The Death of Eros: Higher Education in its Crisis

Flammarion Engraving II[These remarks formed one part of the total contribution to a panel on “English and Literature Programs” at the 1 November 2003 Pope Center Conference on Academic Standards, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bonald’s latest post prompted me to revisit the text.]

I would like to begin with two brief preambles. The first one is that I authored what I believe to have been the prototype of what later became a spate of reports on degraded curricula in the state college systems – my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in October of 1996. I mention this to indicate that I well understand the whole range of curricular, administrative, pedagogical, and political criticisms that conservatives and traditionalists characteristically bring against our existing distorted institutions of higher education. The other preamble is that, in my remarks today, I shall be departing in style and content from what I might call the standard technical admonitions – that ninety-nine per cent of humanities professors voted for Bill Clinton, that they have bounced Shakespeare in favor of Toni Morrison, that students now run a four-year gauntlet of tawdry, Marxisant propaganda – in order to take up another, as I insist a prior, issue.

Indeed, sufficiently different from the standard technical admonitions are the remarks I propose to make, that I should give a fair warning in advance. You should be prepared not to believe more than every other word that I utter, although I myself have come to believe it all quite implicitly, and it now informs my entire activity as a college literature teacher. Allow me to urge, then, that if I were you and you were me I should probably take me for a lunatic, and I shall lay no blame should you follow suit in so doing…

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Teaching by Lecturing

Bruce Charlton has a recent blog post about his piece in The Guardian in support of the academic lecture. He says,

 But when lectures are taken seriously, and conducted in the proper way, they are the best pragmatic way of teaching knowledge to people who want to know.  … when it ‘works’, a good lecture is an experience that may be remembered forever.

I agree. The best way to learn is to discuss the topic with a human teacher who is knowledgeable, articulate, and charismatic. There’s no substitute for having a personal relationship with a teacher.

I just want to add one point. There are many reasons why today’s educational authorities want to denigrate lecturing. But one big reason for contemporary antipathy to the lecture is that it’s a narrative. A person tells a true and compelling story and the listener can’t help but be drawn into it. And the narrative gives order to reality. It transforms a bunch of apparently unrelated facts and skills into a satisfyingly-ordered whole.

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Hatred Enslaves

When you hate something, you are enslaved by your hatred; and your hatred is a form of idolatry, because it assumes inordinate power in your psychic economy (idolatry is generally manifest in practice as undue attention to something or other – to unjust or disproportionate intentions). Hatred can warp and tweak a man every bit as much as a vicious addiction. What is worse, it can lead him to injure others, directly and intentionally; whereas addictions generally redound first to the addict, and only then to his fellows.

What are the warning signs? If it seems to you that all, or almost all, of the problems in your life go back to the same thing – your mother, your spouse, that lover who spurned or betrayed you, the government, the war, liberals, banks, whatever – then there is a good chance you are idolatrously enslaved. If you often find yourself fulminating about some injury done to you long ago, and unable to let go of it, then you are almost certainly stuck, snared in the toils of hatred: and in rehearsing your wound you irritate and enflame it all the more. Then are you like a man who turns again repeatedly to stumble over a scandal, rather than picking himself up, shaking the dust off, and moving on.

One of the reasons Jesus tells us to love and forgive our enemies is so that we can get free of such obsessions.

Orthodox Panentheism

Panentheism is the notion that everything is in God. It defines itself in contradiction to pantheism. Nevertheless it is a controversial idea, not least because to some it rather smells of pantheism. But in fact it isn’t anything like pantheism. Furthermore, the idea that we live and move and have being in God (Acts 17:28) is perfectly orthodox:

God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident; but as an agent is present to that upon which it works. For an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately, and touch it by its virtue … therefore as long as a thing has being,, God must be present to it according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things since it is formal in respect of everything found in a thing … Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly.

… Although corporeal things are said to be in another as in that which contains them, nevertheless, spiritual things contain those things in which they are; as the soul contains the body. Hence also God is in things containing them; nevertheless, by a certain similitude to corporeal things, it is said that all things are in God; inasmuch as they are contained by Him.

-  Summa Theologica 1.8.1

Ignorance, Responsibility, Forgiveness

Why does God forgive our sins? Why doesn’t he hold them against us? Why, indeed, has he paid for them himself?

Well, he’s omniscient. So he knows why we sin. Furthermore, he knows full well that we don’t know why we sin, or even (often) that we do sin. He said so from the very cross where he hung in the agony of his forgiving.*  Having shared in it, he knows our weakness.

The real question, then, is not why God in his infinite goodness and mercy, his boundless compassion and sympathy, his perfect comprehension of our predicaments, forgives us who are so confused even about the springs of our own acts (let alone his). How could it be otherwise, with such a being? No, the question is why we sin.   Continue reading

The West’s Cultural Continuity: Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne

Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term “Dark Ages” to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic tribal self-assertion in the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term “Dark Ages” insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. Yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city – an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied – and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.

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What is Reformed Theology?

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of the Calvinist system, as gathered from R. C. Sproul’s “What is Reformed Theology?”, one of the books recommended to me.  Hopefully, this will be the first in a series as I work my way down my reading list.  Protestant commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post, and I hope of the subsequent discussion, will be to accurately describe the Reformed faith, rather than to criticize or defend it (except against definite misunderstandings, of which there are unfortunately many).]

Sproul’s book attempts to explain the distinctive tenets of Reformed theology.  It highlights differences with other Christians while avoiding a polemical tone.  (Sproul tries hard to be fair to Catholicism.  More often, he contrasts his classical Protestant positions with those of the Arminians; only they could say how fairly he characterizes them.)  This is just right for our purposes.

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Liberalism and Islam

I have been thinking about the coziness between Liberalism and Islam, which became evident about twenty seconds after the jihad attack on the World Trade Center, and now drives policy in the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Scandinavia.  A pair of complementary questions put themselves that I propose for a general discussion.

Does Liberalism embrace Islam, knowing that Islam is a religion and despite its active hostile attitude towards religion, as conceived by it categorically, solely because Liberalism has more animus against Christianity than it does towards Islam and therefore sees Islam as an ally in its campaign against Christianity?

Or…

Does Liberalism ally itself with Islam because it senses that Islam is not a religion, but is rather a secular ideology, utterly hostile to anything transcendent,  just like itself, and is therefore its perfect ally in the campaign against Christianity?

Why Modern Authorities are (Generally) Dishonest Manipulators

[This will not be news to most Orthosphere readers, but we need clear statements of basic principles to educate the young.]

Not all authorities are dishonest manipulators, of course, but the higher their rank, the more dishonest and manipulative they tend to be. And this is not just an unfortunate fluke. In the modern world authorities have to be manipulators. They have no real authority but they must somehow establish and maintain order, so manipulation is usually their only recourse.

*

A bit of history: Until modern times (roughly, before the end of World War I), most people made most of their important decisions based largely on tradition and authority. “Tradition” means the ways of thinking and living they inherited from their ancestors, and “authority” means the teachings and the commands of people such as lords, kings, pastors and teachers. Tradition and the authorities were recognized as having the right to answer the important questions of life and to tell us, in broad terms, how we ought to live.

But now, thanks to the successful liberal takeover of the West, tradition and authority are greatly diminished.  The liberal jihad fights, in large part, under the banner of personal freedom, and in the modern world we are all supposed to be autonomous, self-actualizing freedmen who accept no authority not freely chosen and who are liberated from the tyranny of tradition. Continue reading

A Brief Story (With a Moral)

The priest of dwindling parish that is perpetually cash-strapped can no longer overlook the shabby appearance of the church, whose interior walls badly need a new coat of color.  He scrapes up a bit of money and purchases what he hopes will be gallons enough to do the job.  Halfway through the exercise, he sees that he has miscalculated, but he recalls from a few days ago that he had seen several tins of paint thinner in the basement, which he retrieves.  He extends the primary material and at last covers the final wall.  It does no good.  As the new layer dries the crummy-looking old layer shows through with a vengeance, even uglier than before.

At this moment a voice comes booming out of heaven: “Repaint, repaint,” it says, “and thin no more!”