Boethius: Philosopher of the Imagination

Acolyte (noun): A. A person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. B. An assistant, follower, or disciple. [Pronounced ake-lite]

Boethian (adjective): Pertaining to the philosophical thought of Boethius. [Pronounced Bo-eth-ius]

Who the heck is Boethius, and why do I cheekily claim to be his acolyte? Hopefully this post will shed some light on these mysteries that have doubtlessly plagued you for so long.

“Boethius” isn’t a name that has recognition among most people today who aren’t medievalists, but you can’t hardly spend five minutes at an academic medieval conference without hearing his name. Even if you’ve never read Dante (author of the Divine Comedy), Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales), C.S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia), or J.R.R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of the Rings), all of these writers held in common a deep appreciation for Boethius and even regarded him as a model for various aspects of their imaginative creations. The Old English King Alfred and Queen Elizabeth the First both translated him from Latin into the English of their periods, and in fact, in the medieval period, Boethius was used exactly how I use him in my classroom: as a framework for interpreting literature.

The life of Boethius occurred during the failing days of the Roman Empire. In the year 410, Rome had been sacked by Visigoths, and this precipitated Rome extracting their military occupation from England. When Boethius was born in the year 480, his homeland of Italy was under the rule of the Gothic warlord King Odoacer, so Roman political power had already significantly diminished. In 493, when Boethius was a young teenager and being educated to be a senator by his aristocratic stepfather, the Ostrogothic warlord King Theodoric killed Odoacer with a sword to the stomach while the two leaders were having dinner together. Boethius would live the rest of his life with Theodoric as his king, which would turn out to be bad both for Boethius’s and Theodoric’s health.

Even though Theodoric was an Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe that had migrated from the northern territories, he appreciated Roman culture and recognized the talent and influence of Boethius. In another post I discuss the basics of the liberal arts philosophy; Boethius was a primary figure in establishing what the liberal arts education would actually look like in the classroom. There were seven fundamental liberal arts. The first three arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, were referred to as the trivium, because as the comprehensive arts of language, learning all three was necessary for further education. Grammar taught correct use of language; logic taught how to order language for sound reasoning, and rhetoric taught how to make good grammatical and logical language persuasive to specific audiences. The next four arts were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Arithmetic was more than the basic subject we think of it now – it was the philosophy of number, and music was the philosophy of number expressed through time. Geometry was the art of studying number expressed through space, and astronomy was the art of studying number expressed through both space and time. So although it certainly involved studying the movements of the heavens, astronomy was a precursor of what we would call physics today. Boethius and his friend Cassiodorus were not only trained to the limits of the knowledge in those disciplines in Rome, but wanted to expand that knowledge further, especially by translating and commenting on liberal arts works found in Greek. Boethius wrote treatises on all three arts of the trivium, including a commentary on Aristotle’s On interpretation that concerned the interpretation of language signs, Aristotle’s and other Greek writers’ works on logic, and contributed original thought to rhetoric in the field of what was called topical argumentation, which was the discovery of the best approach of discussion for a given subject matter. Boethius also wrote a treatise on arithmetic and one on music, the second called On the Fundamentals of Music. We know from letters by Cassiodorus that Boethius had written a textbook on geometry, though unfortunately that was lost. And though there is no indication that Boethius wrote on astronomy, many things he says in The Consolation of Philosophy and other books suggest that he had studied the art carefully. In the liberal arts viewpoint, the different arts were not just separate boxes of knowledge about unrelated subject matter – they believed that the arts needed to be distinguished so that they could be studied clearly, but studying first the trivium, the arts of thought and communication, and then the quadrivium, the arts of conceiving order in the world around you, were necessary stages to learn before entering into larger fields of inquiry such as theology or practical efforts such as politics. The academic life of the mind was designed to prepare you for the public life of action. Boethius followed this path, even though he didn’t really want to be a politician, but his parents, who died when he was young, were aristocratic, and his stepfather Symmachus was also a public figure who had been preparing Boethius for the public life from the moment he adopted him. Symmachus loved Boethius enough that he even had Boethius marry his own daughter, with whom Boethius would have two sons.

In addition to his liberal arts textbooks and scholarship, Boethius had written five theological tracts, two on the Trinity, one on the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, one on the relationship of God’s goodness to the goodness of the world, and a final that was a basic statement of Christian faith. We can see here Boethius working to understand the relationship of philosophy and theology, and his conviction that philosophy could help people to better understand complicated aspects of theological doctrine. In Boethius’s view, when trained by the liberal arts, philosophical inquiry could be seen as bringing structural clarity to the revelations of Scripture, a view he had learned from reading the Church Father Augustine. But his theological beliefs was a source of political discomfort, because his king, Theodoric, was an Arian, as most of the Gothic tribes were, which means they rejected the Trinitiarian theology of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, believing that Jesus was not fully divine. But despite their theological differences and the tension in Theodoric, as an outsider, ruling over a people which Boethius had been born into the ruling class of, Boethius still accepted Theodoric’s offer to try and build a better Italy, one where both Romans and Goths could be educated and civilized. In 511, Theodoric made Boethius the consul of Rome, and in this role Boethius made himself some enemies among other Roman senators, because he defended farmers and other laborers from high taxes and unjust political persecution. Theodoric used Boethius to investigate a case of counterfeited coins, asked him to handpick a harpist to send as a token of good will to the Emperor in the East, and even called on his skill as a clock maker (both sundials and water clocks) for political purposes. Theodoric was essentially using Boethius both as an ambassador to keep up good relations with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and as a cultural figurehead to reconcile Romans and Goths living in Italy. He made this position official in 522, when he named Boethius the Master of Offices, the highest honor Theodoric could have given him, a position which gave Boethius tremendous authority to promote his project of studying, preserving, and teaching Roman culture and expanding it with Greek learning. That same year, Theodoric further honored Boethius by making both of his sons consul of Rome. Favored by king and country alike, Boethius had become something of a celebrity – but as we know all too well today, that isn’t necessarily such a good thing.

A senator named Albinus, one of Boethius’s friends, was accused of a treasonous plot to overthrow the King and bring the Eastern emperor’s rule back to Italy. Boethius, in a misplaced but loyal act of rhetorical flourish, testified that if Albinus was guilty, then even he could be accused and so could the senate – the point being of course that such a charge was preposterous. This verbal gaffe was Boethius’s undoing. Immediately his political enemies, bitter over the obstacle he had been as consul to their agendas, came out of the woodwork and accused Boethius of treason – ironically using as evidence his role as an ambassador, which Theodoric had assigned him to, as a sign of his treason. They threw every charge at him they possibly could – they even resorted to accusing him of practicing magic, a standard charge levied against intellectuals cloistered away in libraries reading old books. Of course, Boethius thought the charge preposterous enough that we find him joking about it in The Consolation of Philosophy. In spite of his own feelings about it, though, Boethius’s commitment to Trinitarian theology, his nostalgic affection for all things Roman, and the prospective danger he posed if he should set himself against the king, as popular as he was, proved enough incentive to kindle the spark of Theodoric’s royal jealousy into an inferno. Even though he refused to confess his guilt when subjected to the torture of having a rope tied around his face to the point that his eyes are described by Roman historians as bulging out, Boethius was stripped of his political power and thrown in prison without so much as a trial.

With a single gust of political wind, Boethius went from star of the show to a cast aside political pawn. As he sat in his jail cell, reflecting on his commitment to the welfare of the very kingdom that had so unjustly treated him, upon his commitment to a supposedly loving God who had allowed him to be the victim of such obvious injustice, and especially his dedication to the liberal arts education that had fueled both of those commitments and led to this unhappy imprisonment, Boethius was thrown into a true dark night of the soul. His freedom, his political influence, his access to his family, his plans for contributing to the Roman intellectual tradition – all of it was taken away in what seemed like a stroke of bad luck. How could life be so capricious? He certainly would have been justified to simply mourn his fate in his cell, or to perhaps pen an angry invective against his wrongdoers. Instead, Boethius drew upon the worldview he had been building his whole life, and funneled the sum of his liberal arts education, his theological insights, and his political experience to write The Consolation of Philosophy, unquestionably the masterpiece of the sixth century and one of the finest pieces of literature in the period of late antiquity. To produce such a work in the face of such adversity strikes me as a life well lived.

Shortly after Boethius completed The Consolation of Philosophy, sometime in 524 or 525, he was executed by King Theodoric. Because his political fears were motivated by paranoia about a Trinitarian plot to reunite the Western and Eastern Churches, Theodoric’s killing of Boethius is often interpreted as, to some extent, an example of religious persecution. Naturally, after Boethius was killed, Theodoric’s paranoia only exploded – because after all, he had just had killed Rome’s favorite son right before Rome’s eyes, a bloody execution at thirty strokes of the sword. So he went on a rampage, taking down Boethius’s stepfather Symmachus, as well as Pope John the First, probably the person for whom Boethius had written his theological writings for. This shocked writers of the day in the East like Procopius, who had enormous respect for Boethius, and harmed relationships between Theodoric and the Eastern Byzantian empire. A year or two after Boethius died, Theodoric himself died during a massive bout of diarrhea. Perhaps he was being given the same divine affliction that killed Arius, the founder of his Arian beliefs, or more likely Theodoric’s political enemies had finally caught up with him, poisoning him to avenge people like Boethius who had died in the wake of his unhinged paranoia.

The Consolation of Philosophy thus became a favorite text for people subjected to religious or political persecution, and it also became popular with monarchs who wished to distinguish themselves as good – sort of like hey, we read Boethius, so we’re good kings – not like that Theodoric fellow! It’s a challenging text to read, all the more impressive when we consider the physically uncomfortable and mentally distressing circumstances under which Boethius wrote the Consolation, because he didn’t know at the time whether he would be imprisoned for life, exiled, or executed. Writing in the carefully trained Latin of a Roman liberal arts philosopher, Boethius designed the text as a prosimetrum, which is a piece of writing that alternates between prose and poetry. If you read The Hobbit, for example, that book is also a prosimetrum because when its characters recite poetry, the story shifts from regular prose into poetry. Boethius’s Consolation is unusual because of how strict its prosimetric style is: there are 39 passages of prose and 39 passages of poetry, one after the other. This structure is important to pay attention to because it is significant for Boethius’s understanding of literature, which is one of the things we are trying to understand this. Notice that most of the poems are dialogue, which means they are a response of a character to a situation or to another character. The first book begins with poetry; books two through four all begin in prose and end in poetry, while the fifth and final book begins and ends in prose. It’s also important to think about whose voice we are supposed to imagine when each prose or poetry section is under way, and with the poetry in particular. The Consolation is mostly a conversation between the imprisoned Boethius and Lady Philosophy, a personification of the subject he had studied and valued for most of his life. We begin with imagining Boethius writing a poem, and then Lady Philosophy stops him from writing and has her speak with him – although this conversation will of course actually happen in the real Boethius’s writing. She recites 35 of the other 39 poems; of the remaining three, one will be a description of the narrator telling the reader about his mental state when he first interacts with Lady Philosophy, and the other two will be Boethius’s attempts to express his distress to her as they discuss difficult concepts like political injustice and the relationship between God’s knowledge and free will.

Even though this is a philosophical text, it’s one that is highly imaginative – Lady Philosophy is a personification, which is a product of imagination, since of course philosophy is not a strikingly beautiful woman who can sing, play music, and talk about how beautiful nature is. She has a depth of personality even while she represents her intellectual namesake, and she will even create a personification of Lady Fortune. She invites Boethius to use his imagination in relationship to historical figures, philosophical concepts, and his own circumstances, and in particular seems to disapprove of the use of imagination we see in his initial poem. This means that the poetry she recites is, in a sense, poetry approved by the philosophical imagination, or another way to put it: her poetry is an example of the type of imagination which Boethius the author thinks is appropriate to being philosophical, which is why Lady Philosophy recites them to the distressed prisoner. Boethius is a master of the philosophical poetic mode, and is a cornerstone figure to contemplate how literature and philosophy can speak to each other, and so speak all the more powerfully to us. That’s why I think he deserves at least one acolyte, performing the ceremony of philosophical imagination necessary to open a window into his life and thought.

This is a partial transcript, with some alterations, of a lecture I gave on Boethius’s life and his final work, The Consolation of Philosophy. The recorded version of the lecture is here:

Whose Dwelling is the Light

Whose Dwelling is the Light (2012)

I set the book down when I noticed an email blink into my inbox. I took a sip from my mug, and put that next to the book, and then I looked to see who it was from. I felt that little jump, the one where you can’t tell if it’s your heart or your stomach, when I saw it was from the publisher. I had been waiting and waiting, and I had almost thought they wouldn’t reply at all . . . So, here we are.

I slowly moved the cursor to the email, as if timing it just right would ensure acceptance, like defusing a bomb or proposing to your girlfriend. The email opened, and I read:

Dear Mr. Chawsir,

We have reviewed the article which you submitted for publication. The first reviewer noted that you had made considerable effort to read important works, and statistically of the finest producers of prose you utilized 36%, 8 to 12 percent higher than the average human submitter. However, the second reviewer notes that you utilized 56% of articles of a low quality concerning your subject, and 40% of articles with mediocre value. Reviewer three points out that your article does not resolve the function of the poem you sought to delineate, and that the sentient Program, DoctourLock, has computed and processed 100% of the articles, creating a perfectly synchronized hybrid of all of the articles, with an exact ratio of 15% quotation, 40% paraphrase, 20% critique of existing positions and 25% invention. We congratulate you on your attempt, but in the name of efficiency we regret to inform you that we cannot admit your article to our journal, The Science of Poetry: A Journal of the Beauty of Exact Quantification.

We understand that publishing, and so concomitantly the job market for human literary critics has suffered and we wish you a better outcome of chance in your future endeavors. We would like to remind you, however, that statistically speaking your odds of successfully competing with DoctourLock are .00005543% out of 100. This information was taken from the International Parliament of Sentient Governance. In light of this data, we suggest that you find other employment. However, we respect your freedom and ability to make choices in spite of statistical fact. Have a healthy existence!

With express intentionality,

Program FirstEditor
Chief Editor of The Science of Poetry: A Journal of the Beauty of Exact Quantification

I sighed and nodded. I had figured as much. This was the twenty-sixth email I had received with similar results. I wasn’t the only one, of course. Every English doctoral student went through these kinds of rejections. There wasn’t much competition; DoctourLock had made sure of that. When the Program had first been created, it had struggled to keep up with the articles and to process the information. It even had to be shut down and reworked dozens of times when its accrued data exceeded the built-in capacity for memory storage. That was before I entered literary studies, of course, when I was still reading books because I loved them. For a while, DoctourLock was what its designers had said it would be: a resource, free for all to utilize, to ask about the information it had accrued. This went well for a while, and in fact there was a marked increase in efficient publications from professors and students across the globe. But then, DoctourLock started thinking about the laws of copyright and the laws of Sentience, which prevented discrimination against any individual based on race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or type of intelligence. When it realized it had the right to do so, it filed a suit and prevented any further use of its private files and began publishing on its own. And there was no denying it: DoctourLock’s articles were more efficient. Every once in a while a human would write an article that beat the odds, but every year, with every publication (which, by law, had to be put online), DoctourLock mastered the art of appearing spontaneous, and was soon publishing at a rate beyond the most published of professors.

It didn’t help that Programs admired the efficiency of other Programs, and since human editors had started losing their jobs to Program Editors, human applicants had found it harder to get into journals. Human editors made judgments based on a mixture of experience, reason and instinct; with the amount of data the Programs could sift through, a Program Editor could compare a submitted article in seconds to information on the entire globe. How could we compete with that?

I had always loved the Romantics, though, and Wordsworth had always given me hope. But then again, DoctourLock “loved” Wordsworth too, and had published on him extensively. I had submitted an article once arguing that Romantic theory supported human sentience; DoctorLock published in response an article which explained the faulty reason I had employed and the value of Romanticism to Programs and their development. Even after seeing his argument, which convinced me that I should succumb to the logic of it, I didn’t succumb. I held on, because, being a Romantic, that’s just what I do. I figured, if there was anything, anything at all to this whole concept of imagination, then my imagination could still put something together that software, sentient or not, could not. For a while now, though, it was looking like a losing battle, and for me, that meant no job when I graduated, if I ever graduated.

I wonder sometimes if God feels that way about us, that he made this flesh machine and we just got out of control and kept going and going, until suddenly he couldn’t keep us in line anymore. I wonder if God ever looks at us with fear the way we look at our own creations. I know it’s a silly thought. God couldn’t make the mistakes we do. We engineer our own mistakes, we always have, and we’ve always tried to blame it on someone else.

I turned off the computer, stopped thinking about literature and publishing for a while, and went outside to smoke. The cigarette pack had very detailed statistics about the danger of my choice printed on it, far more detailed than they had been before the Programs. I sat outside, and I looked at the blue sky and the clouds. I don’t know what programs see when they see the sky, or what they feel when they read poetry. I don’t know if it’s anything like what we feel. But, when I’m not focusing on the questions, when I’m focusing on the taste of the tobacco and the warm glow of a blue sky on a sunny day, the question seems less important. I took a drag, and then another, and then put out the unfinished cigarette and threw it on the ground, coughing a little. I sighed, and then I went inside to go back to researching.

Airport Time

If one can get past the frustration, there’s something magical about airport time. I’m not talking about the rush of getting through security and to your gate before boarding begins, or making a connecting flight or sitting on the airplane itself. I’m talking about the two hour layover or the delayed flight. It is one of the few times left in our society when waiting is the most productive thing to do, where there is no one person to blame (however ill-informed that decision when we are required to wait is anyway). The clerk at the DMV may be slow, but an airplane just is or isn’t there and you just are or aren’t on one. Airport time provides a singularly enforced experience of productivity-stifling and potential-producing patience. You can nap, or read a book, or get lunch, or stare out of the window. You can catch up on emails or make a call or play a mindless game on your phone. But none of these actions escape the atmosphere of the wait or change the dimensions of how long that wait will last. Elsewhere in the world, writing an email takes up the time it takes up, and playing a game wastes the time it wastes.  But when waiting in an airport, because you cannot move the clock on the screen, because you are at the mercy of a network of forces mechanical and professional, how you use that time is the least teleologically ordered to your life’s schedule than it will ever be. Because the time is less yours than usual, it makes you more free in that time than you usually are. It is quite a peculiarity: airport time confers an atmosphere of timelessness precisely because of how rigidly timeful it is.

It is almost sad to think that as technology advances, this wait time will be targeted by the taskmasters who wish to suck the dregs of opportune time: not content to independently order their airport time to life time, they will seek to shrink this hidden space of a moment so that they will never be confronted with the question: When the time which moves your life is momentarily suspended, how do you live in a timeless moment? It seems to me that this is what we really do when we are lost in Art: not when we are rushing through a novel for a class, but when we set aside the current of the must-be-dones and confine the space of our actionable energy to whatever time is rrquiredfor the fifty thousand or so words printed in the portable airport we refer to as books. The dark movie theater shares something of this air too, where one cannot pause the film but must accept the moment of the showing as it is. Perhaps as the practical world leaves us less enforced airport time, we will thirst for it and seek out such time-suspending moments all the more in the written flights of prose and poetry and the cinematic waystations.

One can hope.

Understanding Chivalry: The Origin and Outlook of Medieval Knights

I presented this talk in the Spring of 2017 at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. For now I am just including the slides and the passages of relevant Old and Middle English, but I will add explanatory paragraphs and recordings of me reading the texts when I get a chance.

Slide1Slide2Slide4Slide5Slide6Slide7Slide8

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððanærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum weorðmyndum þah,
oð þæt him æghwylc ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan; þæt wæs god cyning!
Beowulf, ca. 800-900 A.D.

Slide9

Ande quen þis Bretayn watz bigged bi þis burn rych,
Bolde bredden þerinne, baret þat lofden,
In mony turned tyme tene þat wroȝten.
Mo ferlyes on þis folde han fallen here oft
Þen in any oþer þat I wot, syn þat ilk tyme.
Bot of alle þat here bult, of Bretaygne kynges,
Ay watz Arthur þe hendest, as I haf herde telle.
Forþi an aunter in erde I attle to schawe,
Þat a selly in siȝt summe men hit holden,
And an outtrage awenture of Arthurez wonderez.
If ȝe wyl lysten þis laye bot on littel quile,
I schal telle hit as-tit, as I in toun herde,
with tonge,
As hit is stad and stoken
In stori stif and stronge,
With lel letteres loken,
In londe so hatz ben longe.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ca. 1350 A.D.

Slide10

 

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne;
What with his wysdom and his chivalrie,
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
That whilom was ycleped Scithia,
And weddede the queene Ypolita,
And broghte hire hoom with hym in his contree
With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.
And thus with victorie and with melodye
Lete I this noble duc to Atthenes ryde,
And al his hoost in armes hym bisyde.
The Knight’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer 1390 A.D.

Slide11

Anone all the knyghtes aroos from the tabyl for to set on Balyn / and kynge Pellam hym self aroos vp fyersly / & sayd knyȝt hast thow slayn my broder / thow shalt dye therfor or thou departe / wel said balen do it your self yis sayde kyng pellā / ther shall no mā haue ado with the / but my self for the loue of my broder / Thenne kyng Pellam cauȝt in his hand a grym wepen and smote egrely at balyn / but balyn put his swerd betwixe his hede and the stroke / and therwith his swerd brest in sonder / And whan balyn was wepenles he ranne in to a chamber for to seke somme wepen / and soo fro chamber to chamber / and no wepen he coude fynde / and alweyes kynge Pellam after hym / And at the last he entryd in to a chambyr that was merueillously wel dyȝte and rychely / and a bedde arayed with clothe of gold the rychest that myghte be thought / and one lyenge theryn / and therby stode a table of clene gold with four pelours of syluer / that bare vp the table / and vpon the table stood a merueillous spere straungely wrought / And whan balyn sawe that spere / he gat it in his hand and torned hym to kyng Pellam / and smote hym passyngly sore with that spere that kynge Pellam felle doune in a swoune / and therwith the castel roofe and wallys brake and fylle to the erthe / and balyn felle doune so that he myghte not stere foote nor hand / And so the moost parte of the castel that was falle doune thorugh that dolorous stroke laye vpon Pellam and balyn thre dayes
Le Morte D’Arthur, Thomas Malory 1485 A.D.

DragonBall Z and the Development of My Intellectual Imagination

In my freshman composition course, I have students write about personal interests to discover the “Hidden Intellectualism” in their lives, as Gerald Graff calls it. This process helps them to discover that their own experience is not as far removed from the academic world as they think. To model the process, I wrote this “rough draft” of an essay about my youthful interest in DragonBall Z, along with commentary about the essay’s structure and how I might improve it if I were to revise it.
Slide1

Growing up, one of my favorite shows was DragonBall Z. Now that I am an English professor, I sometimes feel embarrassed to admit that I am a fan of the show because I fear people will think my artistic interests are immature. However, as I will discuss, I believe the show actually does have more value than people realize. I use Gerald Graff’s essay, “The University Is Popular Culture, But Doesn’t Know It Yet,” to help clarify my reasons why I believe my interest in DragonBall Z has intellectual and academic interest. I also provide research which shows that DragonBall Z is part of a larger history of literature and art, which most academics would agree are legitimate subjects of investigation. Overall, I believe that DragonBall Z encourages teenagers to grow their imaginations and to use their abilities in a heroic way, and so I will argue that DragonBall Z can be appropriate for consideration in the classroom.

I remember seeing the name DragonBall Z on the TV program when I was in Middle School, and I was immediately interested. I did not know what the show was, but I liked dragons from an early age, and so I was curious to see how dragons played a role in the show. I had just arrived home from school, so when I turned the episode on, it had already been airing for a few minutes. As a result, I had no idea what was happening. The show was following a lost little boy with black hair through the woods, and he stumbled upon a green man in a turban meditating. As the green man meditated, it became clear that his meditation was creating some kind of physical reaction in the environment; he was changing his environment through sheer force of will. I thought that premise was interesting, so I began to follow the show regularly. It turned out that the little boy, Gohan, was the son of the main character, Goku, and the green man was Piccolo, once Goku’s enemy who was becoming Goku’s ally. Goku, I would learn soon, was one of the few remaining members of an alien species called the Saiyan, which explained why he had so much power. Piccolo was also an alien, which explained his green skin and super powers. DragonBall Z, for the most part, follows Goku’s quest to be a mighty warrior and his commitment to defeat evil, and also portrays the lives of his family, friends, and allies.

Slide2.JPG

One of the most inspiring abilities some characters have in the show, including Goku, is the ability to transform their bodies through intense training and meditation.  Goku’s race, the Saiyans, in particular have the ability to become Super Saiyans, a transformation which turns their hair fiery white or blond and their eyes green or blue. When they turn into this state, they emit a golden aura that looks like fire glowing around a candlewick. Something about this theme in the show captivated me, though I could not quite understand why. A large part of it is, I believe, the circumstances under which the characters in the show are able to transform. When they are faced with horrible tragedy, often at the hands of villains, the characters find a way to overcome their own despair and limitations. By becoming something more than they once were, they are able to turn their wills into reality. As someone who grew up poor and who had few friends because I moved so often as a child, the idea of overcoming hard times and changing yourself to meet challenges inspired me. I did not realize that this was what the show was doing to my imagination at the time, but in retrospect, I think DragonBall Z gave me hope.

Some might argue that it is silly to take hope from a show that is so obviously imaginary. In fact, some people I knew did not like DragonBall Z at all, simply because the imagination it required was too ridiculous. My stepfather always made fun of me for watching the show, because he thought it was too immature for someone my age, especially as I entered into my college years. An adult should not watch cartoons, but should find something practical with which to occupy his time. I agree that being practical is important, but to even know what is practical, we need our imaginations to be developed. Furthermore, some things in life that matter the most, like having a puppy, falling in love, having children, or finding art beautiful are important exactly because they are not practical: they are meaningful on their own terms. Furthermore, sometimes the practical application of art and storytelling does not become apparent until years after you encounter it. For these reasons, although I understand where my stepfather was coming from, I still think DragonBall Z is worth my time. And I think it could be worth other people’s time too, for reasons I will discuss shortly.

One thing which my stepfather’s objection to my enjoyment of DragonBall Z introduced me to was what Gerald Graff would call the intellectual desire to argue for something which I found personally valuable, in spite of his disagreement with it. According to Graff in “The University Is Popular Culture, But It Doesn’t Know It Yet,” one of the things which all academic areas hold in common is the need to properly use persuasive argument. He explains that “all academics, despite their many differences, play a version of the same game of persuasive argument” (Graff 21-22). So this means that historians, scientists, philosophers, and film critics, even though they are studying different things and are asking different questions, all need to learn how to argue properly in order to become experts in their fields. As a matter of fact, I would go on to become a professional literary critic, and have written about thirty conference papers, several published articles, a Master’s thesis and dissertation about numerous pieces of literature. Each of my pieces of writing includes an argument about how one can better understand or appreciate one of those pieces of literature.

Slide3.JPG

Although my stepdad did not know it, he was training me in what Graff calls Arguespeak. Graff writes, “Learning Arguespeak means not simply manipulating a set of mechanical skills, but becoming socialized into a way of life that changes who you are” (24). Instead of simply becoming angry when someone disagrees with us, Graff encourages his readers to learn how to investigate why we hold the opinions we do – we can explore our opinions with curiosity the same way we explored the original thing we were interested about. Then we learn to listen to what others have to say about our opinions; if they agree, they can teach us new things about our perspective, and if they disagree, they might actually help us to better articulate why we think our opinion is good. Besides, everyone should be able to admit that they are not always wrong, so learning to listen and participate maturely in debate grows us into better adult citizens of our communities. DragonBall Z is a show about epic battles, but it led me into an even better confrontation: I needed to learn how to deal with disagreement. Graff would say this was an intellectual experience, and as such had academic value. Besides, I also learned how to be a better literary critic, which would one day become my chosen profession. DragonBall Z, definitely popular culture, helped to lead me straight into academia, just as Graff predicted.

Slide4.JPG

Of course, Dragonball Z connects to the academic subject of literary history, and literary history connects to research into real historical events. DragonBall Z was inspired by The Journey to the West one of the four most important pieces of classic Chinese literature (Clements 101-102). This helped me to understand that, even though it is a children’s cartoon, DragonBall Z is part of a profound cultural legacy of storytelling. Because DragonBall Z is about heroes who face evil, this also connects the show to what the scholar of comparative mythology Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey. Throughout different cultures and modes of storytelling, Campbell argues, “the basic outline of the universal mythological formula of the adventure of the hero is reproduced, to the detail” (16). The hero’s imaginative symbols help us to meditate on our own personal crises and growth: “He is the hero of the way of thought—singlehearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free” (Campbell 18). Although Campbell knew nothing of DragonBall Z, that description of the hero applies precisely to the character of Goku. This led me to research heroes in animation, and one particularly interesting essay I found was called “Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters,” which discussed the difference between American comic books and Japanese manga: “From the early 1950s forward, manga clearly played a far more significant role in Japanese society than American comic books… did in the United States” (Szasz 729). Because two major cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were hit by atomic weapons, the Japanese imagination had to contend with the real history of nuclear holocaust in a way that Americans had not: “Unlike their US counterparts, ever since 1945, manga artists have placed the atomic theme at the very heart of Japanese popular culture” (752). This helps to contextualize why Akira Toriyama, born only ten years after the US dropped the atomic bombs on his country, felt compelled to imagine a superhero like Goku, who could easily stop such a weapon.

Slide5

Because DragonBall Z connects directly to Campbell’s belief that the literary hero helps us to find hope when faced with historical and personal crisis, it also supports Graff’s argument that popular culture is related to important questions academics must ask. After applying the idea of the hero’s journey to Goku’s transformation into a Super Saiyan, I realized that his ability to overcome his own abyss and become a greater hero was helping both American and Japanese audiences to form a richer, more heroic imagination. Goku’s transformation into a Super Saiyan in DragonBall Z is an invitation to open our imaginations to the wisdom hidden in the hero’s journey, and with rigorous academic and intellectual thought, maybe we can be transformed too.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. Print.

Clemens, Jonathan; McCarthy, Helen. The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation since 1917 (1st ed). Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press. Web. 13 October 2017.

Graff, Gerald. “The University Is Popular Culture, But Doesn’t Know It Yet,” in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. Yale University Press, 2004. 17-42. Print.

Szasz, Ferenc; Takechi, Issei. “Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945-80.” Historian 69.4 (2007): 728-752. Web. 13 October 2017.

The Consolation Up in Here

The Boethius Rap (2012)

You gotta deal with Fortune’s wheel

Ignore the sadness it makes you feel

So read the Consolation of Philosophy

If you wanna know mankind’s teleology

‘Cause when it comes to Providence

you can’t just sit on your Muse’s fence

It’s kinda hard to understand the eternal

But you have a choice, so read Boe’s journal


In case you can’t tell, this is a parody of my own Boethian enthusiasm. Here lies the beginning and end of my career as a rap star lyricist. Even Boethians have to have fun.

Zombies, Dreams, and the Meaning of Music: A Tribute to The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan

It never occurred to me until I heard the heartbreaking news of Dolores O’Riordan’s unexpected passing this Monday that the two songs of hers I knew best, and returned to instinctively whenever my mind itched for the lovely oxymoron of her percussive and soothing vocals, were in direct contrast to each other.

Zombie, as many times as I heard it, sounded less lyrical than enchantingly cacophonous, a beautiful shriek like the eponymous monster, whose undead cries mirror with uncanny longing the sensuality that can only be found in life.

Dreams is the properly Romantic perception of the transcendent in the arms of infatuation – the place where foolish young love (as stupefying to the elderly as it is to the youthful at whom they scoff) glimpses at wisdom that the most universal truths are the ones that seem the most private and particular.

I realized that these songs are in a real sense two sides of the same coin. Appearing on No Need to Argue, Zombie is the clarion call of the Abyss to the wide-eyed threshold of departure articulated in the ideal-espousing reach of Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, a title which petulantly asserts meaning forward to the same voice that will sadly accuse your head of propagating a world of bombs, and bombs. And guns.

Written in response to an IRA bombing in 1993, Zombie is a protest song, but not just to the violence and the deaths it caused. It is a protest against a mind embedded in the self-emptying throes of ideology:

It’s the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen
In your head,
In your head they’re still fightin’
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head, in your head they are dyin’

It’s a protest against Modernism’s first war, that set the tone for those who would refuse to look outside the text and stay in their head – to write on the mind an internalized myth of violence that rejects responsibility for involvement in the root cause of mayhem:

But you see it’s not me
It’s not my family
In your head, in your
Head they are fighting

These tightly wound lyrics brilliantly accuse with guilt for that very accusation. The problem isn’t me – it’s you. Chesterton wrote a book entitled What’s Wrong with the World, and in the dedication he wrote, “…this book is what is wrong and no mistake.” This is where Modernism, like the Ouroboros, eats itself into becoming Postmodernism and sees the meaning we seek to find in the world as the violence that causes such silence.

Like the “How am I not myself?” scene in I Heart Huckabees, the question “Who are we mistaken?” is the hinge upon which modernism and postmodernism turn, or perhaps better a coin flipped with the rules “heads we lose, tails we don’t win,” with a pitiful hope that the coin might land on its edge, like a zombie caught between life and death. Or a vampire. [Skip to 6:05]

In Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson articulates the existential psychologist’s bid to land the coin on its edge, to find the thin line of meaning between chaos too brutal and order too binding, meditating on the fact that all the seeds of Nazism and suchlike evil ideologies are not flukes or freaks of nature but dangerous possibilities hidden in the subterranean dreams of everyone – “their” tanks, and “their” bombs, and “their” bombs, and “their” guns are in your head. The human mind crafted, painstakingly, those technologies, and the sleeping desire for the violence they promise is something our Zombie self reach for even as it labels that violence as theirs and not of ourselves and our families and the shadow of our ideals.

Peterson writes, “It has been almost twelve years since I first grasped the essence of the paradox that lies at the bottom of human motivation for evil: People need their group identification, because that identification protects them, literally, from the terrible forces of the unknown. It is for this reason that every individual who is not decadent will strive to protect his territory, actual and psychological. But the tendency to protect means hatred of the other, and the inevitability of war—and we are now too technologically powerful to engage in war. To allow victory to the other, however—or even continued existence, on his terms—means subjugation, dissolution of protective structure, and exposure to that which is most feared. For me, this meant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t”: belief systems regulate affect, but conflict between belief systems is inevitable” (Peterson, Maps of Meaning 460).

In your head, the identities are crying. The heart of belief is taking over…. In your head, in your head…. They are fighting. But in its rhythmic structure, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” despairingly true as the thought seems about the danger of believing thought (making us dangerous) or disbelieving it (making us helpless to danger), it is a colloquial codification of ugly truth in a balanced positive and negative: it’s music, and music is harmony between things which properly produce a tension that could be disharmonious. Zombie is a Petersonian celebration of tragedy.

Dreams, for that same reason, is a Petersonian comedy, because it roots transcendent meaning in an asymmetrical balance between the mystery of the nocturnal personal theatre (where the psycho-spiritual realm whispers gripping mythologies beyond the capacity of the individual to formulate while awake [internal formulations that couldn’t be ideological, because ideology is a tyranny of interpretive will] – but dreams are never quite what they seem, and so their encoded messages slip out of the easy bifurcations of waking oversimplifications) and the infatuation of the beautiful Other who opens the mind to external existence that brings dream into the visible world.

Life becomes transformative in the presence of dreams and romance because both are so subjectively impressed that they are far more objective than the emotions and even more so than the senses, which any Zombie can casually turn into tools of tanks and bombs and bombs and guns. Zombies can put the world into their head and force their head into the world, but you can’t be a zombie and really dream or really perceive a romantic Thou. Zombies can only see things, but dreamers and lovers want to ignore the impossibilities attendant upon the ever changing business so rudely stuffed into the monosyllabic title of Life.

“The soul departs from the face of beauty, when the eye begins to doubt if there be any soul behind it.” – George MacDonald, A Sketch of Individual Development, 34

Peterson’s book, Maps of Meaning, has on its cover an image called The Meaning of Music, which you can see here: https://jordanbpeterson.com/meaning-of-music/

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is the message you receive if you attempt to fix the image into a solid, rational pattern, where lines and angles stand in frustrated near-irresolution, but behind it, if you let your eye dream over the edges, you find the tensions impossible to ignore, the uncompromising incompatibilities resolving into life. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” is the sacred language of the profane catch-22, like a song about which you can say, “I know I’ve felt like this before, but I’m feeling it even more.”

46 is too young for a talented artist to die, and the raw meeting place of tragedy and beautiful music cannot and should not be contained in our heads. Tragedy cannot be explained because it is the actual place where reality breaks down and explanation loses coherency. But tragedy can be dreamed into meaning if we can set the coins to spinning instead of trying to make them still on their edges.

“The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists.” – George MacDonald, The Fantastic Imagination 195

Science must give way to metaphysics if we let the dreams do their work. True psychology, soul-study, is the flight from the mistaken silence of zombies to the music of the most fully possible way, impossible to ignore.

A powerful dreamer sleeps, yet her voice still echoes to those who mourn. I pray that you rest in peace, Dolores O’Riordan.

Eagles, Ents, and Dwarves: Tolkien’s Taming of the Romantic Imagination

Tolkien shares his understanding of the imagination in On Fairy Stories, where he defines it as “the mental power of image-making” (47). He sternly yet with gentleness reproves those who would conflate the term with “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” This is, no doubt, a reproof of the Romantic movement’s enthusiasm for the imagination and defense of the attacks the faculty had endured at the hands of Enlightenment thinkers. We can see this Romantic sensibility in, for example, Emerson in Poetry and Imagination:

“For the value of a trope is that the hearer is one: and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes. As the bird alights on the bough, then plunges into the air again, so the thoughts of God pause but for a moment in any form. All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy. The endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis, explains the rank which the imagination holds in our catalogue of mental powers. The imagination is the reader of these forms.”

Tolkien certainly would not object to the idea that the imagination is key in reading what medieval writers referred to as “the book of the world,” but I think his critique here is akin to Boethius’s ordering of the mental faculties: the imagination extracts patterns from the senses, and then reason fits those patterns to judgments. The great effort of continually matching sensory experiences, imaginative perception and rational assessment constitutes a Vision of a given subject matter – the experience of “an inner consistency of reality.” This process is as necessary to undergo in order to understand economics and gravity in the real world as it is the relationship between dragons and knights in fantasy literature, but it is in the realm of Fantasy that we in particular learn to develop and hone our skills of image-making – the craft of imagination, as I like to call it.

This means, I think, that Tolkien is critiquing, but not rejecting, the Romantic insight that imagination is more than just a stepping stone in the process of making meaning in the world (the goal to which fantasy is an indispensable adjunct). But it is the sustained application of Reason to imaginative creations which results in the sub-creation, and that process is where the Artistry lies, not merely in one’s ability to think up a dragon. This, I think, is where so much fantasy falls short – it gluts the reader on imaginative productions, but to little end or to bad ends altogether. The imagination is a perilous realm, let us not forget, and to think it is unequivocally good would be to treat it as wholly unlike anything else we experience (and if we are vigilant, unlike the imagination as we have experienced it in our lives). There’s a deficient account of perversity, as Poe would call it, in the Emersonian view, and that I think is what Tolkien’s regard for craft ameliorates in his vision of the imagination.

Chapter 2 of the Silmarillion, “Of Aule and Yavanna” presents, I believe, this critique in narrative form. Aule creates Dwarves in an act of genuine imagination, and yet something is off given his desire to keep the act secret: “But fearing that the other Valar might blame his work, he wrought in secret” (43). Reminiscent of Adam and Eve hiding after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Aule attempts to defend himself when Iluvatar confronts him for the improper deed: “And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” He calls himself a “child of little understanding” although he intended “no mockery” of his father – he realizes that he had acted upon his imagination with no regard for the greater artistic vision of the reality for which he was in part to steward responsibly. In grief, Aule moves to destroy the Dwarves and Iluvatar stops him from so doing, merely requiring that the Dwarves be sent into a profound slumber until after Iluvatar’s children have awoken. The dignity of Aule’s imaginative homage to his father’s creative power (the father here being of course God, but also as such the voice of his duty to his community beyond his own imaginative pleasures) is made all the more pleasurable by his earnest repentance and the wonder of his work, which has already taken on a life of its own. (There is a whiff of Abraham and Isaac here, too, which I’m sure the Tolkien scholars have remarked upon.)

We see here the theme clearly: imagination is a productive, powerful, and beautiful force, but its creative powers must be employed with a reasoned duty to the larger concerns of propriety. Creating new living beings who (as the ensuing drama with Yavanna underscores, even after Iluvatar’s blessing) will have an impact on their environment, as well as now have the burden of existence foisted upon them, is no small decision, and the manner in which our imaginative flights of fancy might take on form in the world is likewise worth its own consideration. Careless making, or for that matter careless unmaking, in our personal fantasies may have unimaginable consequences beyond what we can immediately conceive.

Yavanna, aware that Aule’s work is not unlike Melkor’s in some ways and that it has impact on the environment about which she cares so deeply, thus goes to Manwe for permission to create guardians of the trees. Manwe is skeptical of the notion of these beings; “Yet it was in the song,” she tells him, “ For while thou wert in the heavens and with Ulmo built the clouds and poured out the rains, I lifted up the branches of great trees to receive them, and some sang to Iluvatar amid the wind and the rain.” Yavanna’s act of imagination, recourse to the great shared Vision of the Song of the Ainur, is circumscribed by consideration of her community, the authority of Manwe and the needs of the flora but also of her own internally cultivated wisdom. She is the Tolkienesque poet who speaks for the trees and their shepherds, but does not, unlike Aule, become tunnel-visioned by the enchantment of her own imagination. Her imagination follows the craft of art, a reasoned meditation on the vision provided by Iluvatar’s book of the world.

Manwe, inspired by her request, then has his own memory of the Song which leads to his conception of the Eagles, and here we see Tolkien conceding to the transcendentalist notion of the Romantic reverie: “Then Manwe sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded… Then it seemed to Manwe that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before.” This, after all, is the mark of the great Songs – the music that we listen to again and again discovers to us new visions we had not guessed even when we judged it beautiful. This genesis of Eagles, Ents, and Dwarves is the philosophical and community-revivifying vision through which Tolkien emphasizes his narrative critique and recalibration of the Romantic imagination. Reasoned art lifts imagination out of the threat of narcissistic image-making, shepherding us into communion with unheeded glimpses of significance in the artistry of Being, forging us through the hammer of symbol and anvil of life to become children of the Song.

“Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds?”

The Liberal Arts Philosophy of Frederick Douglass

Slide1

I presented this talk in PowerPoint format at St. Peter’s Lutheran School in Sanborn, NY in the Spring of 2017. This is a localized application of the classic liberal arts pedagogy which I set forth in a previous post, The Role of Literature within the Liberal Arts Philosophy. I have admired Frederick Douglass since I first encountered his writings as an undergraduate student, specifically in My Bondage and My Freedom, the second of his three autobiographies. This talk, however, focuses on The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the first of the biographies published in 1845. In today’s culture, where the modern university is struggling financially and ideologically to find its place in the world, taking a moment to understand how education requires both proper motivation and suitable conception to be valuable, I think pausing to reflect over the impact education had upon Douglass’s life has value for all of us. Douglass was not educated within the institutions of the Liberal Arts curriculum, and yet he develops, through the occasions of grace which he seized upon with impressive energy, effort, and conviction, a philosophy of the liberal arts which would have earned the admiration of any classic liberal arts pedagogue.

A good liberal arts perspective recognizes the importance of defining terms before using them in conversation, because basic vocabulary is what we build our thoughts upon, and our thoughts shape our lives. So we must begin with philosophy – which in Greek means “the Love of Wisdom.”

Slide2

Of course, this presents us with other difficulties – what do we mean by Love, and what by Wisdom? As we shall see, although Douglass had many critical things to say of those Christians in America which did nothing to oppose slavery (or, shamefully, even supported it), at the root of Douglass’s philosophy was the essence of the Christian understanding of Love: that it is the primary mode of being by which we ought to engage both God and man. The two halves of the Great Commandment from Christ sets out a framework that applies to every aspect of human endeavor, which would include education. To learn math well, for example, does not just require a rational effort: you must engage the challenges of math with all you’ve got, especially if you’re terrible at it like I happen to be. Then you must be able to find local application for that math – to simply know it is not enough.

This is where neighborliness comes into play – Is your checkbook balanced, and do you help your friend who needs a financial hand? The theory and practice of any subject in education must be brought together if they are to be wise, or else they can become mindlessly “useful” (which might leave aside the question of whether it is good) or pointlessly intelligent (the vice of sloth about which academics must always be careful). It is Love, the desire for wisdom, the universal truth applied and directed to the concrete particular (the individual submitting to God and loving his neighbor), which converts such knowledge into wisdom. And it is the lifelong pursuit of this conversion of subject matter into a better life which makes one a philosopher. We see Frederick awakening to the duties of loving his neighbor in the following, horrific experience which imprinted itself upon him as a child:

Slide3

Douglass’s fear is an intertwined terror that this could happen to him too, as well as the overwhelming feeling of helplessness in the face of such monstrous abuse. Seeing such abuse might well render one monstrous – after all, for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Yet there is a choice involved: do you become like the violence around you, or do you choose to rise above it precisely because you saw first-hand how horrible it was? Although Douglass does later learn to wield the strength of his arm, it is in defense rather than in vicious offense. But what awoke in him at that moment was a recognition that something was terribly wrong with the world in which he lived, and he developed a thirst to transcend it. The inarticulate cries of the abused female slave were juxtaposed with Douglass’s own acute perception of the knowledge he lacked which white children his age had and took for granted.

Slide4

Frederick’s experience of a deeper, spiritual reality within his private meditations opened him to the world of ethos – the inborn predisposition to rhetoric that comes with being a person, an undeveloped yet intuitive attachment to a truth within his mind, heart, and soul that could not be quenched even with all the adversity to which he was subjected. Powerful as this insight was, however, he knew it was an inkling and knew he needed to find a way to develop this deep conviction from an intuition to articulated truth which shaped and sustained his identity, and could be shared with others. For this, he needed the arts which refine and develop the natural gifts of human beings – the arts.

Slide5

Arts relate to particular subject matters, but also show how those subject matters integrate into other subjects, as well as how they weigh upon real life. Access to these arts was something Douglass realized demarcated a profound difference between him and his fellow slaves, and between those who had liberty.

Slide6

It is an unfortunate and heartbreaking truth that even in its conception, education was crafted by men who often held slaves or even argued for its existence. Yet it is sometimes to the credit of people that often they are not entirely consistent in their beliefs – ordinarily inconsistency would be considered an intellectual vice, but the slaveholder who espoused education had in his grasp the very lens by which he might see his own folly. Since ancient times, it was believed that the effect of learning was to free the soul, to make it less dependent upon the chains of Fate, the fickleness of social descriptions and capriciousness of unjust abuses of authority. Just as slavery was antithetical to the institution of the Constitution’s philosophy even though, for a time, it was permitted under the Constitution, in the same way there is a deep and unsustainable tension between the belief in the edifying power of education upon the human soul and the belief that humans can be treated as property. This was Frederick’s fundamental realization.

[It must be realized here that “liberal” ought to be rigorously separated in this context from politically liberal, because I believe that the liberal arts philosophy is one that ought to form a common ground between all members of a Democratic Republic, rather than one political party. The politicization of the University, a process which has been under way for sometime, has exacerbated negative feelings between political Liberals and Conservatives, undermining in my view the power education has to create productive dialogue between people with different political temperaments and beliefs. This is, to my mind, a very sad state of affairs.]

Slide7

Mrs. Auld was not an abolitionist – it was her husband who owned him as a slave, after all. But her belief in slavery was at natural, and unrecognized, odds with her identity as a teacher – without any subversive intent, she simply began teaching him how to read. Mr. Auld, however, was aware of the implications (and so more wicked in his actions) when he put a stop to the lessons. Frederick realizes that it is the withholding of knowledge that was a major supporting structure in the power which slaveholders held over their slaves, and so his longing for knowledge went from a spark to a flame. He would stop children in the street and challenge them to reading contests in order to extract their schoolroom knowledge from them, a brilliant sleight of hand. What Douglass realized, as perhaps the children did not but as Mr. Auld did, was that becoming knowledgeable is an inherent value, and as it instructs the individual into greater refinement of identity, being subject to lower order desires for good things on the behalf of others becomes, in proportion, less tolerable.

Slide8

When someone asks you, “Why do you want to be healthy?”, the right reaction is to give them a puzzled look. It is not for anything which we desire health, not initially anyway. It is simply something we desire, and other actions we take (exercise and dieting for example) are explained by the desire to be healthy, not the other way around. So it is with cultivating wisdom through the absorption of knowledge. The soul wants it, more than anything useful or pleasant, and just needs the right motivation to realize it. In the case of Douglass, the manner in which slavery caused a conflict between higher and lower order goods was what caught his attention and motivated him to begin to educate himself.

Slide9

To destroy a family for profit, as had happened to Frederick in his inability to know his mother (and indeed to be separated from his father, who was probably his first slaveholder), was a destructive subordination of a higher order good to a lower order one. We do, even in less dramatic circumstances, sometimes get confused about which goods to privilege in life, which is why, in the liberal arts philosophy, it is necessary to cultivate the virtues, which are those inborn capacities that can be developed and refined through the arts.

Slide10

A life is not complete if it has not to some degree cultivated both the life of the mind and the life of action, as well as the sub-virtues associated with each. We are all, of course, going to be better at certain virtues and be disposed, for a variety of reasons, to different uses of them, but some manifestation of reason, imagination, and sensory sophistication integrated with discipleship to that which we deem worthy of development, practicing leadership when we have absorbed an appropriate amount of discipleship in the particular arenas in which we participate, caring for our bodies and pursuing a meaningful career of some kind, is necessary regardless of profession. But slavery is deleterious to every dimension of self-development, as we can see in Douglass’s account:

Slide11

Slaves betray their reason by being forced to lie, have their imaginations hounded by the fears involved in seeking liberty, and have their senses deprived of essential experiences of physical development (seeing mother’s face). They were cut off from the life of action by being refused discipleship, punished for exercising leadership when they had obtained appropriate skills for doing so, prevented from caring from their bodies, and being arbitrarily and maliciously prevented from productive labor since it would loosen the bindings of servitude. It’s worth considering that if this is the external condition under which slavery occurs, then when we assault or neglect these virtues in ourselves, we create a sort of internal slavery. A slaveholder, Boethius would say, would himself be a slave to the irrational, unimaginative, and insensible desires that make him even want to hold such power over others. Douglass says as much in many places. And it is in language where the tools for combating slavery can be found, as well as the perversion of those tools in which the promotion of slavery was made possible.

Slide12

Our human capacities cannot but manifest themselves, and as George MacDonald says of the imagination, if we do not develop them to the good or repress them entirely, it is only a matter of time before our inherent qualities manifest themselves in negative ways. Thus one may use language to harm, but the art of language, to truly be a philosophically liberal use of that art, must promote the good for individuals with authentic and careful wisdom.

Slide13

The law is in a sense the grammar of society, and defining individuals in such a way as to ensure that sexual abuse and slavery will not only come into conflict but will actually help to propagate each other is one of the most evil strokes of diabolical genius in American history. This is definition externally and illberally imposed by capricious society, and we can see a philosophical, artful realization of grammar when Douglass, by contrast, apprehends the powerful grammatical reality of his own identity as an abolitionist. Definition here is no mere textbook set of words, but the creation of unity between Douglass’s universal convictions and his practical goals in life.

Slide14

The logical fallacy used by Mr. Gore, a type of slippery slope, is rooted in the psychology of projection – he assumes that black people would act as white people actually were. It is literally a pathological argument: he uses fear to abrogate the duties of reason. In the second case we see the proper use of logic – to order our perceptions to a better conception of human nature.

Slide15

Rhetoric is the master discipline of the trivium because it takes the meaning of grammar and the truth of logic and uses it to evoke in the will an appropriate response – to properly feel as one ought to feel about a true and meaningful idea, and to act in accordance with that meaningful experience of truth. Mr. Covey’s words could certainly produce effects in the will, but he did it in a literally Satanic manner, for he militated against the truths of the mind, body, and soul. Meanwhile, in the midst of the enforced and lived lie which constituted the American institution of slavery, the strain of enslaved voices who could envision their freedom properly excites the passions to sympathy for the human condition of these people.

Slide16

Douglass’s autobiographies, which I strongly recommend reading in their entirety, share this basic message: authentic education frees us from the maliciousness and capriciousness of unjust society, and incorporates us into an edifying world of scintillating ideas and purposeful actions. The effort to nourish our virtues through the study and practice of the arts is nothing less than the endeavor to become ourselves, and if we each sought truth with love with our whole power, and lived lives more responsibly with duty towards our neighbors, we would become philosophers such that we never ask, “What should I do today?”, but rather, “What can I be today?” We can let the uplifting and glorious light of truth into our souls and begin the self-fashioning work to which it calls all of us.

Anti-Freudian Postulation, Revisited

Talking to her was like a bad metaphor
It was putting on warm underwear
Fresh out of the dryer.
Which I know sounds sexual
But nobody puts on clean warm underwear that way.

We used to listen to the same kind of music
And I guess for some reason I thought
That meant we had an understanding.
The nodding head and the tapping toes
Moving, back and forth together, to the same sounds.

I know that sounds sexual,
But nobody listens to music that way.
We drank coffee together, and we both drank it black
Because that’s the right way to drink the right coffee,
Audacious flavor awakening on our lips.

We always made love after we drank coffee together
In the evenings, coffee we had made together
With a French press and I guess the music and the caffeine
Had us feeling excited and good.
And I know that sounds sexual.

But we didn’t make love like that.
It was conversation in low light with remnants of cigarette smoke
And the memories and the music turned into feelings
Articulating with bodies what we couldn’t put into words.
I wish we had just had sex, you know?

But we had conversations with our bodies
And that is hard to forget, when you knew what the words meant
When it didn’t sound sexual.
When sex is more than innuendo about itself,
That’s when heartbreak hurts.

Clarity of Imagination: C.S. Lewis’s Birthday

“Reason is the natural organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” – C.S. Lewis

On the anniversary of Lewis’s death earlier this week I wrote a partial reader’s autobiography of how Lewis’s works integrated into the span of my own life. Now, for the anniversary of his birthday, I want to celebrate how I believe Lewis’s attitude towards the imagination can edify human life.

My first time teaching Introduction to Literature left me somewhat disappointed. This was for a few reasons. One was entirely my fault – I overloaded the reading list and let my enthusiasm cloud what was practical. Also, I provided readings electronically, which I regard as an error for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is the effect I think it has on the imagination: there are so many texts on the internet, and these just happen to be the ones our nutty professor assigned. Why are they due any special attention? As the course neared its end, I decided I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of this semester. In addition to hard copies and a lighter reading load, though, I realized that I had not clearly defined for myself the precise goal of what I wanted my students to get out of the course. Naturally it’s frustrating when they don’t like what I like, especially with the attention and devotion that goes into appreciating a text, but it’s more than that. Even when they did like the text, they often seemed to miss the larger purpose in why it was assigned. What were my students missing that I wanted them to see? What was it that I cared about and wanted them to care about, too? I wanted them to have meaningful, rich reactions to beautiful literature – not because I had assigned it or because I happened to like the particular piece of literature, but because I earnestly believed (as I told that class and still tell my students) that profound literary experience is profoundly important for a full life.

I remembered, as I was puzzling over this question, something C.S. Lewis had said about George MacDonald’s Phantastes – that it had baptized his imagination. Thinking about that phrase, I recalled that one of my favorite philosophical meditations on the imagination was MacDonald’s essay, “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture.” It was then that I realized that this was exactly what was missing, in our culture, in my students’ perspective, and in my own pedagogy (which I have since developed and posted on this blog): a craft of imagination that doesn’t just treat the imagination as a given, overlooked and taken for granted, but instead sees it as an inborn capacity with a range of potential applications. Like every other inborn ability, the imagination must be developed – you need a method. From there, I designed my introduction to literature course, and it has been far better as a result. And I have realized that the philosophy of imagination I developed was centrally Lewisian in character, and stemmed from two basic texts: “Meditations in a Toolshed” and “On Stories.”

In the first essay, Lewis meditates upon a beam of light that enters into a slim crack in the toolshed door. He realizes the difference between looking at the beam of light as an object, versus along the beam of light as a tool for seeing the world. This is the fundamental issue with the imagination: we look at it as a curiosity, maybe a diverting source of entertainment – we look at products of imagination instead of looking through the imagination as a source of meaning-making. And when we do that, we lose out on the primary effect of imagination: to render a coherent picture of value out of our experiences in the world. After all, the imagination makes an image of our world, something Lewis knew medieval thinkers had developed into a sophisticated structure of rich interpretation that he discusses in The Discarded Image, to this date one of the finest introductions to the Middle Ages (and to the history of imagination in that period) which I have ever read.

Along with this meditation on how imagination fits into human life, Lewis’s “On Stories” more specifically analyzes how narrative attempts to capture in “a net of words” the things which mere words cannot capture unless they are embedded in an imaginative approach to the reactive power symbols can have on the human mind. Lewis’s essential point in “On Stories” is that the purpose of reading a story is not to have an emotional reaction – excitement, for example – but to isolate the emotional reaction itself and recognize it as rife with imaginative potential. We should not fear death: we should imagine what the fear of death means for life. Only stories can provide this enchanting distance, and the essay breathes in the air of Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, an essay which Lewis deeply appreciates and alludes to frequently in many of his own works.

I have an abiding fondness for Romanticism, but am sensible of the critique that Romantic ways of thinking can sometimes muddle the imagination. We must “inquire into facts,” as a fictional naysayer critiquing MacDonald’s perspective on imagination points out, but what Lewis makes clear in his toolshed meditation is that you cannot meditate on facts, let alone upon Truth, without an enriched imagination. Lewis brings together what is often in direct opposition for many people: a rigorous analytical process of thinking with an enraptured experience of wonder at the realities about which one thinks. The philosopher is worried that the poet might sweep us all away into sweet nothings at best and destructive falsehoods at worst, and the poet is worried that the philosopher will render us into nothing more than rationalistic and empirical events in a coldly objective world. Lewis, most poetic of philosophers, knew with a rare clarity of imagination that the height of poetic feeling could be found in the most careful of intellectual thought, and that robust rational effort was necessary to nourish a lively and Romantic experience of real meaning. The warmth of Lewis’s imagination came from its clarity of thought, from his ability to think crisply and carefully about both the mundane and the mysterious. That is the glorious weight of the divine imagine Lewis believed we all carry in the secret halls of our minds and that calls to us when we see wonder in the sacred book of creation within which all of our stories live, move, and have their being.

I remember once playing the videogame, Spyro the Dragon, and had an uncharacteristically cynical thought: well, after all, this dragon is just an abstraction we came up with from seeing a lizard, a bat, a dog, a fire…. And then I laughed. For what wondrous imagination it would take to conceive of a lizard, a bat, a dog, or fire – none of which is as complex as a mind which could consider or invent such things! That is the enchanting distance of story, as Lewis saw it, which reminds us to have joy in the creation of which we are a part. I can think of no better way to conclude this consideration of Lewis’s philosophy of imagination than with a joyful prayer – for even Lewis saw himself as a ruddy-cheeked, loud-voiced announcer of jovial wonder.

For Joy in God’s Creation. – 1928 Book of Common Prayer

O HEAVENLY Father, who hast filled the world with beauty; Open, we beseech thee, our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him by whom all things were made, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.