activists, the likely outcome so long as the ethical imperatives are confined, along with the rest of the school’s business, to the social, political plane, and not founded comprehensively on the Tao.

**

All this, believe it or not, in the first 100 pages or so. It is an exceptionally concentrated book, written in a terse, closely argued style. In the latter part of the book, practical matters are addressed. If one were actually to have a school founded on the principles of classical education, what might it look like? Hicks gives a curriculum proposal for grades 7-12, and then adds a number of essays on integration and cohesion of the curriculum across subjects and grade levels, preparation of teachers, and other matters. Were I starting or running a school, these sections would be valuable, but it seems to me that the centre of gravity of the book is found in the earlier, theoretical sections I have outlined here.

Unfortunately the publisher has slapped a steep price on the book, so that only those with deep pockets or generous spouses casting about for gift ideas are likely to get a copy. The publisher would do a good service to issue a new edition at lower cost.

***

[The ‘why’ and ‘what’ of education]
All wanted their instruction to bring man to a knowledge of his abiding self — a knowledge making man both wise and virtuous and enabling him to win insights into the lower levels of being. One fundamental principle guided this endeavour: why one studied, not so much what one studied, determined one’s level of achievement.

[Truth and beauty]
Whenever truth comes to man by way of beauty, it necessarily transforms his character and ennobles his behaviour.

[Rights and duties]
A man without the knowledge of the truth — a man ignorant of his obligations to himself, to his neighbours, and to God, and whose education has not aimed at instilling in him a sense of good and evil and a sense of the holy — has no use for rights. He has no knowledge of how to use them.

[Love and education]
Love is the principle of truth in philosophy and of beauty in art that draws the spirit of man off center to participate imaginatively in the object of beauty or truth. Love provides man with the means for answering the mandates of conscience and for breaking out of his egocentric prison. Unlike self-denial or self-negation, love is a positive force, but it requires an object above the self for which the self is transcended. Once the knowledge of this transcendent object is established, whether by reason, by example, or by faith, love binds a person to this object. This binding is the supreme aim of classical education, the union of knowledge and responsibility tantamount to the formation of the virtuous man; but without eros, even the best pedagogy is helpless to achieve this aim.

[Tocqueville]
Do you want to give a certain elevation to the human mind, and teach it to regard the things of this world with generous feelings, to inspire men with a scorn of mere temporal advantages, to form and nourish strong convictions, and keep alive the spirit of honourable devotedness? Is it your object to refine the habits, embellish the manners, and cultivate the arts, to promote the love of poetry, beauty, and glory? Would you constitute a people fitted to act powerfully upon all other nations, and prepared for those high enterprises which, whatever be their results, will leave a name forever famous in history? If you believe such to be the principle object of society, avoid the government of the democracy.”

O’Neill: The Fisherman’s Tomb

August 13, 2019

The Fisherman’s Tomb
The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search
John O’Neill
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2018)
256 p.

One of the best — in fact, maybe the very best — of the archaeological sites in Rome is the Scavi, an excavated fourth-century Roman necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. One steps through the climate-control doors into the past: there is a spacious road lined by small buildings, each with a main doorway giving onto the road; they are family tombs, in an amazing state of preservation — apart from the sawed off roofs on some. The road leads westward, past tomb after tomb, and terminates at a humble looking little monument. Could one look up, through the ceiling, when standing before it, one would be looking up through the main altar of the basilica, up through Bernini’s great baldacchino, and up to the apex of Michelangelo’s dome. It is the focal point of the basilica’s floor plan. The small monument is the tombstone of the fisherman from Galilee, St Peter.

John O’Neill’s book tells the story of how this amazing excavation came about, and of how the tomb, which tradition had always said was there, was re-discovered in the twentieth century after being hidden for about 1600 years. He introduces us to the main people involved, the conduct of the work, and the internal politics that for decades roiled around the interpretation of the excavation’s findings.

**

The excavation was an initiative of Pope Pius XII and was begun, in great secrecy, during the early days of World War II. While the war raged, and as the Nazis occupied Rome, the slow work under the Vatican continued for years. It was all financed, we learn from O’Neill, by an American oilman named George Strake, who did not learn until decades later what his money was being used for. The work, during those war-time years, was led by one Antonio Ferrua and was, unfortunately, done too hastily and to poor archaeological standards. The initial findings were confused — Ferrua fell for a ruse that had apparently been set up to prevent the relics of the saint from being vandalized, and concluded that the bones of St Peter were not there.

It was not until after the war that a young academic, Margherita Guarducci, caught wind of the project, and, after berating Ferrua and his methods in a meeting with the Pope, was herself placed in charge of the site. She established proper procedures for the excavation and spent years studying and untangling a complicated network of scratched inscriptions found on and around the monument, especially those on a nearby wall fragment. This wall had been something of a mystery at the initial uncovering of the site: when the first St Peter’s Basilica had been built by Constantine in 337 his men had planned the church so that, as in the present church, the altar would be directly over the small monument — a decision not taken lightly, as it had necessitated building out the eastern side of Vatican hill and filling the Roman tombs with dirt in order to make a flat foundation for the church — and they had covered the monument in a marble box, but this box had been built asymmetrically so as to also enclose the wall fragment covered with graffiti. It had clearly been done intentionally, but the reason why was not clear until Guarducci came along.

She discovered on the wall fragment numerous inscriptions making reference to Peter, including one which read “Peter is within”. Beneath a corner of the wall was found a cavity with bones. On forensic analysis they were found to be of a man, aged 60-70, of stocky build. It was not a complete skeleton, but enough bones, and from one individual, that the reasonable inference was made that these were the mortal remains of the Apostle.

The historical timeline that was pieced together was something like this:

• c.65: Peter was executed by the Romans, on Vatican hill, and was buried quietly nearby
• c.150: the small wall near the burial place was built (the bricks have been dated to the reign of Marcus Aurelius). Graffiti inscriptions began to be made on the wall, naming Peter.
• c.250: the small monument was built over the burial site
• c.250-337: at some point, bones originally beneath the monument were moved to beneath the wall. At this time they were wrapped in a cloth, fragments of which survive.
• c.337: Constantine builds the first St Peter’s church over the site, encasing both monument and wall in marble, an enclosure that was not breached until the twentieth century

This was Guarducci’s theory, but an entertaining academic feud was about to break out. Ferrua, her predecessor, whose methods she had criticized, refused to accept her account, and waged a decades-long war against it. According to him, his original conclusions were sound: the small monument was to mark Peter’s resting place, but the bones themselves were gone, and the nearby graffiti wall, with all its inscriptions, was irrelevant.

Guarducci prevailed, says O’Neill, until the late 1970s, when John Paul II was elected and Ferrua was promoted to head of the Vatican’s archaeological office, at which point he erased her name and work from Vatican publicity materials, and reasserted his own interpretation. The Vatican therefore found itself in a topsy-turvy situation where a secular (at least at first) layperson was arguing for the authenticity of Church tradition and a senior clergyman was arguing for its in-authenticity. It was not, says O’Neill, until Ferrua died in 2003 that his self-aggrandizing theory lost its influence. Pope Benedict commissioned a thorough review of all evidence in the late 2000s, and in 2013 Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the bones found beneath the graffiti wall as being those of St Peter. (This was before he decided to give a bunch of them away.)

**

So, at least, says O’Neill, but here’s an odd thing: I have visited the Scavi twice, first in 2001 and again in 2005, so straddling the year, 2003, in which Ferrua died. But I detected no change in the story between the first visit and the second; the story in both cases was Guarducci’s. So perhaps O’Neill draws sharper lines in the sand than existed in reality.

In any case, the story O’Neill tells is a riveting one, full of the wonder of discovery. Its import for the historical origins of Catholicism is obvious, and I would recommend the book to Catholics for sure, but also to other Christians, those interested in archaeology or war-time history, or just those with a taste for cut-throat academic in-fighting.

Lowry: The Giver

July 29, 2019

The Giver
Lois Lowry
(Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
225 p.

Imagined futures in which things have gone wrong are often called “dystopian”, but an interesting refinement of the idea holds that a proper dystopia is not just a future where things are worse than they are now, nor even a world in which efforts to create a utopia have failed in catastrophic ways, but a world in which a utopian project has succeeded and, so ill-conceived was the project, thereby made of the world a nightmare. By this measure, Lois Lowry’s middle-school staple The Giver is a true dystopian novel.

Lowry’s future is one that has been very capably managed to death. Difference, being a source of strife and ground for injustice, has been eradicated: the society in which young Jonas, just on the cusp of becoming a Twelve (year-old), is devoted to an ideal of “Sameness”. People live in identical dwellings, have identical families (two adults, male and female; two children, male and female), celebrate their birthdays on the same day, and even have an unwaveringly pleasant climate. Things that might lead citizens to prefer one person over another — things such as parenthood, for instance, or love — are gone: infants come to this community from Elsewhere and are simply assigned to the care of adults, and everyone takes a daily pill to prevent “stirrings” that might lead to spontaneous formation of families. All strong feelings, in fact, whether of joy or sorrow, have been managed into oblivion. It is a very rational, efficiently run place, in many ways thoughtfully designed, and gives every appearance of being exactly what it is intended to be.

The good people of this town could not be so contented as they are had they any memory of things having once been different, and so an historical ignorance is carefully cultivated. All reside on an island in an ocean of time, featureless to the horizon in every direction — all but one, that is. One citizen is specially selected to be Receiver of Memory, a function which the planners and rule-makers, whoever they are, have found advantageous to maintain in case planning for the present should, for them, at least, require some knowledge of the past. Jonas, to his amazement, is selected for this important role, and so he begins an apprenticeship with the elderly current Receiver of Memory. The book is largely an account of what happens to Jonas as he learns about the past and begins to experience feelings: of fear, happiness, anxiety, and love.

Lowry is wonderful at slowly bringing this bizarre world to life, detail by detail. Every so often she lets drop a phrase that reveals afresh just how comprehensively human life has been smothered for Jonas, and how little he realizes it. She is particularly good in her use of language; small verbal tics tell as a lot: children are never called boys or girls but only “males” or “females”, there are no homes but only “dwellings”, no families but only “family units”, and no death but only “release” — a euphemism so vague that Jonas seems to have no clear notion of mortality.

Is this supposed to be a portrait, at some level, of our society? One could imagine a liberal reading in which the bad guys are rule-makers, authorities who suppress individuality, who must fall before the force of strong feelings. The book has been criticized, often, I think, because of the attitude of suspicion it cultivates toward authorities. Given the nature of the authorities in the book, this seems a particularly daft criticism; surely the respective merits of docility and rebellion depend almost entirely on context. Moreover, an entirely different reading is available from a broadly conservative point of view, from which Lowry’s dystopia looks uncannily like a fulfillment of liberal ambitions: severance from the past in the service of social malleability, a total dissolution of the nexus of marriage, sexuality, and procreation, and a kindly violence against the sick and weak. Indeed, this last aspect gives The Giver a potency it would have lacked when first published, even to the extent of making it, to the extent that it has been broadly read as a liberal-minded critique, something like a Trojan horse in the culture war, for those inclined to read it in political terms.

Nothing obliges such a reading, of course; a more personal interpretation might dwell on the goodness of emotions and their importance to a fully human life, and of what is lost to us when we live simply to avoid pain. Or the story can be enjoyed on its own terms, simply as a well-written, mysterious, and exciting tale. It won the 1994 Newbery Medal.

Horace: Satires

July 21, 2019

Satires
Quintus Horatius Flaccus
Translated from the Latin by A.M. Juster
(U Penn, 2008) [c.35-30 BC]
xii + 144 p.

The Satires, in two books, were Horace’s first published poems, having appeared, respectively, in about 35 BC and then 30 BC, he being then in his early 30s. The Civil War between Octavian and Mark Antony still raged, and the fortunes of the Roman Republic were, as yet, in doubt. Horace came, somehow, into the orbit of Virgil, who introduced him to Maecenas, a great artistic patron (and Octavian’s friend who, as it would eventually turn out, would be in a position to make good things happen for his stable of artists). They therefore show us Horace as he takes his first steps into the public eye, at the start of what would turn out to be a brilliant artistic life.

The title under which the poems were published is liable to mislead English readers. For us “satire” means edgy comedy, perhaps with a political or religious edge, intended to puncture and deflate pretensions with wit, or to exaggerate faults in the manner of caricature. But for Horace the word apparently meant something closer to simple gossip. The poems are intentionally informal, loose, and chatty, and though they are frequently comic and have some bite they do not bite very hard.

He wrote in hexameter, a metre most associated with Greek epic; the effect was not so much to make the poems grand in an epic style, but rather grandiose, the high form making a comedic contrast with the quotidian and sometimes vulgar subject matter.

I have read the poems in the translations of A.M. Juster, who chose to render the poems in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. In a sense, this works well, because the metre is for us what hexameter was for Horace: a verse form associated with our high poetry. But I was, at least initially, less convinced by his determination to rhyme. Horace’s poems do not rhyme, and other translators (like David Ferry) have made a pretty convincing case that the poetry in Horace’s poetry, if I can put it that way, is a subtle thing, woven into the rhythms and the diction, art concealed by art. Horace himself makes the argument in these Satires:

Come listen to a bit of my reply:
myself as a real poet. You’d opine
that it is not enough to write a line
in meter, and a person such as me
who writes a chatty sort of poetry
could never be regarded in your eyes
as a real poet. You would recognize
a person who is brilliant, with a mind
that is far more inspired and the kind
of voice that resonates. Based on that thought,
some doubted whether comic verses ought
to count as verse because they can’t convey
great force and energy in what they say
or how they say it. Though arranged in feet
(unlike prose) that incessantly repeat,
it’s still just prose.
(I, 4; ll.58-73)

He intends, it seems, his poems to read something like musical prose, whereas rhyming couplets are about the most obvious kind of poetry there could be, and tend to divide the verse into regular segments rather than mimicking the supple variations of the original.

However, I discovered that Juster is awfully good, and not a little subtle, at penning rhyming couplets. The passage above is a good example, and here is another, plucked more or less at random. A character is describing the food at a lavish, not to say grossly extravagant, dinner party, and says:

“This was caught while pregnant, since the meat
degrades as soon as spawning is complete.
The sauce’s recipe was: oil (first-pressed)
from the Venafran cellar that’s the best;
fermented Spanish fishgut sauce; a wine
that’s five years old and nurtured on a vine
from native shores — but only with some heat
(when warmed up, Chian wine just can’t be beat!);
white pepper, vinegar that comes from spoiling
of Methymnean grapes. I taught the boiling
of green rocket with sharp elecampane
in sauce before those others. In that vein,
Curtillus used unwashed sea-urchin juice
because brine fails to match what shells produce.”
(II, 8; ll.68-82)

This is quite funny, of course; the vices of the gourmand are ever ancient, ever new. But, as to the metre, I think Juster has succeeded, to a large extent, in downplaying the regular rhymes by frequent use of enjambed lines. He does this quite consistently throughout, and has some other tricks up his sleeve too. Take, for example, this case, in which the narrator quotes a fragment of a song:

Why lose your money and deceive yourself
when merchandise is not yet on the shelf?
The playboy sings,
$\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$“The hunter tracks down hares /
through blinding snow, / but he no longer cares /
once they’re brought low,”
$\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ and then analogizes:
“My passion is quite similar; it rises
above the easy prey to chase the birds
in flight.”
(I, 2; ll.145-52)

I love this. The song maintains the regularity of the rhyming couplets, but introduces additional rhymes on the half-lines, making for a kind of syncopated beat — quite suitable for a song! Juster’s own rationale for using rhymed couplets is that they serve the humorous tone of the poems, creating in the reader an expectation that amplifies a joke’s punchline. Maybe so, although the number of outright jokes in the poems is rather small. Nonetheless, I found that the rhyme scheme did not at all interfere with my enjoyment — quite the opposite, in fact, as, all other things being equal, I’d much rather read rhyming poetry than not.

And what of the poems themselves? There are 18 in total, between the two Books, and the subject matter is wide: some moralize in a manner familiar to me from his Epistles, against riches and covetousness, or against lust; more than one orbit around dinner parties and other social events; one, the longest (Book II, 3), seems to be a kind of catalogue of forms of madness; one is written from the point of view of a piece of wood taken from a tree and carved into the likeness of a god; one describes a diplomatic mission from Rome to Brundisium; in one Horace is hounded through town by a man who wants something and will not leave him alone; in another his slave criticizes Horace for being himself a slave to passions. The fable of the city mouse and country mouse is told in one (Book II, 6), but perhaps the most entertaining is the dialogue in the underworld (Book II, 5), a witty spoof on Homer in which Teresias advises Ulysses how to make some money and get ahead.

In certain cases it is obvious that Horace is adopting a persona — all of the poems in Book II are explicitly dialogues, some of which have a character called Horace, some not — but here and there one feels that the real Horace is coming quite close to the surface, as, for example, in this autobiographical passage in which he describes his first meeting with Maecenas, who was to become his life-long patron, with winsome modesty:

$\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ I cannot say
that I was fortunate that happenstance
made you my friend because it was not chance
that put you in my path. Some time ago,
supremely gifted Virgil let you know
about me; Varius then did the same.
When we met face-to-face, my childish shame
led me to choke on words and lose my train
of thought before I went on to explain
just who I was, that I was not the son
of a distinguished father, and not one
who used his Saturean nag to ride
around his houses in the countryside.
(I, 6; ll.76-88)

The charm of moments like this are what I have most enjoyed about reading Horace. Reading poetry in translation, I have said before, can be quixotic, as one can never be quite sure how much of the translator’s poetry was in the original, nor how much of the original’s poetry is in the translator’s. Here, in these Satires, I am in the same quandary, but I can at least testify that I enjoyed the poems, and the fine translation, on their own terms.