Tag Archives: literature

Paul Krause has a heartier take on the humanities than Stanley Fish

In my last post, I found several thoughtful, salient points in Stanley Fish’s recent article, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But Paul Krause, writing at ImaginativeConservative.com, makes a new defense of the humanities anyway, and I loved it. Fish lit up parts of my mind, but Krause lit up my heart.

His definition is useful because I think many people just don’t understand what the humanities are and do:

The name humanities has “human” as its basis. The humanities are about us. In a way, the humanities are the study of what it means to be human along with the fruits of human genius and the creative spirit. The humanities ranges from philosophy—that most sublime and supreme queen—to literature, art, music, religion, language, and all the disciplines and topics that inform, build, and constitute what people have long called “culture.” Humanist studies is not, however, an outright celebration of every aspect of the human spirit and endeavor. It can be just as critical as it is appraising. Its study can inform and instruct—pointing out errors, as much as pointing out goodness, virtue, beauty, and other such things to strive for.

And later, Krause gives an example of what the humanities accomplish by demonstrating how key texts are integrated with each other—in ways that both form our intellectual understandings and our experiences as creatures with historical antecedents:

In the first book of Politics Aristotle makes a direct reference to the ninth book of Homer’s Iliad. When Augustine penned City of God he assumed his readers to be familiar with the works of the Platonists, Virgil, Cicero, Sallust, Varro, the Bible, and the great stories of Rome’s founding mythology: Romulus and Remus, Lucretia, and Aeneas. Dante’s Divine Comedy is not simply allegory of his own tumultuous experiences in Florence; it is also journey through the very soul of Western literature, philosophy, and theology from start to finish. Shakespeare is riddled with Biblical and literary references that lessen the greatness of Shakespeare when missed by the reader. Jonathan Swift, that great satirist, was engaged in his own cultural criticism in satirizing the philosophies of Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke when Gulliver meets the Laputans.

Building on the past, referencing and critiquing influential texts, understanding the origins of the cultural and intellectual flooring (however mismatched some of the boards) on which we stand—these are good reasons for the humanities. You don’t have to believe or accept everything you read in the great books (that’s the “critical” part of the humanities). Sometimes the point is simply to learn why other people saw things the way they did (why they currently see things the way they do) to better understand the excellencies and errors of today. To do so, one must understand other metaphors and stories, and see how they inform nuances of moral principles. To understand another culture’s metaphor or story is to be able to understand motivating forces and forms of thinking in other people. As John Stuart Mill once said, if you don’t know another point of view, you really don’t know your own.

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Tolkien and the ‘Actualism of Story-Growing’

From a post at The Flame Imperishable:

“It wasn’t just that Tolkien’s tale grew in the telling, but the very concept, for example, of what a hobbit is was something that grew and developed as Tolkien told the story about him. We sometimes think of stories or fictional beings such as hobbits as having a Platonic form, whether in the mind of God or not, that the author or sub-creator simply ‘discovers.’ But this is not how the fictions of our minds work.” Read the entire post: Actualism of Story-Growing.

Please also see: 

Paul Holmer on how literature functions

Umberto Eco on theory and narrative

James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’

The tragicomic in daily life: internal blindness in Chekhov’s characters

‘C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Myth of Progress’ — A Podcast Interview

Inklings fans, take note: A recent episode of The Art of Manliness podcast featured an interview with Joseph Loconte, author of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, & Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18.

The interview with Loconte taught me new things about the way Tolkien and Lewis viewed life and literature. I also was challenged to think more about my deeply held, Western-world belief in the supposedly inevitable outcome called progress.

Speaking of Inklings, you might also be interested in reading Charles Williams’s take on dogmaand watching a short documentary on Owen Barfield.

 

‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S. Lewis

I finally got through it. Starting it again recently, I got hooked and read in the evenings until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is an extraordinary book, more powerful to my mind than The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters combined. It’s a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. (Somewhere along the way, I think I read or heard that Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, a poet, helped Lewis edit the book. I imagine she contributed to its strength.)

If you’re interested in mythology and the ancient world, you’ll probably enjoy Till We Have Faces, and you’ll certainly appreciate it.

Here’s the opening paragraph and excerpts from the second paragraph:

“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

“Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain…. I will write in Greek as my old master taught it to me. It may some day happen that a traveler from the Greeklands will again lodge in this palace and read the book. Then he will talk of it among the Greeks, where there is great freedom of speech even about the gods themselves….”

This narrator is Orual, Queen of the fictitious land of Glome, which shares a world with the Greece of ancient history. Writing in old age, Orual will tell the story of her life, and especially her relationship with her youngest sister, Psyche.

Glome’s goddess is Ungit, and she requires of her priests animal, and sometimes even human, sacrifices.

The “old master” mentioned above is called the Fox, a red-headed Greek brought to Glome as a slave. Working for the king (Orual’s father), he teaches Orual and her sisters when they are children. Fox is skeptical of the religious worldview of Glome, if not strictly skeptical of the existence of the gods. His Hellenistic philosophy seems to lean toward a rationalistic worldview, maybe similar to Stoicism.

But what Orual experiences throughout the book is a universe with rich metaphysical and religious realities woven into her adventures yet countered by her own skepticism.

 

(Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold was published in 1956 and since has appeared in several editions.)

Marilynne Robinson on ‘the felt life of the mind’ and beauty and strangeness

“Assuming that there is indeed a modern malaise, one contributing factor might be the exclusion of the felt like of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature that has long associated itself with intellectual progress, and the exclusion of felt life from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts. To some extent even theology has embraced impoverishment, often under the name of secularism, in order to blend more thoroughly into a disheartened cultural landscape. To the great degree that theology has accommodated the parascientific world view, it too has tended to forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time. But the beauty and strangeness persist just the same. And theology persists, even when it has absorbed as truth theories and interpretations that could reasonably be expected to kill it off. This suggests that its real life is elsewhere, in a place not reached by these doubts and assaults. Subjectivity is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” — Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (The Terry Lectures Series)

Please also see “The objectives of metaphysics, the objectives of science.”

Thus sayeth the Archbishop of Canterbury — in ‘Henry V’

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As I sit here in Lambeth, home of Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury —

Yesterday I couldn’t resist taking several photos of the 1888 monument in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This panel on the monument includes a quotation spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury character in Shakespeare’s Henry V. When Prince Hal’s father dies, Hal (a.k.a. Harry) becomes King Henry V, and as the Archbishop of Canterbury notes, the new responsibilities instantaneous turned the revelling boy into a serious-minded adult.

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Engineering reliable serfs for a stable economy: diminishing the fine arts and humanities in education

Darcy Wells Ward wrote a fantastic post entitled “The Great Humanities Crisis.”

Ward writes, and quotes an unidentified Nussbaum:

…policy makers want to create a generation of workers, not thinkers. “The student’s freedom of mind is dangerous if what is wanted is a group of technically trained, obedient workers to carry out the plans of the elites who are aiming at foreign investment and technology investment.” (Nussbaum, 21)

The most powerful people can use their influence to create systems that engineer more serfs.

However, not all of the most powerful people always want to engineer serfs for themselves. Good intentions might guide efforts to engineer new policies.

Still, sometimes, the most difficult message to communicate is a message that says the present, current good intentions are not going to bring good outcomes.

Fear of poverty and fear of low status spur anxious parents and practical politicians and school districts to emphasize reductive skills that secure good salaries — and emphasize those salaries more than humane sensitivities and understandings born from the civilizing influence of well-taught and well-presented arts and literature.

Ward again:

…it is only a matter of time before the lack of interpersonal skills, as well as personal growth, created by inquiries into history, philosophy, art, music, and language will catch up with us.

Moving a society forward, like becoming an educated person, requires a balance of appreciation for traditions and appreciation for new research and theories.

Confucius once said, “Enliven the ancient and also know what is new, and then you will be a teacher.” And, you will be a citizen. And, you will be fully human.

Note: This balanced perspective won’t be accepted by certain threads of cultural conservatives, by certain threads of progressives, or by Serf Engineers.