Dr. James S. Taylor

The following interview of Angelicum Academy Director, James S. Taylor, Ph.D., author of POETIC KNOWLEDGE: The Recovery of Education, was recently published in France in L’homme nouveau (November, 2006). The French article, complete with photos is posted following this English version, thanks to L’homme nouveau.

Question: What is the poetic mode?

James Taylor: First, we need to clarify that here we are speaking of the poetic mode of knowledge, for there is also the poetic mode of education with which my book is closely aligned. Second, it must be remembered that poetic knowledge does not necessarily mean knowledge of this or that poem or require a particular literary education, though such knowledge certainly cultivates the innate mode of the Musical man. The poetic mode of knowledge is a natural, spontaneous way of knowing reality and of experiencing it directly or vicariously as via the memory and imagination. It is a real mode of knowledge dramatized by Homer, considered essential by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and cited by St. Thomas Aquinas in a commentary on the Sentences, as poetica scientia. It is distinct, but not separate, from three other modes of knowledge identified in the history Western philosophy as the metaphysical, the scientific, and the rhetorical. These distinctions were first brought to my attention in their hierarchical considerations by the late American classics professor, my dear friend and teacher, John Senior who also brought so many good American students to your venerable monastery at Fontgombault.

All four modes participate in acquiring knowledge about our world and our selves; but the poetic is not discursive, it is intuitive knowledge, pre-scientific, spontaneous, sensory and imaginative. Jacques Maritain said that while this mode is not exactly irrational, it is pre-rational. It operates within us like an inaudible whisper in conversation with the soul, speaking without words that this or that is so, is true, is good, mysterious, and so on. Simply, it is the certitude without any demonstration or proof that things are beautiful, terrible, mysterious, important, wonderful, that we love and are loved.

2) Why is the poetic way so important in the restoration of real Christian education?

In a sense, after the presence of Christ in the world and His resurrection, there is no such thing as Christian education – there is just Education, and it is either true or heretical, and to be true it must have at its center either a faint glow, or better, the brilliant light of Christian revelation. The Fathers of the Church knew this quite well. We see it clearly in the life and works of St. Augustine, Boethius, and St. Benedict of Nursia, just to name a few in the West, men who knew that wherever truth was found in pre-Hebrew, pre-Christian circumstances, no matter how obscure or unlikely, it was from God preparing the world for His Beloved Son.

We do not begin education by instructing the intellect, at least, the rational intellect, but as Socrates points out in the Republic, by exposing the soul’s sensory and emotional faculties to things that are beautiful, true, and good. Direct experiences with Creation that, since Rousseau, we call Nature, is a gymnastic experience and also a poetic thing. The Church teaches with Aristotle and St. Thomas that there is no knowledge except through the senses, therefore this is where we begin, and not with the Cartesian legacy to begin learning with the rational mind. Henri Charlier, Andre’s brother, vehemently rejected this false notion of learning in his book, Culture, Ecole et Metier.

But as to your question, concerning the poetic mode and education, let us point out first that the Church was in a silent crisis in terms of education long before the upheaval after the Second Vatican Council. Influences in this crisis of thought included Descartes’ obsession with mathematical knowledge, the tension between Catholic and protestant world views, the replacement of wonder with curiosity in the Renaissance, the materialism of the Enlightenment and the rise of scientism – all these created a foul but odorless vapor that commingled with the clean air of the Faith. It was a strange concoction that found its way into new teaching approaches such as textbooks and systematic lectures presented by teachers trained to teach with an artificial rigor attached to all studies.

Into the seminaries and Catholic schools came this strange admixture of education, displacing what was in the Middle Ages the integration of the four modes of knowledge and the appropriate pedagogy associated with each was no longer respected. There was a general distrust if not contempt for the poetic mode. It was left to metaphysical and dialectic (scientific) language to demonstrate truth or syllogistically to expose error – very little was left to the rhetorical mode and even less to the poetic. These last two modes are of course the ones that tend to humanize the student. No wonder Rousseau and the Romantics reacted as they did! And yet, there were remarkable and wonderful exceptions – courageous teachers who kept the idea that teaching was an art, a craft, and continued to teach as the old farmer used to naturally cultivate the soil for the seed. But I believe the more rigorous practice was generally the case from at least the end of the 19th century through the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. Then the 1960s kicked the doors off the hinges in nearly room of the house. Interestingly, Reason was the first to be evicted while Poetic knowledge became a tyranny of emotions and “feelings”.

Most are aware of these sad events. But what most do not know or even consider is that something was missing all along, at least by the time of Leo XIII – that after two Industrial Revolutions and the rise of Liberal Capitalism, after World War I, the Western world saw the loss of the poetic notion of man. Skepticism, scientism, and materialism, filled the void. And these ideas deeply effect the way we teach, whether we love rightly or not, how we conduct our lives in relationship to God and His creation. If we see man more and more as material man, even though we call ourselves Christians and grant that we have a spiritual destiny, if we accept however slightly the ideas of a purely mechanistic universe then we will teach in a half-hearted way. Or if we embrace newer theories of randomness in the universe, our teaching will be even more toxic. In these cases our efforts will appeal mainly to the rational intellect bereft of common sense, laying low the good sense of the poetic man who sees the sun come up and set every day, who notices the stars never fail to arrange themselves in interesting patterns throughout the seasons, that song lifts the heart, that crops grow, bear fruit, and pass away, every year, and return again, that we will not grow without love.

An education that appeals only to the intellect at the expense of the senses and emotions results in teaching mainly to the problem-solving intellect, the active intellect, neglecting at great peril the receptive heart and soul that knows for certain what it knows, and wonders and dreams about what it does not know. The risk in all this denatured teaching is to make one “narrow of heart”, as Dom Gerard explained to me. And John Senior used to say it is the heart and intuitive mind that knows the good, it is not a problem to be solved, but like truth and beauty are realities to be admired and shared, not analyzed and dissected.

Now we must remember that the light of the intellect is always at play throughout the soul and avoid the error of the Romantics who seemed to think that the emotions were the seat of wisdom. However, the light of the intellect does not confine her illumination to just the reason, but also in some mysterious manner to the exterior and interior senses, the emotions and the will in one complete wash of light. So not to teach to the poetic man as we climb to metaphysical knowledge is to dishonor one of the most mysterious and wonderful truths of the human being, that we are made imago Dei, in the image of God and given the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Baptism and Confirmation. Without an awareness of our poetic nature, how can we ever know the presence of the Holy Spirit, so profoundly mysterious? The poetic way, and I would include all the poetic arts here, prepares us for the awe, the wonder, the goodness and mystery, and the fear of the Lord. The way of poetry, moving us closer to the objects of desire, makes us more receptive to their influence, and prepares for His coming as He moves over the waters of our souls or whispers to us in the breeze of our hearts. No mathematics or science can help us with this ultimate confrontation of the soul with God which is the core of our reality. In this way, which is never a method or system, our hearts are enlarged and stirred to great courage born of love for Holy Mother Church and our neighbor, as well as softening the critical spirit which is born of fear and miserable loneliness. How can there be true education without the integration and respect of the modes of knowledge? If they are, they will rise up to embrace the source of all truth where education finds its end, that is, in Christ.

3) What was the place of the poetic mode of knowledge in the Middle Ages?

From the point of view of modern man who is spoiled by luxury either by having it or desiring it, the Middle Ages appear harsh and “dark”. Though daily life was hard, we know it was anything but dark; rather its culture was bright and colorful. In old villages and towns in France, Italy, Spain, we can still see that this was so. With very little research, we see in the costumes of medieval daily life, the music, the plays, the illuminated manuscripts whose colors are still bright, the fine wine, bread and cheeses that are still with us today, and best of all, the liturgy and the architecture that was built to support it and the religious houses of prayer. From this evidence it is clear that there is no contradiction between the harshness of life and a poetic way of life. In fact, John Senior, Andre and Henri Charlier all admire the peasant, the farmer, often illiterate and unrefined, who has gained a great deal of knowledge about weather and soils and crops by simple, direct observation, and mental reflection, over the years.

We find very little if anything written self-consciously about the poetic mode of knowledge in these times because since the great legacy from Greece and Rome, it was simply a given that one did not live for bread alone and that we trusted our senses and emotions in so far as they squared with good reason. The idea of leisure that Josef Pieper explains so well, a poetic thing, was planted deep in the cultural soil of Catholic Europe. By contrast, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are much more harsh and take a greater toll on the human spirit. We have lost the sensory-emotional, heartfelt known reality that we intuitively know is good. At home in God’s creation (not the same as being of the world), man will find the freedom, the leisure, to discover his poetic nature as well as his rational and active role with His beloved creatures on earth. This integration, this living in God’s plan as our home away from home is the poetic thing that comforted the rational mind in the Middle Ages. It is what we have lost and need to regain, perhaps one soul at a time.

(Question number 4, When did the break take place? is contained in the Answer for question number 2. J.T.)

5) What happened in the IHP at the University of Kansas?

chm26No one will ever be able to capture what the exact feel, tone, excitement and wonder was of the Integrated Humanities Program taught by the three professors, John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick. At the risk of sounding elitist, one had to be there. To answer the question about the IHP in those days is something like Our Lord’s answer to Andrew and Simon Peter who asked Him where He lived. He simply said: “Come and see”.

In a letter by Andre Charlier from the collection, Lettre aux Capitain, he reflects on the end of his ten year experiment in tradition and the success at Maslacq. He says, “it is difficult to know what we did there”. Charlier means it is impossible to know not only what he achieved, but how. This is because he was man who taught by the Muses and the Holy Spirit. This was certainly the case with the IHP taught completely in the poetic mode. Even the great books of philosophy and history and science were presented as to capture the students’ love and admiration of great deeds of the outward as well as of the interior man. Professor Quinn told audiences that the IHP was a program of “education by the Muses”, quoting Plato. Not only did we read the great books and listen to the best conversation from the professors about them, we learned to speak a little Latin, to look at the stars, to memorize poetry, to learn calligraphy, to waltz, to sing songs of our tradition, to travel to Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy – and this travel to Europe is a very important and very poetic thing to do for an American.

To put it as simply as possible, we were awakened, we saw that we belonged to the universe and to God, we belonged to Beauty, Truth and Goodness, that our deepest desires were not fantasies or “nostalgia trips” or the “trips” of hippies, but the hard and often lovely truth that this world and ourselves are mysteries of greatness and of evil and that first of all we are to love a Creation that is completely lovable. To say the good and great books we read accomplished this for us would not be true. The program was not about books but the truth they all pointed to outside the pages, in the world, and in our hearts. John Senior was fond of reminding us of the old adage that God wrote two books, the book of Nature, Creation, and the books of the Bible, and, that we needed to learn to “read” the first one before the second.

6) Did Andre Charlier’s Maslacq experience represent a return to the poetic mode?

Yes. But Charlier and the experience at Maslacq seems to me to have been less self conscious about the poetic mode. Charlier had the best of French culture within him, he didn’t need to talk about it as much as we did about Western civilization. It must be remembered that America is a far-flung outpost of Europe and each decade we seem to grow further away from our roots. Andre Charlier, on the other hand, was able to study alongside his students and also turn them out into the country side and into the village where there were still real craftsmen and shepherds and little shops where merchants sold their wares. He knew what he was doing, he knew the setting of Les Roches was poetic, that it spoke of reality, harsh and lovely. He knew that in a school everything must teach, the setting and country side, the furnishings, the architecture.

He was a military man, a man of music, a man who loved poetry, who loved boys and young men, who loved the Church, and saw that so much was passing away. Of course, I was never at Maslacq – alas! – but from listening to John Senior, Dom Gerard Calvet, reading Jean Madarin, and reading the letters of Andre Charlier (as well as books by his brother, Henri) I am convinced that Andre was the balanced integration of all the modes of knowledge, as was John Senior.

What I remember hearing about him most – and I can see this in my mind’s eye – is Charlier sitting by the great fire place at Les Roches, a castle I believe, reading Peguy to the boys, teaching them to sing, to speak Latin. I believe that he and John Senior must have been very much alike. What Senior did for us in America, Charlier did for France. What was that? to make us whole again, to cultivate once again the soil of our souls to be receptive to beauty and goodness and to the divine graces. What men were these! We may not see their like again.

7) In the United States today, are there places of education which take into account the poetic mode of knowledge?

Not at the level of teacher formation, not after the “death by administration” as Professor Quinn called the intervention of the University of Kansas that eventually brought down the IHP. But like the Phoenix, it did not die. Former students of the professors have carried the torch of education into the world. There are pockets here and there in some literature departments, of philosophy or schools of liberal arts where a humanities or great books class is allowed – but I must say these are only effective in so far as they are taught by those who studied with the three professors or have been taught by the graduates of the IHP. Actually, there are quite a few of these alumni but I think most have gone on to fashion their lives upon the ideals of the IHP outside of education. The majority of graduates did not become teachers, but those who did have kept the faith. The first and second headmasters of St. Gregory’s Academy of the FSSP are IHP graduates and the boys there are living examples of the good spirit we learned about, vigorous gymnastic, study of Latin, lots of literature and poetry, song and music. Another graduate is now Associate Provost of Hillsdale College, a fine liberal arts college in Michigan. Also, a small group of teachers from the program founded an apostolate and school in the Southwest that attracted Mother Teresa’s nuns to their work. It is also true that some teachers have discovered this way of education within themselves outside of the IHP – but this is as it should be if in fact the poetic mode is real and accessible to all men.

During the 1980s, there were half a dozen teachers from the IHP at the academy and college in St. Mary’s, Kansas. We were welcomed by a particularly understanding French priest who also knew of the work of Andre Charlier; but, in the end, when it was seen what we were doing, how most of the students were positively responding to our delivery of the material like breathing in fresh air, we were all eventually dismissed. But there have been good fruits from the experience and there are still some priests among that order who more or less openly or secretly support our work. Perhaps this will change and become more open. We hope so.

In the meantime, I have learned that my book Poetic Knowledge has been read by some of the faculty at the FSSP seminary in Nebraska, at the University of Dallas, Ave Maria University, Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, and now happily, by some in France.

I have proposed opening a little college based entirely on the IHP for young men to take before entering the seminary or monastery. Other young men are welcome too. This idea came from talks with Fr. James Jackson FSSP, rector of the American seminary, and Dom Phillip Anderson OSB, Prior of Clear Creek monastery in Oklahoma, both former students of the IHP. By the way, there are several monks at this monastery, all former students of the professors, most converts, who were led to Fontgombault as a result of their IHP experience. This is precisely why the University of Kansas declared war on the program with their silly notion of separation of church and state. I would ask you and your readers to prayer for this little college that I have placed under the protection of the Holy Family.

8) You are a professor who also teaches over the Internet for the Angelicum Academy Great Books Program (grades 9 into college level), and Socratic Discussion (for grades 3-8). Will you describe this work?

This is a two edge sword for me – I think the Internet as a machine is not a good one, I think it is very close to being inherently evil in the philosophical sense, perhaps in the moral sense as well. It is another instance where modern man is being distanced from reality and being satisfied with all things “virtual”. It is the radical opposite of Maslacq and the IHP. Yet, the devastation to education, at least in America, is so profound, it is ironic that this electronic means has been the efficient cause of some hope for liberal learning and the exposure of the poetic mode of education and perhaps we must be satisfied with the situation until better days come again. I doubt Professor Senior would approve of using the Internet, but he never, never imposed his particular positions and prudential decisions on his students. There has been a trend for old brick and mortar schools to migrate into cyber schools, but we would like to eventually go the other direction – our goal is to someday abandon the Internet and have a real school.

As it is now I work with home school high school students on the Internet two or three times a week. During the week they read selections from the Great Books. Then, once a week we meet online with each class for a two-hour conversation using the Internet as a large (10-20 students per class), live, onference call with the students. We team teach these sessions, Steve Bertucci and I (and other Professors in other levels), borrowing from the practice in the IHP to have two professors who first of all are friends, conversing together about a Greek play, Plato’s Apology, or Euclid’s geometry, and – here this is different from the IHP – also soliciting questions and comments from the students. We use a very simple technology that is basically a phone conversation over the Internet so we attempt to simulate a live classroom in spite of the inherent electronic limitations. At the high school level and particularly being educated at home, these boys and girls need to find outlets for their thoughts and dreams, their frustrations and their inquiring nature, typical of healthy teenagers. It is a four year program, Greek, Roman, Medieval/Renaissance, and Modern, and I have been involved with it for six years – I recall only a few students who did not enjoy, at the amateur level, this experience of conversing about the great ideas found in the great literature, history, philosophy, science and history of our inheritance. We also have a poem they read and discuss each week – that’s approximately forty poems they read and talk about each year, and this has turned out to be one of the most delightful parts of the classes.

9) How does each of us, regardless of age, find this poetic knowledge? Is it possible?

It is not only possible it is inevitable, if not during our life, then at the hour of our death. At that time statistics and all materialism, all quantification are useless and are only heavy burdens to the soul; then, all is love where our whole being, what we have done with our souls, what we have done with our bodies, is judged, awaiting God’s mercy or His wrath – it all depends on how we have loved, what we have loved, and have we loved Him above all things. You see, it is all poetic at that time, that is, things of the heart and mind, of the loving will, not the critical and analytical mind or even the will of great effort and drudgery. We either loved well or we did not.

Now in the meantime, we have the opportunity to discover what is already there outside of us, Creation, and within us, much as Our Lord tells us to consider the lilies, the sparrows, and the stars, then, that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us. As Socrates tells us we are all philosophers, lovers of wisdom, and we are also poetic beings and we learn in this way too . It is part of our nature that is meant to be united and integrated into our rational and volitional faculties. We are lovers of beauty, mystery, order, goodness, and truth, and we are this by nature and intuitively before it is ruined in various ways particularly cruel in the modern world which is especially adept at robbing children not just of their souls – we can never be exactly sure about that – but we can see with our own eyes that they have been robbed of beauty, of joy, and of any peace. Those who survive are often sad men and women, broken in heart, broken in relationships, approaching middle age and old age without ever knowing real love, friendship, and the rest that comes with beauty, simplicity and detachment. It is an enormous subject of how to reset the clock of our lives back to a better time, but it begins with detachment from false beauty, false goodness, and certainly deception, the attempt to hide or deny the truth.

Though this journey has the possession of God as its goal, it begins very much here and now in the natural world where we find ourselves. Poetry helps, literature helps, music helps immensely, laughter is absolutely necessary – no dark Puritan faces! Wine is very good if one has not become addicted to it. Being around horses, looking at them and learning about them if one cannot ride them, is also very important. Building things with our hands connect us to reality as surely as the mortise and tennon are joined. All of these and more are occasions of friendship with God and His creation, and, of course, at the center, at the heart, the most poetic, mysterious, the most real thing we can do, is to be Catholic and to be Catholic is to lose ourselves in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass where we go into the altar of God with His priest and find that altar within where He gives joy to our youth over and over again.

The Restoration of Christian Education: Poetic Knowledge
by James S. Taylor, Ph.D. [French version]