The Role of Literature within the Liberal Arts Philosophy

I deliver a lecture on the liberal arts philosophy to students in all of my classes, adjusting it for the needs of the particular class. This is a formalized version of the lecture I wrote in preparation for my Introduction to Literature class, more detailed and technical than the version I deliver orally. Sister Miriam Joseph’s book, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric and Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost of Tools of Learning” substantially informs this lecture, as do several other treatises on the liberal arts. Because this is a synthesis of numerous readings from an extensive tradition, I do not cite my sources, but it should be noted that I make no claims to originality in this presentation. In fact, my aim here is to be as traditionalist as I can in presenting the system, though I cannot help but imprint my own patterns of thought upon the material as I see it.

The notion of the liberal arts is not merely a set curriculum or program of study. The liberal arts curriculum has been developing for well over two thousand years, since at least the time of Plato, Aristotle, and the city-states of ancient Greece. Although it was Christian pedagogues of the early Church that established the historic liberal arts curriculum in the western world (drawing, by turn, on the work of late Roman educators), the concept is not exclusive to any one worldview or time period.

Liberos means, in context, a free adult, a matured citizen, and an art is a definable subject matter with particular methods to that subject’s study. In its conception, therefore, the liberal arts constitute a course of study not suitable merely for children, or only for obscure academic study. It is also not, however, simply a pragmatic or utilitarian view of education – being educated, from a liberal arts perspective, contributes to a more full experience of our own humanity and the humanity of others. Anicent Greece was, unfortunately, classist and sexist in its liberal arts institutions, excluding slaves and often women from many elements of the curriculum (though there have always been detractors of social wrongs in such societies). The modern liberal arts perspective, though still founded on many profound insights of the Grecian period, holds that education promotes the fulfillment of individuals’ intellectual, spiritual, vocational, public and personal lives, regardless of gender, race, religion, or social status. This is the ideal to which we strive.

Cultivating philosophy, the love of wisdom, is the object or intended achievement of the liberal arts curriculum. This surely includes the logical investigations of the philosophy department in the modern university, but the classical understanding of philosophy is a multi-disciplinary pursuit, where individuals explore a fuller range of their potential. Three elements understood together create the Liberal Arts Philosophy: 1. Human Nature as broadly teleological, 2. A Hierarchy of Values which defines the priorities of what human life ought to be dedicated towards, and 3. A rationally ordered and set curriculum that helps individuals to discover their place in the community and the value of vocations different from our own. The following explication of these three are especially drawn from the works of Dorothy Sayers and Miriam Joseph, though they can be found in liberal arts pedagogues down through the centuries.

  1. Human Nature is broadly teleological. By teleological, I mean that the liberal arts philosophy holds that there is an achievable goal for all human beings to better appreciate of what people are capable. Human beings have natural virtues, or potential capabilities, that can be refined. While a knife has the singular function of cutting (an example from Aristotle’s treatise on virtue ethics, The Nichomachean Ethics), human beings have many virtues, many fitting functions, and to never attempt to develop those virtues is a sad negligence of our unique status as humans. Improvement of our virtues – or, more precisely, making our potential virtues actual virtues – is inherently good for each of us. Our virtuous pursuits can be roughly categorized in one of two ways: pursuits of the life of the mind and pursuits of the active life. It is not possible to ignore either of these and remain virtuous, because the two depend on each other in numerous ways. Formal education emphasizes the life of the mind, partly to give individuals time to develop those virtues for their own sake, but also so that they will serve in their communities with greater communal efficacy and deeper personal fulfillment. This leads us to the hierarchy of values within the liberal arts philosophy.
  2. The Hierarchy of Values. This is a threefold, but fluid, hierarchy. Primary, or inherent, values are those sought for their own sake, more or less – they have self-explanatory purpose. Miriam Joseph, author of The Trivium, lists as examples “virtue, health, happiness, and knowledge.” Secondary, or useful goods, help us to more effectively pursue primary goods. These include, according to Joseph, “food, medicine, money, tools, and books,” goods which help us to achieve desired states in the order of primary goods, but which can lead us astray if excessively privileged. Tertiary, or ornamental goods, are not necessary for either secondary or primary goods; they are the “icing on the cake,” so to speak, and contribute to our satisfaction but not to happiness or joy. They should not be the primary focus of our energies, but also shouldn’t be ignored. Often I use with my students the example of my ties – I wear a unique tie for each day I am on a given campus during a semester, because I like ties and have bought several and been given many more as gifts. This gives me some pleasure, but I could do my job just as well, and be more or less as satisfied with my life, if I only had enough ties to wear a different one each day of the week (supposing there is some utility, i.e. secondary value, to having ties as someone who speaks in front of people professionally).
    It is fair to note that many goods occupy two or three of these at once to some degree, but can usually be more or less fit into one place. The primary value of reading good literature is that it allows us to imagine more profoundly and more actively; literature’s useful value is that it improves our critical thinking and communication skills, helping us to perceive others in a more sympathetic light and engage other disciplines in a more thorough way. The ornamental value of literature is that it may be entertaining, exciting, or pleasurable to read, but a personal preference for a piece of literature is not necessary for the first two, even though this third one is still valuable. In fact, part of the primary of value of literature is not only that it allows us to discover what we find meaningful and beautiful, but to discover what others find meaningful and beautiful, even if others do not. In that way, sometimes reading a text we find unpleasant may have more value than reading one we prefer.
  3. A Rational, Pedagogical Curriculum. The liberal arts curriculum, according to its philosophy, attempts to unlock virtues of primary value in students by having them encounter foundational arts that will be beneficial to the challenge of learning more sophisticated disciplines. Those arts are organized as arts of communication, arts of organization, arts of application, and arts of production. The first three are emphasized in the university because classroom education is geared towards the life of the mind, although the active life ought to be developed as well.

Trivium – the three arts essential to language’s capacity for promoting thought and communication. These are grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Grammar – This art uses and interprets language correctly (syntax, spelling, speech and essay writing, literary meaning)

Logic – This art uses languages in a valid way that coherently places sound conclusions after premises. It includes argumentation, syllogisms, fallacies, proper relationship of information to interpretation to produce knowledge.

Rhetoric – This art uses language in a persuasive way that moves the audience to find your message important and likely to be true. It involves argumentation, essay and speech writing, literary analysis and literary composition. The features of ethos, pathos, and logos (persuasions of personal character, emotional motivations, and arguments and information) are essential to the art.

Quadrivium – These are the arts of organization, and they include arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

Application – Application puts the arts of the trivium and quadrivium into contact with particular, historical institutions, and includes history, politics, economics, law, the sciences, business, and medicine.

Production – Arts of production, ideally, consider the best application of the trivium and quadrivium recommended by the other arts, and includes manufacturing, farming, painting, musical composition, and publishing works of fiction and non-fiction.

Imaginative literature is the primary cross-roads of the disciplines (while theology is the primary cross-destination of the disciplines, which can be asserted regardless of theological commitments). Good understanding of literature requires philosophical, historical and literary knowledge. It allows us to imagine places we have not been, real and imagined, and depicts interpersonal skills as well as disciplinary skills with people we haven’t met and knowledge we don’t yet have. Study of any discipline, the energy required to fully develop one’s skills in that field, is the result of a strong imagination that can see the value of the field for the community. It also reveals our personal virtues. A clear-sighted, powerful imagination better grasps what we can contribute within the discipline we pursue, helps us to explore and discover our identities, and to engage our personal relationships in a clearer way.

We all possess the natural capacity to imagine, and this may be stronger or weaker depending on our inclinations, preferences, and experiences. The imagination is a virtue of the mind with poignant application both in a variety of aspects of the life of the mind and the life of action, and developing it has a primary value for achieving a fuller range of intellectual abilities. But it has secondary value as well for our other studies, because it teaches disciplined focus of mental energy to a single task, as well as others. Finally, it may produce great entertainment and enjoyment, especially as our imaginations become more highly developed. The study of literature involves the development of the virtue of imagination in an essentially unique way. A developed imagination perceives beauty more easily, and takes pleasure in more difficult products of imagination, leading to more fulfilling experiences in whatever types of literature we might prefer. That is the role, I believe, of imaginative literature in the liberal arts curriculum.

Behold your Music: Harmonic Sorrow in Tolkien’s Ainulindale

In The Fundamentals of Music, the late Roman author Boethius imparted to the Middle Ages a Neoplatonic theory of music that held there to be three kinds of harmony: the harmony of the spheres, the harmony of instruments, and the harmony of human living. In Boethius’s philosophy, which has its roots ultimately in Pythagorean theory, music resulted from the movements of the Planets and all the workings of the cosmos and nature. Music as we ordinarily think of it, the music of voice and of devised instruments, is sort of like a radio that does not simply produce music, but actually allows us to hear the music of the universe. Human life, when lived individually and socially in accordance with virtue, also produces thereby a kind of music. After all, insofar as we exist, we are a part of the cosmic music, and by learning to live well, we learn to harmonize with that music. This is why learning to play and appreciate instrumental music was so valuable to the ancient and medieval perspective: learning music craft combines human discipline with cosmic principles of harmony. The musician, in playing and understanding music, harmonizes with the symphony of an instrumental, virtuous, and cosmic melody.

As an Anglo-saxonist and medievalist, Tolkien surely knew of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, at least the version translated into Old English and probably Chaucer’s Middle English translation as well, not to mention the Latin itself. Whether he knew of Boethius’s textbook on music I do not know, but his musical theory is alluded to in the Consolation itself, where Lady Philosophy says, “My pleasure is to sing with pliant strings/How mighty Nature holds the reigns of things” (3.m2.50). In any case, Tolkien’s creation myth resonates with Boethius’s understanding of the Pythagorean belief in a musical universe, where Iluvatar, as choirmaster, leads his first creations, the Ainur, in a magnificent, orchestral creation of the world in which Middle-Earth will have its being: “Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music…. and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void” (15). More particularly, we see in the Ainulindale a three-part structure: first, there is the song of the Ainur’s strife (between Manwe and the faithful Ainur and Melkor and the rebellious Ainur), then, they have a vision of the history of the world which their music has created, and finally, they enter into the World their music has created and labor to bring the Vision into reality. So they engage first in an instrumental (if heavenly) type of music, using the power of voice to create song; then they perceive the Cosmos and the cosmic history created by their music; and finally, they become committed to fulfilling their attempt to live virtuously according to the Music for their own sake and the sake of the Children of Iluvatar to come. The Ainulindale is a three-fold melody between the music of the Ainur, the Cosmic Vision their music produces, and their mighty labors to bring the created world into physical harmony.

Melkor, as an agent of disharmony, becomes a disruptive voice in the Music of the Ainur because his imagination is reduced to a narcissistic obsession with his own virtue: “it came into the heart of Meklor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar: for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself…. for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own” (16). The nature of Melkor’s disobedience is not simply pride; it is a disjointed concern for the locus of pride. Or, to state it otherwise: Tolkien’s myth defines pride in musical terms, where to become a Melkor is to become one who makes his own talents the source of harmony, and to reduce social and universal order to a mere outlet of one’s own will. Instead of using the pattern of Music as a way to order himself, Melkor strives to pattern the Music after him. In Boethius, the musical instrument was a conduit for the individual to imagine his own virtue as in harmony with the cosmos; Melkor uses his music instead for conquest, as a weapon to strike his enemy down. As a result, Melkor is always depicted as alone – he has no comrade, only cohorts, for social camaraderie is a harmony, and Melkor has made himself an enemy of harmony.

This is contrasted by the discussion that Ulmo and Iluvatar have about Ulmo’s kinship with Manwe in the midst of their vision: “Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou art drawn nearer to Manwe, thy friend, whom thou lovest” (19). Ulmo’s music had put water into the Vision of the World, but Manwe’s love of the airways mixed with that water in unsurprising ways; ways moreover caused by Melkor: “Sees thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate” (19). Ulmo’s thought is neither to make war on Melkor, his enemy, nor to be jealous of his brother Manwe. Interestingly of Ulmo we are told that “of all most deeply was he instructed by Iluvatar in music” (19). Given his remarkable gifts, Ulmo is a corollary to Melkor, but in his brotherly  attitude towards Manwe offers a three-fold note of harmony against Melkor’s disharmony: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret though conceived the snowflake…I will seek Manwe, that he and I may make melodies for ever to thy delight!” (19). Ulmo remains in accord with Iluvatar his maker; he resists the discord introduced by Melkor and even sees how Melkor’s ill-intentioned disruption has made his own design more beautiful; and, above all, he seeks out Manwe to work new labors to please his Maker.

Ulmo strives for the good life and seeks to make beautiful music, all to contribute to the symphony of Arda’s formation. Ulmo’s attention is not on the sound of his own voice and the tenor of his own virtue, but on the things he can make and the people with whom he can make them. The same is true of Manwe and Aule: “But of the airs and winds Manwe most had pondered, who is the noblest of Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aule thought, to whom Iluvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aule is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery” (19). In their devotion to the shared Music, Ulmo, Aule, and Manwe are blessed with brotherhood, unchained by the torments of wrath Melkor suffers by limiting his imagination to the circle of his own will.

Of course, the Ainulindale is a myth about the concept of subcreation Tolkien discusses in On Fairy Stories. Tolkien believed that the imagination, through craft, could produce the Art of a World into which the minds of readers could enter, a Secondary World that depended upon love of the Primary. One could easily read the various beings of Middle-Earth’s creation myth as a psychomachia of Tolkien as artist: Iluvatar, the side of him which loves and longs for the beautiful for its own sake, Melkor, the prideful side that wished for fame, recognition, and followers, and Manwe, Ulmo, and Aule, worldbuilders who get their hands dirty in the painful details of storytelling for the sake of pleasing Iluvatar, the purest desire for beauty in the Author and his Readers alike. Of course, as I wrote in my last blog post, we must be wary of excessively allegorizing Tolkien’s work, especially this one where it is most tempting.

The mythic power of these Beings must not be undone by an excessive rationalism, but must be imagined the same way they were surprised to discover the Children of Iluvatar in the Vision of the World: “Therefore when they beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Iluvatar reflected anew, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (18). Even so, Tolkien surely sympathized with the frustrated Valar in their attempts to shape the world: “the Valar endeavoured ever in despite of Melkor, to rule the Earth and to prepare it for the coming of the Firstborn; and they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down…. and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it” (22). So Tolkien himself felt of his own attempts to build a mythology, a world of myths peopled by the imagined authors of those very myths, a tug-of-war between creation and time long agonized over by gods and authors alike.

The brief story of Arda’s creation introduces that atmospheric quality that gives Tolkien’s writings, especially The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, so much power, epitomized in the description of the second Music: “For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (16-17). Melkor’s belligerent music strives to overtake this apparently sweet and gentle sound, “but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern” (17). The sorrow of the Shire losing its innocence, the grief of Elves fading into the West, the fall of Numenoreans trying to overmaster death: their stories find a beautiful harmony in the cosmic music in the clash of Melkor’s brass, “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated” noise, against which the Children of Iluvatar and the Ainur find their melodies resolved.

Elves and Men live in a mixed world of cosmic harmony and disharmony, the collision of music with noise, and sorrow is the note of beauty by which evil is reconciled to good. “And thus was the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars” (22).

Like the Days of the Tree: The Other Voice of Allegory in Tolkien’s Artistic Reflections

So for all of you paying attention to my blog (in other words, for an open letter to myself), you will have noticed that, after finishing The Return of the King, I sort of totally failed to keep up my reading schedule. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is how long it took me to read through the Appendix. (I was also distracted by Terry Brooks’s newest novel and actual, real-life obligations). My plan, laid out here, was to work through the first five History of Middle Earth volumes again and the Unfinished Tales, and then tackle the Silmarillion (my favorite text in the Middle-Earthen corpus). But then, I got a Barnes and Noble Gift Certificate, and I purchased the second edition of The Silmarillion (I have an old, tattered, well-worn copy of the first edition, the only version I know). So the need is upon me for the legend as I know it, and rather than sticking to an artificial plan (useful as it was initially), I’m going to continue in a way that energizes me the most. Specifically, I will provide separate blog posts for each major section of The Silmarillion (the Ainulindale, the Valaquenta, the Quenta Silmarillion, the Akallabeth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). In this post, though, I would like to mull over the letter to Milton Waldman included in the second edition (also in the volume of Tolkien’s letters) where Tolkien gives a conception of his world and literary perspective. Because of my Hawthornian “inveterate love of allegory,” I am fascinated by Tolkien’s attitude towards the concept as laid out in this letter and other places, so I would like to make a few comments here as a prelude to my upcoming posts.

Tolkien’s disparagement of allegory as a literary method is well known to readers of his letters. In his truncated literary biography to Waldman, he writes, “But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!), and for fairy-story” (xi). He is even more explicit as he begins to set out the particular aesthetic behind the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings mythology:

“I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)”

There is much to be said here, but I will contain myself to two observations. First, in the same paragraph and the one that follows, Tolkien labors (as he often does) to distinguish the Power of the Elves from that of the Enemy. The Enemy’s “desire for Power” leads “to the Machine (or Magic)…. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized” (xiii). The Magic and Machine of the Enemy is a Power “concerned with sheer Domination” (xiv). By contrast, of the Elves Tolkien writes, “Their ‘magic’ is Art…. And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (xiii). Of course, as I have discussed, these different ways of imagining Power form the crux of the drama of The Return of the King. But it also seems quite clear that the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s preference for the fairy-tale over allegory with his preference for Elvish Art over the Enemy’s Machine is no accident – for Tolkien is nothing if not marked by the scruples of implication. What I think we can draw from this is essentially that Tolkien abhors interpretive tyranny of Story as much as he abhors dominating tyranny over the “wills and minds of others,” for in fact precisely the same reason: Allegory, as it overmasters the Story, seeks to overmaster both the author and the reader, to dominate the mind with an inescapable conclusion about the Story that leaves no freedom to experience its actual power. Elvish reading and Elvish writing is contrasted from the Enemy’s reading and writing by the desire to witness the awe of narrative Power, rather than the desire to wield it.

Second, I must offer some slight criticism of Tolkien here, which I do so in full submission to how impetuous that feels and probably is. It is moreover a philological point, and in that I blush to instruct Minerva, to borrow a phrase from Bernardus Silvestris, one of those allegorical authors Tolkien viewed so askance. As Tolkien well knew, the meaning of allegory is simply “other-speaking,” or “other-voiced.” I think it useful not merely to intellectually note a word’s meaning, but to inhabit it – on this point I know Tolkien would surely agree, for he says as much in several places. So I ask that we apply a Tolkienian principle of the word to this word of which Tolkien appeared to disapprove. Another voice, another speaking – for a text to be allegorical is for it to sound with a voice elsewhere, perhaps unseen, perhaps far off, calling through the voice of one text to let the reader hear another. Such other-speaking we encounter in none other than Frodo himself: “At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy.” He finds another voice speaking through him – far from being allegorical in the usual sense, this other-speaking is mysterious, enchanting, empowering in a palpably Elvish way, quite literally contrasted with the Machinery of the Enemy (the Nazgul). Now, Tolkien admits the inescapable value of it in articulating the sense of literary meaning he does intend. But this is much like his use of magic, which he both applies to and denies as proper to the articulation of Elvish Art.

Indeed, in a footnote (and I have always been amused by the inexorable nature of scholasticism in Tolkien’s personality that his personal correspondences are rife with adorably pedantic footnotes), Tolkien admits that his “‘elves’ are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking” (xvi). No, quite right – it is precisely the allegorical mode of talking Tolkien had so gruffly professed to dislike (and yet confess its utility in the same grumbling breath). (I do so love the grouchy professorish side of our beloved grouchy professor.) Thus we must say that just as Magic, as a kind of Power, has two manifestations (Art and Machinery), so does Allegory as a kind of reading. So let us say that there is allegory which dominates, and there is allegory which, if I may coin a term, enlegends. Legendary allegory speaks an idea to be more filled with the otherness of Elvish Art, while tyrannical allegory consumes the voice of the text with another speaking Power. It is the difference of the impact of the Nine Rings upon the Wraiths and the names of Elbereth and Gilthoniel upon Frodo and Sam.

So if the Machine is the model of allegory for the Enemy, what is enlegended, Elvish allegory? This question is, I think, actually answered by Tolkien quite directly (as directly as Tolkien gets on the subject, at any rate). It is to be found in “the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold” (xv). No spoilers here for any readers of the Silmarillion (though for those who aren’t, of course): “These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon” (xv-xvi). Of course, the Sun and Moon are merely the more familiar seeds of those ancient trees; the Silmarils, too, are the fruits of the Trees of Valinor, but they are tainted by the malice of Machinery, implicated as Feanor’s craft is in the works of Melkor. Even “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world” (xvi). This is a fascinating departure from the standard sublunary picture given by Neoplatonists and Aristotelians: the changing Moon is often the symbol of worldly fickleness, and the Sun the portrait of divine illumination. But Tolkien intentionally departs from this moon-disparaging lunacy, and dims the sun and the false confidence it creates in mortals, for it is too easily enlisted in the works of the Machinists (if is itself also derived from the Artful trees). It is the Trees of Valinor whose light flows like water that are the picture of legendary allegory in Tolkien. Abstract meaning is not necessarily a means of domination over the imagination, but the soil and the water from which the subcreation of Fantasy can grow in the Tolkienesque fairytale.

Isaiah prophesied God’s promise that “Like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be” (Isaiah 65:22). The psalmist wrote of the blessed man, “And he shall be like the tree planted by rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psalm 1:3). Hyper-allegorical reading drowns seeds in water, like the Silmaril lost at sea, but the river-rich soil of the land is where the Elvish eye sees a place where trees can grow with room to unfurl their light-thirsty leaves. Like a vast forest interlaced with the rivers of water, The Silmarillion‘s legends are watered by that other voice of allegory, and, if we listen to it very patiently, we can hear a music on the water and glimpse through the fallen daylight the treelike glow of a magic sun.

A Pedagogy of Imagination

I design my Introduction to Literature course as an introduction to the history of imagination as a craft and mental ability that can be improved with dedicated, rigorous study and mental focus. This is a version of my concluding remarks, which change slightly every time because I talk from the top of my head and try to cover topics of concern to the students in my class.

Before I let you go, I want to try and put a period on what we have been trying to accomplish this semester. I want to impart to you some of the purpose behind what we have been doing. I do this, teaching Literature, because I really do think it is important. I assure you it is not because of all of the money I make as an adjunct professor. It is because I think taking the time to develop our ability to imagine is a legitimately and inherently good thing for everyone to do. There is no one who cannot benefit from having a richer imagination.

Think of it in the most obvious, practical terms. When have you ever said, “I have decided I am going to do this thing I have never imagined”? When have you established a goal, for a day, a year, or your life, without an act of imagination? It simply isn’t possible – goals cannot happen without the imagination. So if your ability to imagine is dimmed and left undeveloped, your ability to envision your future is not given the same opportunity. Reading, viewing, or otherwise engaging artistic literature literally makes it possible for you to have a wider imagination; it strengthens the mental muscle by which you strive for the future or look for satisfaction in the present.

In your every day life, acts of imagination will be a necessity. You have to imagine the new concepts your teachers present before you; you have to imagine ways to solve problems your employer puts in your hands; getting the job in the first place will require you to help your employer imagine you as a valuable employee, and to do that, you will have to have imagined yourself in a clear and positive way.

People’s imaginations shape our lives in so many different ways, we often take it for granted. We are just barely still aware that laptops, smart phones, Google Maps, and Siri are products of human imagination engaged with the physical world; even more basic niceties, like refrigerators, dish washers, sewer systems, and plastic cups are possible because of an act of imagination. When innovators like Steve Jobs or original thinkers like Einstein are praised, it isn’t for their practical knowledge or dogmatic assertion of the apparently given nature of reality, but of their ability to engage with that exciting world imaginatively.

But it goes beyond finding useful things to do with the imagination, as important as that is. Our ability to be satisfied with good things and comforted in hard times depends and will depend on our ability to imagine. Appreciation for the stars in the sky cannot be sustained without the realization that things didn’t have to be this way. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that if the stars only appeared once every 1,000 years, history would never forget it because of the incredible impression they would make on the human imagination. The particularity of the natural world, and the peculiarity of it, requires a reflective imagination aware that things could be otherwise, but they are this way – the butterflies, birds, and babies, and their coccoons, nests, and cribs, the trees and flowers and creepig and flying things and the cosmic balls of fire and mud on which they depend – are quite the surprise, and a cynical lack of appreciation for this surprising world is the result of the failure of our imaginations when we suppose ourselves now to be sophisticated, informed adults.

In your personal life, too, imagination will be essential. The emotion of love and its matrix of complicated emotions cannot be directly seen – they can only be inferred by the imagination’s ability to see patterns in words, actions, and facial expressions. Love between family members, romantic love, and the love of friendship all require sustained, focused imagination if those relationships are to be truly engaged with real intimacy. Just think of the romantic comedies you have seen – they all depict drama arising out of a failure of one or both of the love interests failing to imagine each other, and from that failure arises great pain. Successful love is in many ways always the result of successful imagination.

I hope for this reason that, even if you have not enjoyed all or even most of the literature we have read this semester (though I hope you have), you have begun to see how your imagination has greater potential and greater purpose in your life. I hope you can see the value of taking literature a little more seriously. Whether it’s a novel read on vacation, a movie seen on the weekend, a Netflix binge or a song on the radio you sing to in the car, I hope you will invest a little more energy in contemplating how this human creation of something beautiful stirs you and awakens your mind to greater thoughts than just “I have to be here at 7” or “I need to make this money and spend it on this car.” Not that those thoughts are by any means bad, but they will not be the memorable thoughts that satisfy the longing you will have for real meaning as you progress through this life. For these reasons, I encourage you to strive for real, lasting, quality experiences of imagination – at the very least, you will never regret having had a beautiful and moving literary experience, of that I am certain.

“If the whole power of pedantry should rise against her, the imagination will yet work; and if not for good, then for evil; if not for truth, then for falsehood; if not for life, then for death; the evil alternative becoming the more likely from the unnatural treatment she has experienced from those who ought to have fostered her.” – George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture”