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.