Introduction: An Ideal University?
by Dr. Robert Alexander
I hope you’ll pardon me if I seem ungracious. I find myself a little gun-shy of academics holding ideals. I’ve been around them, counted myself one of them, too long. Instead of approaching your topic in terms of an ideal, I’ve decided instead to approach it in terms of what I believe to be real. And so I’ve chosen to substitute the word real in my title because I’d like it to be understood that if a school is to be as good as it can be, I believe that it has to be rooted in a number of intersecting realities: it has to emerge from our own experiences; it has to see its being as ultimately rooted in the reality of the Trinity; and, finally, it has to discover whether its identity is in answer to a call. Two questions have to be asked up front: the first is, has there been a call, and if so, what is it? And the second, is the school prepared to accept the reality of a mystery–the unfolding of that call over time? I believe there has been a call. That call is Fides Et Ratio, and for those of us in education, it is to take up the task of reconciling faith and reason. This is our challenge, and I take it that it is all the more urgent because it has been given explicit form. We have all heard it.
The difficulty of reconciling faith and reason is in some ways the struggle of our time. Failure to take it up, I believe, is the root cause of the secularization of our schools–it’s simply easier to begin with reason, to make it and the power or control it gives us over things the center of our lives. Scientific and technological advances have so established themselves in the popular mind, the material benefits are so obvious, the promises of reason so great, why should anyone turn to faith? Generations have been raised on the belief that universal education and the cultivation of reason are natural rights and the sure means of happiness. And the fruits of that philosophy are understandable. Reason has given us the power to make ourselves comfortable: it has put security within reach (seat belts, contraception, cell-phones); it has given us a sense of mastery over our immediate world. Even our inner, spiritual world seems to have been brought under control with our theories of psychology, the unconscious, dreams. The possibilities for control seem endless.
On the other side, faith presents religious communities with some of their more serious problems: people are drawn to “causes,” see themselves as making great sacrifices for the group or the common-good, “serving the community,” when in fact what they’re doing is too often only serving their own self-interest. Their faith puts their reason out of reach of discipline. Their work suffers as a result, and when it does, its most conspicuous characteristic is its lack of good sense; it simply doesn’t stand up under the light of day. And the consequence of this sad fact is that non-Christians who already begin with some resistance to Christianity are simply given more reason for doubting it. We’ve been called to sanctify the secular order, to work for a “reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural order” (Fides, 43). We can’t do this without submitting our faith to the discipline of reason.
The opposition between faith and reason, then, isn’t simply a tension between two terms of a proposition. It is the struggle of our time. It’s always struck me as somewhat of an irony that Christians find in the excesses of reason (the tendency of modern man to exult in his technological powers, his apparent mastery over nature) a cause for despair. It seems to me a little like a man despairing of hunger while sitting under a fruit tree. If anything, the greater the dependency of our culture on reason, the more a Christian has to work with. If we despair, it’s only a symptom of the divorce between faith and reason and ourselves, of some assumption that reason is merely technical or, worse, corrupt by nature. If reason and faith have the same source in God, then the possibilities for inspiration and conversion should be unlimited. Either we assume that our faith isn’t reconcilable with reason or we haven’t learned to properly submit our faith to the disciplines of reason, to penetrate reason with our faith in order to use it well. And if we fail to do this, it only makes clear our capitulation: we have handed reason over to the world and admitted its corruption. The primary purpose of education is the pursuit of truth. As Catholics facing a widening breach between faith and reason, it’s important that we not be cavalier or too literal in our understanding of the meaning of that pursuit. Whatever form the program takes, it has to reflect a vision in which faith and reason are integral to each other. Anything less and the college will surely take its place adding to the list of casualties. The great Christians of the last century were known not only for their piety but for their extraordinary uses of reason. Newman, MacDonald, Chesterton, Williams, Lewis, all led an educated, unbelieving world to faith and taught Christians how to think. The goal of education is not the pursuit of faith–at least not directly–and our susceptibility to despair of the world and its uses of reason can’t allow us to change that fact. The challenge facing us is do we have a faith strong enough to hold us to the discipline of reason while we learn to use it well?
Pope John Paul II entitles one of the sections of a chapter in his encyclical, “The drama of the separation of faith and reason.” I’m assuming most of us understand the implications of that drama, have experienced its casualties, seen the cost of living in a world in which reason tries to operate without faith or faith struggles to inspire without reason. These two powers are inextricably bound and wherever we find casualties, it’s often because they are being acted upon in division. At the outset of Fides Et Ratio, when John Paul says that the truths of Catholic doctrine are at risk of “being distorted or denied,” I hear him asking us to recover them and to find their sure “foundations in relation to faith” (6). He says at the end of the first chapter, “the truth made known to us by revelation is neither the product nor the consummation of an argument devised by human reason. It appears instead as something gratuitous, which itself stirs thought and seeks acceptance as an _expression of love” (15). I take it that the reason for our conference–if I can use that word here–is that an act of love has already taken place–struck deep and inward; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. Now, the question is, can it be incarnated in the world? Can it be submitted to the practical and speculative workings of reason and so given real–not ideal–form?
Several purposes directed me in this paper, although none of them will be immediately obvious. Two of them were purely practical. The first was the curriculum, both in its overall character and its inner, concrete workings; the second was literature. I had to make a place for literature because of defects in contemporary approaches. Artists are especially close to the gifts of the Spirit; they have a special power for moving the affections and cultivating the kind of sympathetic knowledge that literature and poetry can give us through the affections, the seedbed of love. It was important to make a defense for this kind of knowledge because in the hands of too many teachers, its power for awakening healthy emotions has been lost. Literature is simply made to serve ideological ends. So this was not a small task. It meant clearing the way by being as careful of philosophic principles as I could. The two great battles in academia today are being waged over philosophy and literature. And this is no accident. The one has to do with wisdom, the other with our affections and our capacity to love. The primary purpose of a college is the pursuit of truth; but our call is to love. We do this by forming ordinant emotions; but we create the conditions for this work by first awakening the natural affections, by helping students become capable of large, generous feelings–not just magnanimity, a great pagan virtue–but depths of empathy and compassion. Young people are coming out of schools today in a condition of intellectual hypertrophy–they have enlarged heads but shrunken capacities to love. And one of our urgent tasks is to address this problem.
The final purpose guiding me wasn’t just the truth of Fides Et Ratio; it was what I take to be its underlying spirit, something we can detect in its tone. One of
St. Thomas’ greatest achievements, as John Paul puts it, was the reconciliation between the radical character of the gospel and the secularity of the world, and I don’t believe it’s possible to reconcile faith and reason unless our work is carried on in the context of this larger struggle. That requires real gifts of intellect. We simply can’t engage in this struggle today without better developed minds. We are asked to reclaim God’s creation, not by force but as He does it, freely, by invitation and through the gifts of the Spirit. For us, in a large way, that means through our use of what the secular culture most prizes, our reason and imagination. But, clearly, the spirit in which we use these is, in a sense, everything. And I find that part of the wonder of Fides Et Ratio is the example it gives of this spirit. What John Paul is asking of us he himself does, and the form of Fides Et Ratio, its tone, makes that abundantly clear. It begins with a call to self-knowledge and closes with a prayer to Mary, the Seat of Wisdom. What ties the beginning and end together and unites the whole of the encyclical is a spirit of humility and surrender. It was Mary’s humility that allowed Christ to come into the world; and it’s only in humility that we have any promise, any hope of discovering who we are, of completing our quest for self-knowledge.
I take it that the movement of that document from self-knowledge to the self-forgetfulness that brings Christ to us provides the terms of our endeavor: to be open to discussion and inquiry, to struggle to find our identity in Christ, and to know that if we enter into this struggle in a spirit of humility and surrender, we will find our identity in Christ in bringing faith and reason together because He is the source of both of them.
A Real University or College
Catholic higher education is in a mess. I don’t think it an overstatement to say that in some ways it’s in a state of war. Schools everywhere are experiencing serious problems; faculties are breaking up; good people are being chased off, let go, and fired; loyalties are dividing around unresolved tensions between faith and reason, between some who lean more towards charismatic approaches or a sense of “mission,” and others wanting greater intellectual integrity, higher standards–so many of the problems are traceable back to some failure of reason to draw on faith, of faith to stoop to reason, some failure of assimilation between the two. And, meanwhile, the body count is mounting. Nearly a whole generation has passed since Vatican II. It is a propitious time.
If one thing is necessary at this moment it is that we get clear on first principles. The school will take its identity from them; it is the one thing on which there has to be complete agreement. And since it is first principles that will animate the school, give it its mission and identity for action in the world, there is almost no greater task than articulating them; it will be the hardest thing to do. They will express the school’s vision, declare to the public–profess, really–the seriousness with which it answers its call, the spirit in which it takes it up–finally, how deeply it has plumbed the resources contained in them, how open it’s been to them, individually and collectively.
But, of course, principles don’t exist in a vacuum. They represent seminal truths about the structure or nature of reality itself. Our ability to penetrate them, to live by them, depends in large measure on our openness to learn from reality and our own self-knowledge. Their meaning and vitality depends upon constant reflection on our own experiences–not simply our experiences with formal education but with life in general, with the multitude of ways we informally learn or ways others–including God–have taught us. A long view, which a course of studies will give us, is a pre-requisite. But what about our own experiences? What are we learning from the problems immediately in front of us? One of our first concerns should be to learn from the experiences of this passing generation, this extraordinary grassroots reform we are still a part of, from its hidden graces, its serious mistakes, the courage and faith of the people willing to step out the way they did, and to discover what these years have to offer if we see them in light of faith and reason. Have we seen their achievements and failures in the context of our political/social institutions and also in the light of personal struggles to reconcile faith and reason? Have we adequately reflected on our own failings? The Manicheism, elements of Jansenism, even the bigotry that infects us, the tendency to think that because of our faith, we can’t be wrong? A new school can’t be a refuge or sanctuary; it has to rest on sound affirmations, and we have them in abundance. One of the blessings of our faith is that we know by it that its principles are superior to the whole order of social life; they are the reference points that give it meaning. But it is our task to bring all that the world has offered to teach us and all that our experiences have given us, to the incarnating work of reconciling faith and reason in a college.
One of our assumptions today, perhaps because we begin with doubt and want everything to be proven to us, is that argument or dialogue ends when agreement is reached, when doubt is answered. But in fact, the reverse is true. There can be no real conversation or argument unless people begin with some ground on which there is agreement. This is true of scientific, philosophical, and theological discussions, how can it be less true for a founding? A people can’t really be said to come together, they don’t become a people, without agreement on principles.
What is the content of our two founding principles of faith and reason in this hour? I’d like to offer reflections on this question, but before I do, I have to back up still further to two preliminary principles that establish conditions and parameters for discussing the primary ones. The first is that there can be no conversation if there is no agreement on what the conversation is about. How do we reach agreement if we can’t come together in dialogue? The most immediate question, then, isn’t the content of faith and reason; it’s whether we can talk. John Courtney Murray says that the first question, the one we have to take up before any discussion of those principles or truths we hold, is are we civil?
Therefore I suggest that the immediate question is whether American society is properly civil. This question is intelligible and answerable, because the basic standard of civility is not in doubt: “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.” …The specifying note of political association is its rational deliberative quality, its dependence for its permanent cohesiveness on argument among men. In this it differs from all other forms of association found on earth…. This form of friendship is a special kind of moral virtue, a thing of reason and intelligence, laboriously cultivated by the discipline of passion, prejudice, and narrow self-interest (We Hold These Truths, pp.6-7).
I quote these lines partly for the example of their tone but mostly because they establish the preliminary conditions for our endeavor–reasoned conversation and deliberation that have the function of disciplining “passion, prejudice, and narrow self-interest” and of cultivating friendship.
And the second preliminary principle is that a Catholic school is an institution which stands both as a mediary and in time. That is to say, it looks back to the family–the kids are coming directly from home–while at the same time looking ahead to the universe we are preparing our students to enter. It is the staging ground where we begin the work of helping them to take on the conquest of their own freedom. And because its identity as a mediary is lived in time, it must return to its first principles again and again over time. These principles don’t exist in a vacuum; they are lived experiences submitted to reflection and embodied in traditions, the living embodiments of a people’s memory. They are, in Murray’s words, “experience illumined by principle, given a construction by a process of philosophical reflection. In the public argument, there must consequently be a continued recurrence to first principles” (Truths, p.11).
So my first question is: do we agree on the importance of discussion, civil argument, the fundamental value of disagreement? If the answer is yes, then having reached agreement, we can begin the conversation. What are those first principles, those truths we hold about which there is no disagreement and upon which everything else depends? These truths will provide the living standards by which everything in the future will be measured, decisions, adjustments, even significant changes. What is our understanding of faith and reason, because it is this understanding that will give shape to the program. We are not angels whose pure intelligence perceives and comprehends immediately (Sum. theo. I,58,3). We cannot get to the depths or range of first principles except by patient, careful, painstaking efforts. To begin those efforts is our most important task right now. In the on-going effort of carrying them into the future, the school will realize its identity.
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The Call: to join Faith and Reason
The most important task for any of us involved in this founding, what has to command everyone’s attention and energy, is to conceive of the program as a whole, and to see that what animates the center of this whole, giving form and substance to all its parts, is the call to reconcile faith and reason. This is the sum, the total, of what I have to say. Whatever form the college takes, however it articulates its mission, its governance policies, its public and administrative guidelines, its common-life rules and customs, its constituting principles, it should not underestimate the importance of this animating dynamism between faith and reason, of the shared commitment to resolve them into a whole. The commitment to realize this call, like a marriage, will give the college its identity. What will this mean for the future? Who knows. But the principles making up that tension will establish the guidelines, the parameters, the foundations on which all work, all discussions, all planning will take place. This shared understanding of these principles is something we come to; we become who we are by coming to them. They aren’t simply working hypotheses; they are the truths by which we live.
The implications of this are, obviously, profound. As corporeal creatures, we live in two interpenetrating orders, moving about in what seems to be a bounded physical universe while constantly breathing above time. We are called to reconcile two orders, the natural and supernatural, the finite and infinite, the immanent and transcendent. And the cost of doing so is a constant tension–is it too much to say, it is one aspect of the cross? How do those of us involved in education resolve these two orders and the rich, hierarchical whole they comprise into a curriculum? How do we–I don’t want to say implement; it’s too mechanical–how do we incarnate, give a living form not just to our understanding but to those loves informed by it? I would make a preliminary stab: readings. Readings that give _expression to these two orders. Philosophy, science, and catechism or theology, yes, for sure, because ideas and statements of doctrine are essential. The mind requires their clarity. But statements of principles are not the same thing as those principles presented as immediate, lived experience: we need poetry and literature, works that make the spiritual world felt. It is not enough to simply read “the best that’s been thought and written”; it’s essential to feel it. And for that reason, I would recommend Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Chesterton, MacDonald, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Faulkner, Joyce, Eliot, and O’Connor. They help make us aware of multiple levels of reality in ways others have not. But even more importantly, by not confining their stories, their settings or images to those of an ecclesial world, they help us find our ground with all of humanity, to see the grace that is working there, what the Spirit is doing in an unbelieving world. But this is to get ahead of myself. What is the content of the first principles of faith and reason? Let me take faith first.
Because of the mysteries involved, I’d like to be brief here, but basically, our first beliefs are:
Faith: First Principles
1. Our Triune God; we believe in three Persons, God the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit: because we are made in their image, both our individuality and our social nature have their ontological roots in them: three Gods, each distinct and individual and yet absolutely social in nature, all of one being; so our humanity: each of us distinct while still having the same nature,
2. The Incarnation: we believe that out of a boundless love, Christ took on our human nature in order to redeem our sins. The measure of our sin, however much it was hidden from us before His crucifixion, was made clear afterwards: we killed Him–our revolt against God is that great. But His death and resurrection made clear that however great our sin against Him, His love was, is, greater. The full extent of the magnitude of His love and its radical nature was shown not only in His last commandment, that we love one another as He did us, but in His return to Heaven. He returned still in our nature and by inviting us to join Him there, he offered us a share in His divine nature with the Father. Can any of the fantastic mysteries or fairy stories that leave us breathless in wonder get even close to that? As the divine founder of our Church, He gives it its infallibility, and not all of men’s sins, however great they are, will prevail against it;
3. The Traditions and Magisterium: these are not abstractions or institutions inspired by men; they are the presence of the Holy Spirit working out God’s providential plan in time. The doctrines, dogmas, encyclicals are all expressions–the steady out-pourings of words over time–of the single, silent, undivided, uncreated Word of God;
4. The Cross: the invitation out of our fallen love into the divine love of Christ with its promises of joy. Our way: folly to the Greeks (those most knowing) and a scandal to the Jews (those most righteous). Herein is the freedom from all the fears that are the result of our attachments to the world. The cross is the thing most impossible for us, except in Christ.
5. Mary: the human image of the absolute trust and faith in God: the Seat of
Wisdom. John Paul begins Fides Et Ratio with the Socratic maxim, to know ourselves, to grow in self-understanding. He ends with Mary because she is the image of the perfect humility which is the condition for self-knowledge. Clearly, self-knowledge here isn’t what it means to the psychologist or anthropologist: to know ourselves is to come to discover the Creator Who made us–and so enter into His boundless love.
These are our beliefs. I take it for granted they will be acknowledged everywhere, in chapel, in devotions, in shared prayer; in our openly professed attachment to the Magisterium, to Sacred Scripture, to the traditions of the Church; and in the program in theology, in catechism if it is given a place in the program. One of the more difficult questions is how do we make these beliefs living in the community, directly or indirectly? My own thought is that they should be lived indirectly or freely, because where they are forced or become one with the political structure and its rules and policies, they can introduce into the community a pharisaic, legalistic quality, forcing kids–and even faculty–to rebel or conform for the wrong reasons. Like the angel on the cornice of envy in Dante’s Purgatory whose good deeds are hidden by his own light, faith should animate everything in the program, be the beginning of the entire enterprise, the source from which the “whole” will come, and except in the liturgical, devotional life where it is given explicit form, it should do all this invisibly. Like God, it has to solicit or invite; it cannot force. But this approach means that exceptional burdens will fall to the founders, requiring of them real powers of abnegation, humility, surrender–these will give faith its life and also keep the externals from being merely externals. As academics, we’re not free of pride, and because it becomes easy to focus on curriculum and classes, those things we most immediately love, it will be easy to let matters of faith slip away, to allow work to overwhelm them. It would be good to recall the parable of the seeds blown away or plucked up by birds. To keep us mindful, fervent, I believe it’s essential we make room for retreats, exercises, for talks and papers. These should find an unassuming place along side of talks and papers on academic matters.
Reason: First principles of reason
According to St. Thomas, we exist as a part of a universe which we can know. Its very nature, the fact that it is comprised of various degrees and orders of immateriality, requires that we approach it using different manners or methods. Each science, according to Thomas, has its own virtue, its own perfecting habits, because each science not only has a different object to be known but ways of approach that are limited or determined by that object. Evidence of this fact is presented to us every day. Different minds approach the world in different ways. The philosopher doesn’t think like the scientist–he’s simply not trying to understand the same thing the scientist is–and the poet certainly doesn’t engage the world the same way the philosopher or scientist does. Each of these learners has a different way of knowing–a habit perfected by the way in which he approaches the world, and one of the values of their differences, is that when they bring them together, they can compliment and correct each other, give the benefit of their lights to others who would never have come to them because of the limits of their own disciplines. Our work is finally communal.
But I would like to consider this description of a universe of learning a little more closely, especially since what’s at stake is the ultimate outcome or shape of a curriculum. What are the first principles of our knowledge? First that all knowledge, at least all knowledge grounded in reason and in nature, however diversified or obscure its forms, is finally coherent because being itself is ultimately one and intelligible. And second, that reason is meant for being; it’s meant to see and to penetrate the depths of what it sees. Its immaterial character guarantees this if only we’re patient enough working with the diversified forms of matter in which being is presented to us. These are the first principles of reason and it’s imperative we give them working room in the program.
Three passages from St. Thomas make clear what’s at stake here. In the first (Sum. theol. I,85,1) Thomas establishes the place and mode of human reason in the scheme of creation. Because man occupies a middle ground between animals, who can know only particulars through their senses, and angels, who having no bodies, can know essences directly, he can know both–particulars and universals, but only by patient, hard work. In the second (Commentary on The Trinity of Boethius, V,1), he makes clear the two conditions essential for real learning: for man to have real knowledge, he must have an intellectual habit of science–that is, he must be capable of coming to certain knowledge of things. There must also exist an object whereby the intellect can be perfected. This object has to be immaterial (because the mind is immaterial) and necessary–that is, it can’t be other than it is. And to arrive at knowledge of this object, the intellect has to develop habits of abstraction, powers of separating matter from motion and change–that is, getting beyond the simple grasp of particulars that animals have–or it won’t be able to arrive at those underlying forms contained in matter that are immaterial and unchanging, the essences or universals that angels can grasp. Finally, based on the principles of these two positions, Thomas lays out the foundations for the ordering of the sciences, distinguishing between objects of knowledge (those of physics, math, and metaphysics) by their relative freedom from or their dependence on matter to exist or to be known (Commentary on The Trinity, V,1).
Now these passages are probably commonplace to most of you. But I confess I only came on them in recent years, and when I did, I experienced them almost like a broken bone being reset. A thousand confusions, a host of wracked and misdirected efforts, suddenly were put to rest. Let me explain why. I’ve spent my life teaching literature, and I think I have a fairly good grasp of it. I graduated from what I believe is an excellent graduate program, one that required work in a field outside of literature–we all knew the queen of knowledge was philosophy and didn’t take it at our peril. But it wasn’t till I was teaching and came up against the confused interpretations of my colleagues, each making literature into something different according to his or her own starting points–Freudian, Feminist, Marxist, De-constructionist–that I became aware that I really could not defend my own field against those who would make of it anything they chose. And I came to realize, early on, that what I discovered about myself was not only true of the other teachers in my department, it was true of most of my colleagues. Colleagues from all departments were clamoring for interdisciplinary courses–they all suffered from the isolation of their disciplines–but none of them could give an account of the principles of division or unity of fields. And worse, because none of them could do this, none of them could see that by simply combining courses, they would only be adding to the confusion, contributing to the incoherence and fragmentation they were trying to escape. We were all under the shadow of Babel.
Thomas freed me from this. The value of his principles is that if he is right, we can’t simply arbitrarily construct a curriculum along any lines we want. If a curriculum has any pretence of objectively presenting a universe, the organization of courses and pedagogies has to do justice to the real nature of that universe and our ways of knowing it–our ways of engaging and becoming one with it. This principle of correspondence is absolutely vital to the life of a curriculum. The mind has as its object an immaterial thing because its own nature is immaterial. If a habitus is to be developed or perfected, its object has to be constant or “necessary”; otherwise, how could the intellect know? Each science has its own perfecting habit because each is concerned with a different aspect of reality, each limited by the depths of the reality of its own specific object. What the physicist is studying isn’t the same as the mathematician, and what the mathematician knows in his head isn’t the same as what the metaphysician knows. Each knows some-thing different because each one is encountering the world at a different level of immateriality. Whatever universal laws the physicist discovers, he still has to verify them against the concrete world of things; the mathematician has to validate his conclusions according to strict laws of logic as they apply to the definitions or postulates he begins with. And the metaphysician, if he begins with an intuition of being (each seeker or learner begins with some intuition of being), still has to proceed with concepts that can unfold the nature of being in its relation to matter. To take “disciplines” away from a curriculum and turn students into generalists is to undermine the very condition, the very nature of learning. If the object of knowledge is constantly shifting for a student, and if there is substantial depth to what he is seeking to learn, how can he develop a habitus, the power for grasping that is the fruit of a perfecting work in a discipline? Wouldn’t he simply be perfecting a rationalist habit of mind of grasping ideas–not penetrating being? Without a discipline or a way, he’s as liable to become a rationalist, someone living in his head or a sentimentalist, someone who can inspire others but who leaves them finally outside the way.
Thomas’ distinction takes us to an especially high level of abstraction, but it provides a sound working principle by which to deal with questions of learning and by extension, texts, organization of courses, means and ends. The principle firmly establishes a correspondence between the subject to be learned and those perfecting habits the learner will have to develop if he’s to learn his subject and not simply know ideas. More importantly, it establishes beyond any doubt the relationship of the student to the curriculum and the whole world of being it attempts to help him enter. If a habitus is to be formed in him, he will have to come to know the interconnectedness of knowledge, its underlying coherence and unity, but he will also have to face the resistance that some specific field presents to his mind. All fields lead to the same place, to being itself, because each field participates in being in some way, but we can’t get to being without submitting ourselves to the limits inherent in each field, to the peculiar kind of obscurity that the matter of each field presents to us.
How, then, do we do justice to both the unity and diversity of our created universe in a curriculum? How is the unity underlying creation reflected in a program while still making its first principle philosophic inquiry? If being is manifold, rich in the diversified forms it takes in matter and hierarchical as well by the degrees of immateriality penetrating this matter, and reason is meant to penetrate this being, how do we adequately represent it in such a way as to be faithful to both its complexity and to the pedagogies necessary to approach it? Can a program be faithful to this teeming display of being so that what students are introduced to actually prepares them to properly engage it when they leave, both with the wonder that it invites and with the work necessary to penetrate the hidden intelligibility that is behind its mysteries? For this to happen, it’s important not to allow the Great Books to overly intellectualize learning at the expense of the affections, at the expense of the extraordinary richness of being or the diversity of ways approaching it–through the affections, through inclination, through what Thomas called connaturality or sympathy. And it’s important if the group recognizes this–and it’s clear it does–it not allow poetry or literature, those disciplines in which the affections have a greater home, to become merely means. If we want our students to penetrate being, to stand before its mysteries in wonder, with open hearts and rolled up sleeves, we have to prepare them for that work at the outset. The place the Great Books give philosophy and literature, then, will be important from the start.
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Few people that I know of have any serious reservations about the Great Books, and few would argue with their value as the core of a program. The value of the texts is that they offer “the very best that’s been thought and written.”
When we read the Iliad by itself, its meaning remains confined to the book. When we follow that reading up with the Odyssey, the Aeneid and then Chaucer and Shakespeare, we don’t come away saying simply that these are “great books”; we come away feeling we’ve begun to appropriate a tradition, even without knowing it. And the same can be said of philosophers and scientists. No doubt there’s a benefit to reading Thomas alone, but anyone studying him in a line of sustained readings from Plato and Aristotle up through Augustine, Boethius, Avicenna, and Averroes, and then following him up with readings in Gilson and Maritain, will realize a depth of intuitions Thomas gave _expression to that he could never have arrived at if he confined his reading simply to Thomas. Read one way, the “tradition” stops with Thomas. Read the other way, Thomas becomes alive today, part of a dynamic, living tradition that expands and deepens the more and the longer we are immersed in it.
The Great Books are the legacy of Western thought and should be the core of a liberal arts education. They should be given their place, and one properly recognizing the importance of forming the emotions, the capacity of young people to love.
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This brings me to disciplines. Of course, academics are going nuts with them; they proliferate everywhere. But this fact isn’t a reason for discarding them any more than bad marriages are an argument against marriage. We have to learn to use them well; fortunately, we have principles to guide us.
The first is that the correspondence between the thing known and the knowing subject should firmly establish its place in the curriculum. The ideas in our minds don’t separate us from the world, and the world doesn’t stand off as alien to us. We are a part of the world as knowing creatures, and disciplines only validate this capacity in us to know. They reflect our awareness of the difference between what it is we know and how we know it, the mode or manner by which we know and the fact that these change with the object known. It’s commonly accepted that we can’t expect from philosophy the same kind of precision we do from geometry or math. I myself am amazed at the precision of both Aristotle and Thomas in their treatises on the principles of nature; but still, the manner of these treatises is different from any concerned with physics, and so the precision is as well. In physics, the manner is largely metric–most questions are resolved in terms of measurements, in steps whose logical progression is conceived in terms of formulas or numbers–and since numbers are infinitely divisible, infinitely precise. Philosophy, however, is conceptual and verbal. The philosophy of nature deals with becoming and motion and demands that anyone treating these deal more directly with problems of language and give a conceptual precision to his thinking. The manner of each is radically different, involving different languages, different acts of abstraction; anybody hoping to master philosophy or math won’t be able to do so without painstaking work in their respective languages, in the different conditions of those disciplines.
The same is true of poetry and physics. Even though both deal with the concrete physical world, their modes are radically different. One gives us knowledge through concepts (always referring back to the concrete as object), the other a kind of sympathetic knowledge, or knowledge by inclination or connaturality (this is Maritain’s term, following Thomas). Poetry offers us the immediate experience of a sympathetic apprehension, the becoming one with another through emotion. The self becomes one with the other not strictly as object (as the intellect knows it) but as subject. We begin to penetrate the inner self of things and of others through inclination, by a power of emotion or empathy. That’s one reason literature and poetry are approached in terms of point of view; they deal more directly with the hidden interior of things, with subjectivity, dream, imagination. These two, physics and poetry, apprehend reality through very different modes. And reading them as if they were the same or subjecting them to the same pedagogy simply violates this difference. It’s important to not neglect these differences because they remind us that the more we work in a field, the more we work with the modes and manners peculiar to that field, the more likely we are to come to perfecting a habitus and penetrate its object. I would suggest that one reason students don’t do well in school today is that they don’t get enough work in a field; they’re often asked to work at a level of abstraction that runs contrary to the mind’s natural inclinations. The mind is meant to penetrate being, but it can only do this by submitting itself to the inherent limitations in nature. The constant submission to particulars is not a waste of time. I am reminded of Allen Tate’s remark on Edgar Allen Poe, who in his efforts to arrive at pure essences, like an angel, tried to circumvent the natural order. In the end, his intellectual force was exhausted because it had no real object. Having turned away from the sensible world, in his efforts to reach God, he had nothing left to work with but his own ideas. Tate says,
The human intellect cannot reach God as essence; only God as analogy. Analogy to what? Plainly, analogy to the natural world; for there is nothing in the intellect that has not previously reached it through the senses. Had Dante arrived at the vision of God by way of sense? We must answer yes, because Dante’s Triune Circle is light, which the finite intelligence can see only by means of what has already been seen by means of it. But Poe’s center is that place–to use Dante’s great figure–“where the sun is silent.” Since he refuses to see nature, he is doomed to see nothing. He has overleaped and cheated the condition of man. The reach of our imaginative enlargement is perhaps no longer than the ladder of analogy, at the top of which we may see all, if we still wish to see anything, that we have brought up with us from the bottom, where lies the sensible world. If we take nothing with us to the top but our emptied, angelic intellects, we shall see nothing when we get there. Poe as God sits silent in darkness. Here the movement of tragedy is reversed: there is no action. Man as angel becomes a demon who cannot initiate the first motion of love, and we can feel only compassion with his suffering, for it is potentially ours.
(Tate, “The Angelic Imagination”)
We undercut the work of our students if we don’t give their intellects enough work with the physical body, with the world’s body and all that it offers us by way of analogy.
This brings me to my second and the more important reason for advocating disciplines: the importance of surrender. Disciplines are just that, a discipline. The word has become so much a part of common parlance, it has lost its meaning. Disciplines discipline us in a medium and a way of approach to reality. I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a friend. We were struggling to find a way into our talk and he said, “Jump off anywhere. They all lead to the same place.” If being is our end, it doesn’t matter where we enter it, what path or medium we choose. They all point to the same place. The question is: can we make the surrender necessary to the work of penetrating being through our chosen method? We want things easy or, even worse, grand and not to be bothered with doing small things.
Dr. Donald Cowan, Physicist and former President of the University of Dallas, has spoken of the importance of surrender this way:
What T. S. Eliot said about the necessary loss of personality on the part of the poet applies as well to a genuine learner. The Christian paradoxes operate in education: attainment through abnegation, wisdom through ignorance, triumph through submission. Deliberately to choose abnegation, submission, and ignorance, however–to strive toward them–is to fall into their opposites, as the attempt to be humble tends to be an act of pride. Something of interest must be set up outside students, something that causes them to forget themselves and exist in that outside phenomenon. But here again the paradox is at work. If the professor designs the object for the purpose of making students forget themselves [as in a too structured program], at a certain point, they will realize the trickery of the situation and join in or else reject the programmed response. Either way, the result is a trivialization of education. The learning process demands like the Greek goddesses a constant renewal of virginity. A good teacher will forget himself in the object; will pursue it with delight and surprise in the ever-recurring freshness, the eternal springtime of learning.
(Donald Cowan, Unbinding Prometheus).
All learning requires an act of surrender: to the work in front of us, to the limitations of our nature, to the discipline of a field, and first and finally to the truth that is our end. This act of surrender is not a passive giving up but an active setting aside of the self. Without such an act, it is unfortunately too true that we read for ourselves, for the ideas in our heads, for whatever goal drives us, success, money, prestige. We may find what we are looking for, but it won’t be the whole, the truth of being that was there to be grasped. We comprehend a poem or a work of art through this act of submission, through taking in and being taken in by the thing in its wholeness. And this is no less true, though it may be less obvious, for the work of philosophy or mathematics. If we read for our own ideas, that’s exactly what we’ll get back, some form of ourselves. The admonition at the beginning of Fides Et Ratio was to know ourselves. If the soul is all things, we can only do that by learning more about the world.
To become a genuine learner, then, a student has to not only come to some realization of himself as an individual, to some discovery of his own ego, he must also experience a submergence of the self, a loss of ego. This stage is more difficult; fewer people accomplish it. But it is essential. Something in the program or the curriculum should make a place for this work. The first two years, I believe, should be a general introduction to the world at large, its underlying unity and principles. But a time should come in a person’s education when he has to face himself. His readings will bring him to this, clearly, but too much in terms of ideas and understanding: he has to confront himself in his will where the question of surrender becomes real. I don’t believe he can come to this except through a discipline. The last two years of college should be the years of submission to a discipline, the transition from an ambition for mastery over a subject to a willingness, even a desire, to serve it–to fall in love. Donald Cowan calls this a movement “from lust to love,” and certainly it is in the guise of love that a discipline comes to a person. A student enters college full of ambition and desire; he chooses a major in an act of service: something touches him and he wants to discover what that touch means. Some people never make the submission. They go on thinking of a major as an accomplishment, the beginnings of a career that will bring them money or success. Others hear the call. Their willingness to submit themselves to the discipline of that field, to read not just for their own ideas or even, as in the case of poetry or literature, to satisfy their own emotions, but to find the thing itself that invites this act of submission, is the first movement of the will towards truth. This act is the first descent into the world’s body and the beginning of the ascent to its higher analogies.
This concern for disciplines may seem exaggerated. It is a result of reflections on my own teaching and my talks with teachers whose preoccupation with their own subject is sometimes so great that they’ve lost sense of the student altogether or at any rate lost some sense of the importance of pedagogies, ways of learning that correspond to what, in fact, the mind is doing. My concern, ultimately, is for the effect that pedagogies have on students. Those pedagogies that deny the differences in the ways we learn, that don’t ask of us a personal surrender, some descent into the body, can encourage subtle forms of rationalism, the mind asking the world to conform to itself, not the other way round. The reference points for the rationalist aren’t nature and whatever lines of contact or resources of reason lie hidden there; it’s the light of his own mind. Cut off from his senses and hence his imagination, he loses his power for using analogy, the analogic imagination or what Allen Tate calls the “symbolic imagination.” Standing outside the long tradition of natural law and natural feeling, he suffers from a diminished capacity to penetrate principles in concrete reality and from a diminished capacity to feel. This is Tate:
Despite the timeless orders of both rational discourse and intuitive contemplation, it is the business of the symbolic poet to return to the order of temporal sequence–to action. His purpose is to show men experiencing whatever they may be capable of, with as much meaning as he may be able to see in it; but the action comes first. Shall we call this the Poetic Way? It is at any rate the way of the poet, who has got to do his work with the body of this world, whatever that body may look like to him, in his time and place–the whirling atoms, the body of a beautiful woman, or a deformed body, the body of Christ, or even the body of this death. If the poet is able to put into this moving body, or to find in it, a coherent chain of analogies, he will inform an intuitive act with symbolism; his will be in one degree or another the symbolic imagination.
Before I try to illustrate these general reflections, I must make a digression, for my own guidance, which I am not competent to develop as searchingly as my subject demands. The symbolic imagination takes its rise from a definite limitation of human rationality which was recognized in the West until the seventeenth century; in this view the intellect cannot have direct knowledge of essences. The only mind that has this knowledge is the angelic mind…This mind has intellect and will without feeling; and it is through feeling alone that we witness the glory of our servitude to the natural world, to St. Thomas’ accidents, or, if you will, to Locke’s secondary qualities; it is our tie with the world of sense. The angelic mind suffers none of the limitations of sense; it has immediate knowledge of essences; and this knowledge moves through the perfect will to divine love, with which it is at one. Imagination in an angel is thus inconceivable, for the angelic mind transcends the mediation of both image and discourse. I call that human imagination angelic which tries to disintegrate or to circumvent the image in the illusory pursuit of essence. When human beings undertake this ambitious program, divine love becomes so rarefied that it loses its human paradigm, and is dissolved in the worship of intellectual power, the surrogate of divinity that worships itself. It professes to know nature as essence at the same time that it has become alienated from nature in the rejection of its material forms.
To make clear the importance of the symbolic imagination in a way that’s faithful to the principle he is at pains to explain, Tate renders an actual historical event. The final resolution isn’t arrived at by a conversion of one thing to its opposite or by a synthesis of two things in opposition: the two actions are conducted simultaneously, as they would be for Dante. This is a perfect example of the way the symbolic imagination differs from a dialectic: in submitting to the common thing, the concrete singular, it finds deep within that thing not only the ultimate source of its existence but whatever transformations it’s capable of by being a part of their shared act. For, whatever else the symbolic imagination does, by conducting an analogy–exactly as St. Thomas describes the act of judgment–it becomes one with the act it is a part of. The end result of the work of the symbolic imagination is not simply a conversion of multiple levels into a “whole,” a higher synthesis of knowledge. It is empathy. Here is Tate’s example:
That the gift of analogy was not Dante’s alone every medievalist knows. The most striking proof of its diffusion and the most useful example for my purpose that I know is the letter of St. Catherine of Siena to Brother Raimond of Capua. A young Sienese, Niccolo Tuldo, had been unjustly convicted of treason and condemned to death. Catherine became his angel of mercy, giving him daily solace–the meaning of the Cross-, the healing powers of the Blood; and so reconciled him to the faith that he accepted his last end. Now I have difficulty believing people who say that they live in the Blood of Christ, for I take them to mean that they have the faith and hope some day to live in it. The evidence of the Blood is one’s power to produce it, the power to show it as a “common thing” and to make it real, literally, in action. For the report of the Blood is very different from its reality. St. Catherine does not report it; she recreates it, so that its analogical meaning is confirmed again in blood that she has seen. This is how she does it:
Then [the condemned man] came, like a gentle Lamb; and seeing me he began to smile, and wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he had received the sign, I said, “Down! To the bridal, my sweetest brother. For soon shalt thou be in the enduring life.” He prostrated himself with great gentleness, and I stretched out his neck; and bowed me down, and recalled to him the blood of the Lamb. His lips said naught save Jesus! and Catherine! And so saying, I received his head in my hands, closing my eyes in the divine goodness and saying, “I will.” When he was at rest my soul rested in peace and quiet, and in so great fragrance of blood that I could not bear to remove the blood which had fallen on me from him.
It is deeply shocking, as all proximate incarnations of the Word are shocking, whether in Christ and the Saints, or in Dostoevsky, James Joyce, or Henry James. I believe it was T.S. Eliot who made accessible again to an ignorant generation a common Christian insight when he said that people cannot bear very much reality. I take this to mean that only extraordinary courage, and perhaps even genius, can face the spiritual truth in its physical body. Flaubert said that the artist, the soldier, and the priest face death every day; so do we all; yet it is perhaps nearer to them than to other men; it is their particular responsibility. When St. Catherine “rests in so great fragrance of blood,” it is no doubt the Blood of the Offertory which the celebrant offers to God cum adore suavitatis, but with the literal odor of the species of wine, not of blood. St. Catherine had the courage of genius which permitted her to smell the Blood of Christ in Niccolo Tuldo’s blood clotted on her dress: she smelled the two bloods not alternately but at one instant, in a single act compounded of spiritual insight and physical perception (Tate, “The Symbolic Imagination”)
I apologize for these lengthy quotes. I’ve quoted them because I’m convinced that one of the great problems facing modern Catholics today, as it is for all people in Western countries, is that they live too much in their heads, making the world conform to ideas they begin with instead of standing open to the world. That pose, whatever name we give it–rationalism, Gnosticism, Manicheism–entails a refusal to accept the body. We are being educated too much on Great Books and great ideas at the expense of the common thing, the ordinary thing right before our senses. Miracles present themselves to our senses; it is a serious question whether in fact we can experience those miracles that make up our daily lives if we are living in our heads. I take it that one of our most important tasks today is a recovery of the place of our bodies. The question I’d like to pose is: without struggling to penetrate the concrete image as it’s rendered by great artists, can we really “face the spiritual truth in the physical body”? I don’t believe we can. The injunction facing us as Catholics is, “taste and see.” Too many Catholics today are losing the gift for concrete experience, turning away from the created world with their Protestant brothers with too great a sense of nature’s depravity and so wanting to tidy it up geometrically, mathematically. Without a submission to the natural order, it becomes nearly impossible “to start with the common thing.”
The faculty is the heart and soul of a program. The curriculum in a sense represents them, the way they stand towards the world and the mystery of being. On one level, it reflects their intellectual knowledge, their grasp of being, even their secret aspirations and hopes. But on another, it represents so much more because it will also embody as much of the disciplines or traditions they have drawn into themselves and that are alive in them now. One of the great challenges to putting a curriculum together comes down to a question of how much of the past is actually living in them. The more they have given themselves to their disciplines, their traditions, the more one they are with them, their vital impulses, their secret creative energies, the more vital and living the curriculum will be. A daunting task, for sure. We can take comfort from the number of philosophers in the group; we also have John Paul’s encourage- ment: “I cannot but encourage philosophers…to trust in the power of reason and not to set themselves goals that are too modest….” (Fides, 56) What the collective outcome will be is hard to foresee; to help us along, let me offer a few reflections.
As I see it, there are two basic requirements for a curriculum, one having to do with its shape and content, the other with language. The first requirement is that it should reflect reality, a universe of learning. A curriculum is an _expression of the depth of the vision of those shaping it. It is a construct, a man-made thing, and as such it will reveal, willy-nilly, the degree to which those who have shaped it have been open to the intelligible structures of nature and the mysteries of being and also docile to the task of trying to give these coherent form. The second requirement has to do with language: it has to be taken seriously. The fact that we take language for granted because we use it all the time only makes it imperative we give it its proper place in the curriculum. Language is the medium in which we do all our work, and its importance can’t be overestimated. The curriculum stands mirroring being, but its structure and content are mediated largely through language, through words. Allen Tate has said that one of the burdens education places on each person is the task of attending “to the health of society, not at large but through literature–that is, he must be constantly aware of the condition of language in his age.” As poetry goes, so goes culture. As language loses its capacity for rendering experience meaningful, humans suffer. Where our uses of language decline, our capacity for rich cognitive experiences declines as well, and when that happens, when our powers of apprehension go, so do our capacities for feeling, for forming ordinant emotions. Serious thought has to be given to the role of language for both students and faculty because it is the primary way of approach to being.
The requirements of the curriculum, then, are both simple and complex. The curriculum has to reflect the infinite variety and diversity of God’s creation without losing touch with those principles that give that variety and diversity order and coherence. It must take its cue from a philosophy that can inform all parts, show both their interconnecting relationships and also their place in the hierarchy of ways of knowing. And at the same time, it has to allow for pedagogies that rest on a sound epistemology–one that is inherent in the philosophy of the curriculum and that makes a place for the variety of gifts and talents of the teachers. Our curriculum should attempt to do justice to God’s creation both in the way it is represented and in approaches. We don’t want to limit ourselves; and we don’t want to limit God. It’s also crucial to remember that students are being invited into all of this, that the curriculum itself give some hint of welcome or hospitality, suggest not something mechanical or overly systematic but a rich store of references or spots of light that reinforce and amplify each other, all suggesting the subtlety and complexity of the hidden splendors of being. God solicits and invites. So should we in the curriculum.
A philosophy is sound insofar as it does justice to the unity and coherence of being. For students to take away a sound philosophy from the program, it is essential that they experience their universe as a core and one which their own mixed responses, in the discussions they have with each other and with teachers, will continue to deepen and amplify over time. They should experience a shared heritage but one also diversified enough to help individual students each discover his own way. To provide a common experience with connecting strands, then, is not a small need of the moment. One of the central tasks we face is to provide a forum or venue in which faculty and students can discuss and explore the principles of this core openly. For this to happen, people have to talk, and they can’t talk without a common language. This fact makes obvious another one. The cultivation of language, the taking pains to protect the condition of language in the curriculum, its place in learning and discussions, isn’t simply a luxury or even an option. It is essential. There are at least two things literature can give us in this regard: figurative or symbolic language and the power of rhetoric. The first one isn’t small because it makes possible the mind’s movement through analogies, from common ordinary things to the higher reaches of being. And the second isn’t small either because it gives power to this movement.
The more we support the role of language in the curriculum, the more we support our efforts to learn together. I want to take a moment with this, particularly as it applies to students. Students learn in a variety of ways. The most instinctive is imitative. We plagiarize a lot. But this isn’t the only way we learn or even necessarily the most definitive. Some of our most memorable experiences are those taking the form of epiphanies or revelations. We work hard, exhaust ourselves in our work and, suddenly, when we least expect it, when our wills are spent and in a state of receptivity, some aspect of being that was hidden to us springs to life. The learning that takes place in these instances isn’t simply a matter of midwifery, as Socrates would have it. A word spoken–“a cry from the street” (this, from Joyce)–the eloquence or even the love of a teacher in a lecture, a chance comment in a discussion, something from the outside is received as a flash and we see. Whatever form it takes, it goes to the depths, engendering in our souls some new action, bringing new relationships out of everything already stored there, reconstellating our skies. Donald Cowan says of this moment:
A voice must be heard in the viscera. An inner tutor must be stirred by an external message. The medium of instruction is language–the written or spoken word. And it is the common tongue that the inbuilt tutor understands. However elegant, however satisfying, mathematics might be, it must be translated into the common tongue in order for the self to know it. And the situation is similar for any specialized idiom.
We want to increase the occasions for these epiphanies, these moments for words to do their work, but for this to happen, we have to take greater care with language, especially rhetoric. At the same time, this vital importance of language for a curriculum carries with it a drawback. One of the inherent problems in education is that each discipline requires a different language. The language of physics is radically different from that of philosophy or metaphysics, and the language of literature or poetry different from either of these. The differences between these languages can isolate faculty, making the one thing they have in common an obstacle to their unity and to the possibilities of learning from each other. To get around this, it’s crucial that faculty be willing to bring their work to first principles and submit it to discussion with those from other fields. The first reason for being of a college is truth and the work of the practical intellect, and if friend-ship and shared goals are to be more than nominal–or even more than just social–colleagues have to take their work to a ground of principles with each other. A common language as well as a common core is required for that. What we do with disciplines, then, is crucial. I venture to say that the success or failure of the school may rest on how these are approached, on the question of whether each field is seen as integral, a part of a whole, while still having its own autonomy.
For the most part, the Great Books divide down into three different fields, philosophy, science, and literature. This division isn’t arbitrary; it represents three entirely different ways of knowing, three entirely different objects of knowledge. The object or end of philosophy is being but being as it’s mediated through matter, motion, change. Philosophy attempts to know this being in its diversified forms, but it is forced to use concepts because to know being, it has to abstract, to draw forth, the inner forms of things. Its manner is conceptual because what it knows, the first causes of things, can only be grasped through concepts–not as in math through line, number, or formulae. Since philosophy is concerned with what can’t be other than it is–that is, with what is, with first causes–it proceeds by way of demonstrations, reasoning from causes to effects and effects to causes and this by means of a conceptual framework. So the mode of knowledge that philosophy forms in us is conceptual and abstract, its manner varying according to its object, changing as it is concerned with logic, speculative or practical matters, or ethics. Science, similarly, is concerned with the physical world of things. Like philosophy, it abstracts from things and has to return to them for verification. And insofar as science rests on math, its conceptual framework tends to be even more abstract. The reason for this is straightforward. Math has as its object those things that depend on matter to exist but not to be known. So the object of math is those beings of the mind which refer to the physical world (line, number, motion) but at a level of abstract quantity. It considers line in itself, curve in itself, etc. The fact that math and geometry have number and line as their objects, and these are infinitely divisible or multipliable, gives them an extraordinarily high degree of precision. Hence, their attraction for science. Philosophy and science are two different fields with distinct ends or objects. They approach these ends in different ways, through different acts of the mind. But in both cases the mode of knowing is a form of abstraction, the one taking its bearings from ontology–the being of things–the other from habits tending to resolve problems in terms of quantity or measurements.
Literature is also a mode of knowing. But unlike philosophy and science, literature doesn’t abstract from the concrete, material world, it enters into it, becoming one with it by a kind of sympathy or identity. Its object is the world of things and of human actions, but it doesn’t know these by way of abstraction, through concepts; it knows them interiorly, through emotion, by means of what St. Thomas calls connaturality, a know-ledge by inclination. Emotions by their nature are obscure and seemingly unintelligible; we can’t see into them very well. Literature takes us into this interior world and, by giving it form, makes it intelligible. All three fields, philosophy, science, and literature should have a secure place in a curriculum. Philosophy and science, as such, don’t face dangers. Few people–and nobody sane–question whether they are genuine disciplines. This isn’t the case with literature. Literature faces a danger the others don’t because it lends itself to so many other, adulterate purposes.
My own recommendation, then, is to present the program or curriculum in three disciplines or tracks, philosophy, science, and literature. These three disciplines are, in a sense, generic; they set the terms and fundamentals for all the others branching off from them. They cover the whole range of concrete and abstracted experience. They would give a wholeness and coherence to the program while providing sufficient depth and breadth to learning so that anyone taking the core would have no difficulties with a specialization in graduate school. Anyone grounded in the fundamental principles and experiences of philosophy, science, and literature (poetry) would find it relatively easy to take up more specialized studies in physics, ethics, anthropology, psychology, journalism, etc. And he would certainly be prepared to teach in these fields, if he chose or felt himself called.
But there are also other reasons for limiting the disciplines to these three: it’s crucial that faculty come together on first principles, and it’s simply a question of practical limits how well they can do that if disciplines are multiplied. Anyone who’s undertaken a discipline knows that penetrating principles truly is a life-long work. But the issue is more than just practical limits. I believe that to the degree that we can penetrate the first principles of our separate fields, to that degree we have the most to offer each other as teachers and colleagues. Exactly where it is hardest to understand each other, there may be the most important place or source for discovery and growth–Christ and His creation lurking just around the corner. Too often differences between disciplines become sources of friction–“they’re different”; “they don’t understand us”; “math is indifferent to the world, so is he; he’s too detached”; “he’s too sentimental, too poetic”; these become occasions for alliances, rivalries, even, finally, factions and firings. One of the most fruitful periods in my life was one in which I shared work with a physicist. I’d spent most of my life surrounded by people in the humanities and arts. But it wasn’t till I began working with this physicist that I became aware of my own deficiencies in going to principles, in trying to relate poetry to physics. I had made efforts along those lines on my own–trying to stay close to philosophy to check myself–but without a sustained engagement with another mind and one disposed to see differently, to turn perspectives in ways different from my own, I simply didn’t do very well. There was simply no reason to push my discoveries in literature to principles that would situate my learning in the larger universe of knowledge. My own learning in poetry suffered as a result.
One of the inherent “gifts” of a small college, then, is the close, integral character of the curriculum and the opportunity it provides faculty to learn from each other. But for that to happen, faculty have to be willing to take their work to principles. Taking on too many fields can cultivate superficial habits of mind, can produce “generalists”; too few can produce a narrowness or rigidity, an inability to go to principles or to see the underlying inter-connectedness of knowledge. We want a curriculum in which, following Newman,
the sciences, into which our knowledge may be said to be cast, have multiplied bearings one on another, and an internal sympathy, and admit, or rather demand, comparison and adjustment. They complete, correct, balance each other. This consideration…must be taken into account, not only as regards the attainment of truth, which is their common end, but as regards the influence which they exercise upon those whose education consists in the study of them. I have said already that to give undue prominence to one is to be unjust to another…. (Idea, V,1)
The curriculum can’t give a balance or sense of integration to the minds of its students that it does not have itself. I take it that the philosophic spirit informing this curriculum is Thomistic and as such would follow the guidelines of Thomas. Philosophy would be the backbone of the program, providing it with the principles and objective reference points for adjustments that changes and time will bring to the program. The critical communities surrounding the Great Books are crucial; we have been formed by them. But Great Book approaches typically ignore them. We want to be open to changes that are faithful to the great works–most of them coming from these critical communities–but we also have to be guided by a sound grasp of principles to do this. It isn’t clear to me exactly how courses should be organized–my background in philosophy is too limited–but to be true to Thomas’ principles, at least as I understand them, my own suggestion would be to organize the three fields, philosophy, science, and literature in the following way because it is faithful to the different modes and manners (ways, conditions) of knowing involved in these fields:
1. Philosophy (The Philosophic Traditions)
*Philosophy of Nature (principles of nature and of division of sciences; epistemology)
2. Science (The Tradition of the Sciences)
Astronomy and the Rise of Modern Science
3. Literature (The Literary Traditions)
Narrative (epic, romance, and novel)
Presenting these three fields in this fashion doesn’t necessitate doing away with historical developments. Teachers can still approach texts in ways that do justice to the historical conditions and traditions out of which they came. But the advantage to this approach is that it gives whole traditions and their power for informing individual texts their rightful place. Works are not treated in isolation or taken out of context. Read in the light of their traditions, they naturally speak to and build upon each other. All together, they form an integrated core, but within their own disciplines or traditions, they allow for repetition and reinforcement and for gradually increasing degrees of sophistication, giving support to the struggles of students to move in a direction requiring greater and greater powers of abstraction. And the reinforcement and building as well as the gradual movement forward all support perfecting habits. Students working through these three disciplines would not only grasp important concepts and principles–see their universal application by the integral character of the program–they would be equipped to take up the more concentrated work of a discipline in their upper division years–and what’s equally important, give a defense of it. Their learning would be sufficiently historical to locate texts in the unfolding of their traditions, to see old problems from new perspectives, in new lights, but students would also be able to recognize variations of old problems and answer them intelligently because their education would ground them firmly in first principles. And their concentrated, more painstaking work in a discipline in their upper division work would make it possible for them to keep the discipline alive in themselves. They could become philosophers, physicists, poets.
According to this scheme, philosophy of nature would be the centerpiece of the program, and coming as it does in the middle (end of sophomore year or beginning of junior year), it would affirm the program’s commitment to ground reason in nature. All the other courses would take their bearings from this one–each of the science courses and even literature (in the sense that through literature we are immersed in nature and so given the potential analogies to the supernatural). Most importantly, because this course takes seriously the principles of nature (Thomas’ On the Principles of Nature), students at this mid-stage of their learning would be forced to come to terms with questions of epistemology, how we know. The course would not only make clear the different ways the mind knows, but it would also clarify the principles behind the division and methods of all the sciences. I take this to be one of the most compelling reasons for making the philosophy of nature the pivotal course of the program. By establishing these principles here, all students would be enabled to give a defense of any concentrated work they chose in a discipline in their upper division years.
The strategic placement of this course can give coherence to the whole program. Coming after students have had some acquaintance with philosophy and the conceptual equipment it requires of them, it prepares students to go on to first principles. Once they’ve clarified those principles, they will be in a better position to defend them in their upper division major work when they come to it. This is crucial because as students take on the more specialized work required by their disciplines, it will be easy for them to get caught up in specifics, in the wealth of details, and not be able to apply those details to principles, to see their implications in light of them. Once they are past their lower division work, the effort of always referring back to first principles will recall them to the underlying unity of the whole program, giving them fresh insights into the hidden ties between disciplines.
Finally, one of the benefits to this approach, this grounding of a curriculum on a sound philosophy, is that it establishes the rightful place of literature in the program. Typically, two excesses color approaches to literature these days: the first is a feel good response: because of its affective character, it awakens emotion, leaving people with “feelings” they may not encounter in their readings of philosophy or science. The second is that because it deals more directly or immediately with the human predicament, it lends itself to every possible kind of self-mirroring or ideology–psychological, political, sexual. The range of experiences literature deals with is so universal, its content so true to our personal experiences that those reading it for their own ideas can pretty much count on finding them. This approach corrects these tendencies. By establishing the place of literature on the basis of knowledge, it makes it impossible to ignore form, the principle of intelligibility in things. Teachers and students will have to take the forms of literature, its modes and manners, seriously; they can still read for themes along political, psychological, or sexual lines, but none of these will have the same meaning when they are read in light of a work’s form.
I spoke earlier about modes and manners. According to Thomas, modes and manners of fields vary because the object of each field is different and so known in a different way. The mode of knowing for philosophy and math involves an abstraction from concrete reality. The mode of knowing for literature is different; it doesn’t abstract from reality; it descends into it. In literature, concrete reality is presented immediately, unabstracted, in all of its mysterious, material density.
Then how can literature be a mode of knowing at all? If knowledge has to do with universals, with laws or natures, with what can’t be other than it is, how does literature, since it deals with concrete reality in its ever-shifting, changing form, even qualify? On what grounds can it take its place next to physics or philosophy? Philosophy and physics begin with the world of concrete, particular things, physics referring back to them for verification of its theories, and philosophy going beyond to their first causes in the nature of being itself. Both involve an act of abstraction from concrete reality; both have truth as their end, and each approaches it in a different manner. Literature is different. It has a place next to philosophy in its approaches to our world. It is at once a source of revelation and discovery–like philosophy and science, it has truth as its end–but it is also a form of poiesis, a form of making, and as such it has beauty as its immediate end. What it presents to us is concrete experience as if it were unmediated. But clearly, it isn’t. Literature isn’t experience raw; it is experience remade, passed through the alembic of reason, and so how ever this experience is fashioned–it is a made thing–it is permeated with intelligence. Its very form radiates with reason. It is concrete experience filtered through an act of apprehension, experience re-seen, revealing or uncovering some truth or intelligibility, some meaning to a sequence of events or actions of some character, some inner form that we missed or that wasn’t immediately visible to us the first time around–and it does this with an immediate sense of beauty and order. An act of cognition is at its core, and as a thing of beauty, its powers for awakening desire or emotion are not small. In literature or poetry, then, we have the advantage of experiencing life both immediately and mediately. Dealing with the concrete as it does, it heightens our powers of perception, our powers for seeing into the inner being of things and of people. But as a work of art bringing the senses into contact with concrete things, it is laden with emotion. Thomas says that art is a virtue of the practical intellect; art is “reason making.” Reason is everywhere hidden in it, even if it does not have an explicitly didactic or discursive character. If this is true, whatever emotion literature expresses or awakens is emotion formed–in good art, emotions becoming ordinant.
Literature, then, is radically different from philosophy or science. Its mode of knowing is concrete reality, just as we experience it through our senses. It doesn’t involve us in a process of abstraction. By means of it, we are made to engage things directly, immediately. This mode of knowing can take different forms according to the manner or condition of the knowing. There are basically three of them, each representing a different form of mediation according to the way the artist stands towards his creation: the lyric, narrative (epic or novel), and drama. Joyce has given us the most succinct account of these forms that I know of:
There are three conditions of art: the lyrical, the epical, and the dramatic. That art is lyrical whereby the artist sets forth the image in immediate relation to himself; that art is epical whereby the artist sets forth the image in mediate relation to himself and to others; that art is dramatic whereby the artist sets forth the image in immediate relation to others.
Joyce takes pains to distinguish the three forms because it’s only on the basis of the artist’s awareness of them that he can do his work. What are the differences? There are the obvious ones: that lyric lacks the magnitude or completeness of narrative or drama; and these in turn, by their very length, lose what the lyric gives us: the sense of a “still point,” an intense grasping of a universe condensed and rendered full and complete in an instant of vision, one that some liken to a moment of mystical contemplation, the seeing of a whole experienced as a point of rest. The shorter form lends itself to experiences of epiphanies–all those forms of experience that involve apparently incoherent or unintelligible emotion but that can still be given precise meaning–passionate, caustic, wistful, sentimental, ironic, or even some blend of these. Eliot has said, rightly, that it’s impossible to write a long lyric, the demands for variation, and different voices are simply too great for the kind of concentration it requires. These same elements on the other hand are the very materials on which narrative and drama depend. They can’t exist without a feel for pacing and development, a “set-up” situation, a rising action, climax, and denouement. And since longer works can’t hold our attention without a well-developed sense of character and dialogue, it’s impossible to write longer works without a willingness on the part of the poet to descend into the depths of the soul, to find there not only the possibilities for self-knowledge, for the changes that relationships can bring on, but also, because character involves free-will, the possibilities for reversals, for coincidences, for fortune, and even for the workings of grace.
These are some of the more material elements associated with the forms of literature. In a sense, we can’t really begin to understand stories or poetry without understanding them. But my real concern is with form in a more restricted, purposeful sense. I’d like to consider form as a principle of knowledge and as the basis for establishing the place of literature in a curriculum. To do this requires that I get more specific than I have to this point.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that all three genres deal with the love of a man for things–a brook, a moonlit sky, the pastoral scene at the foot of a mountain–his beloved, or even his city. In lyric–the genre that represents the first motions of love–the man says to his beloved, “I love you.” Now, what is the knowledge involved in that _expression? What do we know? The images the poet uses may give us some sense of the beloved, her eyes, her hair, the way she moves. But if the images in which these are rendered have any meaning, it’s to bring into view his emotions, what he feels: “the artist sets forth the image in immediate relation to himself” [my italics]. On the surface, the poem seems to be about the beloved–she’s the reason for his feelings. On a deeper level, since we only know as much about her as the poet’s emotions allow, as much as they can carry, it seems the poem is really about him. If we apprehend the poem’s form, however, what we find is that while both poet and his beloved are subjects of the poem–the woman because she awakens desire, the poet because he suffers the passions she stirs in him–clearly, what the form of the poem expresses is a communion between the two. The whole, the object that we are given to contemplate, is an action, a communion made possible by the poet’s love, all that is brought into reality and given a place through it. The object of our knowledge, then, is this incarnating action of the poet’s love, not what he apprehends so much as the apprehension itself.
Without some sense of form, very little of this would be clear. Set the lyric next to the narrative or drama and begin to ask why form matters, and some of this begins to ease into focus.
So, what happens in the shift from lyric to narrative? What’s the difference between them? In narrative, the poet no longer speaks in his own voice. The lover doesn’t say of his beloved, “I love you.” Rather, he says of another, “He loves her,” or, “The two men quarreled and the city was destroyed.” The point of view has shifted from first to third person. The object of our knowledge is no longer the poet’s love–at least not immediately–it’s what he loves, the world of things, his beloved, the besieged city. These are the things we see; they come into focus; they appear to have a reality of their own. In fact, however, they are filtered through the poet’s or the narrator’s point of view. We have, once again then, only as much as his love allows. Does that mean we’re no farther along than we were in the lyric? No. Because the love of the poet has now gone out beyond itself to encompass a larger world around him. The artist now “sets forth the image in mediate relation to himself and others” [my italics]. What does this mean? The shift from lyric to narrative represents a movement from the inner subjectivity of the poet to a more objective participation in his world. The stance of the poet is now more objective; he can give a more complete treatment of the world because an element of mediation has intervened. The shift may seem obvious but its implications for the kind of knowledge it offers are profound.
Narration is still a story (an action having a beginning, middle, and end), but since it is a story rendered through someone, it creates a kind of dual consciousness, giving rise to questions of reliability, to possibilities for irony, satire, exaggeration, deflation, a fractured mind, all encouraging a more cognitive response, not just an emotional one. The lyric offers immediate experience; so does the narrative but with an added dimension of mediated reflection, understanding. The object of narrative is no longer the poet’s inner subjective experience of love; it’s now what he loves. What is the knowledge offered us, then, or rather the object of our knowledge? On the surface, it seems a more complete rendering of the beloved, the pastoral world, or the destruction of the city. The inner subjective love associated with the lyric seems to have disappeared, retreated. But has it, really? I don’t think so. If anything, it has simply taken another form. What the narrative form makes clear is the poet’s love has now gone out of itself to embrace the body of a whole community. We still have only as much as his love and his intellect can grasp. But the magnitude, the pacing, the movement of a rising action to a climax and then a denouement, the risk of looking into the depths of character that these involve–these aren’t the expressions of a diminished love; they are, in fact, the motions of a greater one. We still get only as much as the love of the artist made him take pains to render, to incarnate, but the greater the attention to detail, the greater the depth of character exploration and truth, the greater the love. Although nowhere visible, then, the love of the artist can’t be any more obvious. The form of the story would have it so: it radiates with intelligence and love. This is what we know. On a simple literal level, the story is one of lovers struggling to overcome obstacles or a city’s destruction. On another, it represents an incarnating action of the poet on a much larger scale. The love is now communal. This is what the form expresses.
In drama, another shift takes place. The “subject” of drama is little different from that of lyric or narrative: it is still the lovers’ struggles or a city’s destruction. But in drama, a story is presented unmediated, objectively, as it were. In this form, the narrator disappears behind his work: “the artist sets forth the image in immediate relation to others” [my italics]. Characters are given the freedom to move about on their own, to speak in their own voices. No mediation intervenes. What does this form do for a story? How does it change the kind of knowledge we receive? It gives a completely different meaning to events. The action of the lyric is interior; and nothing gets in the poem that isn’t in immediate relation to the poet and his feelings, his love. In narrative, the love is different. A large social order comes into focus. It has as much magnitude and completeness as the poet’s love and vision of a community can muster. What occupies our field of vision is an outer world. In fact, what’s disclosed is a poet’s love and his powers of apprehension. We can see Homer’s soul by the utter honesty in which he treats the communities of The Iliad. In drama, this kind of mediation disappears. We have no access into the poet’s interior. What we know, we know from the outside only. Images of the lovers struggling and the besieged city are presented from a completely detached perspective. Whatever happens in the story, the knowledge we are given is now a knowledge by separation–let me say it: by a knowledge analogous to transcendence. In the lyric, the lover speaks in first person, completely within himself; in narrative, he moves beyond himself to embody a community. In drama, the interior life of the lyric poet is gone; the filter of a narrator is gone. The story is presented as unmediated. The artist moves outside his work, leaving his characters to move about in complete freedom and autonomy and turning them over in complete trust to the reader. Does that mean love is no longer a part of the knowledge offered, that he is indifferent to his characters?
If anything, the separation means just the opposite. It implies a greater love, one closer to that of transcendence itself because it takes no possession of its object. God’s love is implied in drama in exactly the degree to which it is invisible. As with narrative, what we know in drama isn’t simply the story. We do know that, but what we also know is that the poet cares enough for his characters to tell their story without compromising their free wills or allowing himself or his concern for them to take possession of what they do. The narrative filter with all of its inherent limitations, its prejudices or passions, its distortions, judgments, the blindnesses of its possessive or sentimental loves, its capacity for self-justifications–these things are all gone. What is the knowledge that drama give us, then? Clearly, nothing students taking an introductory class on literature and reading for plot or theme would ever come to. The knowledge of drama is a kind of knowing that by analogy resembles transcendent love and wisdom. The action of all great drama always closes around a transcendent joy or sorrow. Whether the action of the drama is fulfilled in this life (comedy) or borders on the next (tragedy), it is a movement that reveals the transcendent love of the First Lover.
Why is all of this important? For a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, because this movement from the lyric to narrative and finally to drama traces the movement from the innocent self-centered love that most of us have in youth to the adult love we hope to have as we age. And while this in itself provides an important rationale for the sequence of a literary program, my concern here is with the formal principle of a curriculum.
Specifically Literature within the Curriculum
Few people would question the place of philosophy in a curriculum. Some might debate its content or principles, but none would argue that it isn’t a legitimate discipline. That isn’t the case with literature. Many of those who’ve spent their lives teaching literature would defend it with their lives. But how many would do so for the right reasons? And so many of those outside literature, because it’s so valuable to their work, would appropriate it for their own uses; indirectly, they only prove its worth by the uses to which they put it. But this only contributes to the confusion. Literature doesn’t have a home; its plenary character sends it into exile. My concern here isn’t to uncover stalking horses. It’s the minds and hearts of students. My contention is that because of a general misunderstanding of the nature of literature, one that is so often veiled because we take it for granted, we are simply adding to our problems. In state schools, at lower division levels, literature is used to expose kids to the “experience” it can give them, all the while secretly supporting efforts to teach grammar or writing–a sugar-coated pill. In the Great Books programs whose purpose it is to cultivate great ideas, its use is reduced to illustration: it makes clear those ideas. Its function is propaedeutic or, worse, unmasking, either to prepare students for the arduous work of philosophy or to expose the secret perversions of the soul. Its power for affirmations is lost. But is it really only propaedeutic? Did Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot, and Joyce continue writing poetry into their old age because some arrest of their faculties, something stunting their growth, prevented them from philosophizing? Something is being missed here. We have to be clear on ends. If our aim is to produce philosophers, then we should throw in our lot with those whose programs treat all disciplines as species of sciences or philosophy. If it’s to develop better, more fully integrated human beings capable of seeing and of feeling deeply, then it’s important we give literature and poetry their proper place. Literature is more than propaedeutic, and it can’t simply insinuate itself into a program because its poetic powers can take the edge off abstractions. Literature has to be given its rightful place in a universe of philosophic studies because where it isn’t, inconsistencies will plague the program–and ultimately its students.
Till this point, I’ve had little to say about students. I’d like to conclude these reflections by bringing them in a little more closely, linking them and literature together and looking briefly at what poetry does to us, how it awakens our soul, the kind of engendering that goes on there. To do this, once again I have to draw on a number of principles from St. Thomas. For Thomas, the special nature of the soul is seen in both its knowing and its movement, its appetite or desire. “The acts of the will and of every movement of the will and of every appetitive faculty,” he says, “tend towards good…” and since “the universal is naturally prior to what is less so,” and “love regards good universally,” it follows that “love is the first act of the will and appetite” (I,20,1). So the first motion of the soul by nature is towards the good; and since man can’t love what he does not know (I,27,2), its movement depends upon those acts of apprehension in which the good is grasped. We learn a number of important things here. One is that the soul has a nature–it is rational and meant to complete itself or find its perfection in the good. And two, a relationship, a sort of fittingness, exists between things and the good in which they participate and which draws or moves them on. No thing exists in a vacuum; its good isn’t realized in isolation from the whole, the greater good of which it is a part. This is as true of a sunflower inclining towards the sun as it is for a man inclining towards his final end. In a special way, while remaining distinct, the two can’t be understood apart. But what’s most important for our immediate purposes is the nature of the soul–that it is characterized by both its knowing and its movement, its appetites and desires. And Thomas makes a distinction here that is crucial. All things by nature, he says, are possessed of an inclination (an appetite or “love”) towards good, each thing inclining towards the good by its own form or nature–the sunflower towards the sun, the bear cub into its mother. But this motion or appetite takes two forms in man: the sensitive appetite, the “passions” (from the word passive, those desires awakened in us by some agent outside working on us, a beautiful sunset, wine, a mathematical problem) and the intellective appetite (the will). The difference between the two is that the intellective appetite only moves towards the good as apprehended. What Thomas calls the sensitive appetite, the power of desire and emotion common to men and animals, has its root in the knowledge of the senses. The will, however, is distinguished from mere sensitive appetite by being grounded in the intellect. Only the intellect can grasp “the good in itself”–that is, the good abstracted in its proper objectivity and co-extensive with being–and if this is so and the will is moved by the good which the intellect apprehends, then it is crucial that the apprehensive powers be strengthened by having objects presented to them whose participation in being, whose intelligibility, goodness, or beauty, is beyond question.
What does poetry offer us? Concrete things whose very qualities are intelligibility, goodness, and beauty. Poems are not texts with ideas; they are concrete things. As man-made things, they are permeated by reason and they have their own being. Beauty, Thomas tells us, has three qualities: integritas, consonantia, and claritas–wholeness, harmony, and light. Poems have their own excellence according to the degree to which they participate in being, according to the degree to which these three qualities are present in them. Poems present us with concrete images, for sure, but as forms them-selves depending upon words, they also conduct an action, drawing the mind into a movement that not only reveals meaning or intelligibility in sequence but both arouses emotions and brings them to rest. The power of poetry is as great as it is precisely because it works through the senses and the sensitive appetite. The greater the rhetorical powers of the poet—the greater his power for rendering in image the actual thing, the character, the dialogue–the greater is his power for awakening the sensitive appetite, our emotions. But not emotion for the sake of emotion. According to Joyce, the proper object of art is not simply desire or emotions but joy:
For desire urges us from rest that we may possess something but joy holds us in rest so long as we possess something…. All art which excites in us the feeling of joy is so far comic, and according as this feeling of joy is excited by whatever is substantial or accidental in human fortunes, the art is to be judged more or less excellent: and even tragic art may be said to participate in the nature of comic art so far as the possession of a work of tragic art (a tragedy) excites in us the feelings of joy. (Joyce, Paris Notebook).
According to this, poetry is only as good as its power for bringing the emotions it awakens to rest. And it can’t do this, it can’t produce a condition of joy or delight, except through a completed form, one that makes sense. The two most important conditions of art, then, are wholeness and light, both commensurate with form. When Thomas speaks of form, it’s important to see that what he is talking about isn’t conceptual or discursive clarity but ontological splendor, the beauty or intelligibility in the inner form of things. Maritain’s gloss on this runs,
“There must be no misunderstanding here: the words clarity, intelligibility and light do not necessarily indicate something clear and intelligible to us, but rather something which, although clear and luminous in itself, intelligible in itself, often remains obscure to our eyes either because of the matter in which the form in question is buried or because of the transcendence of the form itself in the things of the spirit. The more substantial and profound this secret significance, the more concealed from us it is; so much so, in truth, that to say with the Schoolmen that form in things is the peculiar principle of intelligibility is to say at the same time that it is the peculiar principle of mystery. There can in fact be no mystery where there is nothing to know: mystery exists where there is more to be known than is offered to our apprehension. To define beauty as brilliance of form is the same as defining it as brilliance of mystery.”
A few pages earlier he says,
…beauty delights the mind…because beauty is essentially a certain kind of excellence or perfection in the proportion of things to the mind. Hence, the three conditions….splendor formae, said St. Thomas with a metaphysician’s precision of language: for form, that is to say the principle determining the peculiar perfection of everything which is constituting and completing things in their essence and their qualities, the ontological secret, so to speak, of their innermost being, their spiritual essence, their operative mystery, is above all the peculiar principle of intelligibility, the peculiar clarity of every thing….The mind rejoices in this because in the beautiful it finds itself again, recognizes itself and comes into contact with its very own light (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism).
If this is true, then it’s important we learn to read for form, that inner light in things in which the mind finds a reflection of its own immaterial character. What is the condition of good art, then, the art that does this? That the form presented to the intellect make sense, that it be good and that the desires awakened by the apprehension of the good be brought to fulfillment in joy–and if not joy, at least a sorrow that is appropriate to the loss of that joy. This would rule out of court any literary forms whose purposes lay outside themselves, any art that was didactic, pornographic, or even sentimental–that is, any literature awakening feelings that were not warranted by its form. And it couldn’t take conceptual form; it would have to engage the senses immediately. “Beauty is that which being seen, pleases,” Thomas says (I,5,4; I-II,27,1). Our pleasure in hearing a Bach piece or in reading a Shakespearean play is immediate. The pleasure can linger, in memory, but the delight is real or perfect only in the act of seeing or hearing. Poetry gives us actual things–not ideas. Whatever our approaches do with it, they have to protect this central fact of the importance of the immediate experience we have when we are reading poems or listening to music.
The difference between literature and philosophy or science, then, is fundamental. Literature doesn’t offer us a knowledge by abstraction. It doesn’t offer us that kind of conceptual clarity we get from ideas abstracted from experience. It renders experience immediate, and because what it offers is the concrete image, the whole it presents always suggests the opaqueness of matter, the dullness of experience itself. Students whose education has been largely in ideas find it almost impossible to read poetry. Not finding the clarity of ideas they get from expository readings, they turn away. But to that degree, aren’t they turning from things themselves, from what is “obscure to our eyes either because of the matter in which the form is buried or because of the transcendence of the form itself”? They want ideas, not things; and having turned away from things, they lose their grasp of analogies, their way of approach to the higher syntheses. The knowledge of poetry is not knowledge as statement or as principle but knowledge as experience, knowledge felt.
And like experience, at least experience in the raw, fleeting and seemingly unintelligible–it won’t stand still–it is difficult to read. The various genre present us with the particular difficulties of reading experience, various difficulties we encounter from standing in one particular way instead of another. The lyric offers one way, from the interior of the poet and of things. Narrated stories offer another, experience filtered through a storyteller. And drama offers yet another, a kind of awareness or perspective that is, by analogy, transcendent, one involving a complete detachment of the artist or beholder from anything given to his range of vision, a way of actively serving his characters that takes the form of a complete letting go. These various ways may make for some confusion, but taken together they help us stand more fully in the world. They represent various ways of “turning” experience so that when we enter our world, formed by these various perspectives of awareness, these fields of knowledge, we can enter into it more aware of its mysteries, its sources of intelligibility and meaning–seeing things from the inside as it were, interiorly, and from the outside as well. Since in stories we face confusion, much as we do in life–in media res, in the midst of things–they help us grow up: we have to work hard to see. We enter into the depths of character and are still asked to let go. The confusion–or mystery–can sometimes overwhelm. We count a lot on outcomes or results to give us insights looking back. But, finally, our end isn’t simply insights–those moments of identifying with a particular passage or scene or character–it’s grasping wholes.
One final word on this object or whole that poetry constitutes for us. I spoke earlier about the fittingness between things and the goodness in which they participate and which tugs on their “inclinations,” drawing them on. As a thing, a poem is its own whole–it is one thing and not another. But at the same time, while it is an object to us, it has within itself its own “objects,” the beloved, the things of the world, the besieged city. What is the object, the whole, that poetry represents then? It isn’t the beloved or even the poet himself. The whole is both of them and yet more than both, a “whole” much like the “fittingness” that exists between things and the goodness drawing them on. And to miss this, I believe, is to remain trapped inside a Cartesian/Kantian world in which, divorced from our senses and incapable of grasping forms or wholes, we no longer see anything other than our own disconnected ideas or “parts.” In this world, all things in the universe exist in isolation as parts, inscrutable and impenetrable, one to another. What poetry does–or at least what a good poetry which hasn’t lost its sense of communion with things does–is take us out of this condition.
How does it do this? By what I’m calling this greater whole and its action. In the case of the sunflower and the bear cub, because they lack rational souls, they can’t be other than “parts,” even in the fittingness in which they participate–the sunflower inclining towards the sun and becoming “one” with it in its life-giving goodness; the bear cub becoming “one” with its mother. But the poet stands differently towards the world. Because he has a rational soul–the soul according to Aristotle is all things–he contains within him a spiritual universe capable of being one with all things in ways the flower or the cub cannot. In a sense, as a person, he is a whole standing in or with a whole. In our physical bodies, we are isolated from each other; we cannot occupy the same space. It’s only in the Spirit that we overcome this condition of isolation and that we can become “one flesh.” The poem is the act of the poet of becoming one with his world in love, of incarnating the world, giving it a body in love. But by its very nature, since it is written for a reader, it places us in the same relationship to the poem as the poet is to his world. The whole the poem gives us, then, cannot be simply the poet or his object or even the two of them together. It is our being one with him in the act of apprehension. The whole that poetry gives us then is this drawing us out of ourselves into an ever widening, ever expanding universe. In reading the poem we not only take the poet’s world into ourselves, the world he creates or engenders; we take his creating into us as well. The artist is always close to the gifts of the Holy Spirit; no wonder. The action of drawing the reader out of his world and into a larger community is as a prelude to the way of approach or entry into the mystical body. “Love calls us to things of the world,” yes: but in a creative way only. The action of the poem is a form of incarnating whose action we take into us when we read. It is doing, to a degree of perfection we only hope to emulate, what we want to be doing in the world.
Love is unitive, Thomas says. Poetry is not love; but in its images and the power of its rhetoric, it awakens love. The beloved as seen by the lover, the characters acting under the creating gaze of the narrator, the city destroyed as the cost of a new, more transcendent honor code–these are the good the poem helps the mind to grasp. Insofar as it does this and manages to bring the emotions it awakens in accord with these images and the good they reveal, it helps form the will. Pope John has said of our journey of self-discovery, “the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness….” (Fides Et Ratio, 1) The more we read good poetry, the more of our universe we take into ourselves, the more we become one with a body of works having a simultaneous existence in the imagination–a sort of faint image of the mystical body. Our universe doesn’t just expand in time and space; it expands in the imagination. And the importance of this isn’t small because in becoming one with those we read when often those we read are from other times and places, we bring these other times and places to life, and the faint mystical body of the imagination begins to take on life.
I said earlier that I believed one of the elements of the call given us is the reconciliation of faith and reason. When we enter into a work of literature, we enter into a world whose times and places are essentially mysterious to us. They are not our own, but they are living in the imagination. The importance of this imagining is not small for us. Great physicists and artists have acknowledged that they did not complete a work they could have because they didn’t imagine it. It’s a sad fact but true that we have to be almost destitute and jobless before we can properly hear Isaiah or Christ through him when he says, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk.” What is this wine and milk that are given freely and without cost? Will we even hear the words properly without faith or without a genuine imagination? The imagination isn’t faith but in its powers for pushing out boundaries, it supports and sustains the efforts of faith in its own realm. If you want to found a college, first imagine it. And then hold on. The mystical body to lots of people is simply a dead phrase; it’s impossible to be grounded in the literary tradition, however, and not imagine it. All literature begins to take its place in a simultaneous order of time. “Once upon a time….” draws us into a strange world. We enter into strange worlds each time we read a good story; we enter into an even larger, more mystical one when we offer ourselves to a whole tradition. The fact that writers like MacDonald, Lewis, Chesterton, Joyce, Faulkner, and Karol Wojtyla did the writings they did is no accident. All of them were men whose imaginations and powers of reason came from a surrender to a whole tradition.
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I said earlier that I believed literature has to be represented fully as a discipline for it to have its rightful place in a universe of philosophic studies. I hope I’ve made my case. Too often works find their way into a curriculum either because they are favorites of a teacher–in which case they change as teachers come and go–or because they “work.” They are reduced to pedagogical “tools” whose worth is determined by whether or not students “identify” with them, how well they “speak” to them and so, like dangling carrots, how useful they are in getting work out of them. But in either case, literature loses its place as a discipline with its own ends and modes and methods. And the fallout from this is unfortunately too often missed. If we take the “discipline” out of the discipline and approach literature for whatever sentimental reasons we have, we take out reason. Students may have inspired, intensely emotional experiences with literature and come away from their readings with a genuine love of good stories, but the proper place of literature will have been lost. We hand literature over to the sentimentalists at one extreme and the ideologues at the other, and we run the risk of making our students dilettantes. Take away the discipline from literature, the sustained work on form, the principle of intelligibility in things, and we cut out the heart, the seat of affections. We form good hearts in our students by strengthening their apprehensive powers, and insofar as we are corporeal creatures whose way of approach to wisdom and love is through the body, we do this with images. One of the greatest things we can do for our students is strengthen in them their apprehensive powers by giving them good things to read. Without a discipline, students may learn to grasp form in a merely external, technical way; but they will have lost their powers of penetration into the natural order and with it, their capacity for joy and sorrow.
We can’t teach faith. We can make clear its principles in Catechism; we only make it real by example. But we can strengthen the work we do with reason in ways that open the heart and help reason close with faith. I don’t believe we can do this or at least do it well if we don’t help bring literature and philosophy together in a sound way. If we’re to overcome the dissociations between head and heart that plague us today, we’ve got to get them together because together, this side of mystical contemplation, they are the most complete way of approach to being. I began by declining to talk about the Ideal University and find myself closing on what appears to be an ideal, the making of philosophy and literature integral to each other. But I believe it is an ideal founded in both the reality of being and of our strengths and weaknesses as knowing creatures. Making such ideals real in a college is why we have come together and if I may paraphrase John Paul II, now is not the time to be modest in our goals.