Wednesday, January 1, 3000

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Plato and truth in fiction

Nota Bene: I originally published this post back in 2012, and it has been one of the most-read posts on this blog ever since. In fact, it sums up pretty well my defense of the necessity of literature — an apologia pro literatura, if you will. For this reason, I’ve decided to pin it here to the top of the blog, so that anyone who stumbles on this site accidentally will know what I’m on about. If you want to know more, try reading some of the other articles in the “popular posts” list that you’ll find in the sidebar to the right. Welcome, and don’t feel shy about leaving comments. I respond to all comments on this blog (which is how I happened to write my most popular post of all time).

I like about this edition chiefly because
it's easy to follow who is speaking
in the dialogue.
Some time ago, I lamented the fact that people — even allegedly “educated” people — these days are reading less and less; and I began to explore the question of why this fact should alarm us. Isn't reading just one of many ways to amuse ourselves in idle moments? Why should reading novels, say, be any better than watching movies or playing video games? After all, all three require us to enter into an imaginary world, not of our own making.

Good fiction is interested in truth

It's true that some reading material provides merely escapist pleasures — these are what C. S. Lewis, reasoning as he does in An Experiment in Criticism, would classify as “bad” books, because they require little of the reader, and they repay that little effort poorly. Frankly, I don't care if anyone engages in such reading, although I would be concerned about anyone who made a steady diet of such fare. What I am more concerned about is the reading of well-crafted fiction that treats carefully the kinds of “universal” questions that Aristotle refers to in his Poetics, which he said makes literature “philosophical,” i.e., capable of making us wiser. Greek culture in Aristotle's day deeply acknowledged the importance of epic poetry, the predominant kind of literary fiction in that age. In fact, the narrative poetry of such poets as Homer and Hesiod, which told of the interactions of gods and men, were regarded with much the same kind of reverence as the Bible is in Christian cultures (not quite, however — the Greeks didn't really have anything analogous to Sacred Scripture), and they considered such literature to be absolutely essential to education.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Rerum Novarum, §1-11: A natural law defense of private ownership

“Man precedes the State, and possesses,  prior to the formation of any State,  the right of providing for  the substance of his body.”

As I start looking at Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's famous 1891 encyclical, I'll first summarize/paraphrase what the encyclical says, paragraph by paragraph, then analyze the way Pope Leo presents his argument, and finally offer my own commentary on it. The first two focus on what is being said, and the last is my own personal response to it. This is a method I recommend to anyone who wants to give an important work a fair reading -- in fact, it's something  that I have always tried to teach my students: understand first, and withhold judgment until you are sure you really do understand.

This is the whole idea behind the 4-step method of reading with understanding that I’ve propounded elsewhere on this blog. Why start with summary? Because it forces me to boil down the argument to its essential parts — but I don’t want to oversimplify it, so sometimes my “summary” is really more of a paraphrase. I don’t want to skip over any really essential ideas. If you try this yourself, you'll find that putting something (accurately) into your own words is a great exercise, one that forces you to think about what has really been said and also helps you to remember it in detail afterward, as well as come to grips with the claims being made, and their importance. In other words, it helps you to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the material (as an old Anglican collect says we should do with Scripture). So don't rely on my summaries -- they are no substitute for reading the document, but you may find that they help you understand it.

My analysis is intended to help you see how the logic of Leo’s argument fits together — we need to understand not only what he is saying, but also why he is saying it that way, and not some other. Doing this allows us to see how the argument unfolds and avoid skipping over points that may seem insignificant at the time, so that by the time we reach the end we can see how the whole thing hangs together.

The commentary I offer is meant to stir up your own minds, to get you thinking about the implications of what Leo is saying. I think you’ll find that, as we go along, there are lots of ways Rerum Novarum sheds new light on the problems and challenges of our own day, even though the world of 2015 is quite different than that of the 1890s. Much has changed, but human nature remains the same. We still have a lot to learn from this encyclical.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Homer's Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

This guy looks more like a Texas cowboy
than a Connecticut Yankee, if you ask me,
but he got me hooked on time travel.
One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.)

Imagining past lives

Time travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgment on) the past, rather than showing it to us as it had been lived. When I was reading A Connecticut Yankee, I was more interested in the world Twain was ridiculing than I was in the show-off shenanigans of his Yankee. Twain had a beef with the romanticization of the past, which he believed had helped cause the American Civil War, so he wasn't too kind to King Arthur. I found this irritating rather than illuminating.

In my teens, I also read a number of historical novels, mostly about medieval English royalty. I enjoyed the details of historical setting and circumstance, but there again I was aware of the irritating anachronism inherent in the enterprise. I didn’t particularly enjoy the way modern authors seemed to think that twelfth century England was interesting chiefly because of the dynastic struggles of the Plantagenets — I’m sure people living in those days were concerned about such things only insofar as they had a real effect on their daily lives.

Later, I got a very different view of medieval life and concerns, by reading stories actually written in the twelfth century. Now that was (time) tripping! These stories, at first seemed strange to me. I guess I was experiencing first hand the truth of that saying: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” To understand such a story, I had to get inside the mind of a twelfth century reader (or writer) and try to understand not only their day-to-day concerns but also the furniture of their imaginations. To the extent that I succeeded, the literature really did transport me to a world lost in time.

Homer’s epics take me to an even stranger, more primitive world, different from our own in so many ways, and yet his over-sized heroic figures seem to embody universal human traits in a marvelous way. That, I believe, is why they are, in a peculiar way, timeless. As foreign as ancient Mycenaean Greece is to us today, Homer's stories somehow manage both to embody that age perfectly and yet transcend the limitations of history and the particularities of culture. That is a mark of Homer's genius — not every ancient epic manages that kind of transcendence. I can understand the motives of Homer’s Achilles or  Odysseus — or, for that matter Sophocles’ Oedipus — in a way that I can’t really sympathize with Gilgamesh or some other ancient heroes, who seem to lack a truly human dimension.

Touching the past

detail of New York Times photo from archaeological trove in Pylos, Greece
The bronze blade has crumbled, but
the gold hilt remains as bright
as when it was last grasped by
some Mycenaean hero 3,500 years ago.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I’ve also long been fascinated with archaeology, particularly of the ancient Mediterranean world. I first discovered this fascinating field as a seven-year-old, after a traveling encyclopedia salesman gave us the A volume of the World Book Encyclopedia as a sample. (I promptly read it cover to cover, and fell in love with archaeology and, to a lesser extent, anthropology.)  I've since had a number of opportunities to actually walk the streets of the ancient past, in Spain and Italy. Thanks to the painstaking work of archaeologists, I've walked the streets of Pompeii -- lost to the world for nearly two thousand years, and then brought back to light, stunningly preserved -- and descended into the ancient cemetery that lies beneath St Peter's Basilica, imagining the families that picnicked there long ago with the relics of departed loved ones. I love to read about archaeological discoveries that shed new light on the ancient world.

One such recent discovery, described in this recent news story, reminded me that Homer’s epics, wreathed though they were in myth and legend even in his day, nevertheless take place in a world that was still familiar to the poet who described them (although he lived several centuries after the events he described).
Archaeologists digging at Pylos, an ancient city on the southwest coast of Greece, have discovered the rich grave of a warrior who was buried at the dawn of European civilization. 
He lies with a yardlong bronze sword and a remarkable collection of gold rings, precious jewels and beautifully carved seals. Archaeologists expressed astonishment at the richness of the find and its potential for shedding light on the emergence of the Mycenaean civilization, the lost world of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus and other heroes described in the epics of Homer.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Rerum Novarum in context

political cartoon of workers uniting to form a giant fist
Res novae
Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum Novarum at the end of the nineteenth century. The previous hundred years had seen a huge upheaval in the way people in the Western world lived and thought. Some changes happened so fast that, even after a hundred years, the world hadn’t yet figured out how to deal adequately with situations that were already a fact of life. One proposed “solution” to the problems of the Western world was set forth in The Communist Manifesto, written by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, but as Pope Leo saw clearly, not only didn’t the Marxist solution didn’t fix anything, it only made things worse. That’s the main reason the Holy Father wrote Rerum Novarum, which is perhaps the first papal encyclical that found widespread resonance outside the Catholic Church.

Linguistic context: The title

Before we look more closely at the social, political, and religious context in which this encyclical letter was written, I’d like to say something about its title. The tradition in naming papal encyclicals is to use the first phrase in the text of the Latin original as the title, and then that title gets translated into various modern languages, along with the rest of the text. That works well enough in most cases — Evangelium vitae becomes The Gospel of Life, Veritatis splendor becomes The Splendor of Truth. But this practice doesn’t work very well in the case of this particular encyclical, because the opening phrase is an idiomatic expression that is pure nonsense (and, in this case, very misleading nonsense) when translated literally.

The encyclical's subtitle is
more descriptive than the title.
I first encountered this encyclical in an anthology that I used in my humanities classes at a state university. Although I had never read Rerum Novarum, I was generally familiar with its contents, and was delighted to have an excuse to familiarize myself with it and teach it to my students. But I was shocked to see that the English title given to it in this anthology was “Concerning New Things.” Now, I can imagine someone entirely ignorant of Latin plugging those two words, “rerum novarum,” into something like Babblefish or Google Translate and getting “of new things” as the resulting translation, but I was shocked that such an otherwise well-edited anthology would propose such a woefully bad title for this important document.

Let me explain the idiom, and you’ll see why I was so dismayed. The Romans (those ancient people who invented the Latin tongue) were a very traditional, conservative people. Quite unlike the Greeks, they resisted change and innovation as long as they could, and had little affection for novelty of any kind. New things, in their estimation, were almost never as good as the old things that they had been doing since time immemorial. In fact, new things could cause a lot of trouble, particularly in the political sphere. For this reason, the Roman term for something that would completely upset and overturn the existing order was res novae, literally “new things” (always plural -- apparently the Romans could tolerate a single “new thing,” but became alarmed if it multiplied).

As it happens, Latin itself (Deo gratias!) has also resisted changing much since the days of Cicero and Cato the Younger, so that in “modern” Church Latin res novae means exactly what it has always meant, namely revolution — a most dangerous and destructive force. So in English (and, for that matter, French, Italian, Spanish, German, or Portuguese), you and I may talk about “revolution,” but in Latin it is still res novae. Rerum novarum is simply res novae in the genitive case — a direct translation of that phrase into English would be “of revolution,” not “of new things.”

So you may search in vain for “new things” in Rerum Novarum. Instead, it argues against “a passion for revolutionary change” which, having wrought no end of havoc a century earlier in the political sphere (in France and America), had since spilled over into the economic sphere, where it threatened to do even more harm. Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical in an attempt to stem the destructive tide of revolution, which he saw threatening to destroy society altogether. (If you think he was overreacting, you haven’t read The Communist Manifesto lately.)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Want a better world? Read Rerum Novarum

Who would have guessed that
a papal encyclical with an
untranslatable Latin title would change
not just the Church but the world?
Remember the Year of Faith decreed by Pope Benedict XVI? It began in October 2012, coinciding with the height of the political season here in the United States, as we prepared for national elections. I’ll admit I was, then as now, rather jaded about our national politics — we seem usually to have a choice between “bad” and “even worse.” At the time, I entertained a little pipe dream about a political party that would be founded on the principles of Catholic social teaching, emphasizing subsidiarity, solidarity, and the inherent dignity of the human person.

I still think it would be a capital idea. In fact, I think a lot of people, in addition to Catholics, could get behind a party that promoted these key principles:
  • Subsidiarity — the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or most local competent authority, beginning with the family itself, the nucleus of society. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.
  • Solidarity means that we stand together for the common good. The poor, the weak, and the oppressed are not “other” than us, but our brothers and sisters. One person or group must not prosper at the expense of others.
  • The principle of human dignity acknowledges that each human life, from the moment it springs into existence until natural death, is endowed with inestimable value which must be acknowledged and respected. There are no “worthless” people who may be discarded or denied opportunities because others find them useless or unprofitable.
Now, I don’t want to get into political polemics on this blog — that sort of thing generally produces more heat than light — but I would like to discuss a document that first brought those three principles, the core of Catholic Social Teaching, to the attention of the world at large. So I’m going to re-publish here on this blog a series of posts that first appeared on a different blog that I created back in the Year of Faith, in which I read, analyze, and comment on Rerum Novarum, an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII which has come to be known as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Freedom: We love it, but what is it?

Liberty has long been the emblem of our country,
but do we even understand what true freedom is?

Today is July 4, when we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and all the things that we enjoy by virtue of being Americans — the chief of these being freedom. What do we mean by freedom, though? Lately, it seems that one man's freedom is another man's oppression.

As soon as this question occurred to me, I was reminded of The One Minute Philosopher: Quick Answers to Help you Banish Confusion, Resolve Controversies, and Explain Yourself Better to Others by Montague Brown (published by Sophia Institute Press).  In this book, on facing pages, Brown defines a common term and another term that is often confused with it (such as “patriotism” and “nationalism”), with the intention of showing not only what each term means precisely but also of distinguishing between them. Even though the discussion of each term is fairly brief (a single page), Brown manages to bring to light many interesting shades of meaning that illuminate how truly distinct (sometimes even opposite) the two apparently synonymous terms really are.

Sadly, I no longer own this book (I inadvertently got rid of it when I sold off several hundred books I had in storage), but the very memory of it got me to thinking about what we mean when we talk about freedom and its synonyms, liberty and independence. It seems to me that as we engage in the on-going national debate about this idea, freedom, which is so integral to our national identity, we need to know what we are really talking about.

The American ideal of freedom

The right to speak freely in the public forum is especially vital to avoid tyranny.
The right to speak freely in the public forum
is a vital safeguard against tyranny.
Of late, the idea of American freedom has become blurred. It seems the American flag, symbolizing the unity of the nation, has been displaced by other emblems -- the rainbow banner, the Stars and Bars, and other contentious emblems. Is there no banner under which Americans can still unite? Can we still claim to hold a shared understanding of the freedom we all claim to cherish? 

 When I think of “freedom” in the context of being an American, some of the images that spring to my mind are Norman Rockwell’s famous illustrations of “The Four Freedoms.” The idea of these “four essential freedoms” had its origin in a State of the Union address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Roosevelt was trying to convince the American people that the United States should help to defend Europe against the spread of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, and he held up these “four essential freedoms” to stir up enthusiasm for this effort. A couple of years later, after the U.S. had, in fact, become embroiled in the European war (as well as war against Japan), the iconic illustrations of illustrator Norman Rockwell revived the idea that these four “freedoms” are essential to the American way of life.

Today when I look at these “four essential freedoms” defined by Roosevelt and movingly illustrated by Rockwell, I see that they are not all cut from the same cloth; there seem to be two different ideas about freedom at work here. First there are the freedom of religion and freedom of speech — these I'll call the “freedom to” — freedom to speak, freedom to worship (or not) as we choose. These are essential rights that were not only endorsed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence but also enshrined in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution as essential to a free society, safeguards against the kind of tyranny which first caused the American colonies to declare independence from the British monarchy.


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