Posts Tagged ‘Stratford Caldecott’

Favourites of 2017: Books

January 2, 2018

All things considered, 2017 was a pretty good year for reading. Long, difficult books were mostly off the table — there’s that volume of Kierkegaard I’ve been seeping through for 8 months — but I found some quite good, short, easier books that were worth reading.

For this year-end reflection, I’ve selected ten good books from among those I read this year. I list them randomly, or nearly so. Links, where present, usually go to my more extensive notes on the book.


I’ll begin with Livy, whose writing was a thread that ran through my whole year. I began the first volume of his great Roman history Ab urbe condita in January or February, and I finished the fifth and last volume in December. This was a great book with which to kick off my Roman reading project; although it breaks off in the 160s BC, with much of the greatest drama still ahead, my understanding of the history of Republican Rome has improved greatly. I now feel I have context and at least some depth when I see a reference to Cincinnatus, or Camillus, or Hannibal, or Scipio, and a much better sense of how Rome grew from an Italian city among other, comparable, Italian cities to a superpower of the ancient world. I wrote fairly extensively about this history as I was reading. I am looking forward to continuing this reading project in 2018; I expect that much of the year will be spent in the company of Cicero and Julius Caesar.


I was given as a gift a huge volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry this year, and I expect that it will be the center of gravity of my medieval reading in 2018, but this year my favourite medieval literature was The Song of Roland, a splendid heroic poem about a battle between the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, and the Islamic army besetting them as they pass through the Alps. Although not a scrupulously historical poem, it does teach us about the attitudes of Christians toward Muslims a thousand years ago, gives us an intriguing example of the medieval effort to baptize the military virtues, and presents us with a wonderful portrait of Roland, a figure who loomed large in the European imagination for centuries.


With my son I have been reading Thornton Burgess’ books about the inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows. Beginning with Old Mother West Wind and continuing through the adventures of one little friend after another — Old Man Coyote, Paddy the Beaver, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Sammy Jay, Jerry Muskrat, Grandfather Frog, and others — we have gradually come to feel quite at home in those woods. Though he is certainly less mercurial and virtuosic than, for example, Kenneth Grahame, Burgess nonetheless has a fine talent for diverting tales with memorable characters and moral weight. He wrote, I believe, about 100 of these books, and so our explorations are far from over. So long as my son is content to continue, I am as well.


This year I continued my habit of reading — or seeing staged — one Shakespearean play each month. I ventured off the beaten trail and read “Pericles”, a late-ish play (probably c.1608) that was new to me. It was a very pleasant surprise. It has something of the character of a fable, complete with riddles, a beautiful princess, an evil king, miraculous events, and a happy ending. For some time I’ve been interested in the relationship between Shakespeare’s art and medieval literature and drama (I’ve been meaning to read this book, for example), and in no other Shakespeare play have I had such a powerful sense of being on medieval terrain, as though he had adapted a story from The Canterbury Tales. In fact the play is based on a poem of John Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, and Gower himself appears in the play in a role something like that of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. It’s delightful. Thematically the play is about, among other things, what it means to be a good father, and in particular about the relationships of fathers to their daughters. The final act has a reunion scene that brought tears into my eyes. Highly recommended.


Over the past few years I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin sea-faring novels, and greatly enjoying them, but this year I also read The Voyage of the Beagle, a real-life account of a circumnavigation voyage in the 1830s, and I enjoyed it at least as much. It is true that Charles Darwin, the ship’s talented young naturalist, doesn’t tell us much about life at sea, but this particular voyage landed ashore at numerous locations along the Argentine and Chilean coasts, as well as at a few island archipelagos in the Pacific, and I found his many observations on natural history fascinating. The same author went on to write a number of other books on related topics, and it would be interesting to look into those some day as well.


Perhaps because I spent a few months this year homeschooling our kids, I read several books on education. Among these the best was Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, a remarkably rich and thoughtful exploration of the classical educational trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Some descriptions of classical education merely correlate these three subjects with the developmental capacities of children (as Dorothy Sayers did in an influential essay), but Caldecott goes much further, digging deeply into the relevance this general schema has for the child’s intellectual, moral, social, and even metaphysical formation. His organizing question is “What kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it?”, and it leads him to rewarding discussions of tradition, drama, technology, and liturgy, among many other things. If you think that education ought to be richly human, concerned with what kind of persons we should be rather than just what sort of things we might do, calling for the best and wisest counsel we can muster, this is a book for you.


The conversion memoir is a genre with a distinguished history stretching back, for English speakers, to John Henry Newman, and further back, to St Augustine, in the wider tradition. These memoirs tend to have certain elements in common, and perhaps the most distinctive thing about Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness is that it doesn’t follow the usual patterns at all. It’s an account of her conversion from comfortable atheism to astounded Catholicism in which, instead of passing over the ground between the two, as a normal person would do, she somehow tunnelled or teleported from one side to the other. This is a poor metaphor for the real substance of her story, which is grace. The other distinctive feature of this book is how beautifully written it is; Read is a poet, and brings a literary sensibility to the manner in which she tells her story.


English speakers continue to receive, in translation, by dribs and drabs, literary crumbs that fell from the table of the great German Thomist and intellectual historian Josef Pieper. This year I sat down with a volume that appeared, a few years ago now, under the title The Silence of Goethe. As is so often the case with Pieper, the slender profile of the book belies its rich content, which consists of meditations on the value of reticence and silence for both public and private life, as culled from the voluminous writings of Pieper’s great countryman. Counsel to the effect that “You live properly only if you live a hidden life” has particular value for those of us living in the age of social media, in which the temptation to live even our private lives in public is seductive. That this, and allied, advice comes from a man who was himself one of the best-known figures of his age gives it a certain tried-and-true authority.


I read a handful of Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels this year, and Thank You, Jeeves can stand in, on this list, for the lot of them. Published in 1934, it was the first of Wodehouse’s full-length Jeeves novels, and is a delightful tale about Bertie’s retreat to a country cottage in which to practice the banjolele. Jeeves is unable to abide the instrument, and so enters the employ of one or another of the characters circling around Bertie throughout the story, being replaced by a homicidal, drunk valet called Brinkley. Among the most pleasing characters in this mélange is Pauline Stoker, an American girl possessed of a “pre-eminent pulchritude”, to whom Bertie was briefly engaged on a prior trip to America, and for whom he now tries to play matchmaker. At stake are the sale of a run-down manor house and the future married happiness of several of Bertie’s friends. As usual with Wodehouse, the writing is superb and the invention never flagging. Some might take offense at the plot element involving Bertie and the “loony doctor” Sir Roderick Glossop wandering the grounds in black-face, but we are not so censorious.


This was yet another year in which I did not read much theology or philosophy, but I did manage one of the early classics of Christian theology in St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. The aim of the book is to provide a defence of the fittingness of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ against those who contended that these centerpieces of the Christian story had an arbitrary or even blasphemous character. Athanasius brings out beautifully the drama of Christ’s saving action as a descent into the world, a battle against evil, and a triumphant elevation of all things into the everlasting and unconquerable life of the Holy Trinity. It is a book that has become a touchstone for a Christian metaphysics of the good, in which Creation itself is caught up into the mystery of Christ.


As in past years, it is fun to look at the original publication dates of the books (or plays) I read this year. Here is the histogram:

I skewed modern, as usual, but not so severely as in past years, and the classical and medieval books can at least be said to have made a decent showing. The 20th century was the big winner, as might be expected, but even there it was the early 1900s which got much of my attention, with the average post-1900 publication date being 1955.

Finally, a bit of trivia:

Most books by a single author: Thornton Burgess (12), Shakespeare (12), Terence (6), Wodehouse (5).

Caldecott: Beauty in the Word

June 26, 2017

Beauty in the Word
Stratford Caldecott
(Angelico, 2012)
168 p.

In an earlier book, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Stratford Caldecott, in the guise of a treatment of the classical quadrivium, outlined his thoughts on how education might begin to reintegrate the dissociated sensibility of the West, in which truth, understood as objective and impersonal and more-or-less narrowed to the domain of the sciences, stands on one side, and goodness and beauty, understood as subjective and private, stand on the other, and never the thrain shall meet.

Beauty in the Word is a companion volume, where this time the subject is the classical trivium, but the objectives are comparably deep and far-reaching.

He begins with an overview of competing visions and theories of education, with a particular question in mind: “What kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it?” He argues that education is not principally about conveying information or developing skills, but about formation of character in mind and heart; it is about who we will be, not what we will do. He cites with approval Simone Weil’s famous proposal that the most important thing about education is not what we study, but how we study, and in particular that we promote “the development of attention”, a habit essential to the intellectual and spiritual health of the person. For Caldecott, education is always about the person. “Education is more like gardening than manufacturing.”

In his survey of educational theories, a basic dialectic between didactic and elucidative methods emerges. One side says that education is about instruction, for the child is ignorant and can only learn if told; the other side says that the child has interests and abilities and should be encouraged and accompanied as he or she grows and matures. The one pours in, the other draws out. My own instincts are didactic, but Caldecott (drawing on the ideas of Maria Montessori) mounts a defence of the latter view for a Catholic understanding of education, and in the end he arrives at a middle position:

“The basis for a good education is, on the one hand, the self-motivation of the child to pursue what engages and interests him, and on the other, the creativity, responsiveness, and love of the teacher, who sets the terms for learning and encourages the child to flourish.”

The role of the teacher is to help the child to grow in understanding and range, and to avoid the trap of a “relevant” education, in which a pupil is flattered or merely allowed to stagnate within their limited horizon. On the contrary, a Catholic education is one which is directed toward helping the student to mature, and also to help them appropriate the tradition of which they are an heir, in order that they can inhabit it and then, in due time, bequeath it to the next generation. “Ideally, Catholicism fulfils and brings to perfection the natural educational process, which is the transformation in creative freedom of a cultural tradition to our children.”

Turning then to the classical trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, Caldecott cites the definitions of Hugh of St Victor: “Grammar is the knowledge of how to speak without error; dialectic is clear-sighted argument which separates the true from the false; rhetoric is the discipline of persuading to every suitable thing.” And this is so, as far as it goes, but he proceeds to deepen each of the three in a trilogy of chapters, and he does so by setting up a catalogue of triplets to be understood as analogies or implications or parallels of the basic educational trivium. His set of “Eight Threes” looks like this:

Mythos Logos Ethos
Grammar Dialectic Rhetoric
Remembering Thinking Speaking
Music/Dance Visual arts Drama
One True Good
True Good Beautiful
Given Received Shared
Father Son Spirit

One could study this table and gradually draw out much of what the book has to say. But, since I am here to do good service, I’ll do some of the drawing out myself.

Grammar he connects to “remembering”. The object of understanding is not simply linguistic grammar, but the grammar of being, the logic of things. “To fill a word with meaning is an act of remembering the being of the thing itself“. Grammar grounds us in what is real, as the foundation of our thought. We give names to things, and though the names themselves are conventions, the things named are not. “Naming is related to the power of seeing; of seeing into the realities, the essences of things.” Nominalists cannot be grammarians.

Language is also our medium for passing on what we know, and thus for the formation of a tradition. To be inducted into a tradition through education is an act of remembering, and a tradition is to be received in a receptive spirit of love, as a gift of something precious. “The ‘spirit of tradition’ is an essential element of education.” We, of course, live in a time when traditions are faltering and dissolving, when amnesia is the objective, and therefore we must be deliberate about guarding and teaching the good things we have inherited. This handing-on, this giving of a tradition to a new generation, is also a personal act, directed to the good of both teacher and pupil. In an anti-tradition, Caldecott argues, the world is simply a pattern of information to be transferred to a new mind. It has no personal element, and is not addressed to the soul, and this is deficient. We should therefore be wary of technologies that make teaching impersonal, or that intrude into the personal connections that constitute a tradition.

Central to the grammar of remembrance is the cultivation of memory and attention, both as indispensable requirements for retention of what is learned, but also as a means of integrating the personality and preparing in the pupil the road to contemplation. This was why Simone Weil was so devoted to attention as the aim of education: because attention is essential to contemplative prayer, and to the intuition of being which is at the heart of a grounded knowledge of the grammar of things. Students will make progress through learning by heart, and also through participation in the arts: in crafts, drama, song, story, and, especially, liturgy, which (in theory) brings these individual arts to an apex:

“If the spirit of tradition is to be preserved and revived, liturgy is going to be the key, for this is the school of memory, the place where we recollect ourselves, where we learn how to relate to each other in God. This is where we learn to accept the past and existence itself as a gift calling for a response of gratitude. Prayer and worship are therefore not extraneous but should be a central element in the life of the school or family. As we pray, so shall we be.”

The second part of the trivium, Dialectic, which is usually interpreted as ‘thinking’ or ‘reasoning’, Caldecott frames as the art of analysis and of discerning the truth. It rightly builds on the earlier stage, being informed by memory and the contemplation of what is real. (This in contrast to, say, Descartes, who began with dialectic, or, rather, began with forgetting, and tried to establish dialectic on a correspondingly thin foundation.) For Caldecott, dialectic is not cold reason, but proceeds in concert with both imagination and feeling, and is always grounded in a sober engagement with real things. Thinking is ‘thinking about’, and its characteristic mode is pondering, not flitting from one thing to the next.

The third stage of the trivium is Rhetoric, traditionally understood as the art of speaking, and especially of persuasion. In this stage one marshals one’s knowledge of things (“Grammar”) and one’s arguments and understanding (“Dialectic”) and conveys them to others with the intention of helping them to see and understand the same truths. Or, put in a more personal vein, by an education in the previous two stages we mature into a certain type of person, and in this third stage who we are, persons formed by a tradition, is communicated to others. Rhetoric makes use of all the resources of language — its music, its imagery, and its web of connotation — to convey truth. Because of its public, performative aspect it is closely related to song and music, and, even more deeply, to liturgy. Caldecott sees this appearance of liturgy as the telos of, or at least as the mature expression of, the educational process as highly significant, for liturgy, at its best, manifests a tradition of truths through a web of symbolic meanings of great rhetorical power. Naturally (and properly) this rhetorical power retains influence over us only so long as we understand or trust it to be grounded in truth. For these reasons, Caldecott sees the Mass as “intrinsic to the educational process itself”.


Following this overview of the basic structure and meaning of the trivium at a theoretical level, Caldecott transitions in the later chapters to practical questions of how these ideas might be instantiated in the day-to-day education of real children. The trivium forms the core of a classical liberal arts education, which was traditionally an elite project contrasted with a “servile” (or practical) education. But Caldecott points out that the Christian tradition, especially perhaps through the example of the Benedictines, who dedicated themselves to prayer, study, and manual labour, has relativized this hierarchy of “liberal” and “servile”, and that therefore today the liberal arts should be brought, insofar as is possible, to all.

The trivium describes ways of engaging with a subject, but does not specify what the subject should be. (The quadrivium is more prescriptive.) Caldecott proposes three subjects, broadly conceived: nature, culture, and Scripture, and he sketches a curriculum consisting of storytelling, music, exploration (“The study of nature through direct contact with gardens, animals, and wilderness is indispensable”), drawing, dance, drama, and sport. He cautions, wisely, that much reading absent personal experience to which to relate that reading can be fruitless, which is why he recommends balancing book learning with social activities, outdoor activities, and unstructured time for imaginative play. Yet reading is important, and he gives central place to both it and music — reading to children and playing music to them when they are young, and then transitioning them to self-guided engagement with books and music as they grow. They should read good books. (Quoting Charlotte Mason, he writes, “Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books.”) He caused my heart to rejoice, casting a kind of in media res benediction over the many hours I have spent and will spend reading aloud to my kids, with this summation:

It makes sense to regard reading stories aloud to one’s children the archetypal act of the Trivium. One is simultaneously remembering a tradition, revealing the Logos, and (by voice, inflection, and gesture) dramatizing a story to communicate that meaning ‘heart to heart’.

Amen to that. In fact, the book seemed to be building toward a peroration of warm, happy contentment when suddenly, in the closing pages, he surprised me by recommending “unschooling” as a reasonable, and even, in some ways, particularly Catholic approach to education! Unschooling is a minority practice among homeschoolers in which children follow no prescribed curriculum but rather follow their own interests, managing their own time as they think best, and learning whatever they happen to learn. This comes back to the discussion at the beginning about the relative merits of prescriptive and elucidative models of education, and to my own instincts for the prescriptive side, I suppose, but I’ve always regarded unschooling as being somewhere between imprudent and idiotic. Caldecott, in an interesting rhetorical move, compares unschooling to NFP, something “regarded by many as an impractical ideal or an ideology, but when practiced in the right spirit it reveals itself as something else entirely”. Well, maybe. But maybe not.


There is much to admire about this book. I have not before encountered a book so thoughtful about the structure and significance of the classical trivium. The fact that it is not just a book of theory, but also an attempt to realize its ideas in practical form is also admirable, although I do think that its efforts in that direction are more suggestive than fully satisfactory, consisting of rather “normal” fruit plucked from the unusually rich philosophical reflections that produced it. But then, what did I expect?


“Christian education should be wider, not narrower, than that of a secular school.”

[A mother’s smile]
The infant is brought to consciousness of himself only by love, by the smile of his mother. In that encounter, the horizon of all unlimited being opens itself to him, revealing four things to him: (1) that he is one in love with the mother, even in being other than his mother, therefore all being is one; (2) that that love is good, therefore all Being is good; (3) that that love is true, therefore all Being is true; and (4) that that love evokes joy, therefore all Being is beautiful. (Von Balthasar, from My Work in Retrospect; quoted p.134-5)

Caldecott: Secret Fire

February 5, 2014

Secret Fire
The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien
Stratford Caldecott
(Darton Longman Todd, 2003)
144 p.

This slender book is a thoughtful attempt to explore the spiritual roots and background of Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. It draws on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, of course, but also delves deeper into The Silmarillion and the fragmentary History of Middle Earth. It is not a book for casual Tolkien fans, but is accessible to readers (like myself) who have limited acquaintance with this “background” material. (The scare quotes are only because I am not sure Tolkien woould agree that it is background.)

Tolkien was a Catholic, and Caldecott argues that “an understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their influence on the story for which he is famous can only enhance our appreciation of this great work of art”. Some readers might contest, or at least not understand, the relevance of Tolkien’s Catholicism to the stories he told. There is no overt Catholicism in his tales (not in the best known ones, at least) and, even more remarkable, no overt religion at all. But Caldecott has a trump card in the form of a famous letter in which Tolkien wrote:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

It is an authorial claim that gets one thinking, and the Christian resonances soon become more evident: Tolkien’s stories turn on themes of humility, power in weakness, the parasitic nature of evil, Providence, and mercy. And there are some specific allusions to Christianity as well: Caldecott reminds us that the date of the destruction of the One Ring was March 25, the date of the Catholic feast of the Annunciation — the date on which the power of sin in the world was decisively (if still, in history, partially) undone.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a sacramental realm as well: material things have spiritual meanings and powers. From the background mythology Tolkien demonstrates that though the material world was created good, Morgoth’s power has disseminated through it, making it subject to corruption and decay, making it subject to his will, and making the dark magic of Saruman (for example) possible. Gold and fire are especially under his dominion, which casts the One Ring and Mount Doom in a new light (or a new shadow). Of all the elements of the natural world it is water that is most outside his influence; hence the watery backdrop of Rivendale, for instance.

There are also strong Marian themes in Middle Earth. Tolkien said that his “own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity” was founded on the Blessed Virgin, and he poured that beauty into certain characters, especially the female elves such as Galadriel. Caldecott argues that the longing for beauty, especially as experienced by the elves, is a Marian element of the mythology, and that that longing is sacramentally associated in the stories with starlight (perhaps under Mary’s title ‘star of the sea’), with music, and (again) with the sound of water.

(Incidentally, Caldecott has very interesting things to say about the place of elves in Tolkien’s world. They serve as a kind of experimental forum for him: they are immortal yet are confined to an earthly life. Their love and their longing are all directed at this world, rather than, as is fitting for men, at the next. Therefore although they long for transcendent beauty, they can never actually hope for it, and their longing is inflected by “a sense of melancholy, of infinite distance or separation.” This is an aspect of elvishness which I had not previously considered.)

One of the strongest conjunctions of Tolkien’s mythology with Catholic doctrine is to be found in the Creation myth which opens The Silmarillion. This section is one of the choicest jewels in Tolkien’s treasure chest, incredibly beautiful on its own merits. It begins with song, as Ilúvatar, the One, sings the world into being out of nothing. Caldecott spends quite a lot of time on this myth, examining its stages and various aspects in concert with Christian tradition, and it is among the most rewarding sections of the book. The notion that the Valar are “living Forms” (in the Platonic sense) was arresting; this was apparently how Tolkien himself thought of angels.

I said above that the Middle Earth mythology, however infused with Christian metaphysics and redolent of a Christian moral vision it may be, is nonetheless silent on the specific claims of Christian theology. And, of course, this is quite fitting, for the events with which Tolkien is concerned occurred long before the Incarnation. Yet I was surprised to discover that buried deep within the History of Middle Earth, in a section called “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”, Tolkien wrote of a prophecy that

“the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.”

One could hardly ask for a more direct indication that the world which Tolkien created was intended as an imaginative reconstruction of a Christian cosmos. And it was just one of many interesting things I learned from this intensely interesting little book.

Caldecott: Beauty for Truth’s Sake

January 25, 2010

Beauty for Truth’s Sake
On the Re-enchantment of Education

Stratford Caldecott (Brazos, 2009)
156 p.  First reading.

Stratford Caldecott is the director of Oxford University’s Center for Faith and Culture, and also editor of Sophia Institute Press and the online journal Second Spring.  This little book, which punches above its weight, is ostensibly a proposal for the renovation of educational theory and the renewal of education, but is really a proposal for the renovation and renewal of the Western mind.

Of the many problems with contemporary education in the West, Caldecott stresses the fragmentation of academic subjects, which tends to the fragmentation of context and meaning.  This fragmentation, which has progressed to the point that some have even ceased to consider it a problem (expressing, as it does, the incommensurability of rival discourses, the conventionality and relativity of truth, and the imperative to ‘celebrate diversity’), is troubling because education forms the soul, and a fragmented education forms a fragmented soul whose orientation toward truth, beauty, and goodness is confused. Contemporary education is more effective at producing non-judgemental citizens for a pluralistic state than it is about teaching us to love that which is beautiful — which is what Socrates said was the object of education.  To the extent that “non-discrimination” and “values-free education” are pursued as objectives, education perversely sets itself at odds with both logic and virtue and thereby undermines itself, for a well-ordered soul is a prerequisite for the perception and contemplation of truth.

The dis-integration of the mind, as expressed in the balkanization of academic disciplines, is revealed most obviously in the fissure that runs between the humanities, on the one hand, and the sciences and mathematics, on the other. It is the latter disciplines that have gained the cultural ascendancy, and the form of reason cultivated by such disciplines — mathematical reason — has thereby assumed an honoured position in our culture, which dominance has tended to downgrade in prestige, and atrophy in practice, other kinds of reasoning.  By now the calculative, instrumental reason of the sciences has progressed quite far in the colonization of the humanities, which is why we see departments of English and philosophy doing “research” on the scientific model, or schools of art whose whole subject matter seems to be technique, and so on.  The narrowing of reason’s scope has also damaged the relationship between reason and faith, for instrumental reason alone, detached from moral and aesthetic reasoning, can have little to contribute to religion, and little to gain from the association.

All of this has been said often enough.  Caldecott’s interesting proposal in this book is that recovery should begin with re-enlarging our conception of reason by bringing science and mathematics back into contact with poetry and imagination, and the key to doing so, he argues, is beauty: beauty can rescue reason from ratiocination, and beauty can be the bridge that reconnects the sciences and the humanities.

Renewal, Caldecott remarks, is often ressourcement, a return to sources.  In this case he proposes that we return for inspiration to the Pythagorean tradition.  For Pythagoras the world was “number”, and though there is debate about just what this meant, it seems that it was conceptually rich enough to ground a religious, or at least quasi-religious, way of life.  In the medieval period, the Pythagorean stress on the importance of number was absorbed into the educational curriculum.  The quadrivium, which included more than half of the standard subjects of study, was devoted to mathematics: arithmetic, music (number in time), geometry (number in space), and astronomy (number in time and space), and it was understood that the study of such subjects was a preparation, and a suitable one, for the study of theology, for prayer, and for the contemplation of God.

Understanding why mathematics was thought to be a suitable preparation for such things is perplexing to moderns.  Caldecott quotes Simone Weil’s comment about prayer consisting of attentiveness to God, and mathematics as developing the soul’s capacity for such attentiveness, but personally I think this falls short of being an adequate explanation. The value of mathematics was not just in the habits of mind it cultivated, but in the subject matter itself, which provided insight into the deep structure of the world, and therefore into the mind and purposes of the Creator.  Number had an essential aesthetic quality too: the Pythagoreans famously believed that the cosmos reverberated with Musica — order — a harmony beautiful beyond words and beyond sense perception, but able to be grasped by the intellect.  Training in the quadrivium, each subject of which is a particular manifestation of Musica, educated the soul to be capable of seeing and knowing this fundamental beauty.

Clearly, the Pythagorean tradition relied on, and in turn cultivated, a lively poetic imagination. It had the potential to educate not just the mind, but also the heart, and it engaged the student at a level deeper than that to which we are accustomed.  Of course there is no question today of adopting the Pythagorean doctrines wholesale, for we know things now which they did not, but perhaps certain features of their worldview are worthy of reconsideration.  Obstacles exist.  Modernity has done its damnedest to denude beauty of any significance (about which more below), and it has also been generally hostile to the imaginative faculty.  Romanticism was a reaction against this hostility, but romanticism lapsed too frequently into mere feeling, without the rational harness that the classical and medieval models provided.  Caldecott points for guidance to Coleridge’s statement that imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”  Our capacity for imagination is a mark of the imago Dei in us, and by it we can both discern and express goodness, truth, and beauty.

Another aspect of the Pythagorean and medieval traditions that Caldecott thinks worthy of resuscitation is, for want of a better way of saying it, the practice of thinking symbolically — that is, of taking symbols and symbolism seriously.  This is a tough one.  The modern tendency is to make symbols thin: almost the first thing we think about them is that they are only conventional signs, a kind of shorthand, something culturally bounded and essentially arbitrary. It follows that no feature of the natural world can be taken seriously as a symbol.  Nothing is naturally symbolic.  Our forefathers may have thought that a circle, in addition to being a circle, was also a natural symbol of unity and order; or they may have thought that the number 3, in addition to being the number 3, was also naturally associated with the Trinity; and so on.  For them a symbol could be a real manifestation, at one level of reality, of something higher (an archetype, an Idea, or what have you).  Understood in this way, the world speaks to us with many voices at once; a thing is itself, but also something else, and not because we say so, but because the world itself is so constituted that this multi-valent meaning is actually woven into it.  Like I said, this is a tough one for us, who have been tutored to regard the world as intrinsically meaningless.  Caldecott says at one point that, in order to thrive, this practice of reading the world symbolically relies on the analogia entis, which gave me occasion, once again, to regret that I have never understood what the phrase means.  (I know what it means literally — “analogy of being” — but I do not understand what it refers to.)

I said above that Caldecott places great emphasis on the importance of beauty for recovering a more expansive understanding of reason and for cultivating a more profound interior unity.  This requires, in a way analogous to what was just said about symbolism, that beauty be taken seriously as something real and significant and capable of bearing meaning.  And, again, modernity has schooled this out of us.  “Beauty is (only) in the eye of the beholder” is the aphorism that expresses the modern view in a nutshell.  In the pre-modern period beauty was seen as deeply related to goodness and truth, and, in a sense, modernity has honoured that insight — by relativizing all three.  There is a profound logic at work in this effort to deny these transcendental goods, converting each into a mere subjective preference.  Caldecott quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.  Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.

Balthasar goes on to say that the person who sneers at beauty “can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”  It is a chilling observation, one which reveals much about the predicament of late modernity.  In my judgement this inability to render adequate homage to beauty is one of the central failures of the modern project, and one of the best reasons to be suspicious of it.  Personally, I thank God that I have never been able to shake the conviction that beauty is profoundly important, and that I have a duty to love and honour it.  It was Dostoyevsky, I believe, who predicted that “Beauty will save the world”, and he was on to something. Perhaps more than goodness and even truth, beauty’s mysterious power continues to reassert itself at a deep level that bypasses our theories and sense of progressive propriety. There are undoubtedly many obstacles to be overcome if beauty is to regain its former honour, but Caldecott is right, I think, to see it as a possible means of salvation for us.

In closing, I’d like to draw attention to some interesting comments Caldecott makes about liturgy.  Liturgy, he believes, may be a key to recovering a vision of sacred, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual order.  Plato argued that education, since it aims to bring order to the soul, should include dance, song, and poetry, for such things tutor the soul to perceive harmony, proportion, and beauty.  In a religiously attuned education, liturgy could play a similar role, for it too is a kind of dance, song, and poem.  Liturgy cultivates remembrance, manners (not just “good manners” in the Miss Manners sort, but a sense of ritualized formality and fittingness), and art, with a great potential for the expression of beauty and harmony, and it affects not only the individual person, in both body and soul, but also, as a ritual action of worship, the human community as well.  Of course, contemporary liturgy, which has fallen on the hardest of hard times, hardly seems capable of rising to this exalted task, but we must not live without hope.

In summary, this is a provocative little book.  Caldecott is better at raising questions than he is at answering them.  (There are some attempts in the book to show the beauty of the Trinity by representing it in geometrical figures, and to demonstrate symbolic perception by considering the symbolic meaning of various integers, and these efforts I found unconvincing, to say the least.)  His extensive bibliography shows that he has mined a great deal of material, but his presentation of it is accessible and instructive.  He has taken on a huge subject, and the book can do little more than gesture in the direction he thinks we should go.  He has given me much to think about.


Two other reviews / discussions of this book, both of which are better than what I have written: