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Tag: parables

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

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Plato and truth in fiction

Nota Bene: I originally published this post back in 2012, and it has been one of the most-read posts on this blog ever since. In fact, it sums up pretty well my defense of the necessity of literature — an apologia pro literatura, if you will. For this reason, I’ve decided to pin it here to the top of the blog, so that anyone who stumbles on this site accidentally will know what I’m on about. If you want to know more, try reading some of the other articles in the “popular posts” list that you’ll find in the sidebar to the right. Welcome, and don’t feel shy about leaving comments. I respond to all comments on this blog (which is how I happened to write my most popular post of all time).

I like about this edition chiefly because
it’s easy to follow who is speaking
in the dialogue.

Some time ago, I lamented the fact that people — even allegedly “educated” people — these days are reading less and less; and I began to explore the question of why this fact should alarm us. Isn’t reading just one of many ways to amuse ourselves in idle moments? Why should reading novels, say, be any better than watching movies or playing video games? After all, all three require us to enter into an imaginary world, not of our own making.

Good fiction is interested in truth

It’s true that some reading material provides merely escapist pleasures — these are what C. S. Lewis, reasoning as he does in An Experiment in Criticism, would classify as “bad” books, because they require little of the reader, and they repay that little effort poorly. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone engages in such reading, although I would be concerned about anyone who made a steady diet of such fare. What I am more concerned about is the reading of well-crafted fiction that treats carefully the kinds of “universal” questions that Aristotle refers to in his Poetics, which he said makes literature “philosophical,” i.e., capable of making us wiser. Greek culture in Aristotle’s day deeply acknowledged the importance of epic poetry, the predominant kind of literary fiction in that age. In fact, the narrative poetry of such poets as Homer and Hesiod, which told of the interactions of gods and men, were regarded with much the same kind of reverence as the Bible is in Christian cultures (not quite, however — the Greeks didn’t really have anything analogous to Sacred Scripture), and they considered such literature to be absolutely essential to education.

detail from Rafael's School of Athens
Plato points upward toward transcendent truth,
while Aristotle gestures toward the Earth.

Plato, of course, is famous for having Socrates say, in The Republic, that the “lying poets” would have no place in the ideal society. Many people, especially in modern times, have argued that this means Plato was against “fiction.” Many of those same people will go on to say that this is evidence of the way in which Plato’s views differed from those of his most famous pupil, Aristotle. A common, but simplistic, characterization of the differences between the two philosophers claims to find a marked dichotomy between the two:

  • Plato is interested in transcendent truth while Aristotle is more interested in “real life.” 
  • Plato is focuses on the theoretical and abstract while Aristotle on the practical and concrete. 
  • Plato says poetry is a dangerous pack of lies while Aristotle says it is “philosophical” and can teach us about the human condition.

Like many over-simplifications, this one is misleading. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what Plato really did say about poetry (or at least the poets) in The Republic; anyone who does so will find that he does not object to storytelling per se, nor does he dismiss fictional literature as just so many lies. What he objected to were the poet’s (e.g., Homer and Hesiod’s) depictions of the gods as being no better — and often much worse  — than we mere mortals. So it wasn’t the fiction he despised, it was the lies. In fact, he could not (and would not) have written The Republic — his most famous and enduring philosophical work — if he did not believe in the powerful ability of “fiction” to show us truth.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues are works of fiction

Why do I make such a claim? First of all, because Plato chose a “fictional” format for virtually all of his philosophical treatises. Famously, all of Plato’s treatises are written as dialogues, with fictionalized versions of Socrates and other real people as the participants in the discussion of whatever the topic may be: justice, beauty, etc. They are like conversations in which Plato really participated, but they are by no means transcriptions of real conversations — they are as carefully crafted as any poem. Why teach in this way? Because the dialogue format allows and invites the reader to be an imaginary participant in the discussion.

Socrates teaching
In a Platonic dialogue, the participants are trying to
get at the truth of some matter.

I believe Plato wanted his students to learn the way he learned from Socrates. That is why his philosophical dialogues are modeled on the kind of discussions that Socrates regularly engaged in in real life. Typically, they portray the philosopher and his friends trying to get at the truth of some concept by starting with their own assumptions and then putting them to the test to see if they hold water. True to life, this method does not lead directly to a clean, clear view of the truth of the matter; rather, the dialogues often reach a point at which the interlocutors find themselves at loggerheads, unable to reach an agreement, but not really sure why. (If you’ve had a college philosophy class, you may recall that this situation, in Greek, is called aporia). Some of Plato’s early philosophical dialogues end at this point, leaving the reader to figure out why the discussion came to an unsatisfactory end, or how the dialogue might have advanced had it been allowed to continue. The dialogue format, in other words, gets the reader imaginatively engaged in the discussion at hand, in such a way that s/he is likely to continue mental rumination after the reading has come to an end.

I remember the first time I read Plato’s Euthyphro, in which the title character is discussing with Socrates the nature of piety — Socrates had almost gotten Euthryphro to arrive at a good general definition of piety, when Euthyphro gets frustrated and throws in the towel, just a moment too soon. I’m sure I must have groaned with frustration, because I knew he had quit at just the wrong moment — I wanted to shout after him as he walked away, “Come back! You were almost there!” At that moment, I could see what piety was, even if Euthyphro could not. (Don’t ask me — read the dialogue!)

By the time he wrote The Republic, Plato seems to have refined his use of the dialogue as a way to get at philosophical truth. Here, when Socrates’ interlocutors reach aporia or deadlock, on the subject of the nature of justice, he doesn’t let them throw in the towel; instead, Plato has Socrates say, “Well, let’s look at this another way …” When they come up empty on defining “justice in the soul” (i.e., how the individual can behave justly), Socrates suggests that they widen the focus and try envisioning “justice in the city” (i.e., what a just society would be like). Even here, their first attempt at creating a just “city of words” (a made-up city that exists only in their imaginations) is not very good, and Socrates starts to suggest several features that such a just city would need to have in order to function. He gets his conversational partners to agree with each addition before moving on. It’s in this context of creating (theoretically) a just city that Socrates makes the startling assertion that the poetry of such literary giants as Homer and Hesiod should not be allowed to pollute the minds of schoolboys. His reason is that such poets portray the gods in such a way that they make poor role models for young men destined to become the guardians upon whom the city will have to depend for its safety and good order.

Good fiction teaches us to recognize, and to love, what is true

Plato Myth of the Cave
The “myth of the cave” is a parable that illustrates
the nature of, and the need for, philosophy.

Plato makes it pretty clear that the objection is not that all poetry corrupts but that lying poetry corrupts — in other words, poetry (fiction) should lead the imagination closer to truth, and should hold up models for us to emulate and present images that reflect truth. The Republic itself is full of “made up stories” of this kind. For instance, the famous “myth of the cave” (mythos being simply the Greek word which means “story”) is a kind of parable or analogy that Socrates uses to help his young friends see something that they were having trouble envisioning earlier when they were inventing their theoretically just city. The thing about parables, though, is that they are not necessarily self-explanatory. This is why Socrates tells them his parable and then explains what it means — much as Christ did with his own followers when he taught them in parables (see, for instance, Matthew 13). In other words, the made-up tale is a way of conveying a truth that the young men could not grasp directly with their minds; another way of saying this is that they are not yet able to contemplate the truth (in the sense that Plato used that term), so he had to create an illustrative tale.

There are other instances of Socrates in The Republic using parables or “noble fiction” (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, often translated “noble lies”) for instruction for those who can’t grasp certain kinds of verities with their naked intellects. In each case, the fiction is meant to convey truth, and is intended for those who are not yet (and may never be) capable of grasping the truth with their unaided intellects. Aristotle undoubtedly, as a student of Plato, learned the value of these stories, and perhaps they helped shape his belief that poetry (fiction) can be “philosophical” (help its audience become wise).

The Matrix and the Myth of the Cave have a lot in common
The Matrix and the Myth of the Cave have a lot in common

We will always need “noble fiction”

I think it is a great pity that our schools and universities no longer teach literature as a way of grasping universal truths about human nature, presenting models from which we can learn. As a consequence, young people (and adults as well, for that matter) now have little or nothing to form their moral imaginations, while the culture at large feeds them a constant stream of images of violence and brokenness, with no censure implied, intended, or allowed. We have lost the idea that truth is beautiful, or that the beautiful is true; instead, popular reading material (as well as television and film) is often tawdry and shallow, when it is not full of darkness, despair, and depravity. “Realism” is offered rather than truth, and stories that show good people triumphing while wicked ones suffer are deemed “unrealistic” and untrue.

Is there no one left to tell us “noble lies”? If you know any contemporary writers who tell morally uplifting  or instructive tales, please mention them in a comment.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

If you would like to read more about literature and the moral imagination, read this (or click the tab at the top of the page).

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Hidden in Plain Sight: Biblical (il)literacy and the modern reader

The Gospel readings that the Church’s lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, which may be one reason that I’ve had parables on the brain late. Mark Shea’s recent feature article in Crisis Magazine, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple. As Shea points out, what’s obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not “eyes to see nor ears to hear”; these only faith can provide. This brings me to another reason I’ve been thinking about the uses of parables as teaching tools.

A short story informed by faith

U. S. postage stamp commemorating Katherine Anne Porter

Short-story writer Porter was a convert to the Catholic faith.

In the literature class I’m currently teaching  (an introductory course that teaches the basics of literary interpretation), we’ve been studying short stories and how they work, reading selections that provide good illustrations of the various techniques we’re discussing (plot, setting, point of view, character, etc.). Most recently, we’ve been examining Katherine Anne Porter’s frequently-anthologized story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” a real literary gem.

I don’t know much about Porter, other than the fact that she was a native Texan (at one time writing for a Fort Worth journal) and a convert to Catholicism (although during a long period of her life she was apparently disaffected from religion in general), nor have I read a lot of her work, but “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” makes me want to read more.

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall

The story is simple on the face of it, yet has hidden depths. It is told in a third person, limited omniscient voice, which means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, and it allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know — in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life. This is an interesting and tricky choice. Since as events come to us filtered through the old woman’s groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness, the reader has a bit of a job to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny’s sick room. This is what I mean by its being tricky: Granny’s idea of what is happening to, and around, her is not always accurate, but an incautious reader is liable to overlook this fact. Porter’s authorial intention goes beyond the objective level of physical reality and the subjective level of Granny’s mental meanderings, to the moral level of Granny’s spiritual state, something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether.

Kruseman's The Wise and Foolish Virgins

The parable of the wise & foolish virgins refers to the Day of Judgment.

This is really one of the things that interests me about the story. In fact, this moral level of significance, in which the author is explores and comments on Granny’s spiritual condition, is the real focus of the story, but many readers will fail to realize this. This is because Porter hints at her real purpose by use of Biblical motifs taken from Christ’s parables about death and judgment. At first, these allusions seem simply details of Granny’s wandering memories — lights and lanterns, for example —  but the cumulative effect is to make a savvy reader gradually aware that the omniscient narrator is trying to make a point, which the reader should get, even if Granny does not. The insistence of these parabolic images grows in intensity until their presence finally bursts into plain view in the final paragraph or two of the story. In the end, they are hard to overlook, at least for anyone equipped to recognize them at all. But to miss them is to miss the meaning of the story, whose central theme is Granny’s spiritual unreadiness to meet her death.

The Biblical illiteracy of modern readers

It’s a great pity that many modern readers these days are utterly incapable of recognizing these Scriptural allusions at all. When the story was published in 1930, Porter had a reasonable expectation that many, if not most, of her readers would be familiar with the stories of the Bible, particularly the parables of Christ in the Gospels.

For centuries, literary authors had been able to make allusion to the Bible to illuminate their own works of fiction. (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one such writer, twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes, who first popularized stories about the knights of King Arthur.) But, alas, the great stories of the Bible are no longer part of the warp and woof of Western culture, and otherwise literate Americans who read this story today may easily miss the point Porter is trying to make. In other words, Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, like Biblical parables, can be understood only by those who have “eyes to see, ears to hear.”

It’s distressing to realize that even those who teach students to read literature are unable to see what Porter is getting at in this story. For instance, a casual cruise of the internet on the subject of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” will discover not only the predictably awful essays and summaries written by and for students, but also offerings by “professionals” which entirely deliberately ignore or unwittingly miss the ample allusions that point to the real heart of the matter in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” (I even found this academic essay by a certain Barbara Laman of the University of Miami, which misses the point rather spectacularly, thanks to the peculiar kind of mental astigmatism created by a “feminist” perspective).

Without knowledge of the Bible, we remain culturally illiterate

Here’s why the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to “sophisticated” and highly-educated readers, simply because these works rely on allusions to a thesaurus of meaning that has now been banished to the cultural outhouse. The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied.

In the case of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” failure to recognize Biblical allusions or their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong idea of what this story is about. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those who are at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This is an argument that has been made with greater force and eloquence by others than I have done here, but it is one that was borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America’s great short story writers.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas, updated 2017