Monday, June 25, 2012

Man and Men: The place of virtue in education


The following article will appear in the late summer edition of The Classical Teacher magazine:

There is a passage in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in which Aragorn asks for some leaves of athelas, a healing herb brought by the Men of the West into Middle Earth, and which is now called “kingsfoil.” Minis Tirith, the chief city of Gondor, is celebrating its successful defense against the forces of the Dark Lord, whose armies have been crushed in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but the wounded of Gondor now lay broken and in need of care. Aragorn, the true king of Gondor, has stolen by night into the city (he is still camped in the field, awaiting the appropriate time to return in glory). Disguised in a cloak, he is helping to care for the sick. Aragorn asks for athelas, a request which is met with scepticism:

“But alas! sir, we do not keep this thing in the Houses of Healing,” says the herb master. “…For it has no virtue that we know of, save perhaps to sweeten a fouled air, or to drive away some passing heaviness.”

Aragorn, however, knows different. He assures the herb master, as he has assured the Hobbit Sam Gamgee earlier in the story, that, indeed, it “has great virtues”:
Then, whether Aragorn had indeed some forgotten power of Westernesse, or whether it was but his words of the Lady Éowyn that wrought on them, as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.
The effect is as Aragorn has predicted: those to whom it is administered are not only refreshed and made clean, but healed. Athelas is an ancient herb, and yet it has the power to bring about healing.


Using the word “virtue” to indicate this kind of power seems natural as we read a skillful writer like Tolkien, and yet, when we reflect back, it seems strange. It doesn’t seem to comply with the definition of the word that we know.

In fact, the word “virtue” has an interesting history. Although in English it has taken on an effeminate tone, the word itself has masculine origins. The English word derives from the Latin virtus, which not only had a masculine connotation, but actually meant “manliness.” Virtus implies moral strength, an excellence of manhood. The word itself comes from vir, the Latin word meaning man. In his military diary, the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar uses the word virtus to connote courage on the battlefield, and the King James Bible frequently translates the word into the English “power,” the meaning employed by Tolkien.

When we say that a human being has “virtue,” are we not saying that he has a power—a power to do certain things in a certain way appropriate to who he is? Virtue is indeed a power, a power that has to do with what it is to be a man.

It is an idea that has the power to bring about its own kind of healing.

There are many diagnoses of what ails our modern culture and one of them is that we humans think too highly of ourselves. Man, we often hear, has put himself at the center and made himself the measure of all things. It is humanism that has corrupted us, and the sooner we are rid of it, the better. There is a sense in which this is true, but another sense it which it is entirely false. We do, in fact, think too much of actual man; but we think entirely too little of ideal man. In fact, it may be that modern thought is just as detrimentally affected by not thinking highly enough of what man ought to be as in thinking too much of men as we happen to find them in this world.

In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Ishmael, the narrator, articulates an ancient view of man that has now been all but abandoned:
Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meager faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. 
This is one of the last echoes of the old order that once held sway in the West: the belief in an ideal man, an ideal which, through education, we once tried to approximate.


In this passage, Melville marks a bold distinction between man and men. Men are what we experience; man is that which we should aspire to be. It is an idea which we can see as far back as Sophocles, who said, “Wonderful are the world’s wonders, but none more wonderful than man.” Melville, like Sophocles before him, used the singular when referring to the human ideal. It is this belief that underlay the entire system of classical morality.

This older classical scheme recognized two things about man: the first was that he had an ideal or essential nature; the second was that each individual man incompletely and imperfectly approximated that ideal. This view was shared by all pre-modern cultures both pagan and Christian. Christianity disagreed in part with paganism in regard to what this ideal man consisted of, but neither the Hebrews, the Greeks, nor the Romans would have ever conceived of denying the existence of this ideal.

For the Greeks the ideal of man was embodied in the Iliad, their great national story. That of the Romans was evoked in the Aeneid, the story of the founding of Rome by Aeneas.

Christian ideals were to be found in the Bible—as well as in the vast treasury of Western literature that was influenced by it. It was a belief articulated in the Biblical book of Genesis and which was held by the earliest Church fathers: that man is God’s highest creation, and is different in kind from the animals by virtue of his being created in the image and likeness of God.

According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the classical view of virtue was simple: It was the power by which man got from man-as-he-happened-to-be to man-as-he-would-be-if-he-achieved-his-telos, or purpose. This telos was connected essentially to man’s nature. To be good, in other words, was to simply act in accordance with your nature. In becoming more virtuous—becoming more like the ideal man as expressed in this human nature—was to become more human. To the Christian, this meant becoming more like what you were created to be.

To the Greeks and the Romans the power to do this can from self-generated manly self-discipline. To the Christians, this power came by grace from the Holy Spirit.

MacIntyre points out that this traditional view of virtue was based on the traditional view of man: He was an incomplete or potential being who had fallen short of the fulfillment of his nature.

Leon Kass has pointed out that, in the creation account of the Biblical book of Genesis, there are only two things that God, in the process of creation, does not call "good": the heavens and man. Kass points out that the term “good” as it is used throughout Genesis, “cannot mean morally good.” “[W]hen ‘God saw the light that it was good,’” says Kass, “He could not have seen that the light was honest or just or law-abiding.” Rather, “good” seems to mean something more akin to being fit to a particular intention, fully formed, or fully what the thing is by its nature. But this is precisely what men are not. “Let me put it more pointedly,” says Kass: “precisely in the sense that man is in the image of God, man is not good—not determinate, finished, complete or perfect.”

If Kass is correct, then there is some ideal the author of Genesis has in mind from which men fall short—even at this, the beginning of all things. To the Hebrews, this truth had been revealed by God Himself. But the Greeks too knew this, not through any direct word of the God who was unknown to them, but from their own observations of the world their Unknown God had created.

The Greeks had long possessed the concept of what they called arête—a culminating excellence in man which existed as a potentiality which needed to be actualized, of a purpose that must be fulfilled. The concept of arête reached its highest point of expression—it was, in fact, actualized—in the work of othe Greek poets. “Sophocles guided his work by a standard,” said Werner Jaeger, “and in it presented men ‘as they ought to be’ … All the discussions of that age, and all the efforts of the sophists, were directed towards finding and producing man ‘as he ought to be’.”

Christianity, which, in addition to possessing Divine Revelation, inherited the learning of classical culture and saw within it much that was true but incomplete, completed this view of man by incorporating in it the concept of sin: the reason man is not as he should be is because he has fallen from his primordial estate. He once acted in accordance with his nature, but because of the Fall, he is separated from himself. But this fissure in his own being has not destroyed his essential humanity. He is still the same kind of creature as Adam. As Tolkien once put it:
…Though now long estranged
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed
Dis-graced he may be, but not dethroned
And keeps the rags of lordship once he owned… 
The image and likeness in which he was created, the source of man’s unique dignity, is effaced by sin, but not erased by it. It is still there for goodness to find.

And how do we find it? Athelas, Aragorn tells Sam Gamgee, grows now only sparsely and near places where the Men of the West camped in ancient times. We are the heirs of a great cultural inheritance, and with a little effort, it can still be found.

In the stories of the great deeds of great men, the ideal man was represented by the hero, whom students were encouraged to be like, and who differed from men, who were a mixed lot and fell short in various ways from that ideal. This was embodied by the Hebrews in their Old Testament heroes of faith who were brought again and again to the remembrance of the Jews: Moses the lawgiver, Abraham the man of faith, and David, God’s own king. Christians too, down through the ages, were reminded repeatedly of the great deeds of their saints and martyrs. In addition, there is the great classic  literature, Greek, Roman, and Christian, which helps to teach us who we are and who we should be.

Classic literature is the vehicle by which we propagate and preserve our civilization. "We are the only species that does not know its own nature naturally,” writes Russell Banks, “and with each new generation has to be shown it anew."

But like athelas in Tolkien’s story, the idea of virtue is seldom spoken of save in the voice of scepticism. The dark forces of modern secularism that now dominate our culture, in an act unique in history, have abandoned the belief in an ideal man. There is no man; there are only men.

Alas, virtue is a thing they do not keep it in their Houses of Education.

The Western intellectual class, in what the French writer Julien Benda has called the La Trahison les Clercs--the "Treason of the Clerks"--have joined the enemies of civilization.

"All about us," said literary critic George Steiner,
flourishes the new illiteracy, the illiteracy of those who can read short words or words of hatred and tawdriness but cannot grasp the meaning of language when it is in a condition of beauty or of truth.
But virtue still has its virtues.


In his Inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1954, C.S. Lewis spoke of thinkers like himself--and by implication Tolkien and Chesterton--as "Old Western men," men who, like Tolkien's Men of the West, were dying out. As Lewis predicted, they are now all but gone. But if we dig about their camps, there are things still growing that have the cultural power to heal.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ever notice which college departments never go on the chopping block?

The recent ouster of Theresa Sullivan from the presidency of the University of Virginia appears to have been at least in part the result of her unwillingness to cut academic programs according the prevailing utilitarian calculus popular among some. Here is part of the Washington Post report:
Besides broad philosophical differences, they had at least one specific quibble: They felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.
Classics and German "obscure"? Classics used to be all universities did. No wonder higher education is in the state it is in.


Oh, and did you ever notice that when the Sophisters and Calculators go talking about cutting academic departments that don't pay their way, they always target philosophy or (I'm thinking Florida here) anthropology--and now classics and German? Have you ever heard them talk about cutting, say Black Studies or Women's and Gender Studies?


Funny how that works.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Put that salad down slowly and we'll make sure you get a fair trial

As the influence of the Judeo-Christian world view continues to deteriorate, you knew it would happen:
When we, humans, use ourselves as a measuring stick against which everything else in world is evaluated, then an anthropomorphic image of sentience and intelligence comes to govern our ethics. True: the life of plants resembles our living patterns to a lesser extent than the life of animals. But to use this as a cornerstone of ethics and a justification for rejecting the moral claim plants have on us is a case of extreme speciesism.
That's right: "speciesism." You not only can't wear furs, but now you have to be nice to plants. We're all related way back, after all.


Rocks for dinner anyone?


HT: 3 Quarks Daily

Monday, June 18, 2012

KY teachers' union reiterates its refusal to tear down educational Iron Curtain

There was a rally today in Victory Park in Louisville by the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Bluegrass Institute calling once again for charter schools, partly in response to the violence in West Louisville. The rally drew the usual response from the educational politburo that calls itself the Jefferson County Teachers Association. The JCTA has never been wild about the kind of perestroika being called for by parent groups like this.

After the rally, JCTA minister of propaganda Brett McKim issued the following statement:
It is unfortunate that groups like the Bluegrass Institute are willing to take advantage of low-income and minority students in order to try to advance their agenda to privatize our public schools. Most Kentuckians understand public schools are the foundation of our democracy and should be supported, not abandoned for charter schools that have a terrible track record.
Of course, McKim's organization has never "taken advantage of low-income and minority students" in order to advance their agenda. Nope. Never (At this point just put all those thoughts about forced busing to the back of your mind).

And of course, the whole point about "abandoning" public education is a complete red herring. McKim apparently hasn't noticed that most states now have charter schools and the public schools have not been "abandoned."

Of course, it depends on what day of the week as to which of two completely inconsistent arguments you get from people like McKim. On one day they'll argue that charter schools are really not all that good. The next day they'll argue that if we have charters, people will abandon the public schools.

The obvious question is, if they're not that good than why would people abandon the public schools to go to them?

If life on his side of the educational Berlin Wall atop which McKim has stationed himself is so good, why would we need him and his JCPS security guards to make sure no one could escape?


Monday, June 11, 2012

Gay rights trump religious freedom abroad for Obama administration

Well, now that the Obama administration's State Dept. under Hillary has taken up the cause of gay rights around the world, it apparently no longer has time to monitor something that previous State Departments have always monitored.

It appears that new human rights reports have been purged of the sections having to do with religious freedom. The period covered by the report includes the Arab Spring, which undoubtedly ensured there was much to report.

Maybe if you were a gay religious person, your freedom would be important to this administration.

Friday, June 08, 2012

My comments today at the Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally in Louisville


That sound you hear is the sound of the authors of our Constitution rolling in their graves.

Our founding fathers wrote into the Constitution the right to the freedom of religion. And not only did they put it in to the Constitution: They featured it, we might say, in the Bill of Rights. And not only did they feature it in the Bill of Rights: They put it first.

How tragic it is there, therefore, that the present administration should choose this right to infringe.

In decreeing that religious institutions must abide by rules that violate their core religious convictions, the present administration has declared war—not just on religion, but on the very principles upon which it itself was established.

Let us remember: It wasn’t the Catholic Church—or any Protestant church—that articulated the right to the freedom of religion. It was the authors of the very government in whose name the present administration pretends to act.

We do not ask that the United States government abide by a religious principle formulated by our own Church. Instead, we ask that it abide by the civil principle formulated by its own creators.

Americans of faith, however they feel about the issue of contraception, are now banding together to stand—not only with their own churches—but with those who laid the foundations of our form of government.

If the Obama administration can infringe upon this first right, all of our other rights are placed in jeopardy.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Ray Bradbury, RIP

Ray Bradbury died last Tuesday. Bradbury wrote science fiction, but he was always less about science than he was about fiction. Although he wrote many stories set in the technologically advanced future, his themes transcended the futurism and technological glamour that characterized the work of science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke. In fact, some of his greatest writings were not futuristic at all. A story like Something Wicked This Way Comes didn't need to be futuristic to be a great novel.

Of the many things to like about Bradbury was his attitude toward learning. As the New York Times obituary recounts, Bradbury attributed his success as a write to never having gone to college: "Instead, he read everything he could get his hands on: Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway . He paid homage to them in 1971 in the essay 'How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.'"

You gotta love it.


Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Sister Act: Dealing with Maureen Dowd's Discontents with the Catholic Church

The New York Times is where liberals opposed to dogmatism issue their anathemas.

Maureen Dowd complains in yesterday's Times that the Catholic Church is not keeping up with the modern world. That crusty old Pope. He's such a square. He's not hep to the jive. And wassup with this grampa being down with these nuns anyway?

Dowd is panting so hard trying to keep up with the times that she doesn't realize that the advice she's giving the Church today will, a few years down the road, itself sound hopelessly out of date. That's what happens when your moral code is nothing more than a cultural weather vane.

Dowd's own doctrinaire secular liberalism is offended by the Church's opposition to contraception, masturbation, homosexuality, divorce, and abortion. According to liberal dogma, sex is for pleasure. Period. And anyone who dissents from this view is to be hauled before the politically correct tribunal and charged with Intolerance.

Secular liberals don't like the Bible too much, but they consider the Kama Sutra to be holy writ.

The immediate occasion of Dowd's denunciation was the Vatican order that the Sisters of St. Joseph be reformed. The problem with the sisters? Not much, except they're basically against everything their own church is for.

Dowd seems particularly enamored of Sister Margaret Farley who wrote a book championing "self-pleasuring."  Self-pleasuring. Yeah, that's why you give up all worldly possessions, don a habit and spend long hours in prayer and meditation.

I mean, isn't that what you do when you're looking for fun? Get yourself a Chrysler and head on down the Atlanta highway looking for that funky little monastery where we can get together? That's where I wanna spend my jukebox money.

It's spring break. Let's head on down to Gethsemane Abbey. 

After condemning the Church for being consistent with its teachings, she then condemns it for being inconsistent with them, pointing to the recent pedophile priest scandal. Maybe we should just be thankful that Dowd's ever changing secular morality still considers pedophilia wrong. We should probably enjoy it before this stray vestige of Christian morality too is wiped away on the journey toward the utopia promised by the sexual revolution.

Dowd (who wrote an entire book questioning whether men are necessary) talks about a "thuggish crusade" by the Catholic Church, Hell-bent on sending Catholic women "back into moldy subservience." You know, like Saints Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, and Thérèse de Lisieux, all of whom are considered doctors of the Church.

I'll take any one of these over the liberal's patron saint, Alfred Kinsey, any day.

I'm not normally in favor of sending women into moldy subservience. But in Maureen Dowd's case, I'm willing to make an exception.