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Don’t Shoot the Elephant or You’ll Kill Education

blind men and elephant public sculpture India
The Asian parable of the blind men and the elephant
is as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.

I don’t usually touch on hot button issues on this blog, preferring instead to focus on perennial wisdom that can benefit us all. To my mind, too much bloggery deals with narrow, sectarian rants (of the right and the left), radiating heat but very little light. I prefer to try to preserve a space in which we can put cant aside and try to contemplate truth, as it can be seen refracted and reflected in literature, history, philosophy, art, and the other liberal arts. You see, I have this funny idea that if we all look toward the light, from whatever direction our perspective may take, we can all be illuminated and, in that way, united, even if we disagree about the things we see. Perhaps we will even recognize the limitations of our own personal perceptions, like the proverbial blind men who each grasped a different part of the elephant. Individually they had their own (equally limited and erroneous) ideas about what they were touching, but when they combined their perceptions, they realized that what they collectively beheld was much greater, more magnificent and wondrous, than what anyone of them individually suspected. (If you aren’t familiar with this parable, read it here. It is every bit as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.)

Education draws us out of our own, limited understanding of truth

Really, folks, this is precisely what education, in the true sense of the term, is supposed to do. It is not supposed to tell you that whatever you already perceive — whether it’s a leg like a pillar or a trunk like tree branch — is the absolute and only truth, it is supposed to put you in touch with people and cultures and points of view that differ from your own, so that you open your mind and learn to weigh
opinion and experience, and in this way become more capable of discerning not only particular but larger, more enduring truths. It draws you out of your own blinkered, myopic reality and sets you in a larger context that spans time (history and posterity) and space (the whole world). That’s what the word “educate” (Latin e(x) + ducere = to lead or draw one out) means.

stock image of magnificent elephant
Truth is a beautiful thing, but a false multiculturalism
can blind students and make true education impossible.

If the administrators of Columbia University or any institution of so-called “higher education” should capitulate to the demands of students that their own puerile perceptions not be challenged — if they agree to attach “trigger warnings” to any course that might offend a student’s cultural identity — they will be doing the opposite of educating. Instead of the academic community sharing insights and enlarging their appreciation of the majestic beast, they will kill the very thing that has brought them together. They will be putting an elephant gun in the hands of their blind young charges, and, when the trigger is pulled, they’ll all be left grasping some gruesome butchery of the truth.

If “multiculturalism” and “diversity training” actually tried to do these things, they would be valuable adjuncts to more traditional educational approaches. Instead, these duplicitous terms are a facade, masking a process that has systematically taught and reinforced prejudice — i.e., it has taught young people to hate and fear anything that they do not already experience or believe or enjoy. This recent article  in the National Review illustrates how true this is. (Read the article yourself to see what the kerfuffle is about; it has to do with students who feel offended by Ovid’s lack of modern cultural sensitivity, or some such).

We need to consider truth from different angles

I’d like to focus on the salient point that the article’s author, Ian Tuttle, makes — which, in fact, he takes from C. S. Lewis — and that is that education, far from insulating students from viewpoints that differ from their own, should be programmatically exposing them to a variety of political, cultural, historical, and philosophical viewpoints, so that they may enlarge their understanding and test their own preconceptions.

In an introductory essay to St. Athanasius’s De Incarnatione (another very old book), C. S. Lewis made just this argument. “Every age has its own outlook,” wrote Lewis. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Lewis is not suggesting (at least not here) that old books got things more right than new ones — Dante was not omniscient — but simply that they got things right (and wrong) differently: “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

The only problem with such an argument, of course, is that it assumes there are truths to be grasped, truths that transcend cultural and historical contexts — and here lies the rub. These days, if you want to get an academic’s back up, just try suggesting that there is any such thing as transcendent, universal, or  immutable truth. And if you really want to cause trouble, try suggesting that education’s purpose is to teach students how to perceive that truth. If my own experience in “higher education” is anything to go by (and, sadly, I’m convinced it is), you will be attacked — verbally, if not physically — and swiftly be given the gate.

That’s part of the reason I’m writing this blog rather than standing at the front of a classroom today. Not because I’ve given up on the ideal of true education, but because I’ve found it almost impossible to pursue such an enterprise in today’s halls of “higher learning.” If you value true education of the old-fashioned liberal arts variety, keep reading this space. In fact, why not sign up to get notifications of new articles by email? There’s a space for you to do so in the sidebar on the right.

Just one more point. I’m as eager to further my own on-going education as I am to help you further yours. I started this blog hoping to generate some conversation through the ether, but too often I find myself alone in my echo chamber. I don’t mind a bit conversing with such folk as C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ovid, Livy, Vergil, et al., but I would love to have some of you readers chime in from time to time. Let me see some other quadrant of the elephant. If you find value in anything you read here, please leave a comment and let me know why. Join the conversation and add your insights — or your illuminating questions. That’s how we can all, together, arrive at a clearer perception of the truth.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

St Thomas More Society, Dallas

On this blog, I’ve written a lot on something I call “the moral imagination.” Recently I was invited to address the Dallas chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society (Catholic lawyers’ guild), on a topic such as the ones I deal with on this blog. Here’s a copy of the text of that talk. For the most part, it puts together ideas that I’ve dealt with in a variety of posts over the last few years, but I thought my readers might like to see all those ideas put together in one, coherent address. If you want to see the original context of each idea, just click on the category “moral imagination” in the blog menu to see a list of all posts on this topic.

Enjoy! And please leave comments, if you wish.

Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

When I was a child, I was keenly aware that I was by no means wise. I hadn’t a clue about the world – how it is or why it is the way it is – nor about people – people never behaved the way I expected – nor even about myself – who was I, who should I be, how should I live? I was not only ignorant but painfully aware of my own ignorance. (I’ve since learned that this is called “Socratic wisdom” – to know how little one truly knows).

So being a timid, introverted, and confused child, I read. A lot. I read everything. When I was seven, my parents bought us the World Book Encyclopedia, purchasing a volume or two each month over a year or so. The first volume covered everything that started with the letter A – it was about that thick [indicate]. I read it cover to cover – which probably accounts for my lifelong interest in archaeology and anthropology. I read dictionaries, too. Newspapers. I even read the labels on pillows that said “Do not remove this label, under penalty of law.”

But mostly, I read stories of all kinds – biography, historical romance, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy – anything that would give me some glimpse of life that was different from my own confused life. So I read stories of foreign lands, other times, stories of immigrants and pioneers – I was fascinated by strange milieux and I admired the way the people in these stories faced challenges that would have terrified me. I wanted to be like them – not timid, but audacious; not baffled and indecisive, but confident and persevering, not small and meaningless, but someone who had a purpose in life and strode boldly forth to achieve it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my reading – indiscriminate as it was – was forming my character, showing me how (and how not) to live, giving me a vision of what I could be, helping me to get a clearer understanding of who I wanted to be. Eventually, my teachers introduced me to more edifying – and more challenging – works, works written with a more serious purpose and with greater literary craft, and I gobbled these down avidly as well. I learned that these stories might be a bit more challenging than popular novels, but they stirred up such wonderful ideas that it was worth the extra effort.

Of course, not everyone takes as much delight in reading as I do. But I was stunned one day when I stood before a roomful of college English students and learned that most of my students didn’t read AT ALL. Ever. They hated reading, they hated my class, even though this was only the second day of the term. I later discovered that they were pretty much typical of American high school graduates these days. The first twelve or fourteen years of their schooling had somehow taught them to hate reading.

Statistical surveys support this awful news:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

Now I want to tell you why I find this so alarming, and why you should, too.

Great Stories can help us Become Wise

The title of this address is “Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories.” By “great stories,” I don’t mean specifically or only titles that might appear on a “Great Books”list, as this term is usually used in academic circles. What I mean by “great stories” are stories of perduring interest, stories that are capable from age to age of enlightening and inspiring readers, stories that can teach us something important about what it means to be human, and how we best should live.

I hope you will all agree that civil society needs wise citizens. I want to convince you that civil society also needs great stories, because such stories help to produce wise citizens. Perhaps you’ll resist this idea. Sure, stories can be entertaining, even edifying, but can they make us wise? And anyway, what does it mean to be wise?

To be wise, as I use that term, means to know the truth and to conform our lives to the truth. Many people these days, including educators, are shocked that anyone would propose that education is meant to make anyone “wise,.” But I do, and I hope you’ll agree with me that there is such a thing as truth, and wisdom.

So if wisdom consists of knowing the truth and living by it, how does literature help to instil wisdom? Doesn’t wisdom fall under the purview of philosophy, not literature? I say no, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Perhaps you’ll trust the authority of a couple of very famous lawyers, who were also philosophers: Saint Thomas More, the patron of your august society, and Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great statesman of the late Roman Republic. Thomas More is perhaps best known for his (often misunderstood) Utopia, a story with a philosophical purpose that stands in the great tradition begun by Plato’s famous dialogue on the nature of justice and the just society, which we call The Republic. Cicero also wrote his own version of The Republic, recast in the light of Stoic philosophy for the hard-headed Romans of his day.

All of these men – Plato, Cicero, and Thomas More – recognized the power of stories to convey truth. I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, while Socrates himself left no written teachings – in fact, he bragged about this during his famous trial – his great disciple Plato produced many written works that have survived, all written in the form of dialogues. Why dialogues?

To begin with, probably because Plato wanted to capture both the method and the style of his great teacher, who pursued truth by constantly probing what men thought they knew, through penetrating conversations in which everyone chipped in their own ideas and Socrates systematically exposed the flaws and challenged them to try again. So it must have seemed natural to Plato to discuss philosophical concepts through imaginary dialogues in which the speakers were fictional representations of real people, Socrates and his friends.

But the dialogue form is also a handy way to engage the reader in the conversation – it is very easy to imagine ourselves standing there alongside Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, Glaukon, and the others, hanging on Socrates’ every word, objecting to some of his more outrageous suggestions, scratching our heads at some of the puzzling ones, and perhaps finally feeling the truth dawn on us as the discussion circles closer and closer to the true nature of justice, in the soul and in the city.

In other words, what Plato does in these dialogues is tell a story so captivating that it completely captures our imaginations, drawing readers in as if we were actually taking part in the conversation. The dialogue form, then, is actually a kind of fiction – a fiction that illuminates truth. A fiction that helps us come to wisdom.

Now, wait a minute, you may say, Plato hated fiction, didn’t he? Didn’t he call it mere imitation, twice removed from truth itself? In The Republic, doesn’t Socrates say that poets must not be allowed into the just city, because they will corrupt the youth with their lying tales? Well, yes but no. Yes, Socrates says that, but he is referring to poets who tell lying tales. He objected to poets like Homer and Hesiod, who he felt told unedifying tales about the gods and heroes, stories that made a bad impression on their young souls.

Plato would have to be a huge hypocrite to condemn fiction per se, not only because he used made-up dialogues, but also because in The Republic he has Socrates propose a number of bald fictions to preserve order in the just city. For instance, there is the so-called Noble Lie, with which every citizen of the hypothetical Just City will be indoctrinated from birth, namely the myth that the gods have infused in each soul a particular metal — gold, silver, or iron – which destines the individual to a particular role in society. And then there is also the Myth of the Cave (sometimes called the parable of the cave), which Socrates tells and then interprets for his young interlocutors, in order to help them see essential truths. And Plato ends the dialogue with the Myth of Er, a didactic story that says those souls who failed to achieve perfect virtue in their earthly lives will be sent back to try again, until they get it right.

Plato’s fictional Socrates makes up stories to help his followers perceive truth. Plato recognized that very few human beings will ever reach the level of contemplation that allows one to apprehend Truth directly. Instead, most people must be shown the truth in figures, through stories or metaphors.

Poetic truth

Plato knew this, and so did his famous pupil, Aristotle. Although Aristotle did not follow the dialectical method of his predecessor, he nonetheless shared Plato’s appreciation for the philosophical value of stories. One of his surviving lectures is on Poetics, or the literary art. Perhaps it should surprise us that Aristotle valued fiction more than history. Comparing epic poetry to historical accounts, he says:

It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose.… The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

So according to Aristotle, poetry of its very nature leads toward wisdom. How does fiction lead us to perceive truth? By creating an analogy between the reader and the fictional protagonist, so that in effect the reader vicariously lives through the actions of the protagonist.

Christian Stories

Pagan myth, which inspired the great works of the early epic tradition, sought to express imaginatively the relationship between gods and men. Unfortunately, as Socrates and Plato found, the results were not very satisfactory, so in Graeco-Roman culture myth was largely supplanted in the quest for wisdom by philosophy.

Judaeo-Christian culture, of course, has the benefit of Divine Revelation – truths that we could never grasp with our unaided human intellects and imaginations, God Himself has revealed to us. So, you might ask, does that mean that we Christians have no need of stories to learn truth? Of course not. There would be no Christianity (nor Judaism, either) without stories. Any Christian, be he Catholic, Presybterian, or Seventh Day Adventist, knows that the Christian faith is passed on primarily through stories – especially the stories found in that Great Storybook that we call the Bible, the Greatest Story Ever Told. Now, many Christians tend to look at the Bible as a kind of instruction manual cum history book, something purely factual which must be read with the most deadly literal-mindedness.

I’d like to propose that we should think of the Bible as the truest of all stories, almost like a novel – a true one — that has been written one chapter at a time over thousands of years, containing a masterfully developed, perfectly unified plot that reaches a triumphant climax in the death and resurrection of the hero. God is not only the author, he is also the protagonist of this great story – it’s a story about Himself, a story that he told the Jews over and over, the story of the salvation that He would achieve in time, for all eternity. He finally acted out the story when He became Man, to make things as clear as possible. And, of course, during his earthly ministry, Jesus himself constantly used stories to convey ineffable truths – we call these stories parables.

Christ’s apostles, once they had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, recognized that all of Sacred Scripture is about Christ. They saw that Noah, Abraham & Isaac, Joseph of Egypt, Moses were all types of Christ – they prefigured or foreshadowed the act of salvation that would be achieved by God-made-Man. The apostles understood also that we, too, are called to be types or figures of Christ – we must be like Him, “put on the mind of Christ,” function as “members of His body.” We must write ourselves into that story of salvation. In fact, we would not know how to act, how to love, how to offer our lives for our brethren, if God Himself had not told us his story.

The Dearth of Good Stories Today

So stories are essentially extended metaphors or analogies that can provide us with inspiration on how (or how not) to live. When we read stories, we “live other lives,” as C. S. Lewis put it – in our vicarious participation in the protagonist’s plight, we experience his actions, and their consequences, at no real risk to ourselves. This is why for so many centuries, a large part of education consisted of reading and internalizing great stories. For the Greeks, these were the stories of great heroes, men who were virtually godlike some dimension (Achilles’ godlike rage, Hercules’ immense strength, Odysseus’ incredible wiliness). For Christians, of course, the greatest hero is Jesus Christ, not merely a “godlike” man, but actually God-made-Man, capable of the greatest of all heroic feats – rescuing all Mankind from the jaws of death, loving the miserable, vindictive sinners who put him to death in the cruelest possible way. Achilles could never do that. Odysseus could never do that.

Since the rise of Christianity, many new stories of Christian heroes have been added to the fund of Western literature – both those historical figures we call saints, and purely fictional heroes who are, in their own ways, Christ-like. Heroes unlike those of the pagan poets – they are humble rather than boastful, they struggle not for personal glory, but to protect the weak and innocent, or they struggle against their own inner demons. The Christian imagination simply cannot help but produce Christ-like protagonists.

Unfortunately, the Christian imagination has largely been banished from the public sphere, banished from our schools and universities, all but disappeared from contemporary novels, films, and television shows. The very idea of heroism itself has been diminished and distorted almost out of existence.

In the past, the so called “Great Books” constituted the core curriculum of education. They gave us a common fund of stories that formed our collective moral imagination, figures we could point to as examples to be emulated or avoided. Notice how, in the absence of such stories today, we simply point fingers at each other, and public discourse descends into a mess of name-calling and hate-mongering.

Make no mistake, the poets have been banished from our unjust republic. Literature is no longer studied in most colleges and universities – it has been displaced by so-called “cultural studies” whose goal is the not the promotion but the denigration of existing culture, the destruction of any common bond with those who have gone before, the destruction of anything that can be perceived as an ideology in competition with the cultural Marxism that has reigned in our universities now for generations. Any literature which has continued to speak to the human condition from age to age, any literature which has traditionally been considered edifying – has been branded “high” culture, therefore “elitist,” and therefore to be reviled and rejected by modern readers. After all, who are we to suggest that young people should strive to be more than they are, that they should greater than they are? Elitist heresy!

School children are no longer taught the stories of “great” historical figures or literary characters – they are allowed to admire only those figures who are in some way “transgressive” of existing norms, cultural outsiders who struggle against the predominant culture, social deviants who are admired simply for the fact of their deviancy. Stories written for young readers – those who choose reading over mindless video games – often mirror the darkness of our ever-darkening culture as we slip back into barbarism. Think of Harry Potter and his friends, misfits in the real world of non-magical “mugwumps” yet also their guardians and protectors from the forces of evil.

Books written for older adolescents often mirror the cultural and social chaos in which so many youngsters live – tales full of sexual experimentation, depression, broken families, broken relationships of all kinds. Look at the books on the “young adult” best-seller list – the phenomenally successful Hunger Games trilogy features a teen-aged protagonist who lives in a hellish version of our future, where children are exploited in the most brutal way in order to keep the general populace in submission to the thuggish ruling class. Katniss Everdeen is a bitter young person, who trusts no one and loves no one, except her younger sister, who becomes just another lamb to the slaughter. I read these books a year or so ago, and found them both engaging and deeply pessimistic. By the end of the series I was heartily sick of Katniss Everdeen and her unrelieved bitterness – what a bleak picture of human life such books present.

But the fact is that young people these days have no better stories to inspire them. The great stories of the past have been forbidden them. For nearly two thousand years, aspiring writers carefully emulated the work of the best of their predecessors until they had mastered their craft and could fashion their own stories. But the writers of the present have not read the great stories of the past, they’ve had no great models from which to learn their craft.

Today’s writers, sadly lacking literary models, are forced to look to cartoons, comic books, and old television shows for models — the only “old stories” known by modern illiterates.

Hope for the future

Some might say I am painting too black a picture. So what if we have Batman rather than Sir Gawain or Beowulf? Isn’t it enough that the good guys win and the dastardly villains are vanquished? Well, that depends – who are we calling the good guys? Or the villains? Batman himself is famously dark and conflicted, full of self-doubt, as are many other superheroes popular these days. And what about protagonists like Dexter, the serial killer? Or Hannibal Lecter, the sadistic cannibal? One recent TV series set in the 1970s, featured as protagonists a couple of embedded Soviet spies, Russian sleepers passing as ordinary Americans, who tuck their two children into their beds in American suburbia, before going out at night to torture and murder agents of the American government. With “heroes” like these, how can we even define “good” or “evil”? No, if we want to rebuild our society, we must rebuild our literary culture – and we must do so NOW, before another generation is lost.

We need to return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. such works take great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Not only that, but great stories of the past should continue to shape great stories of the future. This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a reader but a writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life is too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and merely factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more stories that transcend the superficial and mundane facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. This requires writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s tender regard for his Creation.

In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II affirmed the social value of artistic creation when he compared the artistic works to God’s own creative work. He said that the artist, as much the parent or catechist, as much as teachers or professionals like yourselves, helps to “ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is the art of education.”

The good news is, there is a small but growing subculture – or perhaps I should say counter-culture – that is striving to fulfill the challenge presented by the cultural vacuum of our times. For instance, many members of the Catholic Writers Guild, like myself, are striving for a Catholic literary Renaissance, writing new stories illuminated by the light of faith – not just for Catholics, but for the wider culture. These works seek to reflect a world of hope, a vision of human life that acknowledges its inherent dignity and worth, a set of values that respects the reality of good and evil and distinguishes between them.

There are also new publishing concerns, such as the Tuscany Press, dedicated specifically to publishing works of fiction by Catholic authors. Barbara Nicolosi, a well-know Catholic film critic and screenwriter, has founded Act One, a school to train Christian screenwriters, not just to make explicitly Christian films, but also to “leaven the lump” of Hollywood with scripts that reflect the Christian worldview. Artists, too, and musicians are also beginning to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the best of traditional music and art, to seek inspiration from a culture that has largely been abandoned in recent decades.

Although our public schools have, for the most part, banished traditional culture and the whole notion that education is meant to teach not only facts but virtue, there is a growing number of schools – many religious, others public charter schools – that have reclaimed classical education, that enthusiastically and rigorously teach both great and good stories that can make a beneficial impression on young minds, young souls. Homeschooling families have long used such curricula.

There are also a number of Catholic colleges that retain the classic liberal arts ideals, even while preparing their students for virtuous and productive lives in the modern world. My own alma mater, the University of Dallas, is a very fine liberal arts college. The Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization makes the reading and discussion of great works available to adult and non-traditional learners. We need to support these institutions, and send our children to them, so that they can imbibe the great stories of the Western tradition and pass them on.

Let’s be clear, these are minority efforts. And some of those engaged in them have developed a Catholic ghetto mentality, which we need to get away from. If we Catholics want to thrive, we cannot abandon the wider culture. Christian charity demands that we take pains to extend these efforts beyond the narrow confines of the Catholic sphere. Our society needs light and truth, perhaps now more than ever. Our culture is diseased and crumbling – we should not abandon it, but rebuild it.

Pope John Paul II and his successors have seen this need clearly. In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul called for a new evangelization – a re-evangelization of the Faithful, so that in this third millennium we may find new zeal, new inspiration to present the Gospel in a fresh way to our failing culture. This should include great stories that can capture the benighted imaginations of our young people and inspire them with hope. We should welcome and encourage cultural revival wherever possible – inside or outside the Church.

If we do so, perhaps we can bring our society back from the brink of barbarism. To paraphrase the slogan of the recent TV series, Heroes: “Save the stories, save the world.”

Presented to the Dallas Chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society, 7 November 2013

Have we failed to learn the lessons in Rerum Novarum?

Here’s an article that highlights the ways in which the tenets of socialism have invaded modern society, even where the government is not overtly or structurally socialistic (communist).

We should not be fooled by the fact that most modern political systems these days maintain a republican form. As Gustavo Solimeo points out in this article, “A Specter is Haunting America — Socialism,” 

The very motherland of communism, the Soviet Union, called itself the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Socialism can be applied in varying degrees. Thus, in practice, there can be a difference between an incomplete application of socialism and full-blown communism, which is socialism taken to its ultimate consequences. [emphasis added]

I think too many of us in the West have become complacent, believing that socialist ideology has succeeded only in areas with a large, downtrodden peasant population. This is because we make the mistake of thinking of socialism as a political agenda, rather than a thorough-going ideology that embraces every part of culture.

Western nations may not have embraced socialism/marxism on a political level, but many have fallen prey to cultural Marxism, i.e., the attempt to undermine the political structure indirectly, through the culture. As Soleo points out,

Much more important than the political expansion of communism/socialism is the spreading of ideas and customs that are leading the world to abandon the natural order and Christian civilization.

The title of the article echoes the first line of the Communist Manifesto,  substituting America for Europe, as the land being haunted by the specter of Communism. Read the article to see the particular points on which Soleo believes America has been undermined by socialist ideology.

If Soleo is correct in his analysis (I leave it to the reader to decide), American Catholics have, by and large, failed to embrace or apply the principles set out in Rerum Novarum, the founding document of the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, which was also a direct response to the Communist Manifesto.

Epic poetry and the moral imagination

This fall I’ve been teaching a course on Medieval Epic Poetry, a continuation of the Ancient Epic course I taught last spring, in which we read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, poems that are all deeply grounded in a pagan worldview but nonetheless examine human nature, and particularly human excellence, in such an authentic way that they continue to speak profoundly to readers in our own day.

Still, the pagan world that produced those works valued things that sometimes run counter to Christian values, so their heroes may seem strange and not entirely admirable to a modern Christian.

Nonetheless, all the poems we read in the Medieval Epic course are written by Christian poets who have, to one extent or another, appropriated the epic tradition and made it their own.

What does it mean to be a hero?

ancient vase Achilles and Hector

Achilleus was famous for his godlike rage.

This shows, on the one hand, the powerful appeal of the epic form and, on the other hand, the way Christians have always been able to “baptize” the best of pagan culture.  One of the key, defining features of the ancient epic is the hero upon whom the poem is focused. For ancient Greeks and Romans, to be a hero meant to be, in some way, godlike. If you know anything about the gods of Graeco-Roman mythology, however, you’ll realize that being “godlike” did not necessarily mean being “virtuous” in the ethical or moral sense; it simply meant being super-humanly good at something, and being able to get away with things that would never be tolerated in mere mortals. Achilles, for instance, was noted for his godlike rage, which made him a most excellent warrior, but the Iliad makes no bones about the fact that he turns his godlike rage against his own friends and allies, and even prays (successfully) to Zeus that they will suffer mightily for having offended him. So the Christian poet who chose to wrote an epic tale had to wrestle with the problem of the hero – what should he be like, if not like Achilles or Odysseus?

Beowulf: A Christian gloss on pagan heroism

Illuminated capital, Beowulf slays the dragon

Beowulf’s final heroic act proved to be disastrous vainglory.

One way to deal with the problem is illustrated in the first work we read is in the Medieval Epic course. Beowulf, a Norse hero tale reworked by a Christian monk for a Christian audience, presents
a vibrant depiction of a pagan hero which is also a Christian commentary on the inadequacy of pagan values. For the Christian, the greatest hero is always Christ Himself, who was not merely godlike but actually God Made Man, who won the greatest possible victory – over sin and death – not through his power and might but through his deliberate weakness and willing defeat (see my earlier post on the Heliand for more on this). So for the Christian epic poet, every true hero must be, in some important way, Christ-like (“godlike” in the sense of being like the God Made Man). Often this means that he will be self-sacrificing (as Beowulf is, saving his people from a dragon, but dying as a result of his wounds): many times, we will see the hero “harrowing Hell,” literally or figuratively redeeming the souls of the dead, as we find Aragorn doing in Tolkien’s The Return of the King (there is an analogous scene in Beowulf); like Christ, the hero may win a great victory by virtue of his humility rather than his might, as Frodo does, another Tolkien character. (Tolkien was, like the Beowulf poet, inspired both by Norse myth and by his Christian faith.)

In this final regard, however, Beowulf falls short – he is not a Christian, after all, and his insistence that he fight the dragon on his own is a not humble self-sacrifice, but a magnificently heroic gesture of vainglory. Although he defeats his foe, he gets himself killed in the process, thus leaving his people undefended. Left without a king, they are doomed to be destroyed by hostile neighbors, who have nothing to fear in the absence of a powerful king. The Beowulf poet reminds his reader of this sad consequence at the end of the poem and thereby manages to pay homage to a great Danish hero only to expose the weakness of a culture that exalts vainglory over truly selfless heroism – such a culture, the poem suggests, bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Sir Gawain: Moral courage and Christian humility

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain kneels humbly before his foe.

This is a message that also haunts the Arthurian literary tradition, as we saw in the second work we read this semester, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem was written by a Christian poet, for a Christian audience, and its hero is himself a Christian, Gawain the nephew of King Arthur. Many elements of pagan mythology – in this case, Celtic – are also to be found in this poem, but they are found in the antagonist, not the protagonist, and Sir Gawain manages to come out of the conflict a victor, albeit a flawed one. Yet here the hero acknowledges his flaw, is humbled by it, and willingly returns to King Arthur’s court penitentially wearing a badge of shame, which will always remind him of his ignoble behavior.

However, the noble lords and ladies of Arthur’s court do not recognize the penitential reminder of the green sash that marks Gawain’s shame; instead, they admire it as a trophy of victory and even decide to wear a similar sash, much as football fans may sport “fan gear” bearing the number of their favorite linebacker. In the discrepancy between Gawain’s shame and humility and the admiration of Arthur’s court, the poet indicates the vainglory of the court and signals the difference between nobility of birth and nobility of character, and foreshadows the ultimate downfall of Arthur’s realm, which is narrated in other Arthurian romances.

Is heroism dead?

In many ways, our contemporary culture has much more in common with the ancient pagan worldview than the medieval Christian one; modern folk are more likely to admire the battle rage of Achilles or the self-serving cleverness of Odysseus than the humility of Gawain. Yet it is remarkable that, if you were to ask ordinary people to name a defining characteristic of the hero, most would say that a hero must be self-sacrificing. They might cite a firefighter who risks his life returning to a burning building to rescue a cat, or a bystander who tries to save a woman from a mugger. To this extent then, the Christian concept of the hero as one who risks his own life to save the weak and the innocent has made a lasting impression on the modern imagination.

kanye-west-kim-kardashian

He may be strong, but he’s no Hercules.

Unfortunately, too many popular “heroes” resemble degraded versions of Achilles or Odysseus, excelling at one (perhaps inconsequential) thing, while presenting poor examples as human beings – professional athletes who break records in their sports, but live lives of disgusting excess and moral depravity, celebrities who shamelessly parade their vile lifestyles before the public eye, wealthy executives who make millions even when they destroy the businesses they run, and so on.  These decadent “heroes” risk nothing but expect to have everything, and they infect the popular imagination like a virulent social disease.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the study of the epic tradition continues to thrive in Christian environments – “classical” Christian academies, homeschool curricula, Catholic liberal arts colleges, etc. What was, for thousands of years, mainstream culture has been abandoned by the modern world, leaving a great impoverishment of the modern moral imagination.

But this continues to thrive in what is now the Christian counter-culture, among those who still aspire, themselves and their children, to live lives that transcend the degraded mundane existence that is the “new normal.” Anyone depressed or disgusted by our toxic contemporary culture, anyone who aspires to be a member of the new moral counter-culture, could do much worse than to pick up one of the great works of the epic literary tradition and catch a glimpse of true heroism.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

Apocalypse and Alternate History: the novels of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Now that so many people are reading books on electronic devices, more and more books are being made available in digital format. Since I became a Kindle owner a couple of years ago, I have really enjoyed dipping into the many old, out-of-copyright books that available to be downloaded at no cost. Project Gutenberg, which claims to be “the first producer of free electronic books (ebooks),” has for some years provided digitized versions of books in many formats, including those used on the Kindle and the Nook and other devices. Even more convenient for Kindle owners like myself is the fact that every time Project Gutenberg releases a “new” old (public domain) book, Amazon immediately publishes it for the Kindle at no cost. This provides an extra convenience for Kindle owners, since we can have it downloaded to our device automatically (cutting out a step, compared to acquiring it directly from Project Gutenberg) and we can keep the title in our library “cloud” when we don’t need or want to have it taking up space on our Kindles.

Robert Hugh Benson
Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson,
former Anglican, bestselling Catholic author

One of my favorite out-of-copyright authors whose books are available from Project Gutenberg is Robert Hugh Benson. On the PG site, you’ll find a number of his Catholic novels, written in the early years of the twentieth century. Google Books also has free downloads of his novels and short stories, as well as a fair number of his catechetical, apologetic, and homiletic works; both Project Gutenberg and Google Books also offer biographies of Benson (the Google one is in two volumes).

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Msgr. Benson, who was almost as popular in the early 1900s as Fulton Sheen would be fifty years later. Benson was the son of an (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, and himself was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1895. Within a few years, however, he became a Catholic priest and a very popular writer for both Catholic and Anglican audiences, producing many works of Catholic apologetics as well as novels in various genres — historical, speculative, and contemporary fiction, all with religious themes.

http://www.booksshouldbefree.com/book/Lord-of-the-World-Robert-Hugh-Benson

Benson has been enjoying a sort of literary comeback in recent years, with a number of small publishers bringing some of his better known works back to print, and a number of web sites are devoted to Benson & his works. I have read a few of his novels, having begun with his most famous one, Lord of the World (one of his few works still available in print editions). This novel has been described variously as being “dystopic,” “science fiction,” “speculative fiction,” “prophetic,” and “apocalyptic.” The latter is probably the most apt, because Benson presents a vision of the world as it may when the end times arrive, as described in the final book of the Bible (“The Revelation to St. John,” known traditionally to Catholics as “The Book of the Apocalypse”). Benson, writing in the early years of the twentieth century (Lord of the World was first published in 1907), was alarmed at the social trajectory of the modern, Western world, and wrote this novel, at least in part, as a warning of where things seemed to be headed. Projecting his story forward in time less than a century, he foresaw a world that had become radically secularized, a culture of death in which euthanasia has become so common that euthanasia squads, not ambulances, are sent to accident sites and euthanasia parlors have replaced nursing homes. Marriages are sterile, churches are empty, and a demagogue rules over an all-encompassing socialist world government. Most churches have become Masonic temples, and the few churches that remain are all Catholic. I won’t give away the ending, but if you’ve read the Book of Revelation, you probably know where it’s headed.

Strangely enough, Benson’s loyal readers were dismayed by this novel, complaining that it was too gloomy. Despite his insistence that it described the way the Bible assures us the world really will end, his fans urged him to write another end-of-times novel, with a happy ending and, very reluctantly, he did. The result was a novel called Dawn of All. In its introduction, Benson writes:

In a former book,
called “Lord of the World,” I attempted to sketch the kind of
developments a hundred years hence which, I thought, might reasonably be
expected if the present lines of what is called “modern thought” were
only prolonged far enough; and I was informed repeatedly that the effect
of the book was exceedingly depressing and discouraging to optimistic
Christians. In the present book I am attempting — also in parable form
— not in the least to withdraw anything that I said in the former, but
to follow up the other lines instead, and to sketch — again in parable
— the kind of developments, about sixty years hence which, I think, may
reasonably be expected should the opposite process begin, and ancient
thought (which has stood the test of centuries, and is, in a very
remarkable manner, being “rediscovered” by persons even more modern than
modernists) be prolonged instead. We are told occasionally by moralists
that we live in very critical times, by which they mean that they are
not sure whether their own side will win or not. In that sense no times
can ever be critical to Catholics, since Catholics are never in any kind
of doubt as to whether or no their side will win. But from another
point of view every period is a critical period, since every period has
within itself the conflict of two irreconcilable forces. It has been for
the sake of tracing out the kind of effects that, it seemed to me, each
side would experience in turn, should the other, at any rate for a
while, become dominant, that I have written these two books.

Benson also says that he found Dawn of All very tedious to write, because he knew it described a world that would never exist. To convey the idea that we shouldn’t ever expect to live in the world described, he has a priest from our real world find himself transported in a dream to an alternate reality, a world which, having found that socialism doesn’t work and the promises of modern philosophy are empty, has gradually been won back to the Catholic faith and public life has been put back under the influence of the Church. Protestantism has been reconciled to Rome, Ireland is one big religious retreat center (all the laity having been evacuated to America or somewhere), and the Inquisition once again keeps the world safe from heretics. In fact, the novel basically presents an idealized version of medieval Christendom, a world in which trade guilds (not labor unions) are prominent, and people are required in public to wear attire legally prescribed for their state in life and occupation. It’s an odd work of speculative fiction, and best read after Lord of the World.

NuEvan Press, Dawn of All, Robert Hugh Benson

Speaking of odd, NuEvanPress.com offers ebook versions of both these novels that, the publishers say, have been “gently edited” to make the books more palatable to modern readers. A cursory look at the samples available on Amazon doesn’t reveal any obvious updates, so I’m guessing the “gentle editing” was intended to help the edition conform to the Amazon rule that anyone desiring to publish a title in the public domain must provide “added value,” in order to make their edition distinct from the free ebooks that Amazon publishes. In addition to the “gentle editing,”  NuEvan Press also includes helpful subtitles (“A Catholic Novel of the End Times” and “A Visionary Novel of the Catholic Church Victorious”), as well as an appendix in each book, relevant to the content of the novel. The appendix to Lord of the World contains a selection of readings from the Church Fathers on the Antichrist; in Dawn of All, it’s the Fathers on “the preeminence of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

I recommend any of Benson’s books, particularly the two mentioned here. Lord of the World provides the “Catholic answer” to the Left Behind novels, and Dawn of All presents a nice little fantasy that may provide a tonic in these days of the culture wars and the marginalization of religion. One caveat: the language will sound a bit formal or even old-fashioned, perhaps irritatingly so for some readers, so if that might be you, go ahead and plunk down $2.99 for the NuEvan Press e-editions; otherwise, just go for the freebies.

If you’ve already read these or other books by Robert Hugh Benson, please click the comment link, and let me know what you think!

Comment on Gilson’ s Foreward to City of God

Aside from agreeing with Gilson’s general thesis — that we wouldn’t have the modern notion that we can create a universal and just society, had it not been for Augustine’s City of God —  I will simply suggest that his last point is one worth considering. Although I don’t think we are anywhere near creating a just society on earth (according to the secular or the Christian model) – in fact, we often seem to be going in quite the opposite direction! – it seems that in the present day, when the secular world presents itself more and more as being necessarily antagonistic toward the Christian faith than perhaps at any time since Augustine’s own day, it is more important than ever that separated Christian bodies unite with – or at least collaborate with – the Catholic Church, to make common cause toward building a just society consonant with (not striving against) Christian principles. (In fact we see, more and more, that other religions are willing to make common cause with Christianity against the assaults of secularism.)

Now, when Augustine used that term “Catholic,” he meant not only “that Church visibly united with the See of Peter (the pope),” but also “that Christian body which is free from heresy (or doctrinal error)” – i.e., not the Donatists, Pelagians, Arians, etc. From the Catholic perspective, these two uses of the term are identical: the Catholic Church proclaims the Christian faith in its fullness, and without error through its infallible teaching authority (Magisterium). Any Christian individual or corporate body that denies any portion of the Catholic Church’s teaching of the faith is at a spiritual disadvantage, because they do not know (or acknowledge) the faith in its fullness. According to this understanding, Protestants differ from Catholics not simply as one religious denomination differs from another (“different strokes for different folks”), but they necessarily suffer from the ill effects of doctrinal error, to the extent that they differ or dissent from the Catholic faith. It is an act of charity to try to heal the breach of separation, so that “separated brethren” may be restored to the full life of the Christian (i.e., Catholic) Church.

I don’t say this polemically — that is, I’m not trying to present an argument to support the Catholic view, but simply trying to articulate it, because Gilson wrote as a Catholic when he said that “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.” Gilson does not say so, but I think he would agree that this desire for a unified society (“one world, one Church”) can best be achieved if separated Christian bodies are re-unified with the Catholic Church. The Body of Christ must be whole in order to be healthy, and it must be healthy in order to be able not only to defend itself against the encroachment of secularism, but to work toward building a just society, for the good of all (Christians, secularists, and others).


Sixty years after Gilson wrote his essay, the gulf between the Christian and the secular mindsets has become only more pronounced, much deeper and wider than it was only a few decades ago, to the point that no one denies the profound differences between the two. One evidence of this is the increasing stridency of self-proclaimed atheists. In the mid-20th century, public atheists could still cheerfully make common cause with religious believers, because they could recognize that the two shared many ideas about the common good; this seems no longer to be true. Public atheists today (notably Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) argue that religious believers are not only wrong (mistaken) but downright evil, and must be eradicated (I believe it was Dawkins who recently suggested that inculcating religious faith in one’s children should be considered child abuse).
 
At any rate, there seems to be plenty of evidence that today, more than ever, Christianity in particular, and religion more generally, is under the guns of the secularists. (Remember that even in Augustine’s own day, those who wanted to blame Christianity for the world’s problems did so on religious, not atheistic, grounds.) I think this explains why both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have labored so ceaselessly not simply to be “ecumenical” in the pallid sense often used by those who profess to embrace the “spirit of Vatican II” (“let’s all make nice and pretend that all religions are equally good and true”), but in the more vital sense of trying to bring separated bodies of Christians back into the embrace of Mother Church, so that they may not only have the benefit of the sacraments of the Church and the authoritative teaching of the Roman Magisterium, but also so that the Body of Christ may be truly unified and at full strength – both lungs, all the arms & legs, fingers & toes cooperating fully with their Head, which is Christ, and his vicar on earth, the Roman pontiff. Only if the Body is whole and healthy can it most effectively build up society on earth, so that it more closely resembles the City of God, of which all Christians are citizens by virtue of their baptism, and to which all men are called.

We have seen in recent years a remarkable amount of progress toward this re-unification: not only the restitution of some of the ancient churches to the Roman Communion under Pope John Paul II but also great progress more recently with traditional-minded Anglicans (Anglicanorum Coetibus) and in ironing out remaining obstacles between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox. It should be noted that Rome has taken some pains to show that the legitimate spiritual patrimony of these other Christian traditions should be preserved and allowed to flourish in their own right, rather than trying to homogenize everyone to become cookie-cutter “Roman” Catholics; the present and former Holy Fathers have shown that this legitimate diversity, when secured by a common faith, enriches the Church, rather than weakening it.

In addition to corporate reunions, there have also been a number of public statements issued by representatives of the Catholic Church and of various Protestant bodies, affirming their common faith on many points, not only of doctrine but how that doctrine bears on Christians vis à vis the problems of modern society. If this trend of solidarity continues, there may be some real hope of the Christian Church in the future being able, as She has in the past, to make lasting and beneficial contributions to the common good of the City of Man.