The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
12.3 (Summer 2012)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Different Answers to the Question “Why”: Vital Coordinates for the Student Writer (With an Addendum on How to Reform Academe’s Literary Pedagogy)
John R. Harris
The following essay was written for college undergraduates–and specifically for students enrolled in Freshman Composition–as a means of explaining why the manner of discourse and measure of validity varies from one discipline to another. This paper is therefore not a literary analysis, strictly speaking; yet its intent is to define different species of analysis, of which the literary is certainly one.
I. Aristotle’s Four Types of Cause
Aristotle noted a long time ago (in Metaphysics 5.1013a) that an object or condition may be said to have more than one kind of cause. Take a bronze statue. What causes it—why is it standing there in the middle of the plaza? Well (a respondent might say), the reason is the bronze, which doesn’t melt away like soap or slowly crack and split like wood. Aristotle would call this the material cause of the statue.
But no (you say), I do not mean what causes it to be a durable object. I mean how did it get there? Where did it come from? How did the bronze come to take the shape of a man? Well (says your informant), it came from the sculptor’s shop, and the sculptor’s hands gave it a shape which his mind had conceived. This would be the statue’s efficient cause (from efficere, “to make, bring to completion”).
Now you are somewhat more satisfied, but still curious. So you ask further, Why a statue, though—why this statue of Pericles? If a need to have some large object in the plaza’s center was perceived, why not just a large block of uncut marble with ingenious, abstract swirls chiseled into it? The new answer might be that, once the decision was made to erect a statue, the object had to resemble something from the “real world”. The convention among sculptors is not to create casts of abstract fantasies, for the perceiving mind would not know how to process such thing—but rather to produce artificial objects in imitation of familiar ones. This is the statue’s formal cause: it is required to assume a certain form in order to be recognizable as a statue.
But why (you say) does this convention exist? You are quite happy to see the elegant Pericles instead of a crude mass of metal… but what ever inspired sculptors to subscribe to their imitative convention, in the first place? The answer now acquires yet another twist. It is your happiness, or pleasure, or delight: the statue imitates an animate being because humans delight in viewing reproductions of nature. This is the object’s final cause. As an art object, it exists for the purpose (or finis) of pleasing the beholder.
One can quibble with particular explanations of cause, to be sure, and even add further types of cause to Aristotle’s list (as the Roman playwright and philosopher Seneca suggested: see Epistulae Morales 65). The brilliance of the essential idea is unaffected by dubious applications of it. Let us extend Aristotle’s broad insight to matters current in today’s academy. You need only visit the website or thumb through the catalogue of any college or university to notice immediately that the offerings are divided into arts, sciences, business, education, various technical spheres such as engineering, and so forth. All of these endeavors have proponents who would describe them as purposive—for why would you devote valuable time to any labor without a purpose? Greek myth represents the tormented Sisyphus as forever rolling a huge stone up a steep slope only to have it forever slip away from him just before he reaches the summit. To struggle at a task with no purpose, no meaning—no cause—is truly to reside in Hell!
Nevertheless, the explanation that each college professor would give of his or her discipline’s purpose would have qualities distinct to that discipline. The music teacher would not likely propose that we must create or understand music in order to survive from day to day, but rather that our long-term survival will degenerate into that of a beast if we deny our mind and spirit access to the “free play” of the arts. The engineer would counter that refinement of the spirit is all well and good—but that if our sewer system ceases to function and our bridges fall in, we will find little solace in a flute or guitar. The “pure scientist” will stake out a position which partakes of these two yet has a character all its own. He or she will argue that we need free and open scientific inquiry in order to discover new avenues into old problems—perhaps new cures for hitherto incurable diseases or new sources of energy with no toxic by-products; but that even if such unfettered investigation leads to no instant and tangible advantage, its pursuit remains a duty for us as rational beings.
A Nursing major might explain the purpose of his or her study as helping human beings in urgent physical need. A Pre-Law student might say that, whatever the exigencies of body or soul in individual human beings, the human collective requires sound, fair rules if it is to maintain a civilized state of living. The Education major might observe that all of these objectives are worthy, but that they can only be achieved if a properly taught adult is built upon a properly taught child—and that reaching children effectively with instruction demands technique as well as content.
None of these people is really denying or slighting the importance of what the others do, yet all have a somewhat different perception of the job to be done. The same statue will end up appearing in the same spot in the same agora, but some are primarily concerned about its materials, others about its shape, others about its position relative to the broader space… and others about artistic convention, others about the statue-viewer’s psychology, others about the pay and maintenance of sculptors.
II. The Three Realms of Knowledge
These many views of cause or purpose should not lead to the conclusion that no purpose really exists—that we are all Sisyphus without knowing it, since we fail to perceive that the multitude of proposed destinations for our stone strongly implies an absence of real destination. In the past, teachers of composition have indeed tended to exude such an aura of cynicism. (Teachers of this school of thought go very far back: in ancient Athens, they were called sophists.) Too many textbooks have created the impression that writing is largely a matter of gauging the mood, attitude, and background of one’s audience and then indexing that information to one’s desired end. The written composition, in other words, was to be handled as an advertisement—a seduction, a come-on. Its author would calculate your likely weaknesses and then set about exploiting them in order to elicit a behavior from you which you would not normally display.
The whole endeavor was called persuasion. It reeked of the notion that people only and always act from self-interest, and that superior writing consists of manipulating a readership into believing that its selfish objectives are nearly identical to one’s own. No higher sense of truth enlightened the tug-of-war between interests: no criterion existed to suggest that one argument should prevail over another simply because it was more just or valid. The very concept of justice implicit in this approach is, at best, a kind of “fair play” principle whereby the dominant side should flip over and let the other side dominate from time to time. No reference point external to the struggle is possible, these sophists seem to say. (But then, is not the appeal to fair play the last-ditch rhetorical maneuver of the side that cannot otherwise throw the adversary off his feet?)
The diversity of causes in any worldly undertaking, once again, need not lead to this rather dismal prospect. In fact, causes (or purposes) are not really innumerable at all, or even as many as the people who bring their selfish concerns into the debate. Instead, they basically reduce to three kinds: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the empirical—or, if you prefer the more familiar terms of Roman philosophy to these Greek-derived words, then the artistic, the moral, and the scientific. To be sure, sub-categories may be—and probably should be—named under three such broad headings. Nevertheless, most of the things one might say about our statue would involve how nice it is to look at (the aesthetic), how its contemplation affects behavior (the moral), and how it is physically generated and positioned (the empirical). Should it have been made of marble rather than bronze? That question would require scientific analysis if the “should” reflects a concern about available materials or about the durability of material in an uncovered setting. It could be an artistic question of the concern is over the material’s degree of responsiveness to the artist’s hands. It could even be ethical if certain city elders feel that a bronze Pericles will better inspire the kind of virtue desirable in good citizens than a marble statue.
Within the empirical question, attention might indeed be focused primarily on whether or not enough marble were available locally; or the focus, rather, might center on how well marble withstands rain, or whether the crush of traffic in the agora is apt to break it, or whether a bronze statue would be more likely to draw lightning. These are all questions for a scientist of one kind or another. The artistic issue, likewise, might revolve less around the particular statue’s graceful curves than around its appropriateness for the chosen setting or its conformity to or rebellion against the conventions of statue-making. Ethical problems might arise if the statue were felt to be encouraging a hero-cult, if its genre were seen as proper only for religious statues, or if the marble quarry were getting a lucrative contract unfairly in order to choke off the ore-miners’ business. We have already sketched out about a dozen causes for speeches and editorials on the subject of one lonely statue!
III. An Illustration: Global Warming
Virtually any discipline can be carved up in this tripartite fashion: that is, such that its interests or objectives are sorted into the empirical, the aesthetic, and the ethical. We should not be so naïve as to believe that all the sciences have exclusively empirical interests, the arts aesthetic, and so forth. (What would constitute the ethical interest, by the way? The study of law? But the truism, “You can’t legislate morality,” has passed into proverb! Religion? But many professional clerics become vexed when moral issues occupy center stage, and warn, “God’s ways are not our ways!”) The human spirit is a slippery kind of animal. Like the Greek god Proteus, with whom Menelaus grapples in the Odyssey, it can change forms radically as we try to cling tight to it. Even dryly scientific issues can turn ethical or aesthetic in the bat of an eye.
The current controversy over global warming is an excellent example. Are average temperatures around the world rising above the values we would expect from cyclical fluctuation? Is the degree of aberrancy sufficient to indicate a real break in the cycle? Has it been sustained long enough to suggest that no pendulum-swing in the direction of cooling off is likely to follow? Perhaps most importantly of all, if the answer to the previous questions is “yes”… is the cycle’s disruption the result of human activity? If so, what activity? Has the disruption proceeded for too long to be diminished in the hope that the pendulum might reverse course—or would a radical change in lifestyle now be too little too late? Would such a change invite panic or political posturing, either of which would likely induce grave economic hardship?
All of these questions except the last are scientific in nature: they clearly belong to the realm of the empirical. Yet the controversy has grown heated (it has, indeed, warmed globally) because certain social groups and political forces recognize a moral urgency to the issue so pressing that the wait for science to “catch up” strikes them as unendurable. Obviously, valid scientific data in this matter would take decades to amass. What if we really are heating up the earth in a disastrous manner? By the time climatologists delivered the proof to us, the reversal that we might effectively begin at this moment would perhaps truly serve no purpose. Therefore, the best course is to begin now. Why play with a gun on the assumption that it isn’t loaded? Why not assume it to be loaded, and not play with it?
Such a moral stance seems compelling. It is immensely and intricately complicated, however, by what may fairly be called aesthetic concerns. Highways, overpasses, interchanges, intersections… these bowls of concrete-and-asphalt spaghetti have not made our settlements more beautiful, more safe, or—in some respects—more navigable. Many of us would not be very attracted to car traffic even if it should be exonerated of creating a planetary greenhouse. We already loathe the noise and smog that envelops our cities and towns, and two daily doses of rush hour strain our nerves, foul our mood, tax our heart, and—by the way—keep us captive that much longer in a sedentary lifestyle conducive to obesity and other disorders. Of course, ethical concerns are now filtering into these matters of ugliness and tastelessness; for surely one has a moral obligation to cultivate an even temper and to keep one’s body fit. (Ethics is also denominated the “practical” realm by ancient philosophers because it involves what we choose to do [praxis, “a deed”]—and nobody can do much of anything from a hospital bed. Health is a prerequisite for any moral conduct, good or bad.)
Ironically, the preservation of old towns in their pristine form and the promotion of time-honored standards of personal conduct would seem to be conservative causes; yet in the political arena, forces that advance the bulldozing of neighborhoods into highways and the unshackling of narcissistic “me first” driving behavior tend to brand themselves proudly with a “conservative” label. Whether or not less driving conserves the planet, it certainly helps to conserve communal coherence and a faint dusting of good manners. Where, then, are the advocates of that position?
The opposing political persuasion is scarcely more coherent. Progressive politics is rooted in the romantic conviction that people are “beings in becoming” (to use theologian Karl Barth’s phrase) and that societies, too, are ever evolving to a higher state. Our moral values change as we leave childhood and become adults; the value systems of societies, as well, must be flexible. Yesterday’s law—its “truth”—will not fit tomorrow. Some social groups are better prepared for change than others. These groups must occasionally be somewhat duped to take a path leading them to higher ground, even as we nurse our children along with fibs about Santa Claus in order to inspire in them the spirit of charity. Since not everyone—by a long shot—seems to comprehend what a debacle would overtake civilization if we were lifting global temperatures through our high-tech activities, winning the general public over with slightly simplified or exaggerated science is not at all a bad thing. In fact, it is a good thing—a morally obligatory thing.
Yet it is not science. It is certainly no longer pure science. In the long run, simplifying or exaggerating scientific evidence destroys the credibility of science just as The Boy Who Cried Wolf wore out his purchase upon the neighboring village. If the case for or against Global Warming cannot be arbitrated by climatology at this point, then the argument for scaling back our use of technology should be couched plainly in aesthetic and ethical terms. The progressive vision of evolving truth is mistaken when it sweeps up empirical knowledge in the ascending coil. Tastes and values based within human beings may shift, but water still expands when it freezes and the earth still orbits the Sun.
The “debate” over global warming has thus become a Gordian Knot of clashing values masquerading—on both sides—as a scientific exchange. Better yet, it resembles a pair of wrestlers locked in a to-the-death struggle so intense that neither combatant is conscious of all the feints and reversals he executes in a bid to throw his opponent. As this example dramatically illustrates, failure to understand the kind of argument one has undertaken—empirical, aesthetic, or ethical—can release chronic, even tragic animosity. The scientist must be keenly aware of the point beyond which his or her research is no longer pure science. The architect must fully grasp that at some stage his designs cross over from being nice to look at and begin to dictate people’s practical choices. The priest or preacher must honestly decide (in his or her heart, if not publicly before the congregation) to what extent socially pacifying or sentimentally reassuring rituals favor an inward search for goodness, and to what extent they distract from it.
IV. Academic Disciplines: A Taxonomy
This brief introduction (which now risks no longer being brief) must conclude with the humblest of suggestions about how various academic disciplines might be divided according to the kind of cause that they emphasize—not serve exclusively, but emphasize. A list such as this could well embrace over a hundred fields. Its restriction to the entries below is plainly arbitrary: the intent is to illustrate a way of establishing categories rather than to imply superior merit or value.
The sciences (Empirical Studies) are identified directly with Aristotle’s material cause, because “pure science” is precisely and narrowly interested in physical cause and effect—not with different human attitudes toward a given perception or with the intent or end of human or other intelligences.
Likewise, the arts (Aesthetic Studies) correspond to Aristotle’s formal cause at the purest level, for the single relevant datum about a beautiful perception is that, thanks to its formal properties—the signals it transmits to our senses—it produces satisfaction (the “ah!” effect). Our earlier example involving a bronze statue of Pericles identified the sculptor’s intention of giving pleasure as the final cause, as indeed it was. The artist’s intent is irrelevant in a strictly aesthetic context, however. As we consider an art work all by itself, its form is what produces a unique impact upon the perceiving mind (if “form” here may be understood to include nuance, such as timbre in music and color in painting). Frankly, even the audience’s cultural conditioning is far less relevant than academics regularly claim. The Grand Canyon was not created by or for any intelligent mind, and yet people from all over the world (i.e., from every cultural background imaginable) come to admire its beauty—or its sublimity, as eighteenth-century philosophers would have said. In its case, we notice that neither creative intent nor cultural conditioning has much influence in the Canyon’s thrilling impact, if any at all.
Aristotle’s efficient and final causes bring out an ambivalent quality in the remaining category: Ethical Studies. A deed or praxis would be termed in Latin a factum, from the verb facere: “to do, make”. Our word “effect”—literally “something brought to pass [= done] from” something else—is of course based upon the same word. Yet a deed can be done for two very different reasons, if an intelligent agent is behind it. In the case of a natural event, where no such agent exists (at least from the scientist’s perspective), no reason at all other than the material cause drives the occurrence: we can dispense with the final cause. But persons have reasons: and their reason or end (finis) in any given case is either self-interested or self-surmounting (if I may coin a substitute for the now much-abused word “disinterested”). The efficient cause of a painting is the painter; and we may say that the cause of his creating the work was both formal and final in that he placed a beautiful form upon the canvas and, in doing so, he intended to make the world a more beautiful place. We have already covered objects of beauty. Yet why did he have this beautifying desire? We have not fully determined the ultimate end of his act—the final cause. (This is the very point, by the way, where Seneca succeeds in multiplying Aristotle’s number of causes.) Was the artist’s objective, tout court, to make the world a more beautiful place? But what motivated this desire in him? If it was to be paid handsomely (because beauty pleases, and people pay for pleasure), then his end was self-interested: if it was to produce an uplifting joy in the hearts of others, then his end was self-surmounting (or disinterested).
The former end is “practical” in the sense that we commonly bestow upon the word: “advantageous”, “realistic”, “convenient”. The latter end is highly impractical in this sense. It suggests the activity of disinterested moral principles whose advantage or reality is purely idealistic: i.e., absolutely removed from the realm of material cause.
Academe designates no discipline at all to the exclusive study of the “self-surmounting final cause”, or “idealism”. It’s not hard to understand why: such a field would have no objective subject matter. At most, a Philosophy class in Ethics may address certain idealist thinkers. Nevertheless, a few of the disciplines below are tinged with idealism in surprising ways and at surprising points.
Yet the word “practical” remains slightly unwieldy even if we limit it to meaning “interested” (as opposed to its idealistic polarity “disinterested”) or “profitable” (as opposed to its idealistic polarity “altruistic”). Engineering is a practical science in that it tells us how to build bridges that won’t collapse. Such knowledge can be extremely useful. Medicine is also practical in that it helps human beings to live long and healthy lives; what could be more useful? Yet the uses to which these sciences fit their knowledge differ vastly. The bridge need only bear a load materially: we don’t care if the iron feels pain under a heavy truck—we know well that it does not. Human beings, however, are not necessarily well served by a doctor who patches them up like a machine. An amputation may save a patient’s life—but if he commits suicide in his subsequent misery, the operation appears only to have spoiled his final days.
Our original term “ethical” provides little clarification here. The Greek base (like the Latin mos in “moral”) means both “righteously performed” and “customary or habitual”. Both aspects are implicit in some of the disciplines that concern us—the habits and practices in human society (very important, for instance, to the Business major) and the notion of a transcending human good (the “self-surmounting final cause” that anchors no single field of study, but underlies the notions of fairness involved [for instance] in successful international treaties). What we seem to need is a sharp distinction between that which is of profit in the human being’s material surroundings and that which is of profit in the individual human’s mysterious subjective workings.
Let us therefore use the word “pragmatic” to mean “practically advantageous; self-interested; conforming to the custom” in the context of external things: bridges, legal contracts, tea-drinking rituals. On the other hand, the “inwardly practical” that refers to the human’s mysterious exercise of free will can be represented by the word “volitional”. With this term we will designate the treatment of a suffering patient, the mastery of an artistic medium, the decision not to broadcast news of a scandal, and so forth.
History majors will no doubt question the portrayal of their field as deterministic. Much historical research is devoted to unveiling the unique genius of some influential figure or other. The objects of such research are certainly an example of human volition in action rather than of quasi-scientific law. Yet even the study of unique individuals tends to coalesce into a theory about the importance of their influence in history: the predictable impact of the unpredictable, one might say (or perhaps the cyclical recurrence of Superman). While the law-making inclination of historians is only a tendency, then, it remains a strong and characteristic one.
So for other fields and disciplines: everything in this classification is open to criticism. Its purpose is not to declare an irresistible logical truth, but only to suggest a manner of thinking about the courses of study to which we devote ourselves.
EMPIRICAL STUDIES (focused on material causes and effects):
“Life” Sciences (Biology, Botany, Oceanography, Zoology, etc.)
Secondary emphasis on pragmatic concerns (stability, longevity, efficiency, affordability):
Architecture (with a competing emphasis on aesthetic concerns)
Secondary emphasis on volitional concerns (attitude, motivation, etc., of human subjects):
AESTHETIC STUDIES (focused on creating pleasant effects in human perceiver):
Mathematics (inasmuch as laws/rules are not inductive but purely constructed of logical pattern)
No other discipline is purely aesthetic: a class in Art Appreciation might be so.
Secondary emphasis on volitional concerns (ability to perform: secondary because student’s grade in these academic fields rarely depends on perceptible excellence in achievement, which is felt to result somewhat from involuntary genius):
Art (painting, sculpture)
Secondary emphasis on practical concerns (health, affordability, standards of decency):
Secondary emphasis on both pragmatic & volitional concerns (historical/cultural causality and moral teaching [especially in narrative]):
PRAGMATIC (ETHICAL) STUDIES (focused on human habits and customs):
Foreign Language Study (when pursued to acquire spoken fluency for use in
Secondary emphasis on empirical qualities (tendency to accept deterministic causality or involuntary “laws” about human behavior):
Competing emphasis on aesthetic qualities:
Foreign Language Study (e.g., in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, where objective is to
read classic literature)
Marketing/Advertising (where pleasant perceptions are designed to produce
specific behaviors [e.g., buying] to which pleasure is irrelevant)
Competing emphasis between two aspects of the practical: pragmatism and voluntarism/moral duty (“what works” versus “what’s right”):
Education (“technique” competing with “what’s good for the child”)
Journalism (“technique” competing with “what people ought to know”)
This taxonomy should not be interpreted, of course, as implying that biologists are cold, heartless people while grade-school teachers are saints in the making. A person can be very tasteful and spiritual and still design aircraft. If you are likely to be transported aloft in one of the designer’s inspirations some day, however, you don’t really care if he or she was a good or bad human being morally: you hope only that the party in question was a good engineer. Likewise, a dynamic preacher may also turn out to be a shyster—perhaps he is a worse person than most, indeed, for having posed as somewhat better. Yet his teaching may have a certain therapeutic value to his clients or congregants, despite his personal insincerity. His “field” may deserve some credit, even though he himself deserves a slap in the face.
In short, what you study is not the measure of your value as a complete individual. Rather, having chosen a particular field of study, you owe it to that field to observe the standards of truth which operate within it. Think of it this way: a truly moral person may be morally obligated to blot out the image of a weeping family if he is also a doctor in the act of performing open-heart surgery. Good people concentrate their energies within the specialty that they have chosen.
V. Addendum: The Proper Role of Literature Departments
I confess that I have taken to using a small amount of matter for Praesidium which was previously submitted to Rachel Alexander’s online journal, The Intellectual Conservative. The pressures of time have enlisted my writing in such double duty on occasion–but the overlap hardly strikes me as disreputable. The following excerpt has been drawn from a piece titled, “Why We Should All Read Great Literature (And Why We Can’t Study It in College),” which was posted on Ms. Alexander’s site during the first week of June. The style aims at a slightly more general audience than Praesidium‘s; but then, the preceding section of this piece was written for college freshmen. I hope the reader, therefore, will not find the terms used below any more condescending than those used above. As a matter of fact, references to television serials like 24 are probably the quickest, clearest way to to illustrate complicated generalizations about the aesthetics of narrative.
I will offer my excerpt, therefore, by way of explaining in a nutshell what I believe to be the proper mission of literary studies; and I will follow with a few closing words about how the discipline of teaching literature should be reconfigured in contemporary academe.
Narrative art (i.e., story-telling) is intended to lift one out of one’s surroundings, to be sure; but your English teacher was also right when he or she told you that stories have meaning. The same he/she probably told you, as well, that meaning must be restricted to half a dozen lessons on the politically correct list—and you quite rightly stopped listening. A bad story does not suddenly become a good story just because it relates how a young woman deserts her abusive husband and begins her own career. Yet 24 is not a masterpiece-by-default just because it is politically incorrect, any more than because it makes you tune in next week. Jack Bauer, I admit, had me always sitting on the edge of my seat… but the thrills were cheap. Superior works of fiction do not cut the motives of their characters loose from the thrilling plot’s infinite complications—or do not make these motives appear implausible, if worked into the plot. To my mind, 24’s producers always attempted to do the former: the problem was with the latter. One must have a pathologically dark view of human nature to suppose that so many human beings could turn so treacherous so often with so little cause. The ravenous need of the series for complications clearly fueled this grotesque misanthropy. It is a common failing of the genre. The Hellenistic romances of the ancient world unfolded in the same absurdly random bursts of inhuman duplicity.
In short, a “beautiful” story has structural coherence—an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end that flow in unstrained progression—but also moral credibility; for characters cannot do things to advance the plot which the audience finds completely alien to the workings of the human mind and heart. There may be, of course, extraordinary characters. Great stories almost always have them. But the unusual depth of their courage or sacrifice or anxiety or perfidy or endurance or gullibility must itself explore a plausible limit—not create a wholly new order of being in nowise recognizable as human. A novel where mothers routinely eat their babies is an aesthetic train wreck as well as a moral outrage—and it is the former because it is the latter. The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have been carved to fit with a pocket knife. Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery” is a classic short story precisely because people don’t literally stone one of their neighbors every spring, a moral fact that ingeniously forces the work into the realm of allegory.
So who is to say what’s human, and where humanity’s limits lie? No one has the final say: that’s one of the reasons why writers keep writing, and why readers keep reading. An academic would jump in here and cry triumphantly, “The perception of such limits is culturally dictated. Every culture is different!” This is by no means false, yet neither is it the final truth. As far away from Bronze Age Greece as we are, we can still find fascination in Achilles’ discovery, once he withdraws from the war to his tent, that he might just be happier living a long life without glory. We cannot grasp the importance of glory to him—not its “rightful importance”—unless we know something about the Homeric world, and the world of tribal cultures generally. Yet a great text invariably struggles above pure cultural conditioning to grope after something eternally and invincibly human. The immovable, bedrock truths must ever be relocated as the cultural surfaces above them shift: we lose our way when we know only our own culture. Since our inner calling is to fulfill something transcendently human, however, and not merely to satisfy the goals approved of by the reigning power structure, we will keep seeking that bedrock. We will keep writing stories and reading them.
Reading stories is spiritual, in this regard. It is a communion with what the ancient philosophers called “the good life”. It helps us to understand why we go wrong, and what we should do to go right. As a discrete whole, the story gives us a completed equation: “Do thus, and you shall end up so.” Most of us want and need that kind of “experiment”. The drama of the entire adventure, which may bring a flower from the beaker of chemicals or may, instead, leave the poor white mouse dead in his laboratory cage, gives us an overview of life such as we cannot enjoy in the case of our own lives. It improves our odds of doing what we must do to please our gods.
Since the mysterious facts of human nature are the geometry that generates the story’s arabesque, it follows that narrative art is intricately related to ethical philosophy and religious faith—and, yes, also (somewhat more loosely) to politics. No other form of art builds patterns from the divined reality of human devices and desires rather than from objectively sensible stimuli. No other art, therefore, is more humanizing—and none other is more abused when megalomaniacs want to subvert the populace. Such dark souls always seek a “narrative” upon which to sell the public: if only they can persuade the masses that mothers sometimes eat their babies with no ill effects, then any sort of revolution is possible. This past Tuesday (June 5), I heard Rush Limbaugh relating the story of a female track star in Columbus, Ohio, who threw away her chance of winning the meet in order to lift up a fallen competitor and help her across the finish line. The vast American public apparently responded to this act of “charity” with vigorous approbation. Rush offered the vignette as a sign of our cultural decline in manliness, but I think he was slightly wide of the mark. I see in this grotesque parody of chivalry, rather, our crippling—and growing—inability to specify the values at stake in any given situation. The fallen girl was not in any physical danger. The purpose of the event was simply to establish which girl was the fastest runner. Spectators had assembled to see the issue decided, coaches had invested their time (at taxpayer expense) to affect the outcome, and the girls themselves presumably were drawing upon inner resources as well as outer conditioning to discover their personal limit. The would-be victor’s “charitable” deed therefore deprived everyone present of the result which he or she had a right to expect—including not only the “heroine” herself, but also the girl whom she “helped” by obscuring whatever lesson might have been drawn from her failure.
Why are bizarre occurrences like this making the news in twenty-first century America? Because they involve a mother eating her baby, in a way—because they pervert basic human nature in pursuit of a corrupt narrative that has been pounded for decades into the public’s collective subconsciousness. The same reasoning that celebrates this contemptuous dismissal of individual achievement was working overtime when I was in college to put every freshman coed in a boy’s bed and stick a joint in every adolescent’s mouth. Why be exceptional? Why make others uncomfortable? Why selfishly assert your standards when they are at odds with the mass’s? Why be unsociable? Why stand in the way of progress?
The antidote to corrupt stories, however, is not a boycott of story-tellers: it is more story-telling. If we Christians truly believe in a loving God, then we must also believe that making a good story of our lives requires us to fulfill our nature rather than to suppress and mutilate it; for what kind of creator-love would magnetize us only to those polarities that draw us to destruction? Hence learning more about our nature must surely help us along our path. By telling more and always more stories and deciding among ourselves which are the most “beautiful” (i.e., which have constructed the most elaborate and meticulous patterns from plausible human behavior—which have shown us best how people really act in a crisis), we can only understand our complete nature better. On the other hand, by priming ourselves and grooming our children with facile fantasies and cliché burlesques a-bristle in special effects, we are producing a nation of psychological and spiritual illiterates—of miserable oafs who cannot distinguish between helping a fallen stranger escape the rubble of the World Trade Towers and helping an unprepared opponent avoid “disgrace” at a harmless competition. I sincerely believe that such things as Rush’s story happen, to a significant degree, because people no longer read good literature! Or if humiliation at a regional track meet is to be regarded as potentially life-threatening, then have we not come full circle to Homer’s pre-literate, tribal values, where loss of face drives Ajax to suicide?
In previous editions of Praesidium (especially 10.3 and 10.4, but also 11.1 and 11.2), I have advanced the concept of what I originally called “narrative haeretics”. The phrase is an invincibly hapless one, despite its attempt to step around the word “heretic” by sticking closer to a Greek spelling. I have since decided that “narrative predilectics” might serve better: the substituted word merely replaces Greek with Latin, and hence still emphasizes the central role of choice in stories. For all great stories are about human choice: even a Jack-Londonesque yarn about a great snowstorm would lack drama unless a human being–perhaps only one–were caught up in the middle of nature’s fury and faced a moment of crisis. The decisions that people make are thus the essential building material of narrative. They are also the specific content of ethical studies–and of any religion whose alpha and omega is moral goodness (as opposed to irresistible physical power, superstitious terror, and so forth–all of which “faiths” are significantly antecedent and subordinate to the worship of the All Good).
This is by no means to say that literature departments should be “reined in” so that professors are no longer teaching any text that implicitly or explicitly contradicts the doctrine of the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or any other holy book. It means that the focus of literary study should be judgment. An aesthetic judgment upon a narrative text is impossible without a moral judgment upon the human actions and motives represented by that text; and a judgment of human behavior must, in turn, reflect the judge’s understanding of and convictions about human nature. A successful literature program should not be invested, then, in intellectually “shaking down” students to ensure that they all share a single view of human duty, human capacity, human purpose, and so forth; it should, rather, create an environment where differing beliefs and convictions may freely argue over the relative position of texts on this dual axis moral/aesthetic graph. The discussions ignited in such classrooms should be provocatively (perhaps delightfully–but who knows?) philosophical. Students should end up enunciating a value system in their evaluation of the stories they read. A story is the weaker if its hero’s courage falls short of what the reader considers courageous, if circumstances represent people as more cruel or more naive or more charitable than what the reader finds plausible, and so on. When we measure the aesthetic power of a tale, we measure its movement against and within our personal understanding of the human heart. A man who betrays his friends or who martyrs himself for them without seeming to show adequate cause for his decisions is as artistically disastrous as a flat note in a concerto or a wrong proportion in a portrait.
Literary instruction already places texts under various magnifications of a moral microscope–but it does so surreptitiously and dictatorially. Its standard method is precisely that of the religious fanatic who wants every book banned that disparages what he views as biblical values. High schools and colleges continue to teach novels and short stories as belonging to certain historical periods and certain cultural regions–and so they should. Such referents of time and place help to explain why the story-teller’s judgment of humanity may lean in this or that direction. There is a devious tendency, however (really more than a tendency–I should call it standard operating procedure), to squeeze ideology from history and culture. A temporal sequence of texts is supposed to illustrate the rise of the proletariat, of women, or of an oppressed racial group. Emphasis upon the literature of a particular culture implies that said culture is especially worthy–which further implies that a more dominant culture has been denying it a rightful place in the sun. The unstated, indeed seldom openly examined, judgments behind these arrangements are moral judgments. At the very least, they often purvey a Manichaean, “good guy/bad guy” kind of dynamic at work. Some of us do not believe that the human race can be effectively divided up into angels and devils. The pedagogy of contemporary academe refuses to allow our view of things a chance at assessing the text.
Narrative predilectics would introduce students to the historical and cultural information they require to make mature rather than petulant judgments about their readings–but the method would not trespass upon students’ essential values, using texts as a means of propagandizing on behalf of a specific worldview. Not only do I believe that the time has come to advance this method in the classroom: I believe that students will continue to desert literary studies in droves if we do not make such an adjustment. They will continue to read, some of them, because human beings (according to my reading of their nature) cannot deny that side of them which yearns to grasp more tightly the nature of true goodness and purpose. Yet fewer of them will read than should have done, their reading will be less informed and guided, and respect for the literary life will proceed to erode more and more in the popular mind. We should not allow incompetent, crusading ideologues to poison our culture’s well-spring of higher knowledge. We should correct this situation as soon as possible, and private schools will obviously have to take the initiative.
Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.