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:

Top 10 Boethian Authors and Their Books

So you’ve just finished reading The Consolation of Philosophy, and you want to know what to read next (one of the first things people learn about Boethius is that he was enormously influential). Since you spent all day observing his Feast Day on this October 23rd, you’re looking for more reading material. Well, you’ve come to the right place.

  1. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight’s Tale, and, really, everything he wrote.
    Chaucer translated the Consolation himself into Middle English, a scholarly and careful translation that showed how much he admired the work. Chaucer was moved by many themes in Boethius, but above all it was the honest recognition of suffering and the struggle to deal with it intellectually that I believe moved Chaucer’s pen to compose some of the finest Boethian poetry in existence. He also had a magnificent handle on the humor in Boethius.
  2. Dante’s Commedia
    Dante mentions his debts to Boethius explicitly in the Convivio, and his use of Beatrice as a mentor figure, Virgil as the wise pagan, and the penetrating insight into the self-destructive effects of evil breathe fully in the wisdom of Boethian moral philosophy.
  3. Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur
    Malory is to my mind the great captstone of Arthurian literature, looking back at a long line of poetic treatment of the Arthurian materials. Boethian philosophy, it has been shown, reached as far back as the original great Arthurian story, The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. As a work that meditates on the whole legacy of Arthuriana up to that point, Malory creates a City of Godesque survey of the mythology, bringing a beautifully Boethian understanding to the way in which religious truth can be illuminated by efforts of the imagination.
  4. Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia
    This is a bit of an obscure one, but Bernardus Silvestris is a sadly underread author (I recommend the translation by Winthrop Wetherbee). His Cosmographia features a powerful, feminine personification, Nature, who contributed much to the medieval understanding of nature as a concept, and who integrated the Boethian view of education (and storytelling’s role in the liberal arts) into the pedagogy of the 12th century.
  5. C.S. Lewis’s The Great DivorceThe Silver ChairPerelandraPilgrim’s Regress
    Lewis himself put Boethius in the list of the top ten most influential writers on his thought (outside of the Bible), and integrates Boethian thought into many of his stories. How the texture of a philosophical argument can become inspiration for the journey of heroes is a powerful component of the Boethian legacy in Lewis’s writing.
  6. George MacDonald’s PhantastesAt the Back of the NorthwindThe Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie
    MacDonald was a sublime thinker on the subject of the imagination, and much of his meditation on the subject on “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture” resonates with Boethius’s consideration of the subject. What MacDonald picked up on more than almost any other writer, even more than Lewis but perhaps not so much as Tolkien, was that The Consolation of Philosophy is a fairy tale, and just so MacDonald has many fey maidens who instruct elfin knights in the truths of Faerie.
  7. Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsBeren and Luthien, and On Fairy Stories
    Tolkien’s OFS defines a fairy tale as a Fantasy, a product of the rational imagination, which produces the effects of recovery, escape, and consolation, which leads ultimately to joy. This is the precise pattern of the Consolation, and Tolkien knew the Old English translation written either by King Alfred or one of his courtiers. Tolkien’s Nazgul are drawn from Augustine’s and Boethius’s description of evil (especially book 4 of the Consolation), and the One Ring’s effects resonate with Boethius’s understanding of the negative effects of wealth. Also, the Consolation is a deeply theistic text rife with imagination which has an impressive female gift giver and yet never explicitly mentions Christian doctrine, in spite of Boethius as an author of Catholic theology. Just so, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings leaves religious doctrine deeply in the center rather than in the surface language of his work.
  8. John Kennedy Toole, The Confederacy of Dunces
    This is a bizarre, uncomfortable, wild read that highlights the humor in Boethius’s Consolation even more than Chaucer. It’s a bit of a narrative mess, but it’s a text that every Boethian should be familiar with. Just make sure you bring a strong stomach.
  9. John Milton’s Paradise Lost
    Like Boethius, Milton sought to justify God’s ways to men. He didn’t share some major aspects of Boethius’s theology, but ironically, though less orthodox than the theologically stern Roman philosopher, Milton actually worked more of Scripture into his poetic approach to the problem of evil.
  10. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner
    Coleridge mentions Boethius just a few times in his massive Biographia Literaria, and yet does so in a context that directly implies favor for Boethian styles of writing. Perhaps the greatest Anglican poet of them all, Coleridge adopted a prosimetric style in the Rime, perhaps his most famous poem, and the Ancient Mariner’s curse to wander the world and tell everyone about his story whether they want to hear it or not sounds familiar to anyone who knows an ardent Boethius scholar (we’re all a little rabid). I recently showed this connection at a conference panel on Boethius, so you’re at the cutting edge of Boethian scholarship! Yay!

That is just a small taste of the good things one can read as a Boethian – and if you’ve read some of these already, congratulations – Boethius is already in your life. Maybe when I get a chance I’ll write on some more Boethian authors. In fact, looking at this list i notice they’re all men, so next time I do this, I’ll make it exclusively female Boethians! Gotta love lists.

Hold your tongue

“At that word the devil took his time and
whetted her tongue against her teeth; and
when it was well sharpened, she swore to
him in very fierce anger.” – Thomas More

I held my tongue and walked away
and went down, down into the earth
eyes narrow and fists clenched and
went to the fiery forge with the ringing
in my ears and I opened my mouth
and pulled forth my tongue and I held
my tongue and rolled it out and
set it against the anvil and could taste
the years of grime and flinty steel where
men had worked with great labors for ages
and I stretched my tongue and felt the ripping
the jolting agony as it tore away and flat
against the anvil lay like the sole of a brown
shoe and I began to stretch it out and took
in hand the hammer and hefting it
I stood in sweat and shivering
from the pain I paused and prepared
and swung the steel to the soft flesh
and made from my own mouth
my sword and up I stood and sent
my wordless cries writhing to the world
and holding my tongue I walked away,
armed to the teeth and silent.

Vera pax nomine interficiam, dixit Moros.

ca. 2012

Reflections upon waiting in the Waiting Room

I was walking in the realms of the dead

Where old pyramids hide forgotten gods

And empty lakes stand open with motionless

Biers once aflame, now only ashen treasures

Their worth unwritten in the sands

Which stretched on around open, still hands.

Sarcophagi stood ajar, the memory of eyes

Gazing off into no worlds.


Rows of tombstones under leafless maple trees

Whose roots took in no water stood cracked

Like the rounded backs of old men seated

At the cafeterias of unvisited nursing homes

Barely aware of the loneliness created by

The visible memory of their once lives.

The grass wilting before the old tombs,

Memoirs not reminding.


In some places in those realms the dead still

Walk but they are not the happy ones for

At least those who lay at rest do not feel

What they do not feel but those who walk

Still hear the sound of their deafening lies

More dead than the dead whose company,

Shambling, rambling, muttering without breathing,

They keep without keeping.


I could not remember why I had come here

And I saw the crypt where I had been buried

And walked inside to see if I was still there

But came out on the other side; it was empty

Within, and I saw a hill and a valley and

Mounted on the walls I saw mirrors reflecting

A hollow light bouncing that lit

Without brightening.


I saw other forms standing before the mirrors,

Those who had walked through tombs like mine

Their hands raised to the mirrors in confusion

The light bouncing off their dry tongues

And they seemed to want to drink it, but the

Light would not satisfy but only hint

Only promise a drink of vision

But would not give.


Before me rose a mirror and it spoke to me in

Strange somber sounds silvery, seductive, silent,

More silent for the softness of its sounds,

But I could not see my own face, only the dull

Pulse of a false light behind a glass and I could see

A form that was not mine behind, far away in the glass,

Whose hands reached, and I shuddered

And the glass shattered.


And the hands came through and they burned as

They touched me and I heard a chorus above me

As I burned and was pulled through and the glass

Breaking was my skin bleeding as I screamed

And I was hushed and told to look back at

Those who stood at mirrors, thirsting without

Relief for the dead cannot see the purpose

Of the drink they do not desire.


I thought to return and break their glass but

Instead I rose and a current and a sweet smell

Lifted me away as the brightness began to burn and the pain

Was like knives stabbing in and through and

I thought I was screaming, I asked for mercy.

“This is Mercy,” I heard, and I thought I was screaming

but then I heard myself

and I was laughing.

Composed in 2014, on the occasion of listening carefully to The Waiting Room on the recommendation of a dear friend and Genesis enthusiast. Listen yourself below:

Toothbrush (Twilight Parody)

Chapter 1.  Initial Discovery


I was sitting in the car, which was being driven by the woman that I call mother, since she gave birth to me.  Looking out at the window, I felt as though the world simply couldn’t understand me or the deepest feelings reflected in the iridescent pools of my sparkling eyes.  I sighed or grimaced, since I wasn’t sure which I was feeling.

“Things in our past have been rough,” said my mother, “and things in our past have been tough, but the past is past, and . . .”

She just couldn’t say any more, and I just couldn’t hear any more.  She turned her eyes back to the road, probably since she was driving, and I turned with a sigh back to the rolling expanse of that green place out there.  We were leaving the place we had left, left as if it had never happened.  But it had, and it would never, ever go away.

“Amora Bird,” my mother said, “remember that I love you.  That’s why I named you Amora.  Because I love you so much.”

I felt my stomach tighten at those words, words that should have meant something to me, and which almost did, but I was not one given to intense intercommunion with the inner veils of even my own parents.  I was in high school, and always felt so distant and aloof, so very different from people who weren’t like me.  Oh, it is such a burden to be so different!

We were going somewhere, that was for sure.  Somewhere else, that wasn’t home, wasn’t the place we had left.  It would never be the same, because things had changed.

“I’m trying,” my mother said with tears into my silence and my sighing.  “I want you to try too.”

I looked into those eyes and saw the intense obfuscation of turmoil deep within her trying soul.  “I know, mom.  I’m sorry.”

That was all I could say, so I didn’t say anything else.  We pulled into the driveway of our new home, and suddenly it all became so real.  Everything had really happened, and here we really were.  I just hoped I could survive this place, where people didn’t know how fantastic I was.  I sighed as I helped my mother bring our luggage into our most recent domicile.


That night, I was asleep in my bed, thinking about all of the things that had happened that day.  I couldn’t think very clearly for some reason, so I decided to stop, so I just kind of lay there with my eyes closed and my mind drifting through a whole bunch of complex dreams.  As I slept, I felt a little more rested than I did while I was awake, and when I woke up I was tired, but not as tired as I was without sleeping.  I stood onto my feet and stretched, and realized that it was still dark outside.  The clock read 4:50 a.m.  Still a few hours of sanctuary from the cold, tomblike halls of high school that stretch ever on, trying to consume my soul in a swath of morbid conformity.

I looked out of my window into the street below, where the moon was glowing like a big, round lamp, a lamp that someone hung every night so that the sky wouldn’t be so dark.  I saw things moving out there, things that moved with insidious purpose.  It was then that I knew.  It was as if somehow I forgot to think rationally about anything; I just knew.  These things, they weren’t just people.  They were vampires.

Yeah, they looked like people, but they were outside at night.  And they were walking thirstily.  And I read in a book somewhere that vampires walk thirstily in the moonlight, and it sent a chill creeping up my spine, the kind of chill you get when you look out into the street and think that bloodsuckers are running around your neighborhood.  I was so terrified.

But then, I saw him.  I didn’t just see him.  It was like my soul danced out of my bones and did the cha-cha right up to his soul, which came out and then our souls waltzed in the moonlight across the lawn in a spiraling ascent of incredible, instantaneous passion and understanding.  His eyes were like big blue birds, flying in the glint of the sunlight, passionate and real and cool.  His muscles were strong and muscular, and he was wearing a black trench coat that covered his body.  He looked like the kind of neat movie star who wore sunglasses on cloudy days and smiled in the face of horrible danger.  I knew that I loved him, and that he loved me.  He gazed up at me and I knew that he knew what I knew.

May I come inside, his eyes asked me.  Yes, you may, my eyes replied.  And suddenly, he wasn’t in the lawn.  Suddenly, he was in my room.  He leaned close to me and brushed my hair aside.  I ached for him.  I knew he was a vampire, but I figured, hey, nobody’s perfect.

“I am falling in love with you,” I said.

“You don’t even know my name, Amora Bird,” he said, smiling, his fang glistening like two sharp pearls of perfect love.

“Oh, but you know mine, and I will learn yours!” I asserted with all of the vigor of my beating heart.  “I don’t know what is in a name, but what is yours, if we must insist upon Shakespeare, my love?!”

“My name,” he breathed, standing close, his body against mine.  “My name is a thing I do not give out lightly.  Few mortals have heard my name.  Those who have shake at it, they tremble, they fear.  They know what I am and what I like to do in my spare time, and it scares them.  Amora, my name, my name is . . . Bob.”

Bob.  It sent a chill up my spine.  I shivered with love for Bob the vampire.  I put my arms around him.

“Bob, I know you are a vampire!  Please, do what you need to do,” I begged.

“You don’t understand what you’re saying!” he argued, his eyes pleading with desperation.

“No, but I understand what I feel!” I cried passionately.

To that he could brook no argument.  And so, he leaned his head to my neck.  I felt teeth begin to press against my skin.  Then, he stopped.

“Wait . . . wait . . .” he whispered.  “This . . . this is your first time.  I have to brush my teeth first.”

“No, I am ready,” I said, hot tears staining my face.  “You do not need to brush your teeth!”

“I do.  I just . . . I love you, Amora!  That is what your name means, Amora.  It means love.  And love means doing the thing that’s best for you, even if you don’t understand everything.  You have to let me do this.  Please!”

My chest heaved with indecision and an overwhelming sense of ambiguous, floating signifiers.  “Very well.  Come with me.”

So, I took him into my bathroom.  His skin looked like perfection in the brilliant light of the bathroom.  I put the sparkling toothbrush with the glistening toothpaste on those little, amazing bristles, and I said, “There.  Do what you have to do.”

I turned from him then, in that moment, knowing that it was his moment and that I had to leave him to do what he had to do.  He only said, “If I’m not back in five minutes, don’t wait for me.  Save yourself.”

Those words might sound like they were meaningless, but they weren’t meaningless.  They were the most breathtaking words I had ever heard.  My chest heaved with love for the vampire man who would think to say such a thing for me.  I waited in my room.  Thankfully my mom was a heavy sleeper and didn’t expect a vampire to visit me late at night, so she kept her door closed and didn’t hear any of this.  I sat on my bed, aching for my love, my precious Bob.  Even being a part from him was like being apart from someone who was actually not someone else, but a piece of me.

Then he returned, and that feeling I just described went away because it wasn’t true anymore.  Now he was there, not gone.  I sat there, looking at him with my sparkling eyes on his glittering teeth and glistening eyes.  He stood there, looking at my sparkling eyes with his glittering teeth and glistening eyes.

“Is it secret?  Is it safe?” I asked him with passion.

“It is.”

“Please,” I said, “please.  Do what must be done!!!”

“I shall,” he whispered.  Suddenly he was there, holding me, drawing me close, and I knew that for the first time I was truly alive, here in this dead man’s arms.  I felt a flutter in my heart as the bloodsucker jammed his teeth into my neck.  “He truly cares for me,” I sighed.

And that is how I came to be in love with someone I didn’t think I’d ever love, when I didn’t think I could ever love at all.  But I could love, and I did love, and I loved someone I wasn’t supposed to love.  I loved a hygienic vampire!

The Grendel Crawling in Our Skin: In Memory of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington

“I woke up in a dream today to the cold of the static and put my cold feet on the floor.”

I don’t know how to write this post. It’s about the sound of a voice painted in my memories since Middle School. But if I don’t try to walk the talk now that I commit to every time I speak in the classroom, then I will be a hypocrite. So here’s a shot.

The reason it’s important to read Beowulf is because the monsters it describes exist. It’s pure arrogance of the intellect to believe that trolls and dragons aren’t real just because they aren’t visible like sharks or drowning. We don’t need to invent horrors in this world anymore if all we need monsters for is to tell us about physical threats of the animal kingdom or the natural world, or even that other people might hurt us. We tell stories about monsters because we are huddled in the middle of the darkness of our private minds. Stand in the doorway with your back to a dark basement, and without fail your imagination tells you that a Grendel is watching from the shadows. “Then out of the night came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift, the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts,” explains the Beowulf poet. Of course that’s when monsters come. It is so unfathomably stupid that we have, as a culture, tamed the monster, made dragons cute and trolls into toys.

Just this morning I was teaching Beowulf to my students and telling them that an essential part of the hero’s journey is the encounter with death. It’s the encounter with the Abyss, the breaking point where the hero doesn’t just test whether he will shatter. He shatters. He breaks. He is unmade by gazing into the face that dwells inside his skin, like burying the one he loves on Valentine’s Day. And if he is going to become the hero, he needs to integrate the devastation of death into the strength of his arm and the beat of his heart and return to life, having killed the dishonest part of himself, bringing only the truth and leaving out all the rest. And then I open Facebook and see a news link explaining that Chester Bennington has committed suicide.

Grendel and his devouring mother are the kin of Cain, the murderous son of the parents of the whole human race. He’s a cannibal who eats his own. Cain killed his brother, Abel, because he chose to ignore his own failures and foster resentment instead. The descendants of Cain are caught in the flood, and cursed already, they become water monsters. The Grendelkin are just one species of many denizens of the underwater darkness. But see, that’s the thing – monsters are submerged humanity, denied honesty, not merely broken and tragic but having gorged on the delightful premise that they might spread that tragedy to others.

The most tragic question, the real gnawing monster crawling in our own skin, is whether existence can justify the burden of suffering. “I’ve given up. I’m sick of feeling. Is there nothing you can say?” When Chester sang those lyrics, he wasn’t trying to be edgy or melodramatic. He sang them with the power he did because he could feel the Grendels in his papercuts. A papercut is a small wound that insults as it stings, because it’s such a minute reminder of how painfully fragile we are. And no number of first world comforts can hide us from the fact that we aren’t safe alone in our rooms from the real question of whether life is actually meaningful. Some people who don’t have those comforts are grateful for what they do have, because they don’t have the illusion that Grendel isn’t lurking in the basement anymore.

Grendel attacked the mead-hall in Beowulf because the warriors there were listening to the music and song that celebrated creation and the glory of the God who made it, while he suffered from the grievous wound of a cursed loneliness. This is not naïve character creation, because monsters have a point: whether in mind or body, some people do have wounds of loneliness that will not heal. It is rational to resent unhealing wounds. It makes sense. Something inside you is, with disturbing legitimacy, pulling beneath the surface, something that consumes and confuses your self-control, when it actually feels like the walls are closing in, the ugly weight of despair and depression whispers: Be a monster. And that whisper becomes louder until it screams.

That is the Grendel crawling in our skin, and it is the one that we are all battling. We all are. Some people roll their eyes when suicide is linked to mental disorder, but what they are really doing is not denying the mental disorder. They’re afraid. And they should be. Because the fact that suicide can happen means that every single person they love is capable of the same brokenness. Something can go wrong, maybe in one bad day or maybe in a series of inward refusals to face the Abyss and an even worse series of refusals to leave it, and then they’ll be completely unable to help.

I was always mesmerized by the performance of Chester, the red-faced, full-bodied, lung-stretching howl of violent melody that he brought to each song. He did more than perform; he battled the song into existence, admitting the brutal fight was happening even as he fought it – told us, though “nobody’s listening,” that we need to listen to music and fight existential resentment too, because the face is right beneath our skin.


Sometimes heroes fall in the fight. But that they fell doesn’t make them Grendels. It makes them our fallen comrades, and we have to honor them properly: we have to fight all the harder against the crawling Grendel that tells us that we don’t matter, that we can’t overcome, that our feelings and our frustrations are pointless and aren’t worth hearing, that we are less than conquerors and that there’s nothing inside of us that is greater than the monstrous ingratitude and deep grief of Grendel.

We need to get a little further and try a little harder to not let ourselves or others be alone anymore. We have to listen to our own haunting wail that says it doesn’t even matterwe need to hear ourselves say it doesn’t matter so that we can actually know that it does. We have to stop hiding the Grendel in our papercuts. We have to keep killing the Grendels before they kill us.

I like to think that, for a while and most of the time, Chester had learned to become to become so numb to Grendel that he couldn’t even feel him there, and that he performed his song right in Grendel’s stupid, evil face, resisted him and made him flee. I don’t understand my own grief about the death of a celebrity I never met – some part of me feels silly about it even now. But that’s a Grendellish part, one that thinks humans can’t really connect over art. Of course they can. And Linkin Park has given us a tool, a sword to put some blood in the demon’s cuts – it acknowledges that the Grendel is crawling in our skin. And like cockroaches, those disgusting lies haunting our minds don’t like to be brought to light. Good. Let there be light on all the ugliness inside.

The least heroic thing about Beowulf is actually that he fought the monsters alone. The most heroic thing about Beowulf is that when Hrothgar gave him wisdom, he listened, and when Weahltheow gave him a cup, he drank from it, and when God gave him a sword in the darkness of the underwater cavern, he brought it to bear. Fighting suicide isn’t about being tougher or stronger, it’s about fighting the temptation to be strong alone. The dragon takes all of us eventually, but the greatest lie the dragon’s minion tells is that we have no allies in the fight. Kings and queens and all the heroes of the hall are everywhere, and the memories of those loved ones who die in Grendel’s deceptions can numb us to dragonfire long enough to make us able to sacrifice death to the pursuit of a meaningful life.

My prayers are with those who survive Chester, especially the Bennington and Linkin Park families. And my prayer is with you, if you feel the crawl in your skin, to not give up and not try to do it alone anymore. Whatever the face inside is telling you, your life matters. Even if you’re not with me, I’m with you.

Communication Theory, Cognitive Sense Analogues, and American Sign Language as a Foreign Language

UPDATE: Wonderful news! The ad hoc committee members in favor of accepting ASL as a legitimate foreign language, with all institutional benefits that implies, were successful in making their case to the SUNY Student Mobility Steering Committee and Office of the Provost. My opinion piece, presented here, appeared in Appendix E of materials submitted by the subcommittee. It’s an honor to have contributed to such a worthy cause, small though my role was. Photos included at the bottom of the post.

Please note, in this piece I do not claim expertise in ASL or in linguistics. This is an opinion piece which I wrote to be consulted by an academic committee.

As an English professor whose concentration is in medieval literature and language theory, I bring a perspective that I believe illuminates some important reasons why ASL should be regarded as a foreign language. My academic research in the connection between the senses as an analogue for knowledge is primarily the expertise I draw upon below. Personal experience also informs the perspective I set forward here. I myself am mildly hard of hearing in one ear, but my grandmother, with whom I live, is severely hard of hearing, and struggles with conversation in person and on the phone even with sophisticated hearing aids. The argument I provide is that, because of its integrity as a language in terms of the classical paradigm of language structure (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and because of the cognitive shift in understanding required by someone from the hearing community (including a deaf or hard of hearing individual previously unexposed to ASL) to truly learn an essentially different way of processing experience, ASL ought to be considered fundamentally as a foreign language. I will, after elucidating this argument, include responses to some objections.

In my academic work, I focus on the intersection of two relevant sites of inquiry: the trivium and the sensorium. The trivium, in the classic liberal arts tradition, are the comprehensive arts of language, which are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Put simply, grammar is the study of correct use of language; logic is the use of language in a valid and sound chain of reasoning; rhetoric is the use of language in a persuasive way to produce emotions or persuasion in the audience. From an ancient, medieval, and Renaissance perspective (and one endorsed by many modern liberal arts pedagogues), the capacity to write is a powerful tool for refining these disciplines, but what constitutes the essential nature of a particular language is the most natural mode of communication combined with the best practices for communication within that mode. Spoken words, in most communities, therefore constitute a primary quality in understanding a given language because writing is an artificial technology which refines possible discourse. What is primary about language, then, is not its capacity to produce writing, but its capacity to produce community through its unique structures of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (which is why Braille or computer coding, for example, may be communicative but are not truly independent languages). As Miriam Joseph explains in The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, “Communication, as the etymology of a word signifies, results in something possessed in common; it is a oneness shared” (Joseph 7). It is hard to imagine a deeper oneness shared between people than by words they agree upon as the ones which constitute goodness, truth, and beauty, and by which they make themselves and their ideas known to each other.

That being the case, a deaf person who learns to communicate through ASL is not learning a replacement “basic communication” instead of American English (or whatever other spoken language). They must learn the most natural word order to express ideas (which is different from English word order), a simple but powerful obstacle to overcome. It is a challenge similar to the difficulty English speakers might have, for example, in learning German word order or a case system in Latin (both of which I have studied and, in the case of Latin, designed a placement test for Saint Louis University’s Latin program). This type of cognitive shift also implies a different approach to logical expression, which means that ASL diversifies the experience of fitting meta-discursive ideas together. Furthermore, because of the stress of physical movement to create emphasis, intimacy, or other expressions, ASL exhibits a motor-based rhetoric, meaning that persons signing to each other must be sensitive to emotional cues and volitional requests or demands just as in any spoken rhetorical situation. This means that an ASL interpreter is not simply “transcribing” a spoken talk as a stenographer does, for example, but actually translating it – they must accommodate, in real time, not only the words but the ideas and emphases of the speaker to the communicative norms of grammar, logic, and rhetoric which are particular to ASL. Such an attempted “transcription” would be impossibly slow and complex to the point of uselessness, because ASL does not function at the most basic level the way a spoken language does. Nonetheless, ASL interpretations are as rich and communicative as the spoken utterances they relay, and as such are independent translations rather than simple non-verbal reiterations. This leads, I believe, to understanding the foreignness of ASL, as distinct from, say, English.

As someone who has translated from several languages (particularly ancient languages such as Latin and Old English), I am familiar with the notion of something being “lost in translation.” This is why learning a foreign language is particularly useful – the nuances of meaning are deeply particular to the form of communication, and so reading Homer’s Iliad in Greek cannot be replaced by reading it in English (even if it is still a worthwhile endeavor, especially if the translator is good at her job). In speaking with Kathleen Vollmer, a deaf professor of ASL at Erie Community College, it became immediately clear to me that this “lost in translation” problem (symptomatic to my mind of encounter with foreign modes of thought) is one which affects, mutually, communication between deaf ASL signers and hearing English speakers. It is not simply that deaf people cannot hear words from the hearing community, which I discovered in my own interactions with my grandmother when she received improved hearing aids. Oftentimes, she can hear me, but cannot understand me, because the pure sensory information of sound requires a strategy of interpretation which, as a result of us learning this information during infancy, we do not even realize we are employing. I have to adopt different cues (often with certain gestures or facial cues) that are not a language but are communicative aids to putting my grandmother’s listening anxieties to rest before she can hear me. I must also speak differently in order to accommodate how she thinks language works, which even as a hard of hearing person (rather than a deaf person) is nonetheless significantly different from those without significant hearing impairments think it does. For example, my grandmother takes offense when I am confused by what she means when she mispronounces a word, because she does not think the quality of its sound but the quality of her intent that controls meaning. Helping her to assimilate new knowledge requires a mode of explanation that must shift not because she cannot hear me (she can, with her hearing aids), but because she thinks of the language game as primarily about emotional successes or failures of sympathy (visibly relayed through gesture and facial cues) rather than about exchange of ideas. Once I adopt her mode of interaction, I can help her to understand the ideas. She does not know ASL, but she already exhibits what I would say is a different cognitive strategy (manifested in lip reading instead of listening, for example, even when she can hear my utterances) than I, as essentially a member of the hearing community, normally use. Events like going to church or social gatherings are highly stressful (she is avoiding going to a Bingo night with a friend even as I write this) not because she cannot “hear,” but in her own words, “those experiences just feel so odd to me – they stress me out.” She lacks comfort not with hearing (which she can do), but hearing-based patterns of cognition.

The point of cognitive strategies as related to sense analogues for thought is not a minor one, and has been the subject of much intellectual inquiry. The term “Enlightenment,” for example, one used in a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, uses visual cues for the sense of sight to explain what it is to understand something. We “throw light on subjects,” or provide a “vision” of our goals for an academic institution. But as the scholar Walter J. Ong has pointed out, these sense analogues for thought processes are, though rooted in human biology, also a matter of social variability:

It is useful to think of cultures in terms of the organization of the sensorium. By the sensorium we mean here the entire sensory apparatus as an operational complex. The differences in culture which we have just suggested can be thought of as differences in the sensorium, the organization of which is in part determined by culture while at the same time it makes culture… for abstract thinking the proximity senses—smell, taste, and in a special way touch (although touch concerns space as well as contact and is thus simultaneously concrete and abstract)—must be minimized in favor of the more abstract hearing and sight. Growing up, assimilating the wisdom of the past, is in great part learning how to organize the sensorium productively for intellectual purposes… The sensorium is a fascinating focus for cultural studies. Given sufficient knowledge of the sensorium exploited within a specific culture, one could probably define the culture as a whole in virtually all its aspects. (Ong, The Presence of the Word 6)

It makes sense that human communities would arrange their culture making strategies around the senses of hearing and sight – they cannot help it, because as a pair they are the fundamental way we learn about something without having to risk touching or tasting it (which could be fatal in the wrong circumstances). But as Ong discusses elsewhere, as an oral culture (one which does not have written words) attempts to understand something, they would not classify information the way a post-writing culture would. They would see, for example, wood, fire, flint and meat as a reasonable group (because they all imply the same action), but would not see hammers, axes, and flashlights under the same category (they are tools, we would say) because categorical thinking is more highly developed in a print-based world. More on this can be seen in Ong’s Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word, but the point here is that even between hearing communities, the one oral and the one based on the written word, fundamental cognitive differences exist not only in the structure of communication, but in the relationships conceived between those structures (the grammar and rhetoric), and thus what will seem like a persuasive idea (rhetoric).

It is specious, therefore, to think that the fundamental marker of foreignness of a language is rooted in geography. I imagine that a Native American language such as Tuscaroran, which is only recently being codified into a written language here at Niagara University, and despite the appellation “American” would not, I think, be disbarred from the reasonable recognition that Tuscaroran is a foreign language to American English speakers. Advances in ASL in the U.S. and Canada, for that matter, might contribute to sign languages being developed further on the global scene, given our visible status on the international scene. The foreignness of cognitive strategy becomes apparent even in the most basic of interactions between hearing and deaf individuals. Without even thinking of it, I told Professor Vollmer that I was “listening” to her concerns – what I meant (although I also meant that I was hearing her) was that I was intently regarding her ideas with respect and sympathy. We load so much significance into that word – when we tell someone that we “hear” them, we often mean something like, “I can feel the persuasive power of what you’re saying,” even if we do not agree. Should it be argued that foreign languages are studied into appreciate a diversity which expands beyond our horizons, then the cognitive shift required in moving from a hearing-based to a deaf-based way of communication (which is also a way of contemplation and community building) achieves that end in a way that does not merely extend beyond American shorelines but beyond cognitive biases we may harbor about what constitutes real intellectual work. Deafness is not like other disabilities, which require accommodations, often in the form of particular tools; ASL is not a tool, but a dynamic facility of expression which can enrich even a hearing person’s conception of communication. It would seem strange to argue that deaf culture is not exotic enough because it is formed within a particular region, when something as fundamental as a culture’s cognitive patterns, which necessitate a different approach to expression, is what is at stake in learning ASL.

Concerns, furthermore, that conferring the dignity of a foreign language to ASL will harm other foreign languages strike me as unnecessarily alarmist and even ableist (discrimination in favor of able-bodied people). The only reason someone might take ASL instead of Spanish, for example, under this view is that they are under the illusion that ASL is “easier” than Spanish, which given the reasons above (the differences in grammar between ASL and American English, and the fundamental shift in mental strategies involved in communication) is not the case, as any first year ASL learner (such as my mother) realizes immediately when communicating with someone fluent in the language. Advocacy of the importance of learning foreign languages is the responsibility of those who teach them, and they do so well. Student choices in such matters in any case are typically overseen by advisors, and advisors will be able to help students to decide which foreign language is best suited for their particular career goals. In many cases, this will not cause students en masse to stop taking other foreign languages in favor of ASL, especially if part of the rationale for giving ASL foreign language status is that it presents the type of challenging cerebral efforts involved in learning a fundamentally different way of communicating, which it is. Furthermore, any concern that more people with facility for ASL would harm the job market for ASL interpreters would be an argument that could be applied as easily to any other foreign language, and yet it is not used against the idea of having a baseline foreign language requirement to preserve the job market for French ambassadors or translators. Such an argument would, again, be based only on the naïve assumption that ASL is easy and that basic facility with it equips one as much as someone who has devoted a major or minor to it (which is, to be clear, not a possibility). A skillset does not equal a career, but may enrich that career, and just as it is good for the Spanish speaking community in America for more students to have some working knowledge of Spanish (however basic), it is good for the deaf community to have awareness of their culture and modes of communication manifested in a less marginalized way.

Finally, the foreign language requirement stresses in most case not only speaking and listening in a given language, but reading and writing. It may be argued that reading and writing do not exist in ASL and therefore that it does not have the depth or rigor of learning other foreign languages. But writing is in fact an externalization of auditory processes, as has been discussed by Walter Ong in “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” The illusion that words, such as the words you are reading now, are fixed and silenced is an illusion of imaginative habit, because in fact every time you read you sound a word to yourself. The neural systems which allow members of the hearing community to hear are still at work when reading. Currently, writing is primarily a visual extension of an auditory facility, and so of vital importance to learn in other foreign languages, but preventing ASL from being a language on the basis that it does not operate like a hearing-based language is effectively to bar it from foreign language status on the basis that it is foreign from cognitive strategies familiar to hearing communities.

Perhaps a more rigorous ASL writing system, along with an improved ASL curriculum, texts, certification, and other foreign language benchmarks are nonetheless desirable, but these things exist for other foreign languages because foreign language speakers have had the benefit of development at institutions of learning since at least the universities of the Middle Ages. The curriculum of any foreign language emerged when figures such as Dante and Boccaccio, for example, strengthened the need and desire for a curriculum in the medieval Italian university, at a time when someone might have well argued that Latin is all one needs to be a true intellectual. The rise of the very vernacular languages which a foreign language department hosts required a willingness to design, develop, and institute such disciplinary advantages. ASL is at the beginning of this process, and it would be an injustice, I think, to halt the process on the grounds that it is not yet the discipline it could be (to say little of what it already is, which is quite a lot). Many institutions, such as my own, have adopted ASL as an option, but more work needs to be done, institutionally and personally, in providing the language with the status it deserves. For these reasons, I believe that American Sign Language should be classified as a foreign language, on the basis of both sense-based cognitive theory and classic conceptions of the distinctiveness of one language’s fundamental operations (how it is used correctly as regards grammar, rhetoric, and logic). Therefore, I recommend that institutions which host ASL learning embrace it fully in the foreign languages community and curriculum.


Images from the report:


The memorandum to the SUNY Academic Officers from the SUNY Provost announcing the Student Mobility Steering Committee’s recommendation that the pro-“ASL as a foreign language” side be taken by the SUNY academic system, and that this recommendation would be duly implemented in SUNY programs.


Table of contents for the many appendices submitted by the committee, in which my opinion piece appears as the second item under Appendix E, “Language Theory.”


First page of my piece as it appears within the report.



The wonderful ECC professor who asked for my contribution gave me this penguin USB stick as a gift. Aww!

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.

Conclusion: Divine Imagination

Iluvatar said to them, ‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.’ – J.R.R. Tolkien

            I set aside in this short chapter my reservations here and say, I do believe in God. I believe in the Divine Imagination, the symphony of all truths on the spectrum from science to mathematics; I can see no out from it, no recourse from its presence in any corner of the universe. I grant to you readily that I may have, at some point, or more correctly, probably at many points, made errors. But I have tried to account for them as best as I could, and tried to show that, even in error, the concepts lend themselves to a belief in the truth of things even beyond my error. As I said at the outset, making a case for the existence of God cannot be like making a case for the existence of a species of frog, because God is not like frogs, or like unicorns, or like spaghetti monsters or perfect islands or any of those silly examples those hostile to the belief will posit. The case for God is not in science alone, but, as I have said, in the interdisciplinary function of all means of knowledge-making.

If this argument I have set down gets any kind of readership, I suspect it will be attacked in many different ways, both kindly from fellow believers in God, viciously from believers in another kind of God, kindly from good hearted agnostics and atheists, and viciously from other atheists. In the event that my argument is simply bad, it will probably get little readership anyway, and what can I do about that? Nothing, really. However, I do not think this argument should be treated like a children’s game where you stack sticks in a tall tower, and pulling out just a few, the whole thing collapses. I think it would be very rash, and missing the spirit of the argument altogether, to simply show some weak points and say, Ah ha, your argument is a failure! I see this argument less like such a tower, and more like a large raft. The raft may have some rotten or broken planks, but we should not cast ourselves into the sea on their account; we should, instead, hope to find better rafts and planks to put in their place. That is not to say that my argument should not be disagreed with; far from it. But I think that if you are going to take a raft away from some ragged sailors drifting out at sea, you had better think of a better one to give them, or in the end, you’re really not being terribly fair. If my raft isn’t floating, show me where the water is coming in, but don’t push me overboard, please!

It has not been my goal to “disprove” atheism, as it has been the goal, lately, of atheists to disprove Christianity or other theistic beliefs. I am not interested in disproving other people’s worldviews; I don’t think it is a very productive way to spend my time. This short work is not an attack, and not really a defense, though the language of defense has in some places been unavoidable (argumentation has that quality, I often find). It is instead, I think, a fairly good set of ideas which hang together rather plausibly, and show that those who believe in God are not merely anti-intellectual fools who have no care for evidence. They hang together conceptually in a way fitting as do colors in a painting, and as Ockham’s Razor tells us, fittingness does have something to do with reasonable belief. I think that any New Atheist (I am thinking of the particularly aggressive kind I have encountered mostly online or in the form of Dawkins or Hitchens) who reads this argument and simply dogmatically claims that I am wrong, hateful towards me for a position I hold and derisive of me for it, is the one with the problem, not I. Clinging to some little error somewhere that I have made doesn’t seem sufficient, either. Now, if a friendly atheist looks at my argument and intimates kindly that my argument doesn’t convince him, I can respect him for that, and I’ll listen with interest to fairly laid out criticism. I don’t dislike or disapprove of him for honest intellectual dissent. I commend him for his intellectual independence, and I’d rather like to hear his reasons for disagreeing. But I am not interested in attacking atheists for their beliefs, and I am definitely not interested in them attacking me.

I want to turn away from that issue, and say a few closing words about the ramifications of the argument I have laid out for theism, and for Christianity as well. The quest of mortals is, it seems to me, to reproduce the likeness of God through a balance of spirit and law, but due to our finite nature we can never reach a totality of balance between the abstract and the motive, math and philosophy on the one side and history, science, in short, energy on the other. There is a natural tendency to gravitate towards the one or the other, and this is not wrong. In even a prelapsarian state we would have inclinations; our fallen nature leads us to a deadlier quest to learn whether the mind or the body rules (and impinges upon that freedom spoken of in chapter 7). It is a futile battle which pits communist against capitalist, Christian against Jew, public versus private and man against woman. It is not the business of the abstract to rule energy; it is not the business of energy to silence the abstract, though this is what their imperfect spokespersons hope to do.

The imagination is that which creates a whole where nothing else implies such wholeness. Divinity is the purest imagination, the space of fullest possibility where all abstract and motive truths can exist without conflict. Here in our fallen, finite world, however, failures of imagination result in a conflict between the abstract and the motive. God’s first creative act was to bring the material into the abstract, and create spirit creatures. His second act was to bring the abstract to the material, creating the universe. An illusion of hierarchy between angels and men exist only because of our postlapsarian nature. In perfection, humanity is the spiritual capstone of the material world, much as the angel is the material capstone of the spiritual world. But for all moral possibility both had to be created, and so God created according to His own moral demands.

Reason and Passion are by nature irreconcilable, if taken separately. Imagination alone, in its mystic quality, can bring them together. Satan appeals to both, excites and feeds both, but he drains the imagination to mere fancy. He can twist reason and engorge the passions; to use the imagination to his ends he can only diminish it, for a stronger imagination is a shield against demons. Having lost the Divine Imagination, they exist now in Tartarus, in the fire of matter and the ice of spirit, which burns and freezes, for they are touched by both and comforted by neither.

This state they have hoped to thrust upon mortals, and it can be seen. Communism is an icestorm of mental attacks on the body; capitalism is a bodily revolt against reason. Freedom is not in regulation nor in rights; it is in reconciliation of rules with passions, and such reconciliation can occur only in the imaginative Divine. For God so imagined reality, that he placed the word in Flesh, for Christ is the holy ambassador of the worlds, and the holy spirit, the dove, the activity of the Divine Imagination which made salvation real.

So God is the highest imaginative union of the worlds, and as his creatures we can share, in a much lesser way, in this same divine activity. Yet as we learn in the scene of the tree of knowledge, our imagination must repose on God’s finer imagination and seek to explore His, not merely expand our own. We have a calling, as God’s creatures, to work together in an interdisciplinary appreciation of the cosmos, to better understand the beauty of the celestial symphony God prepares for us, day after day.

Chapter 7: A Good Problem

“After all, he’s not a tame lion.” – Mr. Tumnus

                This chapter I shall present, as in the last, in rather formalized logic. It may seem a bit redundant to have two chapters which look at the problem of evil, but I think that a second pass is worthwhile, because it is, indeed, a very powerful argument. So, my hope is to present, in this chapter, a case against the problem of evil in another direction: that the Problem of Evil implies a corresponding Problem of Good, which is as difficult for the atheist, I think, as the Problem of Evil is for theists. My hope is that in approaching the issue of evil from a second direction, one not from free will but from the concepts of good and evil themselves, the plausibility of the complete goodness and absolute power of the divine mind will be more wholly defended. After all, we do not call a table with only one leg stable; it takes a few to stand well.

Let’s look at the Problem of Evil as usually presented: 1. There is evil. 2. God exists. 3. God is all-good. 4. God is all-powerful. 5. These premises imply a contradiction because a good being tries to end evil. Therefore, God cannot be all good and all powerful, because obviously he has not eliminated evil. There are two problems if this is the argument the atheist is using. First of all, this does not disprove God. It only disproves his being both all-good and all-powerful, or attempts to do so. There are pantheons in certain religions which certainly have such gods. This, however, is not my point.

The Problem of Good is as follows: 1. There is evil in the world.2. Either evil is objective or subjective.

  1. If evil is subjective, then the atheist cannot use it to disprove God’s goodness or power. The very nature of subjective is to say that it is specific to human experience and response; if evil is only a matter of subjective experience and no objective morality gives rise to it, then it is not a ‘fact’ in the way the atheist needs it to be. In short, the Problem of Evil needs evil to be an objective fact. Because objective claims cannot be made against the postulated objective good and powerful qualities of God from a subjective experience. Put another way, we cannot say that the sun is not bright based on the fact that I am not looking at it. Even if we say it is the experience of human vision which makes the sun bright, then we can say that the sun is subjectively bright. We can not say anything from it of the objective brightness if we argue that the experience of brightness is merely subjective. Similarly, if we say that evil is subjective, then we cannot use it to postulate about the objective nature of God.
  2. If evil is objectively true, then so is the good. For I take evil to mean either “that which fails to be good in some way” or “that which opposes the good in some way.” Evil necessarily implies good, because the first is defined in terms of the second. Good is a standard, evil is a type of deviation from that standard.
  3. If this is the case, then good must also objectively exist. We cannot say now that good is a subjective truth and evil an objective one, because one is derived from the other. Either morality is subjective or not. We are following the thread of not.
  4. If it can be said that the good exists, then we can say that the unexplainable exists. By the very nature of the atheist’s invective, it is the unexplainable aspect of evil which stands against the power and goodness of God. Often it is said by these thinkers that “Such senseless evil denies the existence of God.” But by their admission, evil is outside of logic. In this way, good is also outside of logic. By outside I do not necessarily mean that we cannot understand what is good and evil through logic, but only that the existence of good and evil cannot be explained by it. How individual cases come to be are one thing; it is the objective reality of both which is unexplainable.
  5. If we hold that good is as senseless as evil, in the sense that we cannot understand it, then we cannot logically connect the senseless evil to the senseless good in such a way to disprove the existence of the good. In this case, the good is God. Senseless evil cannot be used against senseless good by the very fact that both are senseless.
  6. Should we say, however, that good and evil are not senseless but entirely apprehendable, we stil must contend with the fact that the good exists. If it does exist objectively, then we must see that it exists outside of subjective humanity. In what sense does the good exist? Does it exist like a number or a philosophical point? In what senses do these things exist? These are difficult questions, but I don’t think we need to answer them to see why now the problem of evil fails. If the good indeed exists objectively, then it exists objectively regardless of evil’s existence.
  7. In short, we can say: Objective evil implies objective good. Objective good is outside of human subjectvity, and so cannot be contained or limited by evil, for this is what it means to exist. Just as evil implies good, it is good from which evil is understood, so the objective good is seen to be higher. Based on the reality of any evil, the reality of any good cannot be disproved; in fact, belief in its existence should only be made stronger.

Finally, I will conclude this chapter by saying that by objective good, I think it has been shown that I mean God. As I see it, there is no difference whatsoever between these terms. Whatever the objective good is, that is God. We may not understand goodness, and so we may not understand God, but these terms are identical. Whatever goodness is in its purest form, that is God. Of course this does not clarify what God looks like, but that is not the issue here. We do not need to know anything further than that God is the good. Now, this claim runs the risk of sounding circular: behind my assumption of moral reality is my belief in God’s existence. But that is not the direction the argument takes. I assert first that morality is somehow “real,” and once having shown that, I think that it must be seen that this reality must have its origin with the same origin of all other realities. On this grounds you will often hear me say something like, where you have perceived a moral truth, you have been given a glimpse of God.