My Kingdom for a Metaphor!

I love my work. It is a rare profession to be able to discuss history, literature, art and philosophy all in one setting. Synthesizing the great ideas of the West is like looking at the entire world from the height of an airplane through the lens of a microscope. 30,000 feet at 300x magnification. Everything and everywhere all at once.

But it can also be unsettling—certainly for the students, but also for me. I often feel caught between the moon and New York City. I don’t always have the answers, and I, too, am often confused. But, as we tell the students, taking our cues from Socrates, confusion is a good place to begin—for it prompts us toward discovery.

One of the areas in which students struggle is in transposing philosophy and literature. It is not that they do not grasp the differences in genres—as they almost invariably prefer the latter to the former. It is that they do not always know how the metaphors of literature are understood in the descriptive analysis of philosophy.

In fairness, these modes are frequently at one in their aims if often opposed in their means. As Kierkegaard notes, the outer, physical world feels chaotic and unjust—and it often is—while the world of the spirit conforms to immutable, divine laws. “He who shall not work shall not eat” is an immutable law of the spirit, to which we would readily assent, for all must labor and cultivate their own gardens. But reality shows that sometimes the unjust do not truly work for their bread, and yet their bellies are glutted and their tongues saturated. In the stories, the good nearly always succeed, while the wicked are put down—and the world is restored to heavenly order once again. Aladdin, in choosing integrity and aiming at personal wholeness, achieves both wholeness and riches. But to choose integrity in the outer world often comes with the price tag of significant loss and suffering.

Such is the dilemma Bobby presented in class. In our discussion of Summa Theologica, Bobby wrestled with the concept, like St. Thomas Aquinas before him, of the objective world being understood by the subjective subject. How can reality ever be understood if we see things solely through our individual experience? The existentialist throws his hands into the air and proclaims that such a feat is impossible, for, he incorrectly reasons, existence must precede essence. Or, in other words, life or self-hood must come before understanding or consciousness. Humanity has no fundamental value—no established essence or nature—so we have the freedom to create our nature. Subjectivity matters more than objective fact.

To help himself out, Bobby turned to the Ugly Duckling. For the aesthetically-unpleasing fowl was not vulgar by nature, only in comparison to his more uniformly attractive siblings. He was taught he was ugly only because he was in the wrong flock. Reason, Bobby explained, could not address every human concern because we cannot apply it to all things—as, for example, matters of faith.

I applauded dear Bobby for his efforts, but in this case, it was the metaphor applied to the wrong thing. The very purpose of the Thomistic project was the synthesis of reason and faith, so that where reason can rationally demonstrate the existence of God yet cannot prove the nature of the Trinity, it can be supported by faith; and where faith cannot explain the effect of physics on my six-year-old’s ability to get a pill stuck in his sinus cavity, reason can. But then again, perhaps there are things never to be understood. The Ugly Duckling does not show the triumph of subjectivity but the necessity of objectivity—the need to rise out of one’s own immediate experience and to see the world as it rightly is.

The existentialist will once again raise his probing finger to claim we cannot know how the world rightly is. It is a problem as old as Plato, and even older when we see the Hebrew God do battle against his Egyptian challengers. The objective, measured testing of scientific hypotheses and religious truth claims are more or less one and the same. As Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, we have only to measure Christian morality to Nazi morality to know that one is far preferable to another. One is consonant with reality and the moral good, while the other wilts beneath the blazing heat of its truth.

What happens when the metaphor becomes a fixed prism through which to view reality? After all, surely Richard would not have relinquished his entire kingdom for a mere horse—for the horse would be the means by which he would attempt to reclaim the kingdom. The nature of metaphors is the power of analogy, to see in one thing but for a moment that this is the same as that. Yet if young readers cannot see past the story, they are apt to think that the story always ends happily ever after. That the Bachelorette always finds her man becomes as insoluble a truth as the Christ always rises from the tomb. The meaning, rather than clarified through metaphor, becomes lost in its details. The declarations of reason shatter in the beautiful depictions of poetry. The particular individual becomes everything while the universal becomes nothing.

I am happy to say that I think we walked Bobby through his angst and came out on the other side like Dante washing the angelic marks from his brow. And this is what learning in community should do for us—to tackle a big shelf topic together, to build consensus, and to discover truth.

Reason and Nonsense

The human condition is a paradoxical one. What feels right to the human heart can be so very wrong, what seems logical remains so only by a steadfast belief in false premises. As Shakespeare’s Lear drives home with painful acuity, nations are often governed by fools claiming to be professionals, while the professional fool is the only one wise and brave enough to tell the truth. Reason is held to be the intellectual domain of the elite, and nonsense presumed the state of the working class; little time needs to be spent with the elite to understand that what they deem reasonable is frequently at odds with reality.

My recent creative project is a collaborative one. Partnering with my inestimable colleagues, Dr. Andrew Jacobs, Director of the Great Books Honors Program, and Dr. Taten Shirley, Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, we are producing a weekly podcast entitled Reason and Nonsense.

Unfortunately, this news may produce a collective groan more than any hopes we may hold of hearing Hoorays or rounds of He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. There are many podcasts out there from which one may sample generously. Political punditry. True Crime. Fantasy Football. The History of the English Language—if that’s your pleasure. Why do we need one more podcast? To which I would answer, surely, we don’t. The market is already saturated with more highly talented amateurs than we three. But we create because it is in the human spirit to create, and to create in community finds ever greater rewards than in the isolation of one’s own thoughts. To expand our community beyond the classroom walls and the halls of our university is more rewarding still.

For the primary audience for this podcast will be current college students, our dearly missed GB alumni, and any others interested in commentary on Great Books. We will draw from the ancients and moderns, contemplating some of the philosophical ideas on the air that we don’t always have time to address in class. As in our classrooms, the tone will be playfully serious, as we will dive into “big shelf topics” like love and romance, God and faith, and literature and culture. Surely some will find our discussions superfluous at best, irreverent at worst. But it is a short journey from prudent to prudish, and those who would deride our banter likely know little of the earnest camaraderie between fellows of the mind and heart. We take this approach ultimately because life is alternately a comedy and a tragedy: a tragedy because of human suffering, but even more a comedy because we are empowered to transcend suffering. To laugh at evil, even to mock it, infuses our bones with strength and courage; for evil holds no power in a world with an empty tomb. The more light we can shine in the darkness, the less darkness will reign over us. Likewise, the more nonsense we bring to reason, the more reasonable we shall become.

You can find the first episode here, and I will link each subsequent episode to one of the pages here on this blog if you are a frequent visitor and would like to make your way to the program. Like Charles Foster Kane’s Declaration of Principles—though hopefully proclaimed with more integrity than he—I can promise several things. I can promise we will be funnier to ourselves than we are to you, but that will not stop you from laughing. I promise we will disagree and debate but always start from a place of respect for one another and commitment to the truth. And I promise we will speak not because we have to say something but because we have something to say.

I cannot promise many goods, though I can affirm we are each together in search of the Good. We invite you to join the search with us.

A Defense of Poetry

In 1579 Sir Philip Sydney composed a response to Renaissance criticisms that English drama was a hotbed of wickedness in his apology, The Defence of Posey. Though no one during the Renaissance had ever witnessed an episode of Game of Thrones, these claims against the stage were understandable for an age that, only a few steps removed from medievalism, mistrusted any representation divorced from the control of the church.

The first of these objections Sydney addresses is that there are supposedly more important things to learn and spend our time on than poetry. Aquinas seems to agree when he asserts in the Summa that poetry is the lowest of sciences, but he redeems poetry from this irrelevance when he asserts that God has used the lowest science to communicate the highest science of theology (I.Q1.A10). Despite its triviality compared with the robust disciplines of chemistry or physics or philosophy, storytelling is an ideal medium for communicating intuitive truths. After all, not everyone can read the complex reasoning of the Summa, but everyone can read Narnia. Thus, if God has used literature to showcase the divine, literature itself cannot wholly be a waste of time.

The second objection is that fiction is simply a lie. This is Plato’s problem in The Republic (Book III) with the Homeric gods, and why he is mistakenly thought to issue a wholesale condemnation of poetry. But Plato’s objection is rooted in the Grecian misunderstanding of Homeric verse as truth; but this does not mean he is against literature—especially since he uses literature as a vehicle for his philosophy. We should not confuse the vehicle with its passenger. Any peewit who reads fiction and misunderstands it for truth is already lost in the bookstore, and no signs directing him to the correct genre will help him read a lick. As Sydney confirms, “Shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?” Is erotic love wrong in marriage simply because others wrongly use it outside of marriage? Is social media an evil because more people use it for evil than for good? Wisdom is necessary to discern between right use and wrong.

The final objection, still toted by the fundamentalist inheritors of Puritanism today, is that poetry urges us to think on evil. Through book and screen we witness injustice and corruption, we watch people be murdered, we voyeuristically participate in lovers’ passions. There is some argument to be made here, but we must distinguish between the erotic and the pornographic. The erotic depicts beauty, which should point us toward the God who created beauty; the pornographic turns inward, twisting the erotic toward base impulses that only reflect and gratify the self. Sir Guyon of The Fairie Queene, for instance, sees the bathing beauties in the Bower of Blisse and longs to join them. Jane Eyre wants desperately to marry the already-married Rochester. Both Spenser and Brontë know their readers will be seduced by the imaginative possibilities presented in their narrative and want us rooting for our heroes to give into their bestial natures. But herein lies the point. Poetry can deceive us into accepting its premises and to promote immorality. Few authors are as skilled as Spenser and Brontë to then pull the rug out from under us and reaffirm the Christian truth that we had forgotten in our unreflective consumption of literature. Poetry, therefore, is not morally bankrupt but is itself a form of moral currency to be deposited in the mind.

Perhaps the final objection demands the most attention. Yet the problem seems not to be that we don’t trust stories, as might have been the case in Sydney’s day. After all, how many people simply refuse to go to the movies or watch television out of some purist sense of principle? Most people, believers and pagans alike, raptly follow the compelling serials, blockbusters, and trilogies. What is needed, then, in our day is not a reaction against the pagans but an apology for good poetry. Anyone with moving brainwaves can watch film, but it takes effort to watch film well. All can consume, but we must urge reflection and after we consume.

The first obstacle to properly encountering art is, unfortunately, ourselves. We myopically value only that which we already prefer. Alexander Pope warns in An Essay on Criticism: “Fondly we think we honour Merit then, / When we but praise Our selves in Other Men.” Everyone thinks they have good taste, just as everyone assumes that God must see the world the way they do. But taste must be cultivated like intelligence, the muscles, or any other faculty. The more milkshakes we inhale, the less we will be able to distinguish between a Cabernet and a Merlot, or between different years of a Pinot. The more Bachelorette or even Kendrick Brothers films we watch, the less we will be able to read, understand, and discern the Christian powers at work in Spenser or Brontë. We become what we eat, and this is no more true for our stomach than for our minds and souls.

For the reader still unconvinced of the premises in this treatise, little may be done to compel him to pick up Keats. But for the man who searches eagerly for truth, he may yet find it in the eloquence of poetry. May we then surround ourselves with beauty and contemplate the higher things.