THE HUMAN VOICE IN CORE TEXTS
AND THE LIBERAL ARTS
Edited by Tuan Hoang & Daniel Nuckols
Bridging divides, Crossing Borders,
the human voiCe in
Core texts and the liBeral arts
Selected Papers from the Twenty-Third Annual Conference of
the Association for Core Texts and Courses
Dallas, April 20–23, 2017
Tuan Hoang & Daniel Nuckols
Association for Core Texts and Courses
ACTC Liberal Arts Institute
CREDIT LINE: Republished with permission of Dover Publications,
Incorporated, from The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois, 1994;
permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.
Breaking the Rule: St. Clare of Assisi and
Introduction:The Bridging Voice in the Age
The twenty-third annual conference of the Association of Core Texts and Courses
(ACTC) began exactly three months to the day after the presidential inauguration of
Donald Trump. Having surprised America and the world with his victory, the new
president promptly issued a host of controversial statements and policies. An active
user of Twitter, Trump successfully employed the medium to arouse delight among
supporters and provoke indignation among opponents. However one might feel about
the forty-fifth president, it was virtually impossible to escape opinions and arguments
about his style, temperament, statements, and decisions, and their pervasive effects
during his first hundred days in office. If liberal education is to continue to aspire to
excellence, how will this most recent political event affect how we might conceive and
reconstitute excellence? Will the very meaning of a liberal education be contested or
redefined in the wake of ever-increasing division and unimaginative communication?
Given this historic and unusual backdrop, it was notable that the conference attendees in downtown Dallas hardly spoke of Trump and the accompanying political
controversies, at least not during the keynote addresses and the many panel sessions
attended by the editors of this volume. It should be no surprise, however, that this overt
distraction did not disorient or dazzle, nor lessen the intensity and energy surrounding
this year’s conference. For the sharp focus of ACTC has always been about intellectual
traditions, the liberal arts, and core texts that have engaged readers, students, teachers,
and scholars throughout millennia. It is not the case that ACTC members do not care
about or shy from discussing current politics. One paper in this volume, for instance,
names Trump as a way to open its discussion of a core feminist text. Another paper examines the controversial notion of “post-truth,” still a part of political currency. All the
same, the center of these gatherings has been about intellectual legacies and their applications to the life of the mind in higher education, not political concerns of the day,
important and consequential as they may be. To their credit, the conference organizers
xii Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
and participants did not deviate from this core commitment.
As with previous annual gatherings, the 2017 conference also served as a small
but insistent effort to bridge differences and boundaries among traditions, disciplines, specializations, and core texts. This kind of border-crossing and divisionbridging is most appropriate, even necessary, in the global society of the twenty-first
century. Technology has enabled speedy communication and transportation, but it
also contributes to further compartmentalization even among lovers of knowledge
and wisdom. On the university campus, the professionalization in higher education,
especially in business and STEM ,
continues its dominating march. The humanities and liberal arts have witnessed reduction and closure of programs and even a few institutions. Already threatened,
the future of the liberal arts would look dimmer without innovative and persistent
attempts toward adaptation and construction of intellectual communities appropriate
to the temperament and sensibilities of our times.
This collection of peer-reviewed papers reflects the effort among ACTC members
to cross borders and bridge divides toward the goal of constructing and rebuilding intellectual communities. For the sake of clarity, the papers in this volume are organized
for the most part by general disciplines. But a closer look at their contents reveals that
the authors as a whole cast their intellectual and pedagogical eyes well beyond strict
disciplinary analysis—diverging from linearity and having a thematic framework more
represented by concentric circles. Julie Park, for example, begins her article by asking
how the Stoics “speak to people who have been marginalized,” including “women,
slaves, racial and ethnic minorities, atheists, and agnostics.” Or Bernd Estabrook seeks
to use Wendell Berry’s publications to promote how “key core texts involved contemporary articles and books helped students bridge the gap between their everyday
lives and the intellectual and academic goals of a college education.” Or Mary Catherine McDonald’s closing article not only considers two philosophers who are not commonly put together, but also the unusual combination of “loss and honey.” And so on.
Core texts and core curricula invite exploration. In the alienating Age of Twitter, these
scholars present some of the latest refreshing explorations among ACTC members as
bridging voices that rise above compartmentalization and overspecialization.
This volume opens with two plenary addresses on the subject of teaching core
texts, albeit with considerably different speaker backgrounds and methods. In her
inaugural presidential address, which is accompanied by a number of illustrations,
Jane Kelley Rodeheffer offers an account of a collaboration on The Divine Comedy
and Paradise Lost between two groups of students in two very different programs at
her institution. In comparison, Richard Strier’s address recalls the design, structure,
and execution of a course involving three disciplines at his institution. The first paper section of this volume pertains to the natural sciences and continues the theme
of interdisciplinary pedagogy. In back-to-back papers, coauthors James Clarage and
Sister Damien Marie Savino describe their collaborative work in teaching a large
undergraduate course at a Catholic university about cosmological evolution. Intent
on bridging the natural sciences with religion, their papers highlight the works of
Catholic scientists such as Georges Lemaître and Nicholas Steno. Somewhat similarly, Lam To Kam tells about the bridging of science and the humanities by using
Introduction: The Bridging Voice in the Age of Twitter xiii
the texts of Charles Darwin and Henri Poincaré via a course on evolution at his Hong
Kong institution. Closing this section is Krista Rascoe’s paper, which seeks to bridge
two very different disciplines in literature and medicine. Rascoe specifically names
STEM students as real and potential targets, suggesting that a challenging modernist
classic like Ulysses actually provides a wonderful window to broaden the seemingly
predominant scientific outlook and understanding among such students.
Political discourse and communities are the focus of the following section,
where authors examine various texts from ancient writers, near-contemporary writers, and others in between. In one way or another, either directly or indirectly, the
papers in this section engage the subjects of democracy and freedom: their meanings,
their ideals, and, perhaps most significantly, old and new challenges for them. Thus,
David Arndt probes the meanings of two Greek words used by Herodotus and then
ends with Nelson Mandela on democracy in the present. Taking a different tack, the
papers by Jacob Boros and Christopher Strangeman examine texts pertaining to race
and gender respectively in American history. Elsewhere in this section, R. Michael
Olson takes a close look at Book II of the Republic and concludes that to Plato, the
most significant kind of education is “the education of freedom.” Finally, Wade Roberts examines the writings of two twentieth-century authors to demonstrate that the
concept of “post-truth” may sound “relatively new to Western democracies” today
but actually has had important precedents.
The section on ethics entitled Ethical Overtures begins with a paper that compares two ancient texts and ends with another on a modern classic. Similar to other
papers in this collection, both come out of the authors’ experience of teaching firstyear students. Peter Diamond describes the engagement of his first-year students
with two very different texts from the Old Testament and Plato. The subject matter
is moral obligation, but Diamond’s greater goal is to lead students to juxtapose two
texts that have no historical connections or cultural contexts so as to appreciate the
“global” approach to learning and ideas. On the other hand, Robbie Kubala aims to
“enculturate” his students by employing one of Dostoevsky’s novels to instigate discussion in the classroom about intellectual life and university students themselves.
In between, James Roney and Julie Park each examine the writings of three literary
and historical figures to illustrate the crossing of ideas and experiences over time and
place. Roney’s paper meditates on the theme of aging according to three well-known
authors, and Park considers a white woman, a white man, and a black man from the
modern era to illustrate different types of Stoicism.
Historical figures and literary characters also make up the bulk of the next section. Ostensibly organized as “history and literature,” the papers to one or another
degree are concerned with “virtue” in multiple manifestations. This section begins
with Thomas Larson’s close reading of a particular passage from Plutarch’s Lives in
order to show that the ancient biographer “seems to aim at cultivating . . . the intellectual virtues of prudence and right judgment.” Next, Lisa Battaglia analyzes the
life and writings of St. Clare of Assisi to present a more complex portrayal of the
saint as both outsider and insider, especially as a religious radical for her adherence
to poverty. Leta Sundet then offers an entertaining examination of the virtue of candor found in the always entertaining Pride and Prejudice. Finally, Bernd Estabrook’s
xiv Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
paper argues for a host of intellectual values through reading and teaching the essays
by the aforementioned Wendell Berry.
The next quartet of papers make up perhaps the most varied section in this volume.
Michael Walz’s paper is a detailed exposition of two challenging passages from the
Summa theologiae regarding atheism; it concludes that belief may possibly require “a
dash of hope and a sliver of guilt” in addition to reasoning. Neil Robertson, on the other
hand, focuses on a different medieval text and argues that the most problematic book
of the Divine Comedy (and the least taught) is yet crucial for seeing Dante’s vision of
perfecting virtue. Shifting to the environment, Jean-Marie Kauth discusses her students’ engagement with two contemporary novels as examples of texts that “imagine
negative outcomes” from environmental problems, and texts that “bolster belief in the
efficacy of action.” Reading such texts, concludes Kauth, helps “students not only to
learn the message, but to internalize it.” Still shifting to a different subject, Katherine
Platt’s paper describes teaching about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a core text,
which is about a lot more than memory. Platt argues that a “reading” of the memorial
should engage “both critical and ethical practice”: the critical regarding the design and
the ethical regarding the people shown and not shown by the memorial.
The volume closes with two papers on the themes of learning and life, respectively. Albert Fernandez offers hermeneutics as an alternative to historical contextualization in understanding core texts that include opinions contrary to today’s sensibilities. “Hermeneutics,” argues Fernandez, “answers to the deeply rooted desire to
communicate with the long-dead ancestors, without misprision or distortion of what
they had to say.” Similar to those of Thomas Larson and Michael Walz, Mary Catherine McDonald’s contribution focuses on short passages, in this case from Emerson
and Merleau-Ponty. The result is a phenomenological meditation on the human condition in regard to loss, grief, and particularly the concept and experience of lubricity.
We thank the following conference participants who doubled as referees for this
blind-review volume: Lisa Battaglia, Jim Clarage, Deborah DeChiara-Quenzer, Jacqueline Dillion, Michael Dink, Patrick Dunn, Ei Hlaing, Robbie Kubala, Jason Lund,
Patrick Malcolmson, Christopher Metress, Pavlos Papadopoulos, Elizabeth Reyes,
Wade Roberts, Jane Kelley Rodeheffer, Jim Roney, Brian Schwartz, Julie Stewart,
Sam Stoner, Christopher Strangeman, Kerri Tom, and Ivette Vargas-O’Bryan. These
peer reviewers represent the dependable commitment that characterizes the goodwill
surrounding ACTC. Throughout the editorial process, Kathleen Burk and Scott Lee
offered generous and gracious support, with prompt and helpful responses to all the
questions that we had for them. Finally, this volume could not be possible without
crucial institutional support from the conference’s lead sponsor, Austin College, and
its co-sponsors, Midwestern State University and the University of Dallas. We acknowledge and thank them for this life-sustaining support.
Teaching Core Texts:
Two Plenary Addresses
Musing Dante and Divining Milton:
A Great Books and Fine Arts Collaboration
Jane Kelley Rodeheffer
In what follows I will present the results of a collaboration between students in Pepperdine’s second and third course in the Great Books Colloquium and students in
an introductory painting course and an intermediate course titled “Explorations in
Drawing” in the Fine Arts Division at Pepperdine University. This project began as
a result of my desire to develop a project to enhance my students’ understanding of
the visual language in Dante and Milton. There exists a long tradition of illustrating the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, which includes such legendary artists as
Botticelli, William Blake, Auguste Rodin, Gustave Doré, Salvador Dali, and in our
own time, Barry Moser, Sandow Birk, and the African performance artist Mwangi
Hutter. What visual cues are imbedded in the language of Dante and Milton such that
uncovering them might bring my students to a greater appreciation of the visionary
range of narrative and epic poetry?
As a philosopher with an interest in the arts, I looked to my colleague Gretchen
Batcheller, associate professor of painting in the Fine Arts Division at Pepperdine. I
soon learned that Professor Batcheller had developed an assignment in her painting
and drawing courses that required students to work from a narrative, and she was
keen to pursue a collaboration in which the Great Books students provided a textual
narrative for her students to explore artistically. Art, like the humanities, is an intellectual pursuit, and the academic environment offers a special opportunity to understand, explore, and question this pursuit through discussion, feedback, trial and error,
and hands-on experience. Wrestling with input from a variety of sources is a valuable
and necessary component in the creative process, in that it allows the artist to evolve,
4 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
grow, and transform. At previous institutions both of us had learned the value, from
a liberal arts perspective, of moving across disciplinary and pedagogical boundaries.
At the pedagogical level, Professor Batcheller and I both drew inspiration from
the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, which served as a model for innovative ideas.
His was a working environment that favored creative and intellectual cross pollination. Leonardo was a consummate liberal artist in the original sense of the term:
inventor, painter, scientist, anatomist, engineer, philosopher, architect, and sculptor.
In late fifteenth– and early sixteenth–century Europe, ars or art meant something
made by human skill, and liberal meant free—it was not the political opposite of
conservative. Although many of Leonardo’s inventions would ultimately require the
use of the artes mechanicae (skills necessary for the creation of artifacts), their use
was grounded in the artes liberales, the free skills of an educated citizen that were
not constrained by or subjugated to skills of production like agriculture, trade, metallurgy, and masonry. The free arts were traditionally associated with the medieval
trivium and quadrivium, although they are currently understood to encompass the
humanities, the fine and performing arts, and the social and physical sciences, including mathematics. In terms of the liberal arts, then, our goal was to develop an
experiential collaboration focused on the visual imaginations of Dante and Milton. It
was meant to inspire freedom in thinking and creating in the tradition of the Renaissance workshop.
Leonardo’s work spanned a variety of disciplines and platforms, and it reveals
the myriad ways in which observation about one area of experience can shed light on
a different, seemingly untested area. In leading Great Books students into the environment of an art studio and art students into the realm of textual analysis, we hoped
to loosen the conventional notions of learning that students traditionally rely on.
The workshop in which Leonardo apprenticed was a large open space filled with easels, sculptor’s turntables, workbenches, kilns, and grindstones. His codex, or bound
manuscript, served as an idea file and a source of constant consultation. Leonardo
wrote that the purpose of the codex was “to awaken genius within this jumble of
things.” In a similar way, Great Books students each relied upon their commonplace
book, known in the seventeenth century as a silva rerum, or “forest of things.” In this
version of a codex, students were asked to record and organize important, beautiful,
inspiring, or quotable passages from each of the classical texts we read, as well as
questions, ideas, observations, and other information they came across in the course
of their learning. In keeping a commonplace book, students come to appreciate that
reading and writing are inseparable activities. Like the illustration of classical texts,
the commonplace book also has a long tradition among humanists; indeed, the one
kept by Marcus Aurelius ultimately became the Meditations, and Montaigne, inventor of the essay, recorded maxims and quotations from literature and history that
formed the basis of his earliest Essais. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf
also kept commonplace books.
While painting and drawing students traditionally work from a sketchbook, the
painting project also required the creation of a collage from magazine images that
represented the full color palette; this was to serve as the artist’s template. Because
we sought to create a learning environment and not merely a “maker’s Space” or “fab
Musing Dante and Divining Milton 5
lab,” Professor Batcheller and I worked carefully to develop prompts and guidelines
for the collaboration, which are explained in more detail below. Nevertheless, our
message to the students was consistent: collaboration is a messy process, a meeting
at the crossroads that requires communication, problem solving, and a constant reframing of ideas in order to be successful.
The project began on the Great Books side of the project. After they read the
texts and engaged in shared inquiry in seminar, I led a discussion in which students
nominated scenes from the text whose language conjured up images that made them
especially conducive to illustration. The Great Books students then worked together
in small groups to isolate textual passages in Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise
Lost that could serve as the narrative basis for a work of art. The students took to
this task with significant enthusiasm, and at the end of the class period, individual
students were tasked with writing a three-page brief presenting a vision of the scene
their group had isolated, based on textual analysis. The prompt asked them to pay
6 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
particular attention to the elements of design: focal point, shape, color, value, texture,
balance, and proportion. Students were directed to first determine what the focal
point should be, i.e., the dominant element in the scene to which they desired to draw
the viewer’s attention. The other elements of design served as a further lens through
which to direct the artist aiding students in imagining as many details as possible—
even facial expressions and gestures.
Once the briefs were completed, the collaboration moved to phase two, in which
each art student read the briefs for her particular scene and, sketchbook in hand,
met with the small group of Great Books students to flesh out a vision for the work
of art. The art students were then tasked with using their expertise in the aesthetic
components of the mediums of painting or multimedia to translate the information
into a visual context. Over the course of the collaboration, we have found that a ratio
of two or three Great Books students to one art student is ideal; too much input can
strain the ability of the artist to develop a coherent vision.
As I was asking my students to stretch their skills of textual analysis into a visual
context, in a similar way Professor Batcheller sought to coax her art students into
spaces where they could ask questions that go beyond the exploration of subject and
form, that is, beyond issues of whether or not the color palette is correct, the paint is
applied correctly, and the forms being painted are proportionate. In addition to these
basic elements of subject and form, the art students were directed to focus on content,
which requires a more nuanced visual acuity. Such acuity is developed through attention to the principles and elements of design and the way in which specific tools and
materials can be used to arrange objects on a canvas. In this case, the objects were the
textual passages from Dante and Milton, which first had to be translated into visual
cues before eventually becoming images on canvas.
To this end, Professor Batcheller presented the painting students with a list of
guidelines. As mentioned above, for the first time in the semester, they were invited
to use a full-color palette, and they were directed to create a collage of the text they
were illustrating from brightly saturated magazine images that represented the fullcolor spectrum. This collage then served as source material from which to paint. The
painting students were directed to make use of the other essential elements of design
(line, shape, value, and texture), with one limitation: the only tool they could use to
apply the paint was a palette knife. With just a palette knife, students were forced
to consider texture and paint application differently than if they were using a paintbrush. The paint application becomes thicker and enhances the ability of the artist to
create a variety of physical textures on the canvas. In addition, the awkwardness of
using a palette knife empowers rigid painters to loosen up and discover new painting styles. In the intermediate drawing course, Professor Batcheller introduced the
students to a new material called Yupo, which is a synthetic, tree-free paper. It offers
a rare alternative to traditional paper and is an excellent surface for water-based media such as ink, watercolor, and acrylic paints. In this particular project, students are
encouraged to continue to experiment not only with the aforementioned materials but
also with collage. This experimentation pushes students to move beyond overused
stereotypes and helps those whose creativity has become stagnant to produce more
resonant works of art.
Musing Dante and Divining Milton 7
The marriage of subject and form with content is usually a struggle for art students at this level, and Professor Batcheller has found that this goal is most successfully reached if she asked her students to convey a story or narrative. The Great
Books students fulfilled that role in providing a narrative drawn from the Inferno or
Paradise Lost, which aided considerably in this process of conceptual growth. The
project thus followed the natural trajectory of artistic research, in which broader concepts are gradually distilled into finer distinctions. In the collaboration between the
two courses, the original directive to collaborate was reframed and refined over the
course of several meetings between the two groups of students. It resulted in either
an oil painting or a multimedia work.
Once the artworks were completed, the Great Books students wrote a second
piece in which they responded to the artwork in three parts. In part 1they were asked
to reflect on the following questions:
- In viewing the artwork, what do you see first? Do you think this is what the
artist wants you to see first?
- Why did you see it first? Does it have a bright color, is it in the center of
the piece, does it have a texture that is different from the rest of the piece,
is it an awkward moment in the piece?
- What path does your eye follow through the work?
- Are there any places where your eye gets stuck? Why?
- What interests you most about this piece? Why?
In part II students were asked to transition to their experience as a “muse” to the
- What aspects of your discussion with and suggestions to the artist are reflected in the final painting? Does the artist’s rendering evoke the central
themes, mood, activity, or characters of your assigned scene? What part of
the scene from the Inferno or Paradise Lost has the artist chosen to highlight?
- What line or lines from the Inferno or Paradise Lost does the painting best
illustrate? Quote at least two passages.
- What do you question about the artist’s interpretation of the Inferno or
Paradise Lost? Why?
- What would be an appropriate title for this piece?
Finally, in part III the students were asked to write a brief conclusion in which
they stated their reasons for determining whether or not the collaboration was a successful one.
Upon completion of their responses to the artwork, the Great Books students
joined the art students in the painting or drawing studio for a formal “critique” of
the artwork. Critique is a necessary component of the creative process, especially for
young artists. It provides a forum for the artists to see areas in need of improvement
through input from their peers and to consider whether or not the audience perceives
the intended meaning of the artwork. Professor Batcheller invited the Great Books
8 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
students to join the art students in asking and answering questions and exploring
details of the works the original briefs had inspired. The collaboration culminated in
a pop-up exhibition in the Payson Gallery at Pepperdine University in the spring of
- In this final stage of implementation, the painters and their muses were invited
to discuss the project with audience members who visited the gallery. The artworks
and selections from the briefs and responses to the artworks were also featured in
our undergraduate Great Books journal, Athena’s Gate. Through this collaboration,
humanities and art students entered into a centuries-old tradition of interpreting and
illustrating the Inferno and Paradise Lost.
Musing Dante. What follows are brief discussions of two paintings that were
completed in the Musing Dante project from the perspective of the painter’s conceptual and artistic growth, followed by selections from the briefs by Great Books II
students based on textual passages from the Inferno.
About the first painting (left), the artist was able to draw out very fine details
using only a palette knife to produce a realistic rendering of Dante’s description of
Phlegethon, the river of blood into which those who shed the blood of their neighbors
are sent to boil, in Cantos XII–XIII of the Inferno.
The next painting (right) is more abstract is than the River of Blood image.
Nevertheless, it is still somewhat representational of the giant Antaneus lifting Dante
and Virgil in his hand and placing them in the ninth circle of Hell. The palette knife
allowed the artist to utilize a consistently rough texture across the surface.
In her response to the painting of the Heavenly Messenger arriving to scatter the
furies and open the gates of hell, a Great Books student wrote the following:
Musing Dante and Divining Milton 9
During my discussion with the artist, I mentioned that Virgil and Dante should be
differentiated from each other because Dante is living and Virgil is not—he is a
shade. The way the artist interprets this difference from Virgil is very astute in that
Virgil is depicted as a large ambiguous figure and Dante as the crave-ridden shewolf who haunts the pilgrim in the dark wood. I found it particularly clever of the
artist to liken the heavenly messenger to a professional hurdler who overcomes obstacles. Dante writes that the heavenly messenger who comes to disperse Medusa
and the Furies prior to unlocking the Gates of Dis appears “full of high disdain.” The
painter captures this language in the image of a professional hurdler who must tilt
her face upward to clear each bar.
A different Great Books student focused on the artist’s depiction of the Furies as
beach-going sorority girls:
In Virgil’s classical world, the Furies appear as a gruesome and terrifying trio: the
“daughters of Night” marked by bloodstained faces and snakes twirling in their hair
and about their waists. They symbolized obstinacy and pride and were often invoked by
offended mortals and gods to exact revenge. In a biting reference to Pepperdine’s Greek
life culture, the painter depicts the Furies as sorority girls basking on the beach, the
coiled snake suggesting they are completely embroiled in the latest mean-girls gossip.
Another Great Books student wrote the following in her directions to the artist
assigned to the punishment of the fraudulent:
Dante describes this sight of the serpents as “cruel” and “depressing.” I would depict the snakes as very large and intimidating with many coils and a flared neck to
make them look more threatening. They should have their double-pointed tongues
sticking out; this feature should be exaggerated in the snakes to symbolize the
double-personality of a thief, who must deceitfully fool his victims while appearing kind and just on the outside. Among the snakes are naked and terrified people
Antaeus Sets Dante and Virgil Down in Cocytus (9th Circle). Oil
on canvas, 20 x 26 in.
10 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Traversing the City of Styx to the City of Dis: Dante and Virgil at the Gates
of Hell Inferno, Canto IX.
Oil on canvas, 20 x 26 in.
The Violent in the Plain of Fire
(7th Circle). Oil on canvas, 26
x 20 in.
Musing Dante and Divining Milton 11
running around hopelessly, with no
place to hide. Their hands are tied
behind their backs by the serpents.
The serpents “thrust their head and
tail right through the loins” (XXIV,
95), and twist themselves around
the other side.
The contrapasso (punishment resembling the sin) wrought by the snakes
in this pouch of hell should be central
to the painting since snakes are deceitful
and stealthy, just like thieves.
Divining Milton. Based on our experience with Musing Dante, we transitioned the collaboration to intermediate
art students and students in Great Books
III. We called this collaboration Divining Milton, and it was completed in the
fall of 2015. To enhance the essays produced by the students, I included a discussion of the principles and elements of
design in my prompt and directed them
to employ this terminology in both their
briefs for the artists and their responses
to the completed paintings. Professor
Batcheller directed her drawing students
to use a variety of drawing and painting
media in an exploratory process using
the synthetic drawing surface Yupo.
The first example is the birth of Sin,
and a student in Great Books III pointed
out the following in his brief:
Sin’s birth is rooted in the ancient
myth of Athena’s genesis. Just as
Athena was born out of Zeus’s
head, so Sin is begotten from the
head of Satan. Eve says to Satan,
“All of a sudden, miserable pain
surprised thee, dim thine eyes, and
dizzy swum in darkness, while thy
head flames thick and fast threw
forth, till on the left side opening
wide, likest to thee in shape and
countenance bright, then shining
heavenly fair, a goddess armed out
of thy head I sprung?” (2.751–56)
Divining Milton: Satan Gives Birth to Sin
Paradise Lost II: 635–808
Collage, ink, acrylic, charcoal, and watercolor on Yupo
50 x 18 in.
12 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Certain themes and words jump off the page in that passage. Milton’s tone is
one of horror and repulsion, so I imagine Sin’s emergence from Satan’s mind to be
horrific, sickening, and gruesome as well. The flames literally eat through his false
exterior, revealing the true soul within and creating a portal through which Sin aggressively “springs” forth. She splits “ wide” the left side of his skull and
claws her way out (2.755). Sin is described by Milton as a “snaky sorceress” (2.724),
seeming like a “woman to the waist and fair, but foul in many a scaly fold,
voluminous and vast, a serpent armed with mortal sting” (2.650–52).
I imagine Sin to appear like an unnatural extension of Satan’s brain, violently
piercing through flesh, a nauseating evil that was never meant to see daylight. As his
skull rips open, the terribly beautiful woman greedily and hastily crawls out, her eyes
hungry, her snakelike lower-half one with the innards of Satan’s mind, “scaly folds”
merging with the folds of his brain, a scorpion-like tail (“mortal sting”) raised behind
her. This juxtaposition of beautiful and fair with scaly and foul could make for the
most interesting contrast in the scene. Sin could even be portrayed as two characters
here to emphasize the contrast and deviousness of her nature. This is the birth of
something that should not be, a hopelessly sad mutilation of creation.
The last example is about Eve. In her description of Eve coming upon her image
reflected in a lake, a different student directed the artist to focus on the water:
Detail: Satan Gives Birth to Sin
Musing Dante and Divining Milton 13
When Milton describes Eve hearing a “murmuring sound of water … spread
into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved pure as the expanse of Heaven” (4:451–54),
I imagine the water to be a crystal blue that has a glass-like texture to it, translucent
and pure. The water should appear as if it is real water, almost inviting the viewer to
reach out and touch the surface. In rendering the water as shaded like glass the artist will echo Milton’s idea that the water in the lake is ultimately a mirror reflecting
both the image of Eve and the image of God through his creation. Milton describes
Eve approaching the calm lake, as a “clear smooth lake that to seemed another
In terms of color and texture, the drawing should suggest the color of heaven as
reflected in Paradise. In regard to value, I see the lake as bright and light, with the
value slowly getting darker farther away from the lake. The surrounding flowers and
plants should be richer and rendered in various colors. Overall, I want the feeling of
the scene to be one that calms and delights, based on Eve’s response to seeing her
image, “I started Back, It started back” (4:462–63). I want the presence of the lake
to be a peaceful focal point, while there may be some hints of darkness upon further
Eve Viewing Her Reflection in the Lake. Paradise Lost
Collage, ink, and watercolor on Yupo, 40 x 33 in.
14 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Professor Batcheller and I engaged in a third collaboration involving the Oresteia, a set of three Greek tragedies by Aeschylus in the fall of 2016. In the coming
years we plan to sustain this project through further collaborations involving Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Othello. We are hopeful that these ongoing projects
will begin to open our students to the liberal arts as a transformative experience in
which collaborating across disciplinary fields provokes new insights into classical
texts, enhances visual literacy, and contributes to the conceptual and artistic skills
of artists in training. Our ultimate objective as teachers and mentors is to facilitate
this journey, whereby students realize their potential as evolving artists, intellectuals,
and, most importantly, as both debtors and stewards of the ars liberalis.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Penguin Random House, 1995.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. David Scott Kastan. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett,
Inventing a (Real) Core Course at the
University of Chicago: “Form/Problem/
University of Chicago
This essay involves a story and a demonstration. The story is of how a core course
was invented at the University of Chicago—a course that, as my title suggests, was a
“real” core course in its content and approach, and also a “real” one in that it actually
came into being and was a great success. It no longer exists in its original form, but
it spawned a number of other courses that do exist and that carry on some of its aims.
The demonstration will show how this course would treat, and would try to teach
students to treat, a major and familiar text that is commonly used in core courses in
the humanities and, for that matter, the social sciences. The final section briefly narrates and reflects upon the afterlife of this course.
Once upon a time in the late 1970s at the University of Chicago, I and two other
young English Department faculty members, together with one humanities post-doc
(a historian), discovered that we were all unhappy with the core course that we were
currently teaching and felt that, if we put some work into it, we could devise a better,
more sophisticated humanities core course. We met regularly for a number of weeks
in one of our offices, with no institutional support at all—we just did it.
Our first task was to articulate our unhappiness with the Introduction to the Humanities that we were all then teaching. We felt that the course we were teaching had
an unimaginative canon (no philosophy after Kant or Mill; no history after Gibbon
or Trotsky) and that although it encompassed a variety of texts from different disci-
16 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
plines in the humanities—which we thought was good and made it truly a core rather
than a departmental or even interdepartmental course—it tended to homogenize the
texts, to read them all as pieces of rhetoric to be analyzed in pretty much the same
way. Our aim was to free the course from any canon (with the understanding that we
would especially favor philosophy and history by contemporaries in order to suggest
that significant work in these areas was still being done) and, most of all, to sharpen
up and convey our sense of disciplinary difference. The disciplines that seemed relevant to us to constitute (apart from the nonliterary arts, which were not our bailiwick)
the field of the “Humanities” were literary study, philosophy, and history (visual arts
and music had their own core courses). Reading texts was our province, and we saw
all three of the concerned disciplines engaged in doing that. But our aim, building on
our discontent with the existing Introduction to the Humanities, was to take seriously
the following key fact: that philosophers and historians do not read books the same
way as literature professors do.
But we did not want to create a sense of professional difference. Rather, we
wanted to create a sense that the three different disciplines have different ways of
reading, and to suggest that the liberally educated person ought to be able to read in
all three of these distinct, but ultimately not incompatible, ways. This required a certain mental exercise. The trick was to think of each of the three “disciplines” as ways
of reading rather than as bodies of material. The ways of reading were recognized
as having an existence apart from the texts and from the kinds of texts on which they
normally operated. What this meant was that each way of reading could be productively used on texts from all the disciplines.
So how would one set up a year-long course to reflect this? Here the fact that the
University of Chicago is on the quarter-system helped us. We decided that each quarter would include texts from all three disciplines (and perhaps some unclassifiable
ones), but that each quarter would have students reading this entire range of texts
through the lens of one particular discipline. It was decided to arrange the disciplines
in order of (something like) distance from ordinary reading habits, so that we would
move from literary to philosophical to historicizing ways of reading. This gave us
the order of the quarters, but we still had to discern how to think about the “lens” that
each discipline represented. We tried to do this uncontentiously. Each quarter was
meant to capture, uncontentiously, a central and defining concern of the discipline
in question. So we took literary studies to have some necessary interest in formal
features; philosophy to be concerned with certain kinds of problems; and history to
involve some special concern with social and political events. And so, the title of the
course was generated: Form/Problem/Event.
However, these disciplinary characterizations, though adequate and even informative enough in themselves, were clearly too general to be used to produce
reading lists of specific texts. Some further specification under each rubric was
necessary (and these, of course, could change from year to year). For the Form
quarter, such specifying topics as “narrative,” “autobiography,” and “tragedy” were
used—in each case, some ingenuity in finding texts from the nonfocal discipline
was needed (I was less happy, I should say, with “autobiography” and “tragedy”
than with “narrative,” for reasons that I can explain). For the Problem quarter, such
Inventing a (Real) Core Course at the University of Chicago 17
topics as “Meaning and Interpretation,” “The Nature of Morality or Virtue,” and
“Gender” were used. For the Event quarter, we used, at different times, the English Revolution (Cromwell and company), the French Revolution, and the period
of the formation of “American” identity, that is, the period from the Revolution
to the Civil War. It turned out that revolutions seemed to suit this course, since
they tended to produce significant texts of different sorts; but a different kind of
“event,” like the Emancipation Proclamation could also serve, and did—which led
to a discussion of process as well as of “event.”
If this all seems hard to follow, let me give some concrete cases. When “narrative” was the topic in the Form quarter in the fall, we began with some parables and
narratively organized lyrics (by Robert Frost, George Herbert, or William Butler
Yeats) and then moved to The Odyssey, Plato’s Symposium, and Garret Mattingly’s
The Armada (about the attempted Spanish invasion of England in 1588). Sometimes,
for that quarter, we used Genesis and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
The Meaning and Interpretation version of the winter-problem quarter led us
to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, selections from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams,
Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, or Natalie Davis’s The Return
of Martin Guerre and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom or Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness. When gender was the problem, we read some essays from contemporary feminist philosophers in the collection titled A Mind of One’s Own, Carol
Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, The Symposium (if not done in the fall), Freud’s
Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, volume 1 of Foucault’s History of Sexuality,
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; and we viewed the movie The Crying Game.
For the spring quarter event, the topic of the English Revolution had the students
reading such historians as Clarendon, Gardiner, and Hill; various documents from
the period (especially the Putney Debates on extending the suffrage); Hobbes’s Leviathan (books 1 and 2); and Milton’s Paradise Lost. For the French Revolution, we
also read some historians (Lefebvre, Michelet) and some documents (in translation),
along with (in order) Paine’s The Rights of Man, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Wordsworth’s The Prelude.
Implicit in the three-quarter sequence is the belief that the skills developed in
the fall and winter can be productively employed in the spring as well. By the end of
the course, the student would, ideally, be able to read, and write about, any text in all
three ways—and to “form/problem/event” any text or passage (given some historical
knowledge of the relevant “event”). Ideally, perhaps, we should have read the same
texts every quarter, but the flesh and the spirit are weak (thank goodness!). I should
note that the writing assignments in the course were intended to be tightly correlated
to the sequence’s general shape and aims, so that the writing assignments in the first
segment concentrated on structural analysis; in the second, on analyzing and building an argument; and in the third, on questions of evidence and context.
Let me proceed now to the demonstration and then narrate more of the history
and consider some of the problematics of “Form/ Problem/Event” (FPE), a course
that, I feel bound to mention, its founders are still proud of having invented and
which has, demonstrably and significantly, had a lasting effect on their lives as scholars in their fields, as well as on their lives teaching in the core.
18 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Here is what it would look like to “Form/Problem/Event” a text—Plato’s Apology
for Socrates. I have chosen this text not only because it is familiar and widely used
but also because it does not neatly fit into any disciplinary category (it’s not obviously a literary, philosophical, or historical work) and therefore should be open
to insight from any approach that can claim to throw light on it. There doesn’t, in
other words, seem anything perverse or strained in the attempt to FPE this text. Also,
while the text seems ambiguous in its disciplinary status, it also has obvious literary,
philosophical, and historical dimensions, so again there doesn’t seem to be anything
perverse or strained in the attempt to FPE it. The success of this exercise will depend
on two things: (a) how different the three “readings” are from one another. If they
all sound basically the same, and say the same things, the exercise fails. And (b)
how informative each one is. The exercise fails if the each of the readings do not say
something interesting and informative about the text.
Finally, it should be clear—if the above conditions are met—that a really good,
relatively full or “complete” reading of the text in question (or any text) would include the major points of each of the three methodologically focused readings. So
- F (Form)
The most important move, I think, from the point of view of seeing this text rhetorically or literarily (as a piece of writing that is carefully structured to produce certain
effects on the audience, then or now) is the way in which Socrates chooses to frame
his answer not in relation to the particular charges against him but in relation to what
he calls the “many prosecutors” he has had before the current ones.
This move has the effect of making the current trial simply one in a long series
of similar events, and it allows Socrates not just to attempt to answer the particular
charges against him but also to give an account of his whole life, as he sees it. The
reorienting of the question away from the moment of the trial leads to the literary
form of the text as a whole—that of, amazingly enough, autobiography. The author
of this text (Plato) dramatizes its hero speaking his own autobiography.
In the context of this speech as an imagined autobiography, one would want to
note how much information the speaker (let’s call him “Socrates,” since it seems
clumsy to say “Socrates as Plato presents him” every time) gives about himself. He
tells us about his profession (such as it is); his relation to politics and office-holding;
his military service; his economic situation; his religious beliefs and experiences; his
friends (who they are, naming names) and his friendships (what kind of people they
tend to be); and his family (telling us nothing about his wife—why?—but giving us
the number, sex, and approximate age of his children).
A full working out of the text from the point of view of its “form” would want
to understand why Socrates mentions each of these details. I don’t have time to do
this here, but each item could be an object of such discussion (in class or as a paper
From a more technically and specifically “literary” point of view, one would
want to attend to the literary references or allusions in the text. One would want to
know how the quotation from Euripides ) functions. Why does Socrates think
Inventing a (Real) Core Course at the University of Chicago 19
this point important enough to quote a famous tragic poet?
Most obviously, along these lines, one would want to work on the place of Homer in the text. How often is Homer mentioned or alluded to? What do these allusions
do? Perhaps the most important of such questions relates to the extended discussion
of Achilles ). Why does Socrates/Plato spend so much time on this?
Equally obviously, just as one would want to take the literary allusions into account, one would want to deal with imagery in the text. Why does Socrates keep referring to horses, for instance? There are many instances of this, but perhaps the most
important is Socrates’ extended analogy or conceit of the city of Athens
as a large sluggish, sleepy horse and of himself as an irritating fly on it, constantly
annoying it and goading it into activity.
The above is probably enough to give a sense of what an “F” reading of the
Apology might be like, though obviously, much more could be offered.
- P (Problem)
Here, I look for fundamental conceptual premises or positions and for arguments for
A candidate for Socrates’ most fundamental premise would be the assertion that
cultivation of the “soul” is the most important thing in life, more important than
money, position, etc. One could and should certainly ask why Socrates thinks this
is so. Here one would have to construct arguments for this view, since he does not
explicitly give any in the text.
In relation to this premise, one might then want to ask why Socrates has the
view that cultivation of the soul is best done through the peculiar thing that he calls
“examination,” and through the peculiar means of conducting such examination that
he favors, namely through asking a series of linked and probing questions. One must
therefore ask why Socrates thinks questions are so important.
From a deeper, more strictly philosophical point of view—but still along these
lines—one might ask why the principle of noncontradiction is so central to Socrates.
Why does he think he has done something really significant when he shows Meletus
One might want to take up some specific philosophical moves (i.e., ones tied
explicitly to arguments or constituting arguments). What, for instance, is the argument against statesmen, poets, and craftsmen having wisdom? Why does Socrates
seem to see the failure of the poets as central and relate the problem of the craftsmen
to this? In what sense do the craftsmen, as Socrates says, “make the same mistake”
that the poets do )? To work this out, one would have to do some philosophy à
To pursue the above-mentioned episode with Meletus, one might try to lay out
the argument against the idea that Socrates could be intentionally corrupting his companions. The premise of this argument seems to be that the vicious or corrupt will
cause harm. What would an argument for this premise look like? And once Socrates
has this premise in place, how does it function?
One might also think about how this picture of vice relates to a corresponding
picture of virtue. Virtue must cause benefits, and since the greatest of benefits is happiness, happiness must derive from virtue. How does this idea get into the text? Does
20 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
it explain why Socrates thinks he can’t be hurt? Relatedly, an obvious, pretty explicit
argument is why Socrates thinks it foolish to fear death.
One might finally (or at any time) return to a “literary” feature and now ask
about that feature’s philosophical point. One might return, for instance, to the discussion of horses.
Again, there is obviously a lot more one could do along these lines, and what I
have said is extremely sketchy, but the idea of what a reading of this sort might be
like should now be clear or at least clearer.
- E (Event)
How to take a historical approach to this text is fairly obvious. The text refers to a
historical event (the trial and legal condemnation of Socrates) that we can date (399
BCE) in a place (Athens) that we know quite a lot about. Before contextualizing, say,
the text in Athenian military and political history, one might attempt the exercise of
thinking about what one could learn from the text by treating it as itself a historical
document or source.
What does one learn about the structure of an Athenian state trial: what does
one learn (or would one hypothesize) about Athenian law? What previous trials are
referred to in the text? What would you guess the trial of Anaxagoras was all about?
What was the trial of the “captains” all about? What can one learn about the recent
political situation from Socrates’ speech? There seems to have been a democracy
and then an oligarchy in Athens. One would want to investigate this, to see whether
it was true and what it meant. Socrates speaks of his resistance to a command of the
“Thirty” with regard to “Leon of Salamis.” Is this a true episode? What was it all
about? Who were the Thirty, and at that time what seems to be the attitude of the trial
More questions abound. Could one learn anything about Athenian class or social structure? About gender relations and attitudes? What does Socrates think about
Or, one might come back to the question of horses and historicize accordingly.
Why were they important to Athens? One might take the references to Homer as
historically informative. What place might these references lead one to think that
knowledge of the Homeric poems had in this culture? One would also want to think
about why Socrates is concerned with distinguishing himself from “the sophists.”
Who do these people seem to be? What were their characteristics, and what, supposedly, is the knock on them? These are bits of historical knowledge and historical
questions that come directly out of the text. And again, surely there are many others.
Of course, one cannot historicize or contextualize any text only from itself—
though one can generate historical questions and historical information from it. One
would want to find out about the situation of Athens in 399. And one would want to
uncover who Meletus, Anytus, and the other accusers of Socrates were. One would
also want to know why Socrates was accused of these particular “crimes.” Were
these a mask for something else? Was his crime political? It turns out that there was
an amnesty law in 403 BCE that made it difficult to prosecute someone for political ideas. Is this relevant? Was Socrates antidemocratic, so that it made sense for a
moderate democrat like Anytus (as we know from the historical record) to want him
Inventing a (Real) Core Course at the University of Chicago 21
to leave town—and did Anytus, in fact, want to execute Socrates or just to get him
to leave town?
In any case, it should now be clear how many historical issues the text raises
(and gives information about) and how useful it might be to read the text in the light
of Athenian history—with regard, perhaps especially, to the loss of the Peloponnesian war as described in Thucydides.
Finally (or not so finally), one might want to compare this account of Socrates
with other accounts by contemporaries or near contemporaries (Xenophon, Aristotle, other Platonic dialogues). One might especially want to look at the account that
Socrates mentions most prominently and finds most annoying—the portrait of him in
Aristophanes’ play The Clouds (), a play that we are fortunate enough to have.
Contextualization—reading a text in relation to the events and culture of its
time—can obviously go on and on. But here again, I hope to have suggested some
starting points. The important strategy, I think, is to start with the text as a “document” and then move outward.
Ultimately, as I have already suggested, one would need to FPE the text fairly
fully to get a reasonably complete picture. But the important thing is to be able to
do this, not necessarily actually to do it in detail or with every text. One might at
particular times be legitimately interested primarily in one aspect or other of a given
text, but one cannot answer any question about its literary structure, philosophical
content, or historical context and meaning without having some sense of how to ask,
as well as how to answer, such questions. The course, FPE, was meant to give students the ability to ask such questions of any text and to have confidence that, with
some effort, some knowledge, and the proper skills, such questions can be plausibly
The Afterlife and Reflections
“Form/Problem/Event” (FPE) continued as one of the major humanities core course
options at the University of Chicago for over 15 years (others were a “Great Books”
option called “Human Being and Citizen” and one called “Greek Thought and Literature”). FPE led to the invention by other groups of faculty of similar three-quarter,
three-foci core courses—one more cultural and anthropological in its orientation titled “Reading Cultures” with the rubrics of “Collection,” “Travel,” and “Exchange,”
and one with an obviously more recent focus, titled “Media Aesthetics” with the
rubrics of “Image,” “Sound,” and “Text.” These courses represented the interests of
newer faculty, and they brought in other faculty.
But despite the seminal quality of its structure, and despite its obvious analytical rigor, there were problems with FPE, problems that continue to haunt its still
functioning offshoots. The largest problem is that the course and its offshoots were
theorized into existence. This is very much a part of the faculty’s excitement for these
courses, but it means that the process of ideological transmission is crucial to their
continued success and existence. If the founders do not communicate the idea of the
course to their successors, it devolves into pretty much the situation that FPE was invented to transcend: it becomes simply a set of (presumably) interesting texts all read
in more or less the same way. If the “trick” of the course is not grasped by the faculty
teaching it, needless to say the trick will not be grasped by the students taking it. As
22 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
soon as the first segment is thought of as the “literature” part rather than the literary
part; the second segment as the “philosophy” part rather than the philosophical part;
and the third segment as the “history” (rather than historicizing) part, the course has
failed. The initial idea—of detaching the characteristic approaches of the disciplines
from the materials on which they are normally deployed—has disappeared, and mere
disciplinarity has taken hold. So one lesson from this is that faculty who found or
are committed to such a course must take pains to communicate not the reading list
but the idea of the course to their contemporaries and successors. Staff meetings and
demonstrations—repeated demonstrations—are crucial. The general faculty reluctance to convene and attend meetings must be overcome.
But there is another, perhaps even more troubling reason for the failure, so to
speak, of Form, Problem, Event. History declared itself a social science (rather than
being listed in the Humanities Division as well). So the historians sheered themselves
off. The philosophers decided that FPE did not do enough straight philosophy, so the
philosophers invented their own core course (“Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities”), which rides very close to disciplinary norms. And the Romance literature
and Comparative Literature folks decided that they wanted their own core course,
so “Readings in European Literature” was born and then, for obvious reasons, transformed to “Readings in World Literature.” These are fine courses, and they make life
easier for the faculty who teach them (and make it easier for administrators to attract
faculty to teach them). But they are not, to my mind, “real” core courses, though
they certainly exist. The moral of this story is that disciplinary and departmental
structures have extraordinarily strong gravitational pulls and that only a strong and
sustained commitment to transcending disciplinarity—by estranging the disciplines
from themselves a bit—can keep a real core course alive and well over time.
The Natural Sciences in the Core
Reconnecting Catholicism with the
Sciences: A Model for Teaching Science–
Religion Core Texts
Sr. Damien Marie Savino, FSE, Aquinas College
James Clarage, University of St. Thomas
In this paper we tell the story of a team-taught course that was developed as a synthesis course for juniors and seniors at the University of St. Thomas (UST) in Houston,
TX. As part of the core curriculum at the university, all students are required to take
a course that synthesizes philosophy or theology with their academic major. The synthesis course that is the subject of this paper was titled “Reconnecting Catholicism
with the Sciences,” co-taught by the authors (Savino from Theology and Environmental Science and Clarage from Physics). This course provided us an opportunity
to experiment with a model for teaching a science–religion course using core texts
in science and religion.
The course was open to students of all majors. In the two years we taught the
course, we had thirty-eight students total. Of those, twenty-one students were majoring in the natural sciences or mathematics, ten in the social sciences or education, five in philosophy or theology, and two in business or accounting. Through the
course texts, we sought to address such questions as: What are the limits of science,
and what kind of truths does it pursue? What are the limits of theology, and what
kinds of truth does it pursue? How do these truths affect the way one lives and relates
to others and to creation?
There were five course objectives, of which two will be commented upon in this
paper. The first objective was to introduce the students to various models for relating science and religion. Here we focused on Ian Barbour’s four models—conflict,
26 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
independence, dialogue, and integration (77–105)—and used these models to guide
our class discussions of the texts. For example, in discussing the core texts from the
Galileo case, the students considered the nature and source of the conflictual relationship, as well as whether there were also examples of independence, dialogue, or
integration in those texts. The core texts we read were the Papal Condemnation of
Galileo (1633) and the Recantation of Galileo (1633), both original legal documents
written in 1633 during the Galileo trial. We undertook a similar approach in studying
and discussing the core texts about evolution and the Big Bang.
This approach was a particularly helpful way to frame the readings and class
discussions in order to illumine the development of the relationship between religion
and science over the past centuries. We discussed the relationship between science
and religion as analogous to other human relationships that experience moments of
conflict as well as dialogue and harmony. At the beginning of the course, most students felt the predominant relationship between science and religion was conflictual.
However, by the end of the course, many of the students had begun to realize that
there were more examples of dialogue and integration than they had first thought.
Another objective was to familiarize students with the history of the relationship
between science and faith in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Has the Church been
a patroness or a persecutor of science throughout the centuries? Placing the texts in
historical context was particularly important as a teaching tool, as the students had
very little concept of when key events in science and religion had occurred. Discussing the texts in their historical context helped them to see various themes in the relationship between religion and science and to understand better how they unfolded
over time to bring us to where we are today.
In preparing the course, we considered several approaches to using the texts in
the classroom, seeking to maximize student engagement with the readings. Each text
was prefaced with background material on the author and historical setting of the
text. Most of the time, this was done in an interactive lecture and PowerPoint format.
After the text was introduced in one class period, the next class period was devoted
to discussion. Students were given short quizzes at the beginning of class, and the remainder of the class was given to discussing the answers to the quiz questions. Alternatively, students were asked to record three points about the readings that stood out
to them in a particular way or that generated questions or confusion. In the class, we
recorded “quiz” grades for each student if they completed this task and then spent the
class period discussing their points of interest or confusion. Both of these techniques
were simple but highly effective in motivating the students to engage with the readings. Additionally, we were able to cover the points with more impact for the students
than if we had covered them in a lecture. Class discussions were well attended and
lively, and we felt the level of comprehension of the texts was generally higher than
in either a straight lecture or a less structured discussion setting.
The course was organized into three sections. The first introduced Ian Barbour’s
four models of the relationship between science and religion and addressed basic
epistemological questions. We focused on the Galileo affair, using the core texts
from his condemnation and recantation mentioned above, along with twentieth-century writings of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Specifically, we addressed the
Reconnecting Catholicism with the Sciences 27
question, prompted so pointedly by the Galileo case: Can you believe in the truths of
scripture and those of science? We also read selections from St. Augustine’s Confessions in which he writes beautifully, with prescience, about how to understand the
truths of scripture in light of our knowledge about the natural world.
In the second section, we looked at anthropological questions through the lens
of evolution. However, we did not focus only on biological evolution but rather on
a broader concept of evolution we called “cosmological evolution.” This includes
the notion of evolution as it applies to geology, biology, and cosmology. By placing
evolution within this broader context, we were able to address important concepts
related to faith and science that arose from the birth of geology between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (which actually inspired Darwin’s theory of biological evolution), as well as questions surrounding twentieth-century physics and the
evolution of the universe. We were also able to “circle back” to the questions that
arose in the Galileo texts in the first part of the course.
Since geological evolution is probably the least familiar to most readers, this
paper focuses on the three geology core texts used in the course. They were written
by three key figures in geology in successive centuries. The first chronologically was
Niels Stensen (also known as Nicholas Steno), a Danish scientist and the founder
of geology in the seventeenth century, who eventually converted to Catholicism,
became a Catholic bishop, and was beatified in 1988. The second was James Hutton,
who, through his observations of different layers of sediments and rocks in Scotland
and their slow dissolution and rebuilding over time, developed his theories of uniformitarianism in the eighteenth century. The third was Charles Lyell (1830), the English geologist who wrote his famous Principles of Geology in the nineteenth century,
a text that Darwin read on his Beagle voyage and which inspired him to develop his
theory of biological evolution.
In reading and discussing these texts with the students, it became clear how significant geology is in the dialogue between science and religion. This is an important
point not often recognized in science–faith circles, which focus almost exclusively
on the importance of biological evolution. With Galileo’s discoveries, mankind confronted existential questions about the centrality of the Earth in the universe, while
as the science of geology developed, questions arose as to the age of the Earth and
its initial creation. Had the world been created ex nihilo at a singular point in time, or
had it always existed? Were the landscapes we see the product of the biblical flood
or were other processes involved? Geological history broaches these questions and
In Stensen we introduced the students to a scientist and man of faith voicing a
beautiful harmony between his science and his faith, as exemplified by this passage
from his writings:
That which we see is beautiful, that which we understand is even more beautiful,
but the most beautiful of all is that which we cannot grasp. Let us not, therefore, be
satisfied with the evidence of our senses, but through our bodily eyes, use our mind’s
eyes, as if they were windows in a glorious palace, surrounded by a beautiful landscape. . . . cannot, therefore, take the credit either for his discoveries
or the proof. The investigator is only God’s instrument. (Kermit 62–63)
28 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
By the eighteenth century, James Hutton was led by his science to question
biblical notions of the origin and age of the Earth. His theory of uniformitarianism
postulated that the landscape, rather than being the product of the biblical flood,
was the result of endlessly repeating cycles of erosion and sedimentation that had
proceeded for millennia. He ended his book, Theory of the Earth (1788), with these
words: “The result of our present enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning,
no prospect of an end” (90).
Charles Lyell, in Principles of Geology (1830), built upon Hutton’s theory of
uniformitarianism while also addressing its theological and philosophical implications. In fact, the questions for science and faith were important enough to him that
he took time in the concluding chapter of what was strictly a scientific work to address them. He clarified that while he could not with his science interpret the landscape as the product of diluvial forces (i.e., the biblical flood), neither did he want to
argue for an eternal Earth. He saw evidence of a creator everywhere and suggested
that science and religion were of different orders of knowledge. He wrote:
But in whatever direction we pursue our researches, whether in time or space, we
discover everywhere the clear proofs of a Creative Intelligence, and of His foresight,
wisdom, and power. . . . To assume that the evidence of the beginning or end of so
vast a scheme lies within the reach of our philosophical inquiries . . . appears to us
inconsistent with a just estimate of the relationship which subsists between the finite
power of man and the attributes of an Infinite and Eternal Being. (437–38)
It is interesting to note that he went on in the closing passage of his book to
anticipate the theory of biological evolution:
As geologists, we learn that it is not only the present condition of the globe that
has been suited to the accommodation of myriads of living creatures, but that many
former states also have been equally adapted to the organization and habits of prior
races of beings. The disposition of the seas, continents, and islands, and the climates
have varied; so it appears that the species have been changed, and yet they have all
been so modelled, on types analogous to those of existing plants and animals, as
to indicate throughout a perfect harmony of design and unity of purpose. (437–38)
Reading Lyell’s core text was a good segue to the theory of biological evolution.
In this section, the students read not Darwin but a contemporary National Academy
of Sciences scientific account of modern evolution (2008) (more properly called neoDarwinism), representing the grand synthesis of Darwin’s ideas with molecular genetics. After this we covered the Big Bang in relation to the evolution of the universe.
Students read The Primeval Atom, the seminal work of Georges Lemaitre (1950), a
Catholic priest and professor of physics whose work in the 1920s paved the way for
what we now call The Big Bang theory.
In the third and final section of the course, we focused on moral/ethical questions. How do we apply the principles we learned in the course to real situations?
How do we reconcile our scientific discoveries with living according to the tenets of
our faith? We considered the challenges posed by technology, as well as environmental and bioethical questions. Why are there humans, and what is unique about them?
What is our particular place and responsibility in the world?
In conclusion, in this course we sought to develop a model for teaching an un-
Reconnecting Catholicism with the Sciences 29
dergraduate synthesis course using core texts in science and religion. Simple techniques for helping students engage meaningfully with the texts in class discussions,
as described above, contributed significantly to the success of the course. Class evaluations were positive both years, with excellent ratings for both teaching and course
content. Students indicated that the course helped them especially to learn to analyze
and critically evaluate ideas, arguments, and points of view and to develop a clearer
understanding of, and commitment to, personal values. The texts and class discussions helped the students understand the historical development of the sciences and
how the mutual relationship between science and religion can inform existential and
ethical questions regarding the nature and purpose of human life. We believe this
model could be helpful to others in liberal arts colleges who are interested in bridging the disciplines of science, religion, and history through the study of core texts.
Barbour, Ian G. Religion and Science. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997.
Galilei, Galileo. “Recantation.” Famous Trials: Trial of Galileo Galilei, 1633. http://
Hutton, M.D. James. Theory of the Earth. 1788. New York: Classic Books International, 2010.
Kermit, Hans. Niels Stensen: The Scientist Who Was Beatified. Hereford: Gracewing,
Lemaître, Georges. The Primeval Atom: An Essay on Cosmogony. New York: Van
Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. 1830. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997.
National Academy of Sciences. Science, Evolution and Creationism. Washington,
DC: National Academies Press, 2008.
“Papal Condemnation.” Famous Trials: Trial of Galileo Galilei, 1633. http://law2.
Teaching the Big Bang and Cosmological
Evolution in the Core
James Clarage, University of St. Thomas
Sister Damien Marie Savino, FSE, Aquinas College
Most students, and even their professors, narrowly equate the term “evolution” with
Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Consequently, discussions of the relation
between faith and science often are reduced to biologist versus theologian. Yet scientific works both before Darwin (in geology) and after (in Big Bang cosmology)
have led to a broader understanding of evolution. Here, not only do Earth’s organisms arise from a common ancestor, but also all material structures (plants to planets, rocks to stars, even the “elements” in the periodic table) arise from a common
simpler source. Such a sweeping cosmological evolution presents a correspondingly
greater challenge to those universities, educators, and courses that explore the divisions, and possible bridges, between faith and the sciences. This paper discusses
one specific module, on cosmological evolution, used in a larger undergraduate core
course co-taught by the authors, titled Reconnecting Catholicism with the Sciences,
where undergraduate students are challenged to integrate contemporary technical
disciplines with philosophy and theology. The success of this course suggests that familiarity with the Big Bang theory of cosmological evolution should not be restricted
to students specializing in the physical sciences, but should be considered part of a
liberal arts core curriculum.
Astronomy is one of the original seven liberal arts. Book VII of Plato’s Republic
argues the case forcibly, leading Socrates’ poor pupil Glaucon to whine: “What a
multiplication of work you prescribe for astronomy, compared with present practice” (530c). So perhaps the case need not be made for cosmology’s inclusion in the
core. Yet, as the existence of the ACTC annual conference proves, the case for the
32 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
core must be made afresh each season, even each day. Moving into the twenty-first
century, we propose reintroducing a seminal yet neglected text in astronomy, one
that expounds a theory of cosmological evolution now referred to as the Big Bang.
Besides its obvious connection to the liberal art of astronomy, this text also includes
elements from the rest of the quadrivium and even trivium, as well as other disciplines often grouped with the liberal arts and humanities (e.g., history, philosophy,
arts), and even sacred studies (i.e., theology).
Most people have heard of the Big Bang theory, a rigorous scientific account
for the present and past state of the universe, as arising from a sort of explosion
14.7 billion years ago. However, most people do not know who first developed this
theory. Many might guess it was Einstein. Some cite Edwin Hubble, for whom the
space telescope was named. In fact, the theory was developed by a Catholic priest,
Fr. Georges Lemaître. Working in Belgium in the 1920s as a canon lawyer and professor of physics, Lemaître was interested in cosmology, a subject he called “the
most magnificent subject that the human mind may be tempted to explore” (55). He
ambitiously combined the ideas, and equations, from the two revolutionary theories of his time, quantum theory and Einstein’s newly created theory of gravitation
(the General Theory of Relativity). Lemaître concluded, “These equations account
for the dynamics of the universe; they accustom us to thinking of the radius of the
universe as a physical quantity, able to vary” (63). This simple statement has radical
implications: not only matter but also space and time themselves can change and can
therefore have a beginning and an end.
If we go back in the course of time we must find fewer and fewer quanta, until we
find all the energy of the universe packed in a few or even in a unique quantum. .
. . If the world began with a single quantum, the notions of space and time would
altogether fail to have any meaning at the beginning; they would only begin to have
a sensible meaning when the original quantum had been divided into a sufficient
number of quanta. If this suggestion is correct, the beginning of the world happened
a little before the beginning of space and time. (17)
These ideas met initial conflict with not only the established science of the time
but also philosophy and even politics. The famed British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington at first ridiculed the theory, saying “Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of Nature is repugnant to me” (447). Another astronomer,
Fred Hoyle (1948), pejoratively termed Lemaître’s theory “Big Bang” to contrast it
with his established, and soberly named, “Steady State Cosmology.” Indeed, most
scientists at that time believed the universe was eternal, an appealing idea since it
seems to remove the need for an ultimate cause (e.g., a creator God). The Communist
Party of the Soviet Union in the 1940s proclaimed that this Catholic priest’s theory
was part of the “falsifiers of science who want to revive the fairy tale of the origin of
the world from nothing” (Kragh 224).
As with biological evolution, the historical controversies surrounding cosmological evolution are but one reason it is an attractive subject for the core curriculum.
To recount the entire history of its acceptance, from meetings between Lemaître and
Einstein in the 1920s and 1930s to the theory’s eventual confirmation in 1965 (by
Penzias and Wilson, only one year before Lemaître’s death) would require a separate
Teaching the Big Bang and Cosmological Evolution in the Core 33
paper. In this paper, we now focus on one particular text of Lemaître’s and how it
naturally fits within the liberal arts.
The most appropriate original text by Georges Lemaître for a general
undergraduate audience is l’Atome Primitif, published in 1946, available in English
translation as The Primeval Atom. Unfortunately, and ironically, although there are
hundreds of popular secondary accounts of the Big Bang theory (in book and journal form, Wikipedia, YouTube, even the genre of TV comedy series), the original
seminal account by Lemaître is no longer in print. Now, recall that one of this conference’s topics was Rejuvenating the Liberal Arts in the Core (RLA), which calls
for “newer and innovative liberal arts texts with a view to reintroducing texts into
core curricula.” With this charge, I hereby reintroduce the liberal arts community to
Lemaître’s seminal twentieth work, The Primeval Atom.
Although Lemaître’s theory is highly mathematical and was developed in
technical physics journals, he mercifully wrote this popular account, most chapters
expressed in a nonmathematical style accessible to any intelligent undergraduate.
All quotations of Lemaître in this paper are taken directly from the book. Moreover,
he weaves his theory using threads from disciplines besides physics and astronomy,
including elements from the trivium and quadrivium, as well as other subjects in
the humanities, including philosophy and even theology. Consider the following examples from each of the seven liberal arts.
Grammar and rhetoric: Lemaître uses poetic, yet precise, language. For instance, the term “fossil rays” is used to describe the billion-year-old light gathered
by telescopes, which encodes the ancient records of creation. He coins various expressions for the singular creation event: “cosmic egg,” “the original quantum,” “primordial atom,” and “day without a yesterday.” Consider this passage, which actually
expresses fairly precise details of galactic nebula and stellar redshifts, “The evolution of the world can be compared to a display of fireworks that has just ended: some
few red wisps, ashes and smoke. Standing on a well chilled cinder, we see the slow
fading of the suns, and we try to recall the vanished brilliance of the origin of the
Logic: The book begins with observable facts (the distribution of stars and galaxies) and logically arrives at its novel conclusion via a sort of astronomical and geometrical reductio ad absurdum. “I shall rather try to show that the universe must be
expanding, or rather that the most necessary processes of evolution are contradictory
to the view that space is and has always been static” (81).
Algebra: After recounting ancient Greek notions of number (e.g., Archimedes’
explorations in the Sand Reckoner), Lemaître entertains the reader with our more
modern ideas of number, including the transfinite numbers of Weierstrass, Dedekind,
Geometry: In a mentally moving section called “The Border of Naught,” Lemaître
explains how our universe must be “space which is finite but without boundary,” best
described by the four-dimensional non-Euclidean geometries of Riemann and Poincare. To help the reader, our author uses analogy (soap bubbles, globes) as well as
consoling words, “I suppose that your imagination is tugging at its bridle, so I am going to endeavor, not to satisfy it (which is impossible) but to have it appeased” (40).
34 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Harmony: As for the seventh and ultimate liberal art, Lemaître’s beautiful
solution of Einstein’s tensor field equations in four-dimensional spacetime provides
a majestic and modern interpretive score for the ancients’ Music of the Spheres. Yes
it is mathematical, but so it ever was, from Pythagoras and Plato to Ptolemy and to
Johannes Kepler, who concluded from his mathematical laws of planetary motion
that “The heavenly bodies are nothing but a continuous song for several voices, perceived not by the ear but by the intellect; a music which . . . sets landmarks in the
immeasurable flow of time” (446).
Besides these traditional liberal arts, The Primeval Atom also invokes elements
of history, philosophy, and theology, as it traces the cosmologies of Aristotle, Laplace, and Kant, lifts imagery from Pascal’s Pensées, and creates comparisons between the stellar bodies and God’s heavenly host.
The sphere of fixed stars spread out, far away, into space, while a few outposts
swung with the motion of the earth. The others, the huge army, speckled afar, as
an apparent challenge to the patient pride of man. How does the imagination of the
poets compare with the reality of the heavens? The world is not a dungeon, not even
a nicely decorated dungeon; it is a boundless perspective, marked out with bright
guideposts that seem to have been placed at the farthest distance where they may
still help us to answer the riddle, or rather, to value and admire the work of beauty
which has been prepared for us by the “God of the Armies.” (32)
Although Lemaître does not put forth his scientific theory as a metaphysical
proof of creation, he does present his cosmology as being consistent, if not harmonious, with the notion of a created world. Fr. Georges Lemaître apparently found no
ultimate conflict between the revelations contained in his faith’s Bible and the truths
his scientific theory revealed: a cosmos created billions of years ago, slowly evolving from simple to complex, from a singular quantum of energy, to atoms, to stars, to
solar systems, to cells, to primates, to us. In our experience, using this reading in the
classroom, the fact that the Big Bang theory was developed by a Catholic priest goes
a long way toward helping students who struggle with bridging the apparent divides
between disciplines, most notably theology and science (our era’s focusing on the
perennial problem of fides et ratio). Students who read the Primeval Atom can experience a modern synthesis of our often scattered academic disciplines at work, and
perhaps understand that they attend not a multiversity, but a university. As Lemaître
reflects, “Should we only be able to vanquish the universe, part by part, and should
our mind be obliged to confess its impotency to face and understand the world as a
whole? It remains for me to tell you how one can avoid such a pessimistic conclusion
and conceive of an intelligible form for the entirety of the world” (35).
Eddington, Arthur S. “The End of the World: from the Standpoint of Mathematical
Physics.” Nature 127 (March 1931): 447–53.
Hoyle, Fred. “The Nature of the Universe.” BBC Third Programme. BBC radio,
London, March 28, 1949.
Kepler, Johannes. Harmonice Mundi. Trans. E. J. Aiton, A. M. Duncan, and J. V.
Teaching the Big Bang and Cosmological Evolution in the Core 35
Field. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997.
Kragh, Helge. Entropic Creation: Religious Contexts of Thermodynamics and Cosmology. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.
Lemaître, Georges. The Primeval Atom: An Essay on Cosmogony. New York: Van
Plato. Republic. Trans. W.H.D. Rouse. New York: New American Library, 1956.
Reading the Story of Our Understanding of
Life: Rebuilding the Connection Between
Science and the Humanities
Lam To Kam
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Science and the humanities are two domains in the contemporary classification of
human knowledge, often separated in the current education system. The connections
between them are therefore consigned to oblivion under the increasing specialization
in intellectual development. Such dichotomy could be bridged by turning our attention to core texts and courses.
On the Origin of Species, the classic in which Charles Darwin presented the
theory of evolution one and a half centuries ago, is one of the selected core-text readings for the course In Dialogue with Nature, which, together with In Dialogue with
Humanity, constitutes the General Education Foundation Programme at the Chinese
University of Hong Kong. While both Dialogues are guided by the reading of classic
texts, In Dialogue with Nature is about human endeavors to investigate nature and
the establishment of scientific knowledge. The Origin, as one of the core-text readings, perfectly shows us how scientists’ original words in classical science literatures
bring in humanistic sides of science.
The Origin is a book we often refer to but seldom read, so oversimplification
and misunderstanding of its concepts and thesis are common. Over the past century,
the theory of evolution has been widely accepted in the area of science, serving as
the foundation of biological science and included in the syllabus of biology and science courses worldwide. However, the original literature is not normally included in
school, and students are therefore not required to read about evolution in Darwin’s
38 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
own words. The curriculum and assessment guide from the Education Bureau of
Hong Kong, for example, puts Darwin’s theory under the compulsory part of “Genetic and Evolution,” with the focus placed on biotechnology and biodiversity (Curriculum Development Council , 23–27). Not only are the historical
and cultural backgrounds largely excluded, but the details of the theory at Darwin’s
time are also omitted. Molecular genetics, unfolded a century after Darwin, however,
is introduced together with evolution to explain the inheritance mechanism of the
theory. Students, therefore, usually find the Origin obscure, as it reveals that Darwin
himself did not know about DNA mutation.
Understandably, it is the power of science to condense an extensive amount of
experience on the order of the world we live in into a small volume of simple, objective laws (Poincaré 165). Nevertheless, as Darwin wrote, “Throw up a handful of
feathers, and all must fall to the ground according to definite laws; but how simple
is this problem compared to the action and reaction of the innumerable plants and
animals” (Darwin and Costa 75).
The theory is seemingly not as straightforward as those found in contemporary
biology textbooks, for Darwin thoughtfully supported his universal law on life with
nearly 500 pages of arguments and evidences; and yet he originally intended to call
the publication an abstract (Darwin and Costa xvi).
Notably, “survival of the fittest,” as the mechanistic process of evolution, is the
general recollection of the biology class; ironically, it is not the original expression of
Darwin. The term coined by Darwin was “natural selection,” which is also the title of
chapter IV in the Origin. Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” is a later addition,
appended to the title starting from the fifth edition of the Origin in 1869 and used
interchangeably with “natural selection” ever since (Darwin and Costa 61). Those
who have read the Origin would agree that the disastrous implications of Spencer’s
“survival of the fittest”—in the understanding of human evolution and social evolution—would be Darwin’s nightmare.
Reading original literature is, therefore, important for the understanding of
what Darwin really meant in his space and time. Classics of science are the key for
students to rebuild the chronological development of the scientific knowledge and
hence the full particulars of human effort to establish the modern science we know
today. This is beyond the scientific knowledge per se.
The Origin encompasses a long, yet compelling, story about life and about Darwin’s struggle to read the life story. Charles Darwin (1809–82), who lies in Westminster Abbey next to Isaac Newton, is the central actor of the story. He was attracted to
the beauty of nature at a very young age:
When I left the school I was for my age neither high nor low in it; and I believe that
I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather
below the common standard in intellect. To my deep mortification my father once
said to me, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will
be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” (Darwin and Barlow 27)
As “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect,” the
critical event in his life was the voyage on a British warship, HMS Beagle (December
1831–October 1836), after which he had committed himself into a life-long career
Reading the Story of Our Understanding of Life 39
to explain the magnificent and diversified world of life (Browne and Van Wyhe).
Nevertheless, this story of life interweaves with a number of aspects of human activities, including British maritime exploration of the New World, the Americas, development in geology, discovery of fossil records, development of agriculture, and
a long period of peace and prosperity renowned as the Victorian era. By that time,
empiricism, the mechanical worldview introduced by Isaac Newton, and the attempt
to identify independent mechanism as the true cause of natural phenomena are the
intellectual conditions imprinted in Darwin’s mind and reflected in his writing. The
first of the two epigraphs depicts Darwin’s point of view:
But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power,
exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws. William
Whewell: Bridgewater Treatise. (Darwin and Costa ii)
Darwin had compared his work to Newton’s general laws of motion more than
once (the above analogy with falling feathers is another example). The last sentence
of the last chapter of the Origin well presents his admiration of Newton’s general
laws and ambition to embrace the whole history of life into one law:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally
breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling
on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms
most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin and
Darwin’s Victorian writing style beautifully expresses how the law governs the
evolution of all life forms in the enormous geological time of the earth in the past and
future. In chapter IV of the Origin, included in the excerpt for students of the course,
Darwin vividly portrays the action of Nature:
It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the
world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and
adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever
opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. (Darwin and Costa 84)
Students would notice that this kind of writing style is unlikely to be found in
modern scientific work, yet the language reveals its historical and cultural origin. As
mentioned above, while modern science curricula do not normally include the cultural background, reading Darwin’s words would allow students to directly engage
in his scientific enquiry. This is especially meaningful for Asian students who are
coming not only from a different era, but also from a different side of the earth from
Apart from the writing style, the historical footprints of the fermenting period
between the eighteenth and early nineteenth century of Western Europe can be found
all over the Origin. The idea of natural selection as a slow and gradual process was
inspired by Charles Lyell’s theory on geological changes:
As modern geology has almost banished such views as the excavation of a great
valley by a single diluvial wave, so will natural selection, if it be a true principle,
40 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
banish the belief of the continued creation of new organic beings, or of any great and
sudden modification in their structure. (Darwin and Costa 95)
The action of natural selection to accumulate changes in characters is compared
with artificial selection or man’s selection in domestic animals at the beginning of
chapter IV (Darwin and Costa 80). Such comparison has taken advantage of the
popularity of domestic breeding, which stemmed from the flourishing development
in agriculture of England. In the same chapter, tissue and organ specialization in
organic beings is ascribed to “physiological division of labor” which correlates with
the concept of “division of labor” from the economist Adam Smith (Darwin and
Costa 93). Both of the above cases illustrate the influence from social-economic
activities on Darwin’s conceptualization of the theory; meanwhile, Darwin himself
benefited from the wealth brought by the economic bloom of his time in England.
One would argue science should be objective, value free, and supported by reasoning with evidence. As the groundwork for modern science, Darwin did think by
Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those
of man? (Darwin and Costa 188)
He strived for as much empirical support as possible. Below is just one example
of his experiments and calculations:
Until I tried, with Mr Berkeley’s aid, a few experiments, it was not even known how
far seeds could resist the injurious action of sea-water. To my surprise I found that
out of 87 kinds, 64 germinated after an immersion of 28 days, and a few survived an
immersion of 137 days. . . . Afterwards I tried some larger fruits, capsules. . . . Hence
I was led to dry stems and branches of 94 plants with ripe fruit, and to place them
on sea water. The majority sank quickly, but some which whilst green floated for a
very short time, when dried floated much longer; for instance, ripe hazel-nuts sank
immediately, but when dried, they floated for 90 days and afterwards when planted
they germinated … we may conclude, as far as anything can be inferred from these
scanty facts, that the seeds of 14/100 kinds of plants of any country might be floated
by sea currents during twenty-eight days, and would retain their power of germination. (Darwin and Costa 359)
Darwin’s work and words not only demonstrated the spirit of science but also
laid a foundation for manifold branches of knowledge, including paleontology, genetics, and ecology. Indeed, Darwin has foreseen his significance in the development
of knowledge and human history:
In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology
will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental
power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his
history. (Darwin and Costa 488)
Indeed, the Origin opened up new directions for us to search for our origins.
Who we are and where we came from are big questions or fundamental questions
that are interdisciplinary by nature. Diversified disciplines are connected at the very
beginning, as in the case of common ancestry illustrated in the great tree of life (Darwin and Costa 117–18).
Reading the Story of Our Understanding of Life 41
Science is not only about the systemic study of nature and technical application of the knowledge; it is inseparable from its historical origin and the people who
worked it out. While Darwin was dedicated to generating the general laws in his
time, his theory suggests lives on earth are connected since life first appeared on
earth over three billion years ago. His original words bear witness to the historical
background of the scientific theory in the West. The classic, Origin, as the story of
life and the story of humans’ endeavors to read the life story, reveals connection between the beauty of life on earth and human existence; science and culture; science
and social-economic activities. For the fact that scientific theories were spread all
over the world for technical values, embracing the scientists’ historical context builds
a fuller understanding of the foundation of scientific knowledge for Asian students.
The development of science has revolutionized our vision over a few centuries ago. The emphasis on technology and specification in science education nowadays, however, breaks it away from its humanistic root. As the reservoir of human
thoughts, core texts could be the bridge for us to reflect on our past, present, and
future, and therefore an important part of holistic education for students.
Browne, Janet, and John Van Wyhe. “Timeline of the Life of Charles Robert Darwin.” Darwin Online. Darwin Online, n.d. Web. http://darwin-online.org.uk/
timeline.html. Accessed April 15, 2017.
Curriculum Development Council and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, Education Bureau of HKSAR. Science Education Key Learning
Area: Biology Curriculum and Assessment Guide (Secondary 4–6), http://334.
June 24, 2017.
Darwin, Charles, and Nora Barlow. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–
1882 with Original Omissions Restored. London: Collins, 1958.
Darwin, Charles, and James T. Costa. The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First
Edition of On the Origin of Species. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011.
Poincaré, Henri. The Value of Science: Essential Writings of Henri Poincaré. New
York: Modern Library, 2001. Reprinted in In Dialogue with Nature: Textbook
for General Education Foundation Programme. 2nd ed. Hong Kong: Office of
University General Education, 2012.
Examining Paralysis: Medical Images in
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Tarrant County College
Steeped in medical vocabulary, James Joyce’s Ulysses reflects themes of social, cultural, political, and religious stagnation through the image of paralysis. Joyce’s work
naturally invites discussion of and exploration into the cultural vacuum left in Ireland
following Britain’s decolonization from all states but Ulster. But using Ulysses in
the classroom can also facilitate student engagement in conversations that question
the divide between science and religion, the emergence of women’s health issues,
and the xenophobia within nationalism, to name just a few of the ethical discussions
raised by the text. Close reading and analysis of this core text with students, particularly those in STEM fields, fosters
the development and construction of their own communal voice to confront many
problems of inequality that arise in medicine.
Using Ulysses as a core text in a freshman rhetoric and composition class at a
liberal arts university works. In any semester, students from a variety of majors and
interests endure that dreaded freshman writing seminar. Joyce’s use of humor, scandalous language, and blunt blarney provide situations that keep students engaged.
Furthermore, the text works particularly well to grab the attention of science and
engineering majors due to Joyce’s use of medical images and scientific language
within the work. Many passages lend themselves naturally to discussions that remain
relevant to those seeking employment in medical and science fields after college.
Questions regarding the difficulty of Joyce’s language might discourage instructors
from using the text. However, segmenting passages and reading them aloud enables
students to engage with the text. When read with an ironic tone as Joyce intended,
44 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
students focus on the message of each episode. They also enjoy trying different voices and accents while performing for their peers. Before reading, spend time with
students to lay a foundation by placing the work in its historical, political, and social
contexts. The key to using Ulysses in the freshman composition classroom is that it
is framed properly for the student.
With each discussion of selected passages, background information must be
given to students in advance to prevent anachronistic interpretations of the text. Flexibility toward a modern application of its ethical arguments may be permitted during
discussion. However, it is best to establish the context for reading and understanding
the passage with the students prior to discussion. One of the topics first explored
with students from Ulysses is women’s reproductive health. The “Penelope” episode,
where Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness creates only eight sentences, initiates students to some of the stagnant issues that remain ignored in women’s health
care. For example, Molly’s visit to the gynecologist for leucorrhea, as indicated by
Molly’s statement “I had that white thing coming from me” (U.18. 1152), creates a
moment where Molly steps back from her usual confident self to allow medical authority to guide her understanding of what occurs within her own body. She engages
in the distancing between doctor and patient by referring to her gynecologist as “that
dry old stick” (U.18.1154) and desexualizes the encounter through her recollection
of the patient history questions she answers during the visit. Molly seemingly, at this
point, leaves medicine’s position unchallenged.
Student questions and discussion now focus on why Molly, who flaunts her sexuality, feels a need to suddenly restrain her speech for the doctor. Discussion should
center on how Joyce uses this particular moment to accentuate medical imperialism
over domestic affairs through Molly’s reflections in “Penelope” (Plock 147). Joyce
acknowledges through Molly’s discourse that advancements in gynecological care
for women, while creating improvements to their health, work to keep control over
women. As students read further, they see that she harbors a distrust for medical
authority due to its attitude toward her symptoms, stating, “where do those old fellows get all the words they have omissions with his shortsighted eyes on me cocked
sideways I wouldnt trust him too far to give me chloroform or God knows what else”
(U.18.1170–172). Molly even goes on to say that “I always used to know by Millys
when she was a child whether she had worms or not still all the same paying him for
that” (U18.1167–168). Such statements further announce Molly’s doubt that her physician truly listened to her during the course of an exam. Molly laments that she cannot obtain the medicine she needs without the doctor’s approval; but instead, must
pay one guinea to confirm a diagnosis that she knew her child had. Molly recognizes
that her physician ignores most of what she says due to the fact that she is a woman,
citing that he only saw the natural weakness in her.
Looking at Molly’s frustration with doctors, students usually engage in conversations regarding the degree to which men actually listen to women during discourse
as important as taking a patient history or intake record during treatment. Students
also answer and discuss the question regarding the doctor’s authority over a patient.
For example, some female doctors ignore their female patients in a manner similar to male physicians based on their own sense of medical prowess. As classroom
Examining Paralysis 45
conversation continues, students realize through Molly that Joyce demonstrates the
arbitrariness of medical theories designed to keep women submissive.
Using health care to keep women submissive remains a source of dialogue
through class discussion of passages from “Oxen of the Sun.” Once more it is important to establish background for students. Students need to be reminded that at
the turn of the century in Ireland, religious doctrine dictated what women could and
could not do in the public sphere. Joyce recognized the cascading effect that religious
stagnation created for women in their social standing, making Ulysses a perfect text
to use to discuss not only women’s health-care issues but also the divide between
science and religion. To begin discussion, students learn that in 1904, Trinity College
began to allow women to enter its medical school. The first women to go through
Trinity’s medical program studied obstetrics and gynecology, as well as pediatrics
and general care. However, even with this progressive initiative that sought to provide women with female physicians, women still fell victim to religious dogma in
their obstetrical and gynecological care.
Joyce highlights the dilemma of conscience that many doctors encountered during delivery when both the unborn child and the mother faced complications that
could lead to the death of the mother or the child, even both. Traditional Catholic
influence dictated that the child’s life be spared at the expense of the mother. More
progressive medical thought centered on saving the mother, since she could bear
more children. Joyce places this debate in the heart of the episode “Oxen of the Sun”
when the medical students sit in the lounge and debate the topic extensively as Mrs.
Purefoy’s agonizing labor screams can be heard from the floor above them:
And he heard their aresouns each gen other a touching birth and righteousness,
young Madden maintaining that put such a case it were hard the wife to die (for so it
had fallen out a matter some year agone with a woman of Elblana in Horne’s house
that now was trespassed out of this world and the self night next before her death
all leeches and pothecaries had taken counsel of her case). And they said farther she
should live because in the beginning, they said, the woman should bring forth in pain
and wherefore they that were of this imagination affirmed how young Madden had
said truth for he had conscience to let her die. And not few and of these was young
Lynch were in doubt that the world was now right evil governed as it was never other
howbeit the mean people believed it otherwise but the law nor his judges did provide
no remedy. A redress God grant. This was scant said but all cried with one acclaim
nay, by our Virgin Mother, the wife should live and the babe to die. (U. 14. 202–15)
Like many doctors bound by their religious traditions, young Madden emphasizes saving the child, while many of his fellows cry out for the mother to live. This
conflict within the medical community in Dublin rose from the competitive attitude
of the medicals against the clergy (Downing 187). Young doctors started to see themselves as an authoritative voice, countering the stranglehold that the Catholic Church
and Protestant British political rule held over Ireland for centuries (187). With their
new voice in religious and political matters, doctors saw that they could influence
society and push for social reforms to improve lives around them.
Discussion of the “Oxen of the Sun” episode raises current disparities and inequalities in women’s health care. Students talk at length about problems they, or
46 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
their friends and family, encounter when seeking gynecological or obstetric care.
They engage with this episode due to their personal connection with the topic. Many
students seek to discuss possible solutions to change current practice. Before this
discussion begins, students learn that Joyce’s friend Gogarty shared with Joyce the
changes he saw in medicine. Due to his discussions with medicals in Gogarty’s circle, Joyce implied to Nora in a letter dated 29 August 1904 that the combined religious and social pressures on women contributed to his mother’s illness and death,
stating, “My mother was slowly killed, I think, by my father’s ill-treatment, by years
of trouble, and by my cynical frankness of conduct. When I looked on her face as
she lay in her coffin—a face grey and wasted with cancer—I understood that I was
looking at the face of a victim and I cursed the system which had made her a victim”
(Joyce, Letters II 48). Students need to know that Joyce’s experiences influenced his
need to criticize the system that subjugated women. His medical discussions with
Gogarty signaled to Joyce that not only a need to raise the social status of women
existed, but also using the language of medicine to achieve his purpose provided an
element of authority.
Scientific research strengthened the rhetorical voice of medical practitioners to
criticize social problems and suggest resolutions through proven research. The debate
as to whether the mother or the child should live within the “Oxen” episode reflects
the emerging dominant moral position within the medical community of Dublin,
which ran counter to religious influence. As reflected within the previous passage,
Joyce affirms the medical cultural authority when his medical doctors at the NMH
resolutely conclude in their debate that the mother should live. This debate usually
initiates a discussion that explores how science and religion can bridge the understanding gap between the two fields. Students explore questions regarding the degree
to which the role of science and the role of religion should influence political policy,
cultural practice, and social expectations. Students argue their position from facts, as
well as use arguments of definition to substantiate claims. Furthermore, discussions
also surface regarding the proper care and treatment of expectant mothers. Students
learn that infant mortality became an expected norm in the early twentieth century:
125 to 150 births per 1,000 led to the death of the infant (Shanahan and Quigley 280),
since most doctors performed a craniotomy (also known as high forceps delivery) to
forcefully pull the infant from the mother’s womb in order to save the mother. To
improve the physical survival of birthing women and their infants, Caesarean section
surgery improved by the end of the nineteenth century, but it still proved a risky option for preserving the life of mother and child.
Students see the medicals, Stephen Dadelus, and Leopold Bloom continue their
debate, as the conversation emphasizes the complications women faced in childbirth
and health care in Dublin. From the pages of Ulysses, students learn that Caesarean
sections could be performed with advancements in “anesthesia or twilight sleep” (U.
- 966); however, pregnant women still faced risk to their lives during labor due to
“the prolongation of labour pains in advance gravidancy by reason of pressure on
the vein, the premature relentment of the amniotic fluid (as exemplified in the actual
case) with consequent peril of sepsis in the matrix” (U. 14. 667–69). During discussion of this portion of the text, students calculate that Mrs. Purefoy’s prolonged labor
Examining Paralysis 47
stood at three days. They join the medicals, Stephen Dadelus, and Leopold Bloom in
discussion of how medical personnel should ethically proceed with her care. Most of
these students know from other nursing or pre-health classes that once the mucosal
plug and membrane that protects the womb and growing fetus ruptures, birth partum
needs to occur rather quickly. Extended exposure of the warm womb to bacteria
from surfaces, air, and contact by medical personnel provides a habitat that breeds
From these two episodes, Ulysses provides material that enriches discussions in
rhetoric and composition classes, allowing students to develop poignant arguments
centered on public health issues. Students draw correlations between medicine as
practiced in the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, focusing
on many of the ethical debates that surround the fields of science and medicine. At a
liberal arts college, these debates engage the science-track student, piquing interest
not only in the core text used, but also in the humanities. Students leave the classroom recognizing that science and the arts intertwine and support each other. They
also develop rhetorical skills, creating and developing arguments through the use of a
core text and their own scientific knowledge. In the course of learning these valuable
lessons, students find that they possess a powerful voice to engage others in discussion regarding many of the problems that face humanity.
Downing, Gregory. “Life Lessons from Untimely Death in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’”
Literature and Medicine 19.2 (Fall 2000): 182–204. Project MUSE. Web. Mar.
14, 2015. DOI: 10.1353/lm.2000.0022
Joyce, James. The Letters of James Joyce. 3 vols. Ed. Richard Ellmann. New York:
Viking Press, 1966.
———. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Vintage, 1986.
Plock, Vike Martina. Joyce, Medicine, and Modernity. Gainesville, FL: U of Florida
Shanahan, Fergus, and Eamonn M. M. Quigley. “Medicine in the Age of ‘Ulysses’:
James Joyce’s Portrait of Life, Medicine, and Disease on a Dublin Day a Century Ago.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 49.2 (Spring 2006): 276–85.
Project MUSE. Web. 14 Mar. 2015. DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2006.0032
Political Discourse, Political Communities
Questions of Democracy: Rethinking
Demos and Kratos with Herodotus and
Saint Mary’s College of California
Democracy is commonly defined as the “rule of the people” or “majority rule,” but
this definition does not quite fit the text in which the word “democracy” first appeared. In the History of Herodotus, an advocate of democracy rejects not just monarchy and oligarchy, but also the whole notion of rule: “I am willing neither to rule
nor to be ruled” (οὔτε γὰρ ἄρχειν οὔτε ἄρχεσθαι ἐθέλω) (2: 110–11). Some thinkers
today have also challenged the notion of democracy as a form of rule. In Long Walk
to Freedom, Nelson Mandela described the tribal meetings of his people as “democracy in its purest form” but rejected the notion of democracy as majority rule:
“Democracy meant all men were to be heard and a decision was taken together as a
people. Majority rule was a foreign notion” (22).
What, then, is democracy? How best to think about the meaning of democracy?
And how can the study of core texts—such as Herodotus—help us to think through
These questions are now often met with an odd mix of dogma and relativism.
The dogma is that “democracy” is an essentially contested word—an empty signifier
defined in different ways for different purposes. The relativism is the belief that there
is no essence of democracy. Bernard Crick said democracy has no “one essential
true meaning or . . . definitive definition” (7). And Larry Diamond has said, “There
cannot be any one ‘right’ answer to the question of what democracy is; we can only
be transparent, and logical and consistent, in whatever standard we adopt” (22). This
52 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
dogmatic relativism rests on an instrumental view of language: words seen as tools
that have no core meaning. The meaning of a word depends on how it is used.
This view of language is naive. In reducing language to a tool, it overlooks the
historical dimension of words. Words derive their sense in part from the historical
traditions to which they belong. The instrumental view of language not only obscures
the historicity of words; it effectively impoverishes language by emptying words of
their traditional senses.
Think of the word “fascism.” It was coined to name a political movement founded in Italy in 1915. It is true that the word “fascism” is now used to describe many
things, including the aesthetics of Hummers, the ubiquity of Starbucks, and the interior decor of Trump Tower. But to understand the precise meanings of the word—and
how those meanings have changed over time—we have to understand the political
phenomenon the word first named.
The same is true of the word “democracy.” It first named a kind of politics that
emerged in sixth- and fifth-century Athens. It is true that the word is now used to
refer to many things, including popularity contests in high school, the kleptocracy
of Putin’s Russia, and the totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea. This is not to say
the original sense of the word is the one true meaning. It is to say that we have to
understand the phenomenon the word first named in order to understand the precise
meanings of the word and how those meanings have changed over time.
This is true in general of words for cultural phenomena. Words articulate an
understanding of the things to which they refer. To understand cultural phenomena
in essence, we have to reflect on their history and the words in which they have been
understood. We must start with their history—return to the moment when they first
emerged clearly enough to be recognized and named in words—and then try to explicate, clarify, and refine the authentic understanding of the phenomena implicit in
the original sense of those words.
What, then, was the original sense of “democracy”?
To answer this question, we have to go back to Herodotus. It is generally recognized that a decisive step toward democracy took place in Athens at the end of the
sixth century BCE, with the constitutional reforms of Cleisthenes. But Herodotus is
careful to say that these reforms were established only after a popular uprising that
preceded the institutions of democratic self-government. To understand the origins
of democracy, we have to look at this uprising itself.
The uprising occurred following several decades of tyranny, which ended when
the last tyrant was dethroned in 510 BC by a Spartan king named Cleomenes, and
there was a struggle for power between two factions of Athenian aristocrats, led by
Isagoras and Cleisthenes. Herodotus says that to win popular support, Cleisthenes
made friends with the people of Athens (ὁ Κλεισθένης τὸν δῆμον προσεταιρίζεται),
while Isagoras turned for help to Cleomenes (3:72). Cleomenes ordered the Athenians to banish Cleisthenes, then came back to Athens with a small military force
and, on the advice of Isagoras, banished seven hundred families close to Cleisthenes.
The moment of truth came when Cleomenes ordered the Council to dissolve, to be
replaced by three hundred supporters of Isagoras. The Council resisted and refused
to obey, and Herodotus says the rest of the Athenians—thinking the same thing (τὰ
Questions of Democracy 53
αὐτὰ φρονήσαντες)—joined this resistance (3: 80). Cleomenes and Isagoras took
refuge on the Acropolis, where they were besieged by the Athenian people for three
days, after which the Spartans negotiated a safe retreat. Isagoras was banished from
Athens, and his supporters were executed. The Athenians recalled from exile the
seven hundred banished families, and Cleisthenes instituted the reforms that made
the first democratic government in Athens. Here is David Grene’s translation of the
When Cleomenes sent his herald, demanding the expulsion of Cleisthenes and the
“Accursed,” Cleisthenes himself departed; but Cleomenes, even so, came to Athens,
with no great military power, and on his arrival banished—to undo the curse—seven
hundred Athenian families, all suggested by Isagoras. Having done that, he next
tried to do away with the Council and entrusted the government to three hundred
partisans of Isagoras. The Council resisted and refused to obey, and then Cleomenes
and his party took possession of the Acropolis. The rest of the Athenians, thinking
the same thing (τὰ αὐτὰ φρονήσαντες), united and besieged them for two days, and
on the third day all who were Lacedaemonians among them accepted a treaty and
marched out of the country. (386–87)1
Several things here are worth noting.
- The protagonist of the story is not Cleisthenes but the people of Athens. The
people came together and acted in concert to protect their Council and to expel
Cleomenes and Isagoras.
- The people acted in concert without the direction of a recognized leader. No
one was in charge. There was no vertical relation of leader and followers, commander and subjects.
- Even without a leader, the people had the power to force the surrender and
expulsion of Isagoras, Cleomenes, and the Spartan soldiers.
- The power exercised by the people of Athens was a purely “horizontal” power—the power-to-act-in-concert generated by the unified solidarity of a group.
- The power of the people in this case was not power over government institutions but the power to act in concert that precedes and sustains institutions of government.2
The word “democracy” (δημοκρατία) seems not to have existed before these
events. Cleisthenes described his reforms with the word “isonomy,” that is, equality
(ἴσος) under law (νόμος). So the word “democracy” was a retrospective interpretation of this new kind of politics. It seems likely that this interpretation was informed
by the experience of collective action in the uprising that made democratic government possible. How, then, did the Athenians understand the kind of political power
that established the institutions of citizen self-government? What was the understanding of power implicit in the original sense of the word “democracy”?
“Democracy” comes from two Greek words: demos (δἢμος) and kratos (κράτος).
Demos meant “the people” in several different senses: 1. the low-born or common
folk in a polis; 2. the total number of individuals in a polis; and 3. the body of all
citizens who belong to a polis. Kratos meant “power” in several senses as well: 1.
the strength of an individual; 2. the capacity of a group to act in concert; 3. a leader’s
capacity to direct the action of a group of people; 4. the right to command the obedi-
54 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
ence of a group of people by virtue of holding a position of rulership.
A common view is that “democracy” was formed like other Greek words for
forms of government. Just as “monarchy” meant rule (ἄρχειν) of one (μόνος); just as
“oligarchy” meant rule (ἄρχειν) of a few (ὀλίγος); and just as “anarchy” meant rule
(ἄρχειν) of no one (ἄν-), so, too, “democracy” meant rule (κράτος) of the people
(δἢμος). This view treats the two verbs for the exercise of power—kratein (κρατεἲν)
and archein (ἄρχειν)—as synonyms. They are both taken to mean to rule-over-others.
But if we look more closely, there are reasons to think these two words are different.3
First, there were no Greek words with the root archein that meant “rule by the
people.” There was a word “demarchy” (δημαρχία), which combined demos (the
people) and archein (to rule), but it meant the office of the demarch—a particular
tribune of the people. Similarly, there was the word “polyarchy” (πολυαρχία), which
combined the prefix polu (many) with archein (to rule), but it meant many people in
positions of command, as when Thucydides used it to describe an army that was defeated because it had too many generals (310–11). There was another word for “the
multitude”—to plethos (τό πλῆθος)—but there was no word “pletharchy” to name a
form of government characterized by rule of the many. In short, there were no Greek
words with the root archein (ἄρχειν) that named what we would call democracy.
Second, there was a gap in words for government based on the root kratein
(κρατεῖν). There were words with the root kratein that named the kind of people
who exercised power. Aristocracy (ἀριστοκρατία) named a regime in which power
(κράτος) was exercised by the best (ὁι ἄριστος). The word “isocracy” (ἰσοκρατία)
meant a form of government in which power (κράτος) is exercised by all citizens
equally (ἴσος). But there were no Greek words that combined the root kratein with
specific numbers. There was no word similar to “monarchy” that combined monos
with kratein to designate “monocracy”—“the power of one.” There was also no word,
similar to “oligarchy,” that combined oligos with kratein to designate “oligocracy”—
“the power of a few.” (There was a word that combined the alpha privative a- with
kratein to designate “Akrasia”— “powerlessness”—but akrasia meant the lack of
strength or self-command within a single person, rather than the absence of rule in
So, the words archein and kratein meant something different. What was this
The word archein referred to what we might call “vertical” power: power over
others. A public office was called an arche. The public offices as a whole were called
the archai. An official was called an archon. The official who spoke for the common
people was called the demarchos. In every case, words with the root archein referred
to power over others.
The word Kratein, on the other hand, had two senses. In one sense, Kratein did
mean power-over-others. Herodotus used the word in this sense when he spoke of
someone holding power over the Persians (τὸ Περσέων κράτος) (2: 90–91). But in a
more basic sense, the meaning of kratos was simply the power-to-do, i.e., the capacity to act. This sense of the word is implicit in the phrase “to take by force” (αἱρεῖν
κατὰ κράτος); kratos here meant the power that makes it possible to do something.
Questions of Democracy 55
Instead of the vertical power-over-others named by the word archein, the word kratein referred primarily to the horizontal power of a group acting in concert.4
In short, words with the root archein answer the question “How many hold
power-over-others?” Words with the root kratein answer the question “Who is empowered to act?”
How do these linguistic considerations help us understand the meaning of democracy?
What is the understanding of democracy implicit in the first use of the word?
I would argue that the original sense of the word “democracy” was not “rule of
the people” but “people power”—the power of a people united in action. It meant the
empowerment of the people to act together as an agent—the power of a people to do
together what they could not do as individuals or factions. This sense of power is implicit in a conclusion of Herodotus—that after the end of tyranny and the emergence
of democracy, Athens grew in power: “Thus grew the power of Athens” (Ἀθηναῖοι
μέν νυν η῎θξηντο) (3: 86–87). While the Athenians’ capacity for collective action
was weak under the tyrants, it grew immensely once they became a democracy. A derivative meaning of democracy is the form of government that sustains the people’s
power to act; the original meaning of democracy is this “people power” itself.
I use the phrase “people power” deliberately. It evokes the democratic revolution
in the Philippines in 1986, but also the nonviolent revolutions in East Germany and
Prague in 1989, the mass movement that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa
in 1994, the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia that overthrew Milosevic in 2000, the
Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, and
the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014. All these events echo the spontaneous popular
uprising in Athens in 508–507 bce.
Why does this matter? Why understand democracy not primarily as a form of
government based on popular sovereignty and majority rule, but instead as a kind of
politics in which the citizens as a whole act in concert for the sake of the common
Mandela gave an answer to this question. He argued that democracy is best
understood not as majority rule: “Democracy meant all men were to be heard and a
decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion” (22). In
South Africa, the implication of his argument was clear: the point of bringing democracy to South Africa was not to enable the black majority to “rule” the white minority, as the white minority had “ruled” the black majority under apartheid. The point
was to open the political sphere to all citizens of South Africa, so that the citizens as
a whole could deliberate and act together for their common good.
Mandela’s argument has implications beyond South Africa. It is dangerous to
define democracy as majority rule or popular sovereignty because these definitions
can legitimize the rule of a majority over minorities, or the sovereign power of a
“people” over the noncitizens or second-class citizens who are deemed not part of
the people. In the United States, the notion of democracy as majority rule has lent
support to the rule of the white majority over racial minorities. It is often said that
the liberal democracy implies rights for minorities, but history shows that minority
rights are at the mercy of the majority. Majorities will not recognize the rights of mi-
56 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
norities as long as they do not recognize minorities as full members of “the people.”
So, we reach three answers to our initial three questions. The notion of democracy as “people power” allows us to view democracy less as a form of government
than as a kind of politics in which all citizens deliberate and act together for the sake
of the common good. We can reach this view of democracy if we think genealogically—if we return to the core texts of our tradition, and explicate how words were
understood when they first appeared. And this genealogical approach is only possible
through a constantly renewed return to the core texts of the traditions that have made
us who we are.
- A different version of the same story is given in Aristotle, Athenian Constitution. 60–63.
- My thoughts on this episode are indebted to Josiah Ober, The Athenian Revolution, 32–52.
- Here I am indebted to Josiah Ober, “The Original Meaning of ‘Democracy.’”
- On “vertical” and “horizontal” power I am indebted to Hannah Arendt, On Violence, 35–
Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970.
Aristotle. Athenian Constitution. Trans. H. Rackham. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press,
Crick, Bernard. Democracy. New York: Oxford U. Press, 2002.
Diamond, Larry. The Spirit of Democracy. New York: Times Books, 2008.
Herodotus. The History. Trans. A. D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1963.
———. The History. Trans. David Grene. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987.
Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. New York: Back Bay Books, 1995.
Ober, Josiah. The Athenian Revolution. Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1996.
———. “The Original Meaning of ‘Democracy’,” https://www.princeton.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. C. F. Smith. New York: Putnam, 1931.
Getting Up Off the Ground: Toward a
Genuine Community in Plato’s Republic
R. Michael Olson
St. Michael’s College
Of the dramatic transitions that take place in Plato’s Republic, perhaps none is more
significant than Glaucon’s interruption in Book II. Accusing his brother, Adeimantus, and Socrates of having founded a city fit for sows, Glaucon insists that they get
the wretches populating this city up off the ground and place them at tables and on
couches as is conventional (372d). At this juncture in the dialogue, where the inhabitants of the initial city are raised up from the earth and placed at tables and couches,
so, too, might it be said that political life gets fully off the ground. “Overstepping the
boundary of the necessary” (Plato 373d), the inhabitants of the city in speech leave
behind the peaceful and healthy city initially founded by Adeimantus and Socrates as
they step into the indeterminate world of human freedom, wherein haunts the threat
of war as the city tends toward feverish and luxurious decadence (Plato 372e–373e).
Here, at this point in the construction of the city in speech where the inhabitants of
the initial city get fully off the ground, it appears that Glaucon has touched on the
conditions out of which emerge the need for rule and thus the concern for justice.
“For,” as Socrates says, “in considering such a city too, we could probably see in
what way justice and injustice naturally grow in cities” (Plato 372e). It is here, on
the occasion of Glaucon’s interruption, that the conversation concerning the relationship between justice and the soul gets up off the ground and is launched deep into
Despite the threat of decadence and war, which follows from Glaucon’s
insistence that the individuals in the initial city are raised up off the ground and
placed at tables and couches, such degeneracy does not directly ensue. What follows
58 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
instead is an extended conversation on education aimed at making some of the
citizens fit for guarding and subsequently fit for ruling. In order to gain some insight
into the significance of this transition from the initial city founded by Socrates and
Adeimantus to the city of unbounded desire initiated by Glaucon’s interruption, and
thus in order to gain greater insight into the significance of the subsequent dialogue, I
propose to follow Socrates’s initial plan for embarking on the project of constructing
a city in speech in the first place. I propose to see by means of that which is writ large,
viz., the city, that which is smaller and more difficult to see, viz., the human soul (Plato
368c–d), interpreting the transition from the initial city founded by Adeimantus and
Socrates to the city following Glaucon’s interruption by looking at those desires of
the soul that give rise to these larger political forms that serve to mediate them.
“he state,” according to Aristotle, “comes into existence, originating in the
bare needs of life, and continues its existence for the sake of a good life” (1252b27–
30). The founding of the city in speech in the Republic follows this same logic.
Socrates begins the construction of the city with Adeimantus by identifying necessity
for the sake of which cities initially come into existence. The city in speech is thus
initially founded in order to provide the bare necessities of life—food, clothing,
shelter (Plato 369b–d). Because individuals are not self-sufficient in meeting these
needs, they coordinate their efforts into cooperate endeavor by introducing the
specialization of labor: “ne man, one art” (Plato 370b). With the introduction of
the specialization of labor, this aggregate of individuals is woven into a community
as they become interdependent in achieving a common good, that is, the survival of
The initial city—“the city of utmost necessity” (Plato 369d) or the logically
minimal city—quickly expands. In the second phase of the initial founding of the city
in speech, a host of secondary occupations are introduced as the population of the city
increases and as labor becomes more specialized in order to secure more efficiently
the necessities of life. With the introduction of specialized occupations in the areas
of manufacturing, industry, commerce, trade, and labor, we arrive at something
beginning to resemble the business of actual political life (Plato, 370c–371e). Indeed,
we get an economic city, a city ordered towards the efficient production and exchange
of material goods. However vast and complex this city may become as its population
increases, developing ever more complex networks of increased specialization as
it advances in technological innovations and in administrative mechanisms for the
management of its material welfare, it is still founded on the same principle as that on
which the initial city was founded: necessity. Nothing new of human significance has
been introduced. Accordingly, this healthy and peaceful city, as Socrates portrays it,
has its meaning in that primary purpose for the sake of which it came into existence
and towards which it is ordered: meeting the necessities of life.
The psychic grounds on which Adeimantus’s and Socrates’s initial city is founded
is necessary desire. By “necessary desire” I mean those desires that have their seat in
and are expressive of the biological imperative of human existence, those appetitive
desires concentrated in the individual as the desire for self-preservation, where “self”
is understood predominately as bodily self. Although this city comes into being in
order to meet those desires expressive of the biological stratum of our existence, it is
Getting Up Off the Ground 59
nonetheless a city of sorts, that is to say, a distinctly human association that cannot
be mistaken for a herd or a flock. It is distinctly human because it arises in response
to the distinctly human expression of necessary desire as care. By “care” I mean the
projection of the necessary desires into a universal horizon. Looking forward into
an open-ended future that extends to infinity, the human being becomes aware of his
or her eventual mortality along with the incessant cycle of arising appetitive desires
and the need to satisfy them if he or she hopes to postpone that mortality. Projecting
bodily need into an indefinite future, the self becomes full of care, prudentially
seeking to secure in the present the means for satisfying those needs in any possible
future. The economic city is constructed in order to meet the demands of bodily care,
thus finding its meaning and its justification in the securing of the necessary ends of
Socrates depicts this careful city as moderate and healthy. Insofar as it admits
no strife and thus has no occupations or institutions tasked with mediating conflicts,
it appears to have no need for the administration of justice. Were desire to remain
within the boundaries of necessity, were the individuals populating this city ruled
by the desire for self-preservation, and were their rational capacities employed in
the service of securing those ends in cooperation with others, we may infer that just
political rule would entail nothing more than the administrative structures required
for the fair and efficient regulation of its economic transactions. Such a city would be
moderate and healthy. Human desire, however, appears not to be so easily satisfied,
as Glaucon attests to when he accuses Socrates and his brother of having provided
a city fit for sows and implores them to get these wretches off the ground and to
place them at tables and on couches as is conventional. Once the necessities of life
have been adequately secured, one may begin to raise the question over whether this
constitutes the good life.
Just as Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and company sit together leisurely at
table, discussing the questions regarding the soul and justice, subjects that imply and
thus inevitably point to questions of the good, so too, one can imagine, will some
individuals in the city in speech desire to raise the same questions. Once the city is
initially founded, once the life of its inhabitants is secured against want such that
necessity no longer severely rules their lives and some amount of leisure is won,
individuals may begin to entertain the question over whether their form of life is
the good life. When Glaucon disparages this initial city founded by Socrates and
Adeimantus as fit only for feeding beasts, he is implicitly raising the question over the
good, suspecting that something is lacking, that it is not fully human. Living so closely
to the earth, the inhabitants of this city have not fully emancipated themselves from
the logic of necessity. However masterfully, efficiently, and fairly the technological
and economic developments of the city enable it to secure the material necessities
for its inhabitants, it is still barbaric; it is not adequately civilized. For to be civilized
is to live truly as free individuals. Insofar as the city is slavishly ordered towards
securing necessity, insofar as its has its meaning in the biological ends of life for the
sake of which it is ordered, it fails to account for the full potential of human freedom.
Thus, when Glaucon insists that Socrates get the wretched inhabitants of this initial
city up off the ground and set them at tables and chairs as is conventional, he may be
60 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
understood as asserting the just demands of human freedom, not yet fully perceiving
the actualities in which its satisfaction may consist.
Human freedom gets up off the ground, so to speak, as the individual radically
reflects him- or herself out of the matrix of biological necessity and awareness opens
out into an infinite and universal horizon, emancipating the individual from total
enthrallment in the biological particulars of his or her existence. With this upsurge
of freedom, however, come complications. Desire becomes unbounded. Projecting
itself into an infinite horizon of possibility, human desire overreaches itself, tending
towards pleonexia, towards luxuriousness and feverishness as it desires beyond
what is necessary. “verstepping the boundary of the necessary” (Plato 373d), as
Socrates aptly describes it, the human soul and its desires no longer possess any
naturally determined order. With this upsurge of freedom, any natural economy of
desire enjoyed by the nonrational animal is disrupted. Thus arises the need for selfrule, the need to order one’s desires, establishing and maintaining the boundaries of
the free self where those boundaries are not simply given. Here, it may be said, is the
ontological origin out of which the concern for justice grows.
When Glaucon insists that Socrates and Adeimantus raise the inhabitants of
the initial city off the ground of necessity, he introduces the possibility of political
degeneracy by introducing unnecessary desires into the political equation. Yet, with
the introduction of unnecessary desire, neither does Glaucon appear inclined toward
the feverish pursuit or luxurious enjoyment of excessive material goods, nor does the
subsequent history of the city in speech directly devolve into feverish and luxurious
decadence. The spirited Glaucon appears to be more impressed with the exercise of
freedom in the activity of rule, as is evident in the conversation that follows, even
though his initial complaints with Adeimantus’s and Socrates’s city are directed at
the more necessary business of eating.
When Glaucon insists that the inhabitants of the city founded on necessity
be placed at tables and on couches as is conventional, he introduces a significant
mediation in the satisfaction of appetitive desires, namely, the mediation of
conventional forms, which intervene between the arousal of appetitive desire and its
satisfaction. Tables and couches introduce a physical distance between the individual
and the ground of necessity. This physical distance signifies the psychic distance that
allows for self-possession, namely, the inner-distance of self-conscious awareness
over and against the immediate urges of its appetitive nature and the objects of its
satisfaction, and this self-possession may be expressed through conventional forms.
When one is at table and adopts the conventional forms of dining, one maintains a
distance from the immediate promptings of the appetitive desire, thereby exhibiting
one’s emancipation from the grip of hunger and from enthrallment in the immediate
object of its possible satisfaction. In this regard, the conventional forms may be said
to be the forms of freedom, which serve to dignify the self by allowing it to exhibit
self-possession and thus independence from its more immediate appetitive nature
while nonetheless giving what is due to necessity and the biological imperative of
its existence. In the words of Leon Kass, “Despite the differences from one culture
to the next, table manners everywhere effect a certain beautification of the eater, as
he displays himself to be above the enslavement to his appetites. An activity that
Getting Up Off the Ground 61
is inherently ugly is beautified by graceful deed and tactful speech” (153–54). Not
only do these conventional forms allow one to manifest inward character of soul—
namely, freedom in one’s self-possessing moderation—they also serve to veil the
more embarrassing biological business of eating and thus to create the social space
wherein other social graces and genuinely human interaction may take place. By
clothing the necessary business of satisfying appetitive activity in the forms of civil
dining, attention is shifted away from the solitary and brutish business of mere eating
and is directed toward the communal activity of being together in the satisfaction of
higher desires. To be at table is primarily to be in the company of others. By insisting
that they place these citizens at tables and on couches as is conventional, Glaucon
thus initiates the possibility for more genuine community, community in which the
higher potentials of the soul may be awakened and satisfied.
To be sure, Socrates already has an eye on other nonappetitive, unnecessary
desires implicit in Glaucon’s desire to get the inhabitants of the city of necessity
off the ground and seated at table. This is most evident in the first group of new
occupations introduced by Socrates in order to satisfy unnecessary desires distinctly
expressive of rational nature: the imitative artists (Plato 373b). Belonging to this
group are the nonverbal imitative artists, those practitioners of both the plastic and
musical arts, and the verbal imitative artists, the poets and those involved in the
theatrical productions whereby the poets’ works are interpreted for public display.
While the nonverbal imitative artists, concerned primarily with sensuous form, are
introduced in the city in order to satisfy the unnecessary desire for beauty, the verbal
imitative artists, concerned primarily with inner significance, are introduced into the
city in order to satisfy the unnecessary desire for meaning. When freedom gets up
off the ground, so does awareness, opening out to the whole. In its noetic openness,
the individual is open to the allure of intelligibility and thus is susceptible to being
moved by beauty and the idea of the good. At this point in the development of the city
in speech, the full potentials of rational nature are up off the ground, for everything
that follows in the dialogue, including the possibility of philosophy itself, emerges
out of these conditions.
If the Republic is about anything, it is about education. It has such a prominent
place in the Republic that one may, I believe, say that education and, more specifically,
the education of freedom, that is to say, liberal education, is or ought to be in Plato’s
estimation the most important concern of political life. One may even venture to say
that the association of teachers and learners form the more genuine communities, the
most genuine consisting of philosophical friends, those individuals desiring to learn
and to share their learning with regard to the most significant and the highest things.
The approximation to such a community is, indeed, represented in the Republic by
the ten individuals who come together at table to enjoy a meal and to talk. And even
though it appears that dinner is never served, not all the participants appear to go
hungry, for the conversation concerning the best possible life provides at least some
of those present with more needful nourishment.
62 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Aristotle. Politics. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.
Kass, Leon. The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature. Chicago: U
of Chicago P, 1999.
Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968.
A Painful Dream: Alexis de Tocqueville on
Race and Slavery
His long domestic political career notwithstanding, Alexis de Tocqueville remains
most notable in the United States for his landmark work Democracy in America.
Through his expansive analysis of the United States’ political and social conditions,
Tocqueville sought to trace the historical trajectory of democracy to assist his native land through the same process as painlessly as possible. In doing so, he made
countless observations on the new and dynamic American character, using them to
comment on human nature. One of the most eye-opening of these comes in the final
chapter of volume one, in which Tocqueville discusses slavery and the unsteady association between the white and black races in America. His harsh assessment of this
relationship rings true in a modern nation that still struggles to bridge gaps between
racial and ethnic communities. Even so, we cannot simply use Tocqueville as an
oracle for today’s problems without understanding what he means. What does he say
regarding slavery and the racial tension it fostered? In this paper, I offer an answer
by showing that Tocqueville’s view of race relations, specifically between blacks and
whites, is both pessimistic and hopeful.
My analysis focuses on Democracy in America itself, but in order to grasp this
selection, it will help to have a broader understanding of Tocqueville’s public position on race-based slavery. Tocqueville founded his opposition to the so-called peculiar institution on three principles. First, he possessed an abiding moral objection to
the practice. Tocqueville, an intellectual Roman Catholic if not necessarily a practicing one, held that slavery “contradicted both Christian belief and tradition and the
political philosophy of the rights of man” (Gershman 263), thus embracing both
64 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
secular and religious approaches to human equality. In spite of his position that human cultures as distinct entities were not all equal (Neem 600), Tocqueville ardently
defended the idea of individual egalitarianism, using unusually strong language in
his book to direct “all my hatred against those who, after more than a thousand years
of equality, introduced servitude into the world once again” (Democracy 348). In
public, however, this position often took a back seat to practical arguments. As a
member of France’s Chamber of Deputies in 1839, Tocqueville composed a report
for a commission evaluating abolitionism. He made clear the pragmatic political
necessity for immediate emancipation (Gershman 472–73), specifically noting increasing racial tension in the French colonies and remarking that “if this state of
things be long continued, it will ruin the white population, and leave little hope of
ever attaining peaceably and happily the enfranchisement of the blacks” (“Report”).
We will see in Democracy in America as well the idea that slavery hinders long-term
concord and prosperity. Tocqueville also championed a third pro-abolition claim,
one focused on national honor. It seemed fitting to the Frenchman that a nation like
his own, whose revolution gave concrete significance to the idea of natural equality,
would recognize that this principle extended to black slaves (Gershman 481). He also
expressed concern that servitude would undermine the democracy that distinguished
America’s national character (Neem 604). For countries that so strongly identified
with concepts of equality and liberty to blatantly contradict them in practice appeared hypocritical. This fact cast further doubt in Tocqueville’s mind on slavery’s
Democracy in America elaborates on these ideas, making some salient points
regarding human nature in its section on the black race. Some of these claims sound
rather uncomfortable, such as the assertion that prejudice, if misguided, seems innate
in all societies. The text avers that one group of men, when elevated above another
by circumstances, will come to scorn them as naturally inferior (327). Furthermore,
one class will always concern itself more with inequalities and injustices among
themselves than between social groups (Democracy 341). We must emphasize that
Tocqueville did not believe the then-popular theory that climate creates differences
in race and temperament; he criticized it in Democracy in America (338) as well as
in his private correspondence (Tillery 641). Yet the perception of dissimilarity and
inferiority appears inevitable. Likewise, the institution of slavery itself has historical
precedent, and Tocqueville found this fact significant. The classical Greeks and Romans used unpaid laborers widely, yet Democracy in America carefully distinguishes
this practice from modern slavery. For the ancients, law alone made one a slave,
so an alteration in legal codes could provide a simple means of general emancipation (327). Moreover, Tocqueville’s idea of history as the increasing proliferation of
equality can explain slavery’s eventual disappearance at the hands of Christianity
(Democracy 326). Unfortunately, it returned later, and Tocqueville’s writings find
this particularly problematic because “the fugitive fact of slavery is combined
in the most fatal manner with the material and permanent fact of difference in race”
(Democracy 327). The modern world bound these two concepts together, racializing
the American social hierarchy (Janara 787). Two unfortunate elements of human history and society combined to create an anachronism that contradicted everything for
A Painful Dream 65
which Tocqueville thought the modern democratic world ought to stand (Neem 603).
Its aberrant unnaturalness marks Democracy in America’s chapter on race.
Clearly, Tocqueville possessed a pessimistic view of slavery, racial tension, and
its potential consequences. He believed that it would prove burdensome for America
in three ways, firstly stating that the stain of slavery would never leave the country,
even if the institution itself eventually died. A footnote in Democracy in America
points out the circularity of racist reasoning, remarking that “in order that the whites
abandon the opinion . . . of the intellectual and moral inferiority of their former slaves,
the Negroes would have to change, and they cannot change as long as this opinion
subsists” (328). The rootless nature of the black populace, unable to call anywhere
on the American map their home (Democracy 336–37), exacerbated the alienation it
experienced. The pervasiveness of the separation between whites and blacks led to a
second point: a violent war might be the only way to resolve racial tension, at least
in the United States. We must not assume that Tocqueville foresaw the Civil War,
for he predicted a true race war that would take place exclusively within the South
(Democracy 344). Additionally, he did not see the impending conflict as a clear-cut
battle between good liberal democracy and evil prejudice, but rather acknowledged
the tragic and complex intermingling of these concepts (Kohn 174). Still, such a
clash appeared “inevitable” to him, and it “constantly represent itself as a painful dream to the imagination of the Americans” (Democracy 344). One more point
exhibits the difficulties Tocqueville’s book anticipates. The North’s attitude toward
blacks, in his eyes, was just as harmful and reprehensible as the South’s. He noted in
Anglo-Americans a tendency to obsess over blood purity and abhor racial intermingling, especially the creation of a mixed-race class (Democracy 342). Members of
this group possessed an irrational “fear of falling” from their societal positon into a
position of inferiority represented by the black race itself (Janara 793). A nation that
lives in dread of upheaval and violence cannot prosper.
Despite this prognosis, however, Democracy in America offers some signs of
hope. Chief among these is Tocqueville’s firm belief that using practical, fiscally
minded rhetoric would encourage abolition and integration. It took some effect in
early nineteenth-century America, where states that banned slavery generally became more populous and prosperous than those with plantation-based economies
(Democracy 330–31). The argument from self-interest applied on a personal level as
well. The book recounts an encounter with an old Southerner, wracked with guilt by
the thought of his long-enslaved illegitimate children being sold off after his death.
This awful scene is punctuated by the observation: “nature knew how to avenge
herself for wounds the laws had given her” (347). Indeed, the financial and psychological health of both races may be improved by equalizing them, ultimately fitting
the “great democratic revolution” Tocqueville observed “taking place among us”
(Democracy 1). As we noted earlier, slavery existed only as an anachronism in this
model, though in its creator’s mind it would still take long enough for the revolution
to happen that even a child born in 1850 would not notice it (“Letter”). Even so, Tocqueville demonstrated a confidence in a human progress that might not have universally positive results but would in this regard. Furthermore, he emphasized the role of
religion in promoting peace and justice. Christianity in particular destroyed ancient
66 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
slavery by asserting the God-given sameness of all humans, and Tocqueville argued
that it could adapt the same argument for the nineteenth century by focusing more
on the interests of the master (Democracy 334). The Church’s doctrine of “genuine
human liberty” complemented “the new nation’s commitment to democratic equality
of conditions” (Noll 299) and thus demonstrated that religion can serve a positive
purpose in helping modern human beings live together. Tocqueville prized faith as a
moderating influence on societies and as an essential part of the optimistic solution
to the very negative racial problems he anticipated.
The view Alexis de Tocqueville expresses of race relations, specifically between
blacks and whites, in Democracy in America is both pessimistic and encouraging.
Once more, we must remember that, as astute and insightful as Tocqueville was, he
did not have a crystal ball through which he observed the future of America and human history writ large. It is hard to say what he would have made of our Civil War
and Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement and
its persistent legacy. Yet Democracy in America demands to be read less as mere
prognostication and more as political philosophy, articulating principles and ideas as
they manifest themselves in actual states and societies. Revisiting its ideas within the
context of twenty-first-century America’s own questions about race can prove fruitful, for it highlights the fact that the problems created by massive injustices do not
simply disappear on their own. Conscious effort is required to rectify such divides;
such work will take time and may not bear fruit, but it is necessary to the success of
a democracy that claims to be built on the principle of human equality. Tocqueville’s
perspective on race in America is one of frankness and frustration, but also of patience and expectation.
Gershman, Sally. “Alexis de Tocqueville and Slavery.” French Historical Studies 9.3
(1976): 467–83. ProQuest. http://ezproxy.baylor.edu/login?url=https://search.
Janara, Laura. “Brothers and Others: Tocqueville and Beaumont, U.S. Genealogy,
Democracy, and Racism.” Political Theory 32.6 (2004) 773–800. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0090591704265931.
Kohn, Margaret. “The Other America: Tocqueville and Beaumont on Race and Slavery.” Polity 35.2 (2002): 169–93. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3235496.
Neem, Johann N. “Taking Modernity’s Wager: Tocqueville, Social Capital, and the
American Civil War.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41.4 (2011) 591–618.
Project MUSE, http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.baylor.edu/article/418146/.
Noll, Mark. “Tocqueville’s America, Beaumont’s Slavery, and the United States in
1831–32.” American Political Thought 3.2 (2014): 273–302. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/677734.
Tillery, Alvin B. “Tocqueville as Critical Race Theorist: Whiteness as Property, Interest Convergence, and the Limits of Jacksonian Democracy.” Political Research
Quarterly 62: 4 (2009): 639–52. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25594436.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and
A Painful Dream 67
Delba Winthrop. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.
———. “Letter to Eugène Stoffels.” Online Library of Liberty, April 28, 1850,
———. “Report Made to the Chamber of Deputies on the Abolition of Slavery in
the French Colonies.” Online Library of Liberty, July 23, 1839, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2467/.
Arendt, Orwell, and the Politics of Truth
According to Oxford Dictionaries, the 2016 word of the year was “post-truth,” which
the editors defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in
shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Wang). Although this definition conceals a number of ambiguities, it nevertheless has the virtue
of economically capturing important features of our current political condition. To
cite one example, it highlights the fact that public opinion is increasingly swayed
by rhetorical appeals and innuendo rather than empirical data. Yet while this is an
important attribute of contemporary politics, it is hardly novel, since commentators
such as Walter Lippmann were already expressing similar concerns as early as the
1920s. Indeed, the tendency of voters to make decisions based predominantly on
subjective inclinations rather than objective data is only one aspect, albeit an important one, of our current predicament. What’s different about the contemporary
political scene is the apparent insouciance of our political leaders concerning truth.
This observation refers not only to the fact that politicians often engage in sophistry,
up to the point of outright deception. If that were all it meant, the claim would hardly
withstand scrutiny, since this is a habit that public officials have been assiduously
cultivating since antiquity. Rather, the novelty about the present moment is the utter
disregard for truth itself, which is manifested both in the total lack of curiosity exhibited by many of our representatives concerning even the most elementary details
of policy, as well as the willingness to manufacture information whole cloth, which
seems to bear only the most tenuous relation to facts on the ground.
While the phenomena that I describe are relatively new to Western democracies, it is not entirely unprecedented if we begin to examine the broader sweep of
history. Indeed, vis-à-vis the utter disregard for truth, there are at least rough paral-
70 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
lels between our current political condition and that of twentieth-century totalitarian
societies. Thus, it seems appropriate to revisit the work of two eminent authors who,
prompted initially by the phenomena of propaganda in totalitarian regimes, were
able to develop prescient insights concerning both the relationship between truth
and manipulation in totalitarian regimes as well as the importance of truth-telling
in politics more generally. Following Hannah Arendt, I will argue that as a general
rule, the truth-teller stands outside the realm of politics, but in societies where lying, deception, and the misuse of language have become the norm in political life
rather than exceptions, the mere act of truth-telling and speaking clearly does take
on political significance. In order to flesh out this position, I turn to Arendt’s work (
“Truth and Politics”) as well as George Orwell’s 1984 and his short essay “Politics
of the English Language.” I discuss the insights that both Arendt and Orwell bring
to bear on our current post-fact society, while also examining the broader challenges
we face in attempting to uncover truth—as well as the virtues that we will need in
order to do so.
The force of circumstances and history led Hannah Arendt to reflect on the relationship between truth and politics. In The Origins of Totalitarianism she had emphasized the essential role that propaganda played in Nazism and Stalinism, yet she
also recognized that the problem of deception was much older than the twentieth
century: “Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only
of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade” (“Truth and
Politics,” 227). Indeed, the tension between society’s interests and the imperative of
truthfulness is one of the central problems tackled by Socrates in the Republic, but it
recurs throughout the history of Western political thought.
Arendt’s own views on the question of how we should understand the interplay
of truth and politics are complex and multifaceted, but they’re clearly influenced by
the lessons that Plato drew from witnessing the trial of Socrates. Arendt avers that
as long as the truth-teller is content to reside in his or her study and contemplate
abstract questions, most of society is will simply ridicule his/her speculative flights
or, better yet, simply ignore them (229). Thus, Arendt contends that for the most part
the truth-teller stands outside the political realm and is content to pursue theoretical
What happens, however, when deception, manipulation of data, and outright lying have become so ubiquitous that they threaten to undermine the very possibility
of communicating about a shared reality? This was the terrifying state of affairs that
confronted individuals who lived (and still live) in totalitarian societies, and George
Orwell’s 1984 describes it in jarring and graphic detail. The novel’s protagonist is
Winston Smith, who is employed as a bureaucratic functionary in Oceania’s Ministry
of Truth. Oceania is ruled by the enigmatic Big Brother, a seemingly omniscient dictator who controls society through an elaborate network of surveillance. Big Brother’s tyrannical control is further cemented by the dissemination of propaganda that is
designed to foster unyielding allegiance to the Party. Winston’s primary responsibility at the Ministry of Truth is to systematically revise newspaper reports to ensure
that official records reflect the public narrative that is being promoted by Big Brother
at any given time. Thus, he is forced to edit documents in order to reflect constantly
Arendt, Orwell, and the Politics of Truth 71
changing political circumstances and the mercurial whims of a totalitarian despot.
Yet Winston gradually arrives at the same realization as Arendt, who notes that
the attempt to perpetually rewrite history as a means of guaranteeing that it reinforces
existing party orthodoxy produces a cascading series of dilemmas, since in many
cases it isn’t sufficient simply to change the text in question. Rather, one document
may refer to another, which in turn contains additional relevant material, until eventually entire books simply vanish into thin air. Indeed, Arendt cites a 1935 memorandum located in the Smolensk Archive in which the censor ponders what to do about
articles from the Communist International that had been penned by Trotsky. Arendt’s
sarcastic response nicely captures the perplexity the memo’s writer must have been
experiencing when she comments that such questions are “uzzling . . . indeed,”
and she ends this brief aside with the laconic observation that “the Archive contains
no replies” to the query the author raises (256–66).
Winston can likewise feel himself slipping into an abyss where deceptions begin
to multiply, up to the point of destroying the very foundations of coherent experience. It gradually dawns on him that “n the end the Party would announce that
two and two make five, and you would have to believe it” (1984, 83). Indeed, for
the briefest moment Winston begins to wonder if perhaps the Party is indeed correct,
until he returns to his senses, insisting that “he obvious … and the true had got
to be defended” (1984, 84). It is this objectivity, normally so banal and self-evident
that we take it for granted, that Arendt refers to when she writes that “acts are
stubborn in their stubbornness are superior to power” (Arendt, 248–49).
But to repeat the question I posed above, what should the truth-teller do when s/he
is confronted by a massive and systematic effort to deny reality itself? Or even more
disturbingly, how should the truth-teller deal with attempts by the ruling class to
rewrite the past and generate “alternative facts” that clearly fly in the face of basic
As Arendt notes, it is at this moment that the truth-teller’s desire to speak clearly
and plainly, to describe things as they are, begins to take on political importance. She
Only when a community has embarked upon organized lying on principle, and not
only with respect to particulars, can truthfulness as such, unsupported by the distorting forces of power and interest, become a political factor of the first order. Where
everybody lies about everything of importance, the truthteller, whether he knows it
or not, has begun to act; he, too, has engaged himself in political business, for, in the
unlikely event that he survives, he has made a start toward changing the world. (251)
But how should the truth-teller undertake this immensely difficult task? Obviously, s/he will have to muster a considerable amount of courage, since the apparently banal act itself of stating the obvious requires nearly immeasurable bravery in
totalitarian societies. This is increasingly true of societies such as our own, where
institutions are sharply polarized and thinking that breaks from an epistemic or political community’s orthodoxy often carries the penalty of symbolic as well as real
forms of ostracism. From Socrates’s heroic insistence that we must attend to our
daimon, even if we risk courting death by doing so, through Kant’s recognition that
an essential precondition of Enlightenment is the courage to use our reason autono-
72 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
mously, all the way up to Nietzsche’s belief that allowing oneself to fall into error is
a form of cowardice, the liberal arts tradition has emphasized the centrality of courage to the epistemic virtues specifically, and to the life of the mind more generally.
Indeed, it is a notable if not bitter paradox that at the very moment when we need the
ennobling wisdom that the liberal arts can offer us, they are under attack from both
the Left and the Right.
At the same time, while the epistemic virtue of courage is important, it’s hardly sufficient, since the truth-teller must also speak veridically over and against the
ubiquitous mendacity that characterizes speech in totalitarian regimes. In addition,
it is important, if we are to name things correctly, that we pay careful attention to
language. Indeed, one of the great struggles in totalitarian societies is precisely the
battle over who controls the meaning of words. This was, once again, brilliantly
captured by Orwell in 1984 in an exchange between Winston and his comrade Syme,
who works in Big Brother’s so-called Research Department and is one of the experts
selected to compile the eleventh edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, which contains
authoritative definitions of terms that are approved by the party. As Syme notes, the
dictionary serves not only to identify the correct meaning and usage of particular
words, it also has the equally important effect of eliminating parts of the language
that introduce complexity and nuance. Indeed, he informs Winston that the ultimate
purpose of Newspeak is to “narrow the range of thought” to such an extent that “we
shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words with
which to express it” (1984, 55).
In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell relentlessly criticized what he
regarded as the decline of clear and honest expression in public discourse. Yet it was
undoubtedly this aspect of semantic manipulation (i.e., the attempt to transform reality through the deliberate misuse of words) that he had in mind when he wrote that
“olitical language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (171). Indeed, Orwell recognized that the English he encountered in public communication was increasingly
characterized by jargon, empty rhetoric, and, in its written forms, sluggish prose,
with all of the tendencies being especially evident in political writing. He emphasized that confused language is generally a reflection of even more confused thought,
but, as he was quick to note, the causal arrow can (and frequently) does point in the
other direction, such that corrupted language can itself become an impediment to
clear thought. Orwell was especially acerbic toward the proliferation of euphemisms
in political discourse. Terms such as “pacification” and “collateral damage” mask
the horrors of displacement and war. In this regard, liberal democracies, or more
specifically military bureaucracies and their spokespeople, also have a great deal to
While truth-telling is essential in the current political climate, however, we
should harbor no illusions that it is easy to uncover the truth. Indeed, if anything,
it is becoming more difficult, at least in part for the reasons mentioned above, i.e.,
partisanship and the enforcement of intellectual orthodoxies. Moreover, in addition
to the immediate obstacles confronting us in the current political and academic climates, there are the more profound barriers to human cognition that were already
Arendt, Orwell, and the Politics of Truth 73
recognized by Socrates two millennia ago. Finally, it is important to underscore that
the very question of how we should define truth is itself contested, although it is also
worth noting that it’s not obvious how either pragmatic or coherence models of truth
would allow us to gain any critical purchase on a closed totalitarian society. If we opt
for a pragmatic theory of truth, for example, propaganda can have an instrumental or
expedient value for the ruler who disseminates it. There are similar problems with a
coherentist approach, since it is conceivable that an entirely false belief system could
nevertheless exhibit internal coherence. But none of these important qualifications
should lead us to abandon the search for truth; if anything, they should cause us to
redouble our efforts when we begin to appreciate the obstacles we have to surmount.
It’s also the case that many political disputes are not resolved—and indeed in
principle are not soluble—simply by appealing to facts. Indeed, it is often the case
that our deepest and most contentious disagreements reflect fundamental differences
about values, and more specifically they are byproducts of basic disagreements about
the ends of political life. In these instances, the debates are underdetermined by empirical data, and it is necessary to search for other ways of reaching accord. Yet even
here we should not necessarily assume that because disputes have been historically
intractable, it follows that there’s no truth concerning questions of morality. The
relativist or, more strongly, anti-cognitivist conclusion does not necessarily follow.
In any case, they often serve as pessimistic excuses to abandon the hard work of
struggling toward greater understanding.
We do not have the luxury of adopting an apathetic attitude toward the truth, especially at the present moment when it is either being ignored or outright attacked by
the partisans of mendacity. Of course, as Arendt herself noted, facts have an obstinate
quality that makes it difficult to obliterate them entirely, and this should give us hope.
At the same time, things that display permanence are rarely produced or discovered
without labor, sweat, and time, and if truth is one of the most valuable goods we can
possess, we should not expect that it will come cheaply either. iIdeed, we might even
believe, in our more contemplative moments, that acquiring it over and against the
concerted opposition of its saboteurs makes its acquisition even more fulfilling.
Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in
Political Thought. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1977.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
———. “Politics and the English Language.” Collected Essays. San Diego: Harcourt, 1981.
Wang, Amy. “‘Post-Truth’ Named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries.”
Washington Post, November 16, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/
The Feminine Mystique: Second-Wave
Feminism and Current Politics
Christopher C. Strangeman
In an interesting interview for the online website Vox at the time of the 2016 election, contributor Sean Illing interviewed Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar
at the American Enterprise Institute, often seen as a right-wing think tank. Sommers
is known for challenging feminists and in the interview was very clear with Illing
that she disliked the hostility feminists hold toward “men and women who don’t
agree with them,” having “a willingness, a readiness to censure, to silence people.”
Yet, Sommers did talk of the troubles she had with the president-to-be. Contrasting
her position with Illing’s view that Trump represented the traditional picture of masculinity, she explained: “I am worried about him. . . . I don’t think he conforms to
conventional masculinity. Trump is a reminder of what masculinity can be like outside of conventions. He exhibits what might be called amoral masculinity.” Indeed,
Sommers continues, “He ridicules, bullies, and threatens anyone who crosses him. .
. . He preys on women. All of this without any remorse. . . . History teaches us that
masculinity constrained by morality is powerful and constructive, and that masculinity without ethics is dangerous.” This is a fascinating exchange because Sommers,
though not one herself, revealed herself to share much in common with academic
feminists when it came to viewing the masculinity of Donald Trump. (Illing)
Just like Sommers and Illing, many people have taken the election of Donald
Trump as an entry point to reflect on this time in American history. Engaging in
events largely connected to President Trump’s election, feminists have taken part in
the Women’s March after his inauguration (the largest single-day protest in United
States history), argued against a push by conservatives to defund Planned Parenthood
76 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
and to move toward a new comprehensive health care law that would have important
ramifications for women’s reproductive health care, and witnessed the placement of
Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, leading many commentators to speculate that
Roe v. Wade (1973) could be overturned.
These actions lend themselves to the argument that now might be the ideal
time to help our students understand why the place of women in American history
is an issue that matters and is an issue with a great deal of history behind it. To
varying degrees of depth, I have been able to touch on women’s history in three of
my classes—the US History survey (where the nature of the course leads to much
more cursory coverage), a history class devoted to the 1960s and the counterculture
movement (from which my examples for this paper will be drawn), and a core text
course offered by my institution that has some readings that specifically focus on
issues of gender. Sadly, though not that surprisingly, in teaching these courses, I
have found that most of our students do not know women’s history at all, and in that
light, Trump’s question to the women’s empowerment meeting may not be so shocking. However, as an instructor I can see my students’ lack of knowledge as a great
opportunity to stress to them the significance of primary texts—while they can be
wonderful as stand-alone readings that help us all to ponder the “big” questions, at
the same time they can contain a real power in their specific contemporary relevance.
I divide my 1960s and the counterculture course into several units, each of which
focuses on a major theme / social movement of the period—the college experience,
drugs and music, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and
the environmental movement. For each unit, I use readings that emphasize ideas central to those movements and the discussion of these readings as the main pedagogical
tool to drive the class forward. I lecture to start each unit to be able to provide needed
historical background for these units.
As noted, historical background is particularly needed for my students to understand the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s, and I (relatively quickly) go
over the peaks and major marks of women’s history in the United States, touching
on the Revolutionary period (Abigail Adams’s admonishment to “Remember the ladies”), and the Jacksonian period (ideas of “republican motherhood” and the Seneca
Falls Convention), as well as the Progressive Era (the work of Margaret Sanger and
the Nineteenth Amendment). I spend considerably more time looking at the post–
World War II period, the nadir of the women’s rights movement, as the return of the
GIs helped establish the “normalcy” and the social mores of the 1950s, with women
being kept solidly in the domestic sphere, echoing period ideas of containing communism. When we look at the 1950s, students get a good laugh from a one-page
handout “The Good Wife’s Guide,” which, though a fake, is very indicative of the
times, highlighting the place of a woman as a housewife during the 1950s. It does
this through listing a series of points such as “Listen to him. You may have a dozen
important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk
first—remember his topics of conversation are more important than yours,” and ending with the firm declaration that “A good wife always knows her place” (“The Good
Wife’s Guide”). Yet, even during the post–World War II years, I tell my students,
there were rumblings under the surface of what would emerge as second-wave femi-
Second-Wave Feminism and Current Politics 77
nism during the 1960s, such as the experience gained during the war represented by
the cultural icon Rosie the Riveter, Simone de Beauvoir’s arguments distinguishing
between sex and gender, between biological and social constructs, and the stirrings
of the nascent sexual revolution when Playboy started publication.
As a way to segue from the 1950s to the 1960s, I have my class watch Todd
Haynes’s masterful Far from Heaven, starring Julianne Moore as an upper-middleclass housewife in suburban Connecticut in the late 1950s. This film, which Haynes
purposefully shot in the style of Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas such as All
That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), is a great visual presentation for my students to be able to see how the very real limitations of housewives
in the 1950s prepared the way for the 1960s feminist movement. One scene of many
really good ones from this film that seems to stand out for students is when a group
of housewives are sitting around a table talking about their sex lives. It becomes clear
that their sex lives were about how many times they had sex because that’s how often
their husband wanted to, while the women had very little to no agency for their own
sexual fulfillment or enjoyment.
With a good understanding of the social “place” of women during the 1950s, we
move on to discussing Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It is interesting to
note that, in the experiences I have had with this text, my students have not leveled
the charge against Friedan that drew her much criticism; namely, that her work did
not address the concerns of minority women and women of lower economic status.
In the courses where I am able to incorporate reading and discussion of an excerpt
from Friedan’s work, students almost always seem slow to take to it but end up really enjoying it. In part, I think, this is because students end up being able to see
themselves in this work—the classes where I am able to spend any time with this text
are junior-senior level classes where the students tend to be both mature enough to
discuss readings and also at that age where they are wondering for themselves what
comes next after they graduate. This helps to lend the text a personal resonance, as
it was written based largely on a questionnaire that Friedan sent to fellow college
Students also tend to be drawn to Friedan’s writing style. It is engaging, and
Friedan uses phrases and wording that strike a chord with people, not just women.
For instance, she begins by writing, “The problem lay buried, unspoken for many
years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning” (Friedan 494). Nearly all students can associate with the idea
that there might be something more, something they would like to experience but
cannot give words or voice to. As Friedan famously wrote, it was “the problem that
has no name” (498). She comments on ways these housewives tried to address their
feelings of incompleteness—drugs (tranquilizers), redecorating their houses, moving
to a better neighborhood, having an affair or another baby—which often manifested
in feeling tired, angry, and crying (501). Again, almost all students can associate with
trying to find a way to deal with something that is troubling them.
Later, after explaining to some degree what she thought housewives were missing, Friedan flippantly asks her readers, “What kind of woman was she if she did not
feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor?” (497). Sarcasm, if done
78 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
well, goes over great with twenty-year-old college students! Even more, Friedan tells
her readers that there is a need to challenge tradition and supposed expert advice:
Over and over again women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity.
Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him . . . this mystique of feminine
fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. (499)
Again, this speaks to students who also like to challenge tradition and supposed
expert advice. In many ways, Friedan’s text is tailor-made to speak to students and their
personalities, their aspirations, and their fears. In the end, of course, Friedan argues that
women should no longer have to feel that finding a husband has to be their goal, that the
future is open to them. This, too, is something that students want to hear.
And this helps give Friedan’s work direct contemporary relevance. Friedan’s
text does one of the most important things a core text can do in that it “speaks” to
us universally, as it does in showing how many of us are looking for something to
help give our lives greater meaning, in showing why it is necessary at times for us to
ignore tradition and the “experts,” and how we should not be locked into having to
follow one socially proscribed path. But it has an added power because of how it can
be read in terms of our specific and concrete political context.
To help with this way of understanding Friedan’s text, after our discussion of
it, I have my students do a basic brainstorming exercise in which I give them a few
minutes to jot down on a piece of scratch paper those issues that they think are the
most important with which women currently have to deal. Once they have some
ideas down, I open the discussion to class, and lots of students participate, wanting to
share the points they wrote down. Among the most common responses are an interest
in making sure they are not objectified by men or held to a double standard in terms
of sexual relations with men, that they have equal rights, that they have access to get
an abortion if they need it, and that they fear they will not make as much money as
men and that some professional doors are still closed to them. After listing many of
these points on the board, I ask my students to consider how they think these points
are related to what Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique. They generally respond
that she helped open the door to women’s ability to make these arguments.
To help my students better understand their role, I pass out the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Bill of Rights, an organization that was cofounded
by Friedan after the publication of her book. Some students are surprised to see this
Bill of Rights, which includes, among other points, calls for an equal rights constitutional amendment, enforcement of laws that ban sex discrimination in employment, an “equal and unsegregated education,” “equal job training opportunities,”
and “the right of women to control their reproductive lives” (National Organization
for Women 403–4). What my students see with the NOW Bill of Rights is that the
same issues that feminists were fighting for as second-wave feminism emerged in the
1960s are the same issues they worry about today and are the same ones that many
people fear are under siege by the Trump administration. Friedan was a vital figure in
this emergence, helping to frame the terms of the movement that still resonate today
as strongly as ever.
Second-Wave Feminism and Current Politics 79
Friedan, Betty. “The Feminine Mystique.” The Portable Sixties Reader. Ed. Ann
Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 494–503.
“The Good Wife’s Guide.” Typed by Robin Olson. Robin’s Web, 2002. Web. www.
robinsweb.com. 19 April 2017.
Far from Heaven. Dir. Todd Haynes. Screenplay by Todd Evans. Produced by Jody
Allen and Christine Vachon, Consolidated Film Industries, TF1 Cinema, Section Eight, Vulcan Productions, and Killer Films, 2002.
Illing, Sean. “’Amoral Masculinity: A Theory for Understanding Trump from Feminist Contrarian Christina Hoff Sommers.” 2 Nov 2016. Web. https://www.vox.
com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/2/13476916/donald-trump-christina-sommers-feminism-election-2016-masculinity/. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.
National Organization for Women. “Bill of Rights.” “Takin’ It to The Streets”: A Sixties Reader. Ed. Alexander Bloom and Wini Brienes. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford
UP, 2011, 403–4.
A Global Approach to Ancient Core Texts:
Job and Euthyphro on Moral Obligation
New York University
Teaching intellectual history from a global perspective requires, at a minimum, transcending national or regional boundaries. But what else might a global perspective
entail? Adding non-Western works to a course that was formerly limited to Western
European or North American texts is certainly a worthy goal if by global we merely
mean “inclusive.” But inclusiveness alone is of limited value if we fail to explore
connections between cultures across space and even over time. By focusing on connections we heighten awareness of what Charles Taylor has called the “horizons of
significance,” i.e., the background against which people’s judgments and choices,
tastes and desires, make sense (34, 37–39), but which otherwise may remain hidden or taken for granted. Often, it is not until the members of one culture come into
contact with another that they become aware of the limits and entailments of those
But what if the ideas and cultures we study were not influenced by or otherwise
connected to one another? That is often the case when we study ancient worlds. One
possible response has been offered by political theorist Duncan Bell, who argues
that a properly global intellectual history is best conceived as a history of “world
making,” which focuses on “enunciations of universality, on attempts to cognitively
encompass a given world (of whatever physical scale)” (257).1
From this standpoint,
the global does not depend upon any spatial orientation, but rather refers to the scope
of the arguments or worldviews under consideration. To be clear, this does not require that such worlds be considered apart from their social or political contexts.
Indeed, an important goal of this sort of global history consists of exploring how
84 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
worlds come to be, how they subsist, and how some displace others (260). The interconnection of ideas is a central part of this history as well, though often it is the
instructor who brings this to light by drawing comparisons between worlds.
Let me illustrate this approach to global history with a brief account of two of
the “worlds” featured in Ancient Worlds, a course I offer to first-year students at
NYU. The first is the world of the ancient Hebrew nation, a world ordered by the
Israelites’ belief in a covenant between themselves and an omnipotent and perfectly
just God. The Israelites pledged to obey God’s law in return for their protection and
prosperity. My students read selectively in Genesis and Exodus to explore the ideological framework within which the Hebrew people emerged and flourished, but the
centerpiece of this opening section of the course is the Book of Job in the Old Testament. I agree with philosopher Susan Neiman that Western philosophy begins not
with Plato, but with Job, 2 whose inexplicable suffering and unjust treatment force us
to ask whether our lives have meaning, or whether human existence may be deeply
incomprehensible. The Book of Job raises those questions by demonstrating the moral shortcomings of a world ordered by the might-makes-right logic of the covenant.
While it is certainly possible to read Job without reference to a specific place—
indeed the book’s author intended as much by recalling an ancient Judaic legend
about a man “from the land of Uz”—locating the text in terms of its context enables
us to understand the social or geographic conditions that prompted its author to make
(or seek to unmake) a certain world. Despite the book’s mythical beginning, my students and I eventually side with most scholars by assuming the book was written in
response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jews’ deportation to Babylon in 587
bce—a time of suffering that was not easily reconciled with the world created by the
covenant. Reading the text closely, we ask why the poetic sections of the book are
framed by an ancient prose tale about a Gentile, at this particular moment and place
in history. And what was intended by the manner of its retelling? The Job of the poem
bewails his fate and proclaims his righteousness to his friends and to God alike, in
passages of great lyrical power. The Job of the legend, servile and patient to a fault,
inhabits a world that translator Stephen Mitchell aptly likens to a puppet show. If the
prose section alludes—perhaps ironically—to the world of the covenant, then the
poetry was designed to call that world into question.
Our central concern is, of course, the poetic core of the book, in which the problem of evil in the form of undeserved suffering is raised, and God’s justice is exposed
as ultimately grounded in his unreasoning power. “But he wills,” Job says, “and
who can stop him? / What he wishes to do, he does” (59). What did Job’s author
wish his (or her) readers to understand about this divine-command perspective? As
this question has worried history’s greatest thinkers within the Abrahamic tradition
and beyond, it’s important to avoid assuming that the author meant to endorse that
grim perspective (as Hobbes believed). What of Job’s repeated calls for “a witness”
to whom he could appeal in God’s court? In the first of three rounds of speeches to
God and to his friends, Job addresses God directly, bemoaning the absence of the one
thing that could rescue him from his undeserved plight: “If only there were an arbiter
/ who could lay his hand on us both, / who could make you put down your club / and
hold back your terrible arm. / Then, without fear, I would say, / You have not treated
A Global Approach to Ancient Core Texts 85
me justly” (29). Considering Job’s growing awareness of his own capacity and obligation to make moral judgments, it is likely the author wanted us to share Job’s frustration and anger when he confronted a world ordered by unreasoning command. To
be sure, this interpretation cuts against the grain of traditional readings of the book,
which suggest that passive acceptance of Creation, not an active attempt to change it,
is the only wise attitude for human beings to hold. But that message is belied in the
Epilogue, when God twice tells Eliphaz that he and his accusing friends “have not
spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (91).3
When at last God appears in the whirlwind and taunts Job, directing him to
consider the unfathomable wonders of creation, Job realizes that God’s justice is
beyond human comprehension. “I have spoken of the unspeakable / and tried to
grasp the infinite . . . / I had heard of you with my ears; / but now my eyes have seen
you. / Therefore I will be quiet, / comforted that I am dust” (88). According to the
traditional reading of these lines, in the end Job chose pious silence over angry dissidence. On my reading, no such surrender took place. Rather, Job was acknowledging
the limits of our ability to reason, much as Wittgenstein would, centuries later: “What
we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (151).
If the Book of Job questions the cogency of a world ordered solely by divine
command, then we do well to compare that text to Plato’s Euthyphro, which conceptualizes a world in which the source and validity of our moral obligations depend
upon rational argument rather than the threat of force by those who would act on behalf of the gods. There is, of course, no evidence that these two texts or their cultural
contexts were connected to one another, but that should not stop us from juxtaposing
them in a meaningful way. Indeed, it is not despite, but rather on account of their lack
of historical connection that these texts acquire significance for us. A direct influence
between them might even defeat the purpose of comparison, which inheres in our
ability to discern the limitations of putatively universal worldviews. More specifically, by juxtaposing the Book of Job with the Euthyphro, students become increasingly aware of the problematic nature of certain claims regarding the source and the
nature of our moral obligations, claims that they might otherwise take for granted.
The Euthyphro was likely written in the first decade of the fourth century, bce,
not long after Athens’ defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. It was a period of
prolonged social and economic upheaval, which gave rise to the religious persecution of intellectuals who had dared to question the gods’ existence—an act that, in
wartime, bordered on treason. Having read Plato’s Apology and Crito as well in
“Ancient Worlds,” my students are keenly aware that Socrates was prosecuted for
impiety and subversion of the religion of the state. The Euthyphro is set on the porch
of the courthouse where Socrates is about to be tried. Euthyphro is there to prosecute
his father for murder, an action that would be thought by most Athenians to violate
some of the most sacred duties of sons toward their fathers, and so to be impious.
This opening provides Socrates with the opportunity to cross-examine Euthyphro,
who claims to have “accurate knowledge” of the divine and of piety and impiety.
That turns out not to be the case, but his third try at a definition—“that the pious is
what all the gods love”—enables Socrates to question the divine-command theory by
posing the following dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or
86 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (Plato 11).
The question is never fully answered, but Socrates does show us that “pious”
should not be defined as “what the gods love.” That definition does not explain why
pious things have the attributes they have; nor does it allow us to tell whether a disputed case is a case of piety or not. This may seem a minor point, but not when you
realize what follows from this position. What follows is nothing less than the claim
that there can be no theological or religious basis for ethics—supposing, of course,
that God has some reason for commanding or approving what he commands or approves. In the world envisaged by Socrates, the real task for the ethical thinker is to
work out what that reason is.
I’ve found that this sort of comparison of worlds inevitably leads students to
declare Socrates the winner in what appears to be a contest of ideas. It is a conclusion
I do nothing to promote; students, after all, can make up their own minds. But I have
found that keeping context in mind is often the best way to slow their rush to judgment. I like to remind them that rational inquiry and naturalistic thinking often provoke deep discomfort. This is especially the case among those who suffer from what
Kant called our “self-imposed immaturity,” which results not from “lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another”
(41). The determination of Job’s friends to blame him for his suffering, contrary to
all experience, thereby projecting their fear and vulnerability onto a scapegoat,4
one example of such discomfort; the Athenians’ decision to condemn and execute
Socrates is another. And yet, there is quite another kind of discomfort, which results
from our failure to recognize the limits of our understanding. We may not know the
right thing to do, either because we face a genuine moral dilemma of the sort political actors often confront, and we are compelled to get our hands dirty; or we simply
don’t have the knowledge or the capacity to grasp things beyond a certain level. In
such cases, we can understand why Job was comforted by the realization that there
are limits to our ability to reason.
These two case studies offer us examples of how humans construct and reconstruct worlds, drawing on the existing resources available to them, worlds carved
from the materials of other worlds. My aim in approaching the global in this manner
is to create a course narrative that respects the diversity of worlds and that also extends the bounds of thought beyond the limits defined by cultures that have traditionally shaped Western or Eurocentric curricula. I also hope to sharpen students’ awareness that the resolution of arguments is very often illusory, and that texts ending with
silence are an invitation for us to think further.
- Bell adopts this metaphor from Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking. Goodman rejected realism—the view that reality exists independently of our representations of it—arguing instead that our minds literally construct and reconstruct worlds by manipulating symbolic
systems. Worldmaking is constrained by coherence, consistency, the fit with intuitive judgment and intelligible purpose, and these virtues add up to what Goodman calls the “rightness”
of a version. Right versions make worlds and are produced by scientists, philosophers, artists,
and many other kinds of people—whenever they successfully create an order of things.
A Global Approach to Ancient Core Texts 87
- See Neiman (2015), chap. 1.
- In the speech from the whirlwind, God also asserts the truth of Job’s claims, albeit ambiguously, when he asks, “Am I wrong because you are right?” (84).
- See Girard (1987).
Bell, Duncan. “Making and Taking Worlds.” In Global Intellectual History. Eds.
Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori. New York: Columbia UP, 2013.
The Book of Job. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: HarperPerennial, 1979.
Girard, René. Job: The Victim of His People. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1987.
Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978.
Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, pp. 41–48. Trans. Ted Humphrey. Indianapolis:
Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015.
Plato. Five Dialogues. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.
Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Ed. A. J. Ayer. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961.
Liberal Education for Mortal
Communities: Cicero, Tolstoy, and
Chekhov on Living and Aging Well
James N. Roney
The author’s course on medicine and literature for pre-med students uses literary
and philosophical writings to explore the epistemology and ethics of health care and
the proper balance between scientific knowledge and human empathy in shaping the
relationships between physicians and patients. A central issue is always the potential conflict between progress and tradition, including the liberal arts traditions. At
least at our institution, undergraduate science students tend to assume that progress
grounded in scientific reason can lead to a redefinition of the human and cure all diseases. The mapping of the human genome and the development of synthetic biology
have only increased optimism about a biomedical approach to human health leading to a future when personalized medicine will allow patients to choose their own
individual biological destinies and physicians to attune evidence-based treatments
to individual needs. Such faith in our ability to transcend the limits of the human
through technological progress helps feed the belief that the liberal arts traditions are
no longer relevant, since the questions they ask about human existence are seen as
historical, even anachronistic, rather than universal in nature. The liberal arts traditions are currently in a position similar to that of philosophy and tragedy at the start
of the modern age and to classical texts during some periods of Christianity: facing
a pressing need to reconcile universal and historical meanings. Texts that had one
set of meanings in their original historical contexts are now read both for possible
universal meanings and as a set of particular meanings in a new historical context.
90 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Cicero or Chekhov had a meaning in their original Roman or Russian contexts; their
works also may contain universal meanings and may be read for their meaning in
our contemporary historical and social context. Literary interpretation and classroom
discussion must reconcile those meanings (Billings; Pinkard; Taylor). In our course,
death and the need for caregivers and patients to deal with incurable illness pose a
question that remains universal for a mortal species: How does one not only live well
but also die well (Gawande)?
This essay draws on the idea of traditions as ranges of human possibilities and
horizons of expectations (Gadamer; MacIntyre; Mukařovský; Sławiński) to contrast
three works in which figures deal with their own encroaching mortality: Cicero’s
Cato Maior De Senectute (On Old Age), Tolstoy’s Smert Ivana Ilicha (The Death
of Ivan Ilyich), and Chekhov’s “Skuchnaia istoriia” (“A Boring Story”). The major
contrast is between Cicero’s Cato, who faces death with the resources of a Stoic tradition grounded in ancestral continuity and providential rationality, and Chekhov’s
professor of medicine, who faces a meaningless death alienated from his own scientific accomplishments and family. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, on the other hand, lives in a
discontinuous world in which he finds meaning in death by accepting the falsehood
of his life. Each character faces human mortality as a universal condition; each character’s choices are shaped by his tradition’s beliefs about life and death.
Cicero’s choice of narrator suits his overall argument: “the love and pursuit of
wisdom . . . allows a person to enjoy every stage of life free from worry” (7). By
dedicating his dialogue to a friend and choosing the historical figure Marcus Cato
over a mythical one, he reinforces the theme of mortality as an aspect of being human
and establishes the continuous human tradition whose figures serve as examples of
what can and should be done by people who want to age well. This historical continuity provides the rational order missing in the political agony of the contemporary
moment. Living and dying have meaning because they are part of a purposeful tradition in which the young “prove by experience that the words I have spoken
are true” (177).
Cicero assumes that reason shapes tradition, orders individual lives, and sustains
the order of nature. Resentment of age and fear of death are irrational because aging and death are part of the natural order. A person of character views life as a play
whose final act must be accepted with grace. Living well is the best way to prepare
for a worthy old age, giving us not only the character to die well but also the memories and respect that are among the pleasures of age. Since a providential natural
order provides inner peace and enables harmony among nature, tradition, and acts of
will, feelings of despair, resentment, and fear are signs of poor character, of a mind
that is not in tune either with itself or with nature.
Cato refutes the four major complaints about old age: “It takes us away from an
active life,” “it weakens the body,” “it deprives us of almost all sensual pleasures,”
and “it is not far from death” (Cicero 33). He accepts each claim as true but argues
they are not losses but gains when understood as parts of a full life. Since age is a fitting part of a life well lived, it should be accepted for its own positive values. Youth
flourishes in body, while age flourishes in mind. The activities and rashness of youth
give way to the wisdom (prudentia) and leadership of age as seen in the senes, or
Liberal Education for Mortal Communities 91
elders, of the Senate. Companionship and council take the place of more vigorous
pursuits. Memory is not lost if we use it. Sensual pleasure is a gift that should be enjoyed in its time, but, as lust passes, self-indulgence becomes self-control, and more
worthy goals are easier to pursue. If the old demand the respect they are owed and
act in a way that is appropriate to their physical state, they can enjoy the pleasures
appropriate for age: sharing liberal education with youth, the delights of discussion
with companions (convivium), the joys of farming, and earned respect. Cicero values
farming as a way of improving oneself and the natural world. The rhythms of farming are the rhythms of nature itself: “No life can be happier than that of the farmer,
not only because of the service he provides that benefits the entire human race, but
because of the pleasures I mentioned earlier and the abundance of all things needed
for the worship of the gods and the sustenance of humanity” (119–20). This positive
value of farming and organic rhythms was found in many classical authors and had a
long life in European culture, including in Tolstoy.
Cicero uses the Platonic and Stoic argument: fear of death is unreasonable because death is a part of life and can yield no bad result: there is either nothing or bliss.
Accept the trajectory of life and leave the stage when the pleasures of age have lost
their appeal. Cato links the immortality of the soul to the purpose of life itself: “The
immortal gods planted souls in human bodies to have beings who would care for the
earth and who would contemplate the divine order and imitate it in the moderation
and discipline of their own lives” (Cicero 159). People seek fame because they believe their immortal souls will be around to see it, and, anyway, a belief in immortality makes one happy.
Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich dies as a successful individual in a modern society that
does not have a unified tradition. The society is split between a Europeanized professional class, who use reason and science to screen them from nature and the possibility of death, and the people (Russian narod) who have an organic connection with
tradition, nature, and death. The stoic in the story is, therefore, the peasant Gerasim,
who, like Cicero’s farmer, lives in touch with the rhythms of life and death. Gerasim
provides the acceptance of death that helps Ivan Ilyich die well. However, the break
with tradition has made civilized society false, and its beliefs and ritual behaviors,
including medicine and doctors’ visits, only contribute to Ivan’s pain. Ivan Ilyich
experiences death as a violation of social decorum and denial of his free will that
reveal the void at the center of existence. However, once he accepts the appropriateness of death, another reality reveals itself to him, and he sees the light that brings
peace and concern for his family. This state remains incommunicable to the living.
Trapped in social decorum, they see only the enigmatic expression on the corpse’s
face. If reason united Cicero’s human and natural worlds, Tolstoy’s split between the
false social world of civilized society and the light hiding within nature and the self
is almost complete. Gerasim lives in touch with an older tradition of life, while Ivan
Ilyich can find the joy concealed within him only by rejecting the conventions that
had shaped his life. Tolstoy finds meaning by emphasizing the discontinuity among
society, tradition, and the self. The light is present only as a private reality, a joy that
can be known individually but not shared publicly.
Chekhov’s dying professor of medicine experiences a further disenchantment of
92 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
the world. Whereas Cicero began with a dedication to friends who connected past,
present, and future in shared experience, Chekhov’s notes of an old man begin with
a distant third-person description of the honors and international connections that
“constitute what is known as my name” (55). This distancing effect conveys the
alienated consciousness of “a man who is famous, richly endowed, and unquestionably useful” (55) and whose life is a “beautiful composition executed with talent”
(84), but who does not know how to die “as befits a teacher, a scientist, and a citizen
of a Christian country: cheerfully and with a peaceful soul” (84). He is aware of his
age’s version of the arguments used by Cicero but lacks the required sense of a rational order uniting individuals, nature, and tradition. Unable to draw on the Tolstoyan
revelation of the underlying light of love hidden beneath the alienation of a false social life, he remains caught in a state of alienation that is only clearer to him because
of his education and scientific knowledge.
The short story “Vanka” provides a useful example of how alienation works in
Chekhov. A young boy is trapped in an apprenticeship in which he is being abused.
He dreams happily of the days when he was in the village with his grandfather and
mails a letter asking his grandfather to come and get him. The boy anticipates a better
future. However, readers know that his village life was never as happy as he remembers it and that his grandfather will never get the letter and probably would not come
if he did. Alienation in Chekhov involves characters who are trapped in an unbearable present, find consolation in fragmented memories of a nostalgic past, and have
hopes for a utopian future with no means of making it a reality. The dying professor
is in such a situation. However, unlike the boy, he knows it.
Despite his knowledge of what is happening to him, the professor cannot adjust
his mental state to the decay in his surroundings and physical health and laments the
miseries of age that Cicero accepted. He knows his failing health is responsible for
his insomnia, his inability to maintain a train of thought when he writes seriously in
Russian, his loss of the stamina it takes to lecture well, and his inability to tolerate
the flaws he perceives in others. His mind tells him it is wrong to feel spite toward
those who commit bad actions “as if they alone were to blame and not all of us,
because we are unable to educate each other” (82). Despite his fame, no scientific
heirs will carry on his work. His famous name only increases his family problems
because he lacks the funds to live the life his wife associates with his rank. His bitterness causes him to see the gap between the status and true abilities of those with
whom he interacts: the porter has knowledge and love of the institution’s traditions
but has no understanding of science; his assistant, who will likely take his position,
worships science but has no creativity and little chance of making any meaningful
contributions; his philologist friend is only capable of criticizing others; the students
he meets in his office either only want a credential they have not earned or want a
preselected research topic rather than pursuing their own ideas; and Katya, who is
perhaps his soul mate, has failed in her theatrical career because she has no talent
and too much self-love. There is no Cato, and there will be no young people who
remember him. Absent a common sense of truth and purpose, respect becomes an
empty social form, and companionship is steeped in bitterness. The people in his life
increase each other’s alienation rather than engaging in meaningful conversation. As
Liberal Education for Mortal Communities 93
he interacts with them, he becomes more resentful rather than accepting, since they
share only present alienation and nostalgic fragments of a lost past in which everything seemed better. He no longer has any hopes for the future and suspects the past
might have been good only in its potential.
The professor barely recognizes the lover of scientific accomplishment in the
person he has become. His wife’s current physical appearance and obsession with
money make it impossible for him to see her as the young woman with whom he fell
in love. He loves his memories of the youthful Katya and his daughter but can offer
them little in the present. He remembers the simple family dinners they shared as lost
delights. His daughter’s fiancé is not what he claims. His philologist friend deceives
himself into hoping for a relationship with Katya that she rejects as a defeat of her
hopes for a better life. If in Cicero and Tolstoy the decline of the physical can allow
the mental or spiritual to develop, in Chekhov’s story the two decline together. Even
the academic gardens and university buildings do not match his youthful memories
of the places where there was “quite enough for a sense of happiness suddenly to
fill not only my breast, but even my stomach, legs, arms, . . . and imagine myself
a doctor and paint pictures—one better than the other” (83). His student dream of a
better future has become a successful career but is ending in alienation rather than in
Cicero’s generational continuity. Why?
Despite his fame, the professor is a “superfluous man,” whose obvious talents
neither have the social impact they should nor lead to personal happiness. Is his
alienation a result of his character or the social situation in which he must act? Cicero
might say our professor is unable to accept age and death because he has not lived
well. He values science above all else and interacts with people in platitudes and general sentiments. Since he never had the time “to individualize each particular case”
(Chekhov 96), he remains distant from family and colleagues and wishes futilely for
gestures of affection from his daughter and son. His focus on work has caused the
isolation and emptiness that is revealed when he speaks of his wishes:
I want our wives, children, friends, and students to love in us not the name, not the
brand or label, but the ordinary person. What else? I’d like to have helpers and heirs.
What else? I’d like to wake up in a hundred years and have at least a glimpse of
what’s happened with science. . . . something general is lacking that would unite it
all into a single whole. Each feeling and thought lives separately in me, and in all my
opinions about science, the theater, literature, students, and in all the pictures drawn
by my imagination, even the most skillful analyst would be unable to find what is
known as a general idea or the god of the living man.
And if there isn’t that, there is nothing. (104–5)
Absent a general idea, “a good cold really is enough” to shatter a life (Chekhov
105). This is more than a matter of character. Individuals think with the beliefs available in their individual circumstances and within the horizons of expectations of their
societies. Cicero’s Roman tradition linked individuals, generations, and nature in an
order ultimately grounded in immortal reason. Tolstoy drew a contrast between false
social nature and the organic nature it had displaced, variously seen in his writings
as life, love, or the divine. Chekhov’s professor lives in a world without either a unified tradition or a deeper order of nature. Individuals strive for meaning they create
94 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
out of their own biographies and what they learn of the social and natural worlds
around them. “Farewell, my treasure!” (Chekhov 107), the ironic, plaintive, final
cry of the professor as his young ward leaves him after he is unable to take up her
impossible offer to run away together, reflects a world in which individuals share
only their youthful memories, their criticisms of others, and the alienation caused
by private dreams and sorrows. Since the past seems increasingly nostalgic and the
future promises no continuity, old age cannot be met with the stoic confidence of
Cicero. Instead, the lack of convivial conversation makes the meaning of each death
a private matter and leaves the social forms as external conventions awaiting utopian
fulfillment in the new world to be created by work and scientific discovery “in a
hundred years” (Chekhov 104).
Chekhov’s professor is ending his life in a dark place, and my students in a
course on medicine and literature are surprisingly willing to go there. However, no
one wants to stay there. Reading these works together with science fiction dystopias
on the possible futures of genetic engineering and texts on medical ethics and the
problems of contemporary professionals encourages students to develop their own
versions of the perspectives on life, death, and medicine provided by the liberal arts
traditions. Stoic thought leads to questions about the uses and nature of scientific
research: Can the sciences be seen as specialized forms of inquiry using reason to
master the laws of nature and then applying them to suit human purposes? If so, can
they provide the kind of unifying worldview Cicero had? What are the dangers of
that effort? Will it exclude the world of Gerasim and the joyful meaning Ivan Ilyich
found on his deathbed? Can it lead to massive social disruption and greater inequality? Students use these ideas to discuss their own senses of the possible tensions
between their public professional beliefs and their private worldviews. Should they
try to reconcile them or keep them separate?
Another question is the relationship among efficient treatment, curing disease,
and caring for patients. Chekhov’s professor should probably retire since he has lost
the empathy for students that teaching requires. The physicians in Tolstoy neither
perceive nor address their patients’ psychological and spiritual needs. These stories
show the private anguish and professional callousness of professionals whose daily
practices do not reflect the moral commitments that inspired them to enter the field as
young people. Premeds are aware of the alienation in their future professions and use
these stories to discuss how they might develop better empathy and create time for
reflection on their own happiness. Many students bring up the necessity of hospice
care that treats patients as feeling and thinking individuals with wills of their own
and assert that caregivers and physicians need opportunities for personal reflection
as they age and their patients age and die.
Stoicism, Tolstoy’s version of religious faith, and Chekhov’s role as a diagnostician of social and personal problems are different ways of being human. The medical sciences and medical practice are also socially constructed traditions with their
own possibilities and limitations. Classroom discussions and student essays become
means of asking what makes a life meaningful. Cicero’s stoicism could reply: reason
and the rational will. Chekhov’s world is less certain and, in that sense, more familiar. We communicate across differences and are not entirely certain what is there or
Liberal Education for Mortal Communities 95
if there is any consensus. Students in my classes are intrigued by Susan Wolf’s idea
that a meaningful life is one that combines the objectively good with the subjectively
happy. Age and disease cause Chekhov’s professor to lose his belief that his research
has made any lasting contributions, and he has no joy from his family life. Absent
both objective accomplishment and subjective joy, his life loses meaning. The result
is alienation. Discussing such situations and the solutions found and lost in writing
about them provides students with a view of the liberal arts as a means of imaginatively and argumentatively exploring different ways of asking important questions:
What is good? What is an appropriate form of happiness? What meaning do my
activities and beliefs have in the face of the realities of aging and death?
Billings, Joshua. Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek Tragedy and German Philosophy.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2014.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of
Life. Trans. Philip Freeman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2016.
Chekhov, Anton. Stories. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New
York: Bantam Books, 2000.
Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York:
Metropolitan Books, 2014.
Gadamer, Hans Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad, 1998.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 3rd ed. South Bend, IN:
University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
Mukařovský, Jan. “The Individual and Literary Development.” The Word and Verbal
Art, trans. John Burbank and Peter Steiner. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1977,
Pinkard, Terry. Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Sławiński, Janusz. Dzieło. Język. Tradycja. Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawn Naukowe,
Taylor, Charles. Hegel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Vintage Classics, 2012.
Wolf, Susan. Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012.
Speaking Across Differences: Classic and
Saint Mary’s College of California
The Stoics are some of the most central thinkers in the Western traditions. How
might they speak to people who have been marginalized in those traditions: women,
slaves, racial and ethnic minorities, atheists, and agnostics? Does Stoicism reinforce
or undermine this marginalization? Is Stoicism compatible with a commitment to
social justice? How can the Stoics speak to our lives today?
I will try to answer these questions by looking at how the Stoics have been
received by three readers: Elizabeth Carter, the first person to translate the works
of Epictetus into English; James Stockdale, who spent seven years as a prisoner of
war in North Vietnam; and W. E. B. DuBois, the African American philosopher and
One principle of Stoic thought is that we have an inner self and an outer self.
Our inner self is made up of thought, reason, and willpower. Our outer self is made
up of our body, family, job, and worldly position. There are goods proper to our inner selves, such as wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control. And there are goods
proper to our outer selves, such as wealth, domestic bliss, success, and honor. The
bad news is that the outer goods are ultimately beyond our control. The good news
is that the inner goods are entirely within our reach. Inner goods are all we need for
a good life. For the Stoics, philosophy was not just a matter of theory, but a practice
centered on the care for the soul and devoted to the search for wisdom: “a philosopher in antiquity was not necessarily a theoretician of philosophy . . . a philosopher
was someone who lived like a philosopher—that is, who led a philosophical life”
98 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
What does it mean to lead a philosophical life?
Epictetus, a former slave, answers: “Eat as a proper human being, drink as a
proper human being, dress, marry, father children, perform your public duties; put up
with being abused, put up with an inconsiderate brother, put up with a father, a son, a
neighbor, a fellow traveler” (3.21: 179). A philosopher is someone who puts up with
pain: “A philosopher’s school . . . is a doctor’s surgery. You shouldn’t leave after
having had an enjoyable time, but after having been subjected to pain” (3.23: 197).
Elizabeth Carter, an English Bluestocking and the first to translate Epictetus
into English, incisively critiques this view of the Stoic philosopher as someone who
patiently and good-humoredly endures pain and abuse. She argues that the “absolute
indifference” (xxiii) of the Stoic philosopher to external goods is “repugnant” (xx) in
that it conceives of virtue alone as sufficient to happiness. The Stoics believed that
virtue is enough to make people sovereign, self-sufficient, and invulnerable to misfortune. The Stoic ideal is based on a denial of human fragility and vulnerability—it
ascribes to the soul the sovereign power that belongs only to God. Thus, the Stoic
concept of self is a form of idolatry that leads to arrogance, pride, and hard-heartedness: “Nothing can excuse their idolatry of human nature, which they proudly,
and inconsistently supposed perfect and self-sufficient” (xxv). Carter concludes that
Stoic philosophy is out of touch with reality. Since virtue was supposed to be its own
reward, the Stoics expected people to be happy in circumstances that are inimical to
happiness. She observes: “That a good man stretched on a rack, or reposing on a bed
of roses, should enjoy himself equally, was a notion which could gain but few proselytes” (xxiii). Some Stoics took the principle of absolute indifference to all externals
to such an extreme that they deluded themselves into thinking that what is evil is
good (xxiii–xxiv). They convinced themselves that, while they were “insulted, oppressed, and tortured” (xxviii), they were not really suffering. Such Stoicism is both
deceptive and self-deceiving, because suffering isn’t something that exists solely in
our minds and can simply be willed away.
Yet, Carter devoted seven years to translating Epictetus. Why? How did Epictetus speak to an eighteenth-century Christian Bluestocking? At the end of her “Introduction,” she writes:
Even now, their compositions may be read with great advantage, as containing
excellent rules of self-government and of social behavior; of a noble reliance on the
aid and protection of Heaven, and of a perfect resignation and submission to the divine will . . . and, though their directions are seldom practicable . . . may be rendered
highly useful in subordination to Christian reflections (xxxiii).
She admires those aspects of Epictetus’s life and thought that reflect Christian
virtues. Although she disagrees with some of his assumptions, she affirms the “conduct of his life and the usefulness of his instructions” (xxxviii).
Carter is right that the Stoics thought human beings could become perfect
through their own willpower, and that achieving goodness was strictly or mostly
a matter of spiritual training and exercise. As a Christian, she was sensitive to our
imperfectability and the extent to which our moments of true goodness are made possible by grace. Gender is also at work in her critique; as a woman, she saw that Stoicism could lend itself to a discipline that refuses or denies the human condition of
Speaking Across Differences 99
fragility and vulnerability, and appeals to a typically masculine fantasy of individual
sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and invulnerability.
But she was able to arrive at this critique by taking to heart the Stoic practice
of the discipline of thought, to which she refers when she writes of “the exercises
and trials of that duty, which finite understandings owe to infinite wisdom” (xxxv).
Carter’s example shows that learning from the Stoics doesn’t mean that we simply
recover them without question and become modern Stoics. We must engage in a
Another reader of Epictetus is James Stockdale, a Navy vice admiral and prisoner of war for seven years during the Vietnam War, and author of Courage Under Fire.
The book is an autobiographical account of how Stockdale came to Stoicism at the
age of thirty-eight after having served in the Navy for twenty years. He was struck by
how “Epictetus comes across speaking like a modern person,” and by how Stoicism
as a philosophy is “more practicable than a modern cynic would expect” (3).
Stockdale answers a couple of Carter’s criticisms. The first is the charge of absurdity—that it is absurd to think that, through sheer force of will, somebody lying
on a torture rack and somebody lying in a bed of roses could be equally happy. For
Stockdale, the experience of being tortured as a prisoner of war was revelatory in that
he discovered that there was something worse than having to endure pain. What he
found was that physical pain was nothing compared to the moral shame of betraying
your ideals, friends, and country: “The thing that brings down a man is not pain but
For Stockdale, Stoicism is not about denying one’s pain; it is not the superior
achievement of mind over matter. The point of Stoic self-discipline is not an abstract,
detached state of happiness, but the “tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom” that
come from being honest and taking responsibility for our actions within the given
circumstances of our lives (19). Epictetus is not saying that we can be physically
comfortable on the rack, but we’ll ultimately be happier to behave in a self-respecting way while on the rack than to betray our ideals in order to lie in a bed of roses.
Carter’s second criticism is that Epictetus assumes, wrongly, that the will is
sovereign, and no one can make us do what we think is wrong. Stockdale qualifies
Epictetus’s claim by emphasizing the truth of human vulnerability, fragility, and the
lack of human self-sufficiency. For him and his fellow prisoners of war “the key
word . . . was ‘fragility’” (12):
The realization of your own fragility . . . you can be reduced by wind and
rain and ice and seawater or men to a helpless, sobbing wreck—unable to control
your own bowels—in a matter of minutes. And . . . you’re going to face fragilities
you never before let yourself believe you could have (8–9).
If the effects of torture are beyond our control, then they are no longer a matter
of morality. There’s no point in being ashamed of something that unbearable pain
made you do against your will. A Stoic recognizes the limits of human willpower: “A
Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for . . . (A) those things that are ‘within
the grasp of ‘his Will, his Free Will’ and (B) those things that are beyond it” (7).
Stockdale’s account suggests that the Stoics are not necessarily motivated by a
denial of human fragility and vulnerability, and they do not necessarily buy into fan-
100 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
tasies of sovereign self-sufficiency. Moreover, Stoicism is not a cut-and-dried dogma
or doctrine. It is better to think of it and treat it as the Stoics themselves did, as a
living tradition and way of life that has to be constantly reappropriated and reinterpreted.
W. E. B. DuBois is known as the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from
Harvard, the author of The Souls of Black Folk, and co-founder of the NAACP. In a
famous passage, DuBois names Marcus Aurelius as one of the most influential interlocutors in his education:
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color-line I move arm in arm
with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded
halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and
the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and
they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension (67).
A key part of DuBois’s project, in The Souls of Black Folk, is the claim that
education must be directed toward the care for the soul. He describes the process by
which a person is educated in terms that evoke the story of Moses leading his people
to the Promised Land, but that also evoke Plato’s image of education as the movement of the soul upward from darkness to light:
Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those
who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously,
this people strove to learn. . . . To the tired climbers, the horizon was ever dark, the
mists were often cold, the Canaan was always dim and far away. If, however, the
vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place, little but flattery and criticism, the
journey at least gave leisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child
of Emancipation to the youth with dawning consciousness, self-realization, selfrespect. In those somber forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he
saw himself. (5)
DuBois is responding here to the development of “industrial education,” the
kind of education that “reminded Black folk that before the Temple of Knowledge
swing the Gates of Toil” (58); “We daily hear that an education that encourages
aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character
rather than bread-winning, is the privilege of White men and the danger and delusion
of Black” (58–59). DuBois argues that the education of the soul is the best way to
prepare Black Americans to deal with the brutal realities of prejudice, hatred, and
violence: “the color-prejudice of the South . . . can be met in but one way—by the
breadth and broadening of human reason, by catholicity of taste and culture” (56).
Education should lead us toward the universal. At the same time, he recognizes that
we always approach the universal through the particular and historically contingent.
For DuBois, the impulse toward universality requires that we face and seek to redress
the horrors of history.
DuBois’s understanding of education as something that must be directed toward
the formation of souls—drawing on the stories and figures of Moses, Plato, Jesus,
Marcus, and others—is close to the Stoic understanding of philosophy as a form of
spiritual self-discipline. He writes, “Training for life teaches living” (57). Similarly,
Speaking Across Differences 101
Marcus writes of his gratitude toward his teacher: “From Rusticus: I gained the idea
that my character was in need of correction and cultivation” (1.7: 3). In this connection, The Souls of Black Folk speaks to a philosophical question: How can education
address a care for the soul or self with respect to the “blight of slavery” (57)?
Seeking to articulate an educational project that had never before been attempted, in 1903 DuBois tentatively suggests a “necessary combination” of “the ideal and
the practical in workable equilibrium” (57). He observes that the curriculum of the
first New England colleges was “doubtless old-fashioned” (62). These were places
in which “the best of the sons of the freedmen came in close and sympathetic touch
with the best traditions of New England” (62). Nevertheless, these colleges made it
possible to work toward a “larger, juster, and fuller future” (66). They did so, DuBois
argues, by harnessing the “educational power” that comes from “the contact of living
souls” (62). In the face of racial prejudices that could not be eradicated just through
legislation, DuBois saw that freedom must be understood not just in political but also
in spiritual terms, and that the key to spiritual freedom is an education directed toward the care of the soul: “The Negro college . . . must develop men. . . . There must
come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the
world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-development” (66). For
DuBois, education for Black Americans must be neither vocational training alone
nor simply the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; both vocational training and
the pursuit of knowledge must be subsumed within an education centered on a care
for the soul and devoted to a search for wisdom.
What in Stoicism drew people as different as Carter, Stockdale, and DuBois?
All three were drawn to the Stoic vision of philosophy as a way of life—not just an
academic field, but a practice open both to the elite and the marginalized: women
(Carter), slaves (Epictetus), prisoners (Stockdale), the impoverished and disenfranchised (the students of DuBois). They were drawn to Stoicism as a philosophy rooted
not in fantasies of sovereign invulnerability, but in a keen appreciation of human
fragility, the many ways our lives are subject to forces beyond our control, and the
supreme importance of human solidarity. In their footsteps, we can draw from the
Stoics a vision of education as, in the words of DuBois, a “training for life that
teaches living” (57).
I am indebted to Anthony Pinn, “The Problem Soul and Life Without Appeal.”
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. Robin Hard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.
Carter, Elizabeth. “Introduction by the Translator.” The Works of Epictetus, Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books. Trans. Elizabeth Carter. F.C. and J.
DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
Epictetus. Discourses. Trans. Robin Hard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.
Hadot, Pierre. The Inner Citadel. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.
102 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Pinn, Anthony. “The Problem Soul and Life Without Appeal.” William James
Lecture, March 9, 2017, Harvard Divinity School, http:// hds.harvard.edu/
news/2017/03/02/web-du-bois-and-problem-soul/. Accessed 29 June 2017.
Stockdale, James. Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’ Doctrines in a Laboratory
of Human Behavior. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1993.
Student Enculturation in Crime and
As one of the few core texts that depict university life, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is particularly valuable for facilitating conversations about the norms and
aims of being a college student. The core course I teach at Columbia is required of all
first-year students, and the transition into college life is an especially popular subject
of discussion for this demographic. In what new ways are first-year students being
socialized to behave, both in the classroom and elsewhere? What do their families
think about these changes, and what does the wider world expect of them? And why
do they have to take this demanding humanities class anyway?
In this paper, I will highlight some of the ways in which Dostoevsky’s novel
can be used as a productive point of entry into these questions. My discussion has
three parts, each centered on a debate that the novel itself stages. First, the novel’s
portrayal of student life raises questions about what it means to be a good student,
especially through the contrast between the protagonist Raskolnikov and his friend
Razumikhin. Second, the positive and negative attitudes that other characters hold
toward students can occasion a discussion of what society expects from the collegeeducated both during and after the college years. Finally, the novel’s epilogue, with
its apparent repudiation of intellectual discourse, helps us to reflect on the place of
the liberal arts in a good life.
In his landmark intellectual biography of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank argues that
every major character in Crime and Punishment is “a ‘quasi-double’ who embodies,
in a more sharply accentuated incarnation, one or another of the clashing oppositions within Raskolnikov’s character and ideas” (484). One of the clearest cases of
104 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
such an opposition is that between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, the two students
in the novel. Whereas “Raskolnikov” derives from raskolnik, the Russian term for
a “schismatic,” Razumikhin’s name comes from the word razum, or “reason.” This
contrast is evident in their differing personalities. As the novel’s narrator puts it,
“Raskolnikov had almost no friends while he was at the university, kept aloof from
everyone, visited no one, and had difficulty receiving visitors,” while Razumikhin is
“an exceptionally cheerful and sociable fellow, kind to the point of simplicity” (51).1
Raskolnikov sets himself apart from others, earning respect but not love for his zealous study habits, a respect all the more surprising given that “t seemed to some
of his friends that he looked upon them all as children, from above, as though he
were ahead of them all in development, in knowledge” (51). He becomes close with
Razumikhin only because of the latter’s vivacity, sociability, and blithely optimistic
attitude. And although both men are forced to leave the university due to financial
troubles, it is Razumikhin who not only finds a job translating French and German
texts into Russian but later offers to split the work with Raskolnikov (112). Indeed,
he goes so far as to pretend that his German is worse than it is, “with the aim of convincing to take half of his translation work” (311).
These two types of characters are clearly recognizable on any campus today,
and students enjoy finding various parallels with their own acquaintances. But these
characters’ divergent attitudes toward their shared experience of poverty also raise
questions about how to negotiate classism and privilege among a diverse student
body. This issue is traceable to Dostoevsky’s own experience at the Academy of
Military Engineers, where he struggled to make friends due to his relatively impecunious background. As Frank puts it, “Dostoevsky may have held most of his fellow
students in contempt, but he could not endure the idea of being considered by them
both personally odd and socially inferior” (47), and so he frequently wrote home for
money to buy, for instance, extra boots, his own tea, and a locker for his books. Not
coincidentally, Raskolnikov also receives money from his family, whereas Razumikhin supports himself “decidedly on his own” (51).
The opposition between the two students extends to the level of their intellectual
life as well. Notoriously, Raskolnikov writes an article “On Crime,” in which he argues that while the “ordinary” run of people must stay within the bounds of morality,
the “extraordinary” have “the right to commit all sorts of crime and in various ways
to transgress the law” (259). Yet Raskolnikov publicly disclaims these ideas, affecting an indifferent and blasé attitude toward them. When he overhears a discussion of
the permissibility of killing a wicked old woman and using her money to save thousands of lives, he tries to dismiss it as “all the most common and ordinary youthful
talk and thinking” (66). Nevertheless, he is the one so privately gripped by this idea
that he goes on to carry out the very murder he envisages. Razumihkin, by contrast,
is deeply distressed by Raskolnikov’s article and tries his best to refute his arguments
(267). I bring this up not just to highlight the obvious point about their differing
moral outlooks, but to suggest that it can be used to raise discussion about what kind
of higher-order attitude students should take toward the ideas they encounter. Should
they be passionate advocates, concerned about the concrete effects of believing abstract claims, or should they be ironic, distanced observers who pretend that ideas
Student Enculturation in Crime and Punishment 105
shared in the classroom have no impact on behavior?
The novel stages this debate not only among students, but also among those
outside the university as well. Should we dismiss college educational practices as
merely “youthful talk and thinking,” or should we insist that these practices can
change and even improve minds? In part 3 of the novel, Raskolnikov’s young doctor
Zossimov takes the latter position, observing that “the beginning of
disorder to some extent coincides with leaving the university” (223).2
readers, this implies that had Raskolnikov continued to enjoy the benefits of university life—regular conversation with others, engagement with diverse viewpoints, and
the challenge of hard work—he could have averted mental breakdown. To others,
however, the university is part of the problem, not the solution.
Those in the novel who are suspicious of students tend to belong to official government positions, suggesting an opposition between academic freedom and state
power. The police lieutenant Gunpowder knows he can be rude to a former student
without any consequences, and he denounces all “writers, littérateurs, students” as
scandalous lawbreakers (100). The civil servant Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, who courts
Raskolnikov’s sister, outwardly professes to love “young people” with their new
ideas (147), but he is secretly terrified by progressivist students, who are “powerful, all-knowing, all-despising, and all-exposing” (363) and whose ideas threaten the
stability of his well-ordered government career.
Still, there are many in the novel who accord students a great deal of respect.
The washed-up titular councilor Marmeladov claims to have “always respected education” and drunkenly proposes to engage Raskolnikov in “a conversation of decency” (12). At Marmeladov’s funeral, his wife Katerina Ivanovna is similarly delighted
to see Raskolnikov, but primarily because “he was the only ‘educated man’ among
all the guests” (382). And Raskolnikov’s mother is distressed by the fact that he has
left the university; she dreams of helping her son return to the department of jurisprudence and the “future career” that awaits (37). For all three, however, it seems
as though students are valued more for their prospective social capital than for the
intrinsic benefits of their education. This can be used to spark a discussion about the
ultimate purpose of a college degree—is it simply to help students move up in the
class hierarchy, or are there other benefits as well?
This question is all the more pressing because of the novel’s apparent repudiation of intellectual life. In the epilogue, after Raskolnikov has confessed his crime
and been sentenced to an eight-year stint in the Siberian work camps, he has a dream
that sparks a religious awakening. In the dream, the world falls victim to a plague
of microscopic creatures “endowed with reason and will,” which possess their hosts
and make them “unshakeable” in their convictions and beliefs (547). This dream, to
put it too simply, prompts Rasknolnikov to give up his endless attempts at rationalizing his crime and to allow himself instead to be “resurrected by love,” in particular
his love for Sonya (549). As the narrator puts it, “Instead of dialectics, there was
life, and something completely different had to work itself out in his consciousness”
(550). This opposition between dialectics on the one hand—which I understand to
refer to the various debates and conversations characteristic of both the novel and our
core classes—and life on the other, as something that takes place outside of the class-
106 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
room, can be a fruitful route into thinking about the attitude that the novel ultimately
takes toward “dialectics.”
Here it can also be useful to introduce Dostoevsky’s own educational philosophy, which aims less at an opposition between dialectics and life than at a subordination of the former to the latter. Knowledge, for Dostoevsky, must be applied in the
service of life. As the scholar Inessa Medzhibovskaya puts it,
With this idea of the care of life as the care of self, Dostoevsky returns to the principles of pre-modern Russian Christian learning which concentrate on “the building
of the soul” (dushevnoe stroenie) through the divine word in holy books. Instead of
adopting only Western concepts focused on schooling and knowledge, Dostoevsky
veers toward more plural notions of life as the space for learning about being. (112)
Dostoevsky is too subtle a thinker to have taken an easy or obvious position on
this or any other topic in the novel, but this makes his text all the more valuable for
sparking interesting discussion. I have highlighted some of the ways in which Crime
and Punishment can be used to debate the norms of student life, society’s attitude to
student life, and the place of the liberal arts in student life, all in the hopes of making
our own core conversations more productive.
- All citations of Dostoevsky refer to the translation of Crime and Punishment by Pevear and
Volokhonsky (1992). All emphasis is original.
- This is also, intriguingly, the time at which Raskolnikov writes his “little article” (258).
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa
Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1992.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Ed. Mary Petrusewicz. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton UP, 2010.
Medzhibovskaya, Inessa. “Education.” Dostoevsky in Context, ed. Deborah A. Martinsen and Olga Maiorova. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015, 106–13.
Individuals in History and Literature
A Noteworthy Passage of No Consequence
in Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles
Thomas R. Larson
Saint Anselm College
Plutarch is a great friend to seminar leaders. His biographies of famous Greeks and
Romans are packed so densely with rich characters, plots, anecdotes, sayings, and
insights that almost any seminar participant can with ease and pleasure find in them
something of quality to offer for discussion.
Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles is no exception. The person of Themistocles
himself not surprisingly provokes a great deal of conversation. Some admire him for
the ambition that urged him to do great things for Athens. Some point out the foresight he demonstrated in preparing for a war with Persia at a time when virtually no
one else in Athens perceived a rising threat. And the shrewdness he demonstrated in
forcing the battle of Salamis is a regular cause of wonder and comment.
But the conversation would not be very interesting if everything about the subject matter were uncomplicated. And the life of Themistocles possesses many complexities, ambiguities, and puzzles. From even a superficial reading, one learns that
Plutarch’s presentation of Themistocles can hardly be called flattering. His Themistocles is graceless, devious, and obnoxious. Whatever virtue he has, he does not
make himself likable.
Then there are more difficult questions. What are we to make of Themistocles’s
breaking down the social barriers that divide the well-born youths of Athens from the
illegitimate and base born? Is Themistocles’s “baseness” purely an artificial, legal designation, or is there a natural vulgarity at the core of his character? What important
social changes does Themistocles effect in Athens when he re-centers its strength from
110 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
the land to the sea? Is it a fair judgment to say that Themistocles is a slave to riches? Or
is it closer to the mark to say he uses money shrewdly? So many questions and puzzles.
It is my conviction that Plutarch intended to challenge readers with such questions,
giving us an opportunity to practice the virtue of judgment. The Lives were written by
Plutarch for his friends, some of whom visited him and, with other guests, took part in
dinner conversations, the record of some of which survive. I like to think that Plutarch
offered the biographies for his friends in much the same way as a host offers a delicious
dinner to his treasured guests to eat and enjoy. He intended his friends to read, consider,
discuss, and debate the intellectual feast he prepared.
So we, the later friends of Plutarch, think about and discuss the character, deeds,
and speeches of Themistocles, and not just him but any and all characters that Plutarch sketches for us. Some stand out. There is Aristides, Themistocles’s rival and
almost perfect opposite: where Themistocles is deceitful, Aristides is honest; where
Themistocles aims at personal distinction, Aristides aims at the safety of Athens;
where Themistocles is vehement, Aristides is mild; where Themistocles seeks the
expedient and advantageous, Aristides gives priority to justice (cf. Themistocles, 3).1
Some characters are in the background; the Greeks, for instance, who, though they
must acknowledge the value of Themistocles, nonetheless envy him and find him
obnoxious (see 17) or the Persian court who treat Themistocles with great suspicion
as the man who was their nemesis, now a fugitive from Greece, finds great success
in courting the favor of the king (see 29).
And then there is Athens. Athens, the city where a man with the talents of Themistocles, even though base born, can rise to the top of political power and influence.
Athens, the city that, in the institution of ostracism, would banish powerful men, not
as much to punish the bad actions of these men, but more to give vent to the envy
of the people.2
The Athens we encounter in the life of Themistocles is a complicated
blend of strengths and weakness, giving rise to the question whether any success the
city experiences is due to its wisdom and virtue, or to fortune.
I wish to examine one short passage, a single sentence in fact, from the biography. It will be clear that the event it relates is of no consequence. But a careful and
critical reading of this passage of no consequence reveals character traits of both
Themistocles and Athens.
The event occurs at a crucial moment in Themistocles’s early career. For some
time he has been preparing Athens for war with Persia, a war only he saw coming.
As apparently no one else in Athens believed there was anything to fear from Persia,
Themistocles craftily made the most out of some of the more immediate regional
concerns as a pretext for building up Athens’ naval power (4). And on the political front, with his rival Aristides newly ostracized (5.5), Themistocles had cleared
his the way before him. At this crucial moment, Persia sent an embassy to Athens
demanding that it formally submit and acknowledge Persian supremacy. The great
contest Themistocles had been hoping and preparing for was at hand, and he was
perfectly positioned to lead Athens.
At this point, however, something unexpected occurs. Here is how Plutarch tells it:
At last, when the Mede was descending upon Hellas and the Athenians were deliberating who should be their general, all the rest, they say, voluntarily renounced their
Passage of No Consequence in Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles 111
claims to the generalship, so panic-stricken were they at the danger; but Epicydes, the
son of Euphemides, a popular leader who was powerful in speech but
soft in soul and open to bribes, set out to get the office, and was likely to prevail in
the election; so Themistocles, fearing lest matters should go to utter ruin in case the
leadership fell to such a man, bribed and bought off the ambition of Epicydes. (6.1)
From here the narrative moves on, and we never hear of Epicydes again. But let
us pause, note, and ask some questions. Why does Plutarch include this event, this
minor speed bump in the career of Themistocles, in the biography?
The first and probably most obvious function the passages serve is to introduce
us to one of Themistocles’s less flattering practices, that of employing bribery to secure his aim. But we should ask, “Should it even have come to this?” Several factors
argue that Themistocles really should never have had to resort to bribery to remove
someone the likes of Epicydes from the stage.
First, we are told that Epicydes is “effeminate in spirit” (or “faint of heart” in
the Dryden translation).3
Why, then, is he of all people attempting to become a general, when others “withdrew themselves of their own accord, being terrified with the
greatness of the danger”? Perhaps he is carried away, given the circumstance, by an
uncharacteristic desire for glory? Delusions of grandeur, we might think. Or perhaps
his other dominant characteristic is at play.
Epicydes, we are told, is a “open to bribes” or a “slave to riches.” Does this
explain his desire to become a general? Perhaps the wealth that attends a glorious
victory is enough to inspire even a coward to lead his fellow countrymen into battle
against a most formidable enemy. Or perhaps this powerful and terrible (deinos)
speaker has his sights on another source of wealth, one that would not require military service.
Themistocles has certainly made it no secret that he desired the generalship.
Who in Athens could not be aware of his ambition that he so gracelessly (even obnoxiously) manifested? Plutarch tells us that an expression of this ambition was his
ostentatious and conspicuous spending: “Some say that Themistocles was an eager
money-maker because of his liberality; for since he was fond of entertaining, and
lavished money splendidly on his guests, he required a generous budget” (5.1). At
the Olympic Games, “he tried to rival Cimon in his banquets and booths and other
brilliant appointments.” The Greeks found his show of wealth to be insolent and
obnoxious, but they certainly noticed it.4
Did Epicydes perhaps see in Themistocles
a money opportunity? Noting Themistocles’s willingness to throw around money,
along with his obvious desire to have the role of general, could it be that Epicydes
engaged in a masterful bluff, figuring that, if he is likely to win the election, Themistocles would intervene and buy him off?
Whatever his motivation, Epicydes, the soft-of-soul slave to riches, throws his
hat into the ring to lead the Athenian war effort. From what Plutarch has told us,
there was not much to recommend Epicydes for the position. Imagine Themistocles’s
surprise then, when, as the votes were coming in, Epycides appeared to be “in a fair
way to carry (the election) by the number of votes.” Recall that at this point in his
own career, Themistocles had an impressive resumé and was surely the man for the
job. Yet here, at the crucial moment, someone who really has no business even seek-
112 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
ing the position is on the verge of being put in charge of the war effort. How could
The answer, obviously, is that Epicydes is a “powerful speaker” and a “demagogue.” He is the incarnation of the dangers of sophistry. Clearly the wrong man for
the job, he nevertheless, by means of speech alone, is on the verge of persuading
the Athenians to entrust him with the war effort. I think it is reasonable to suppose
that Themistocles and his faction opposed the candidacy of Epicydes but were in
fact unable to overcome the power of this demagogue. And so, unable to persuade
the Athenians otherwise, and in order to keep them from choosing for themselves a
man singularly unsuited to the office of general at a time of crisis, and to prevent the
dashing of his own hopes for greatness and distinction, Themistocles was forced to
resort to buying off Epicydes.
But for the “cowardly spirit,” Plutarch’s Epicydes bears important similarities to
Themistocles, for Themistocles, too, is a demagogue who had studied and practiced
“the art of speaking” that Plutarch explicitly links to the Greek Sophists (2.4). When
one further recalls that Themistocles also had a reputation for being “eager in the
acquisition of riches,” Epicydes starts to look like and function as an alter ego to Themistocles. He and Themistocles both rise to prominence. It is striking, then, that just
such a character should pose a threat to Themistocles’s rise to dominance in Athens.
The episode may not have had any lasting historical effects, but it does reveal
certain features about the subjects of the biography. It reveals Athens as a city most
vulnerable to the powers of a skilled demagogue. The election of Epicydes, we are
led to believe, would have been a disaster for the city, but his rhetoric robs the Athenians of their good sense and puts them in danger. By means of this episode, Plutarch, it would seem, would have us note a real and dangerous weakness in Athenian
Also by noting how a character like Epicydes could rise so quickly to prominence, the episode takes away some of the luster of Themistocles’s own success in
securing the command of the Athenian forces. Finally, the passage shows the limitations of Themistocles’s rhetorical power. He loses the contest of speech to Epicydes
and so is forced to buy him off. No one comes off well in this passage.
The main point of this paper, however, was really to try to read Plutarch in the
spirit he intended. If, has been my assumption, Plutarch intended the Lives to be considered, discussed, and evaluated, then his project is in fact an intellectual one. His
goal is to encourage and facilitate a certain kind of understanding. Less than proposing a teaching or a doctrine, Plutarch seems to aim at cultivating, both in himself and
his readers, the intellectual virtues of prudence and right judgment. When one learns
that an event such as the one examined in this paper may have no significant historical consequences, yet still have much in it to understand, that it can be meaningful
and reveal things to our minds even though it does not give rise to notable effects,
we might develop a sensitivity to texts (and to the world around us), and we might
become more inclined to give our careful attention to matters that, humble on the
outside, bear treasure on the inside.
Passage of No Consequence in Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles 113
- All references, unless otherwise noted, are from Plutarch. Numbers refer to chapters and
paragraphs in the text.
- See Themistocles, 22.3: “For ostracism was not a penalty, but a way of pacifying and alleviating that jealousy which delights to humble the eminent, breathing out its malice into this
- The Greek is malakon de ten psuchen, literally “soft of soul.”
- Themistocles, 5.3: “Again, on going to Olympia, he tried to rival Cimon in his banquets
and booths and other brilliant appointments, so that he displeased the Hellenes. For Cimon
was young and of a great house, and they thought they must allow him in such extravagances;
but Themistocles had not yet become famous, and was thought to be seeking to elevate himself
unduly without adequate means, and so was charged with ostentation.”
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives, Vol. II: Themistocles and Camillus. Aristides and Cato
Major. Cimon and Lucullus. Trans. Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb Classical Library
- Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1914. Print.
Breaking the Rule: St. Clare of Assisi and
Women Living the Vita Apostolica
Her parents tired of locking her up
before she tired of running away.
Love mocks the locksmith, and love
drove her on till the convent walls
closed around her strong as a castle,
and poverty made her as safe
as wealth makes a queen.
—Gail White, “St. Clare of Assisi”
Many are familiar with the story of St. Clare captured in Gail White’s poem: the tale
of a young woman who refused to marry and ran away to join a convent. Many are
also familiar with her “spiritual father,” St. Francis of Assisi, and the poignant account of Francis cutting Clare’s hair when she entered the monastic life. However,
few are familiar with other aspects of Clare’s life, most notably her vows of radical
poverty and her pioneering authorship. St. Clare wrote the first Rule—a set of guidelines governing monastic life—by and for women, aptly titled The Rule of St. Clare.
This innovative work has been curiously obscured in scholarship and pedagogy on
the Christian intellectual tradition, and the core texts curriculum more broadly.
This paper examines the life of St. Clare of Assisi, her adoption of the vita apostolica (or apostolic life), and her often overlooked role in writing The Rule of St.
Clare, the first set of monastic guidelines known to be written by a woman. In analyzing Clare’s life and work, I will rely on the trope of “outsider” on three levels,
namely: social outsider, religious outsider, and core texts outsider. First, Clare’s re-
116 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
jection of normative gender roles in the Middle Ages renders her a social outsider.
Second, Clare’s innovation in being the first woman to write a Rule for a religious
community, and her resistance to living by the established Rules set for male monastic communities, render her a religious outsider. She broke boundaries and Church
constraints. Finally, Clare is a core texts outsider. She is overshadowed by the fame
of her “spiritual father,” St. Francis of Assisi, and she generally does not appear in
core text courses and canons, particularly those that consider the Christian intellectual tradition. While it may be customary to read the Rule of St. Benedict or St.
Francis’s The Earlier Rule, what of The Rule of St. Clare?
Fleeing Marriage for the Monastery: Clare as a Social Outsider
Clare was born in 1194 CE to a wealthy aristocratic family in Assisi, Italy.1
little is known of her early life, two things are certain: she renounced marriage for a
life of asceticism, and she renounced wealth for a life of voluntary poverty.2
Records indicate that Clare’s family made many attempts to betroth her, but to
no avail. Traditionally, women in the Middle Ages were married off at a young age;
they were deemed ready for marriage at puberty when they could consummate the relationship (Brundage 434). They did not have a choice as to whom they would marry,
and most marriages were arranged by the prospective bride and groom’s parents
and involved exchange of property. In Clare’s era, she would have been expected
to “assent to a marriage designed to advance the power and landed resources of her
family” (Mueller 1). Moreover, it was also customary for the oldest daughter to be
married off first. Thus, as the eldest of three daughters, Clare was “blocking the marriage prospects for her sisters” (Jones 91). Clare fled her home at the age of 18 after
hearing Francis preach about a life of Christian poverty and piety.3
She found refuge
in the small Franciscan community. There, she cut her hair—actually, Francis cut off
Clare’s hair—and she exchanged her “rich brocaded clothes for a robe of sacking,
tied at the waste with a cord” (Jones 92). Since the Franciscan friars had no accommodations for women, Clare stayed with the Benedictine nuns for a while until eventually Francis offered her and her companions a small house close to the church of
San Damiano (Jantzen 199–200).4
Six of the eight women who “joined San Damiano
prior to 1220 (there may have been others) were related to Clare, lived with her, or
had been long-time and often close friends” (Mooney 49).5
Three years after Clare’s
conversion, Francis asked her to take over the rule and governance (regimento et
governo) of the sisters (Mooney 49). We can surmise that Clare undertook this task
for the remainder of her life. Clare lived in this monastery in San Damiano for over
forty years until her death in 1253.
Medieval historian Barbara MacHaffie argues that the ascetic life benefited
women in multiple ways, ultimately offering them power and autonomy and the opportunity to break free from social constraints (56–60). First, by resisting marriage
and taking vows of celibacy, as Clare did, women exercised free choice not to marry
or have children (59). While such choices may be read as autonomous and subversive to the “patriarchal clan” (59), they were not without consequences. Clare’s
family disowned her, leaving her in a precarious place: “She was a pauper without a
family, a nun without a dowry, a woman without a man” (Mueller 9). Yet, “the dis-
Breaking the Rule 117
ownment brought freedom” (Mueller 9). Clare surely broke the barriers of familial,
patriarchal, and social tradition and, in somewhat of a paradoxical nature, she gained
freedom by cloistering herself. As Grace M. Jantzen critiques, while the religious
life offered medieval women more mobility and independence, “the extent of their
freedom should not be overstated. . . . hile there were more religious houses for
women , it remained the case that if women wanted to enter
religious life, it was essential that they be thus physically enclosed” (201). However,
in forming her own religious community, Clare loosened the traditional, established
rule that religious women live in strict enclosure throughout their lifetime.6
According to The Rule of St. Clare, Chapter II, v. 7, upon cutting her hair, setting aside her
secular dress, and becoming a member of the monastic community, a woman may go
outside the monastery “for some useful, reasonable, evident, and approved purpose”
(Francis and Clare 212). One can infer from Chapter IX, v. 6–7, that the sisters did
indeed go beyond the enclosure of the monastery: “The sisters who serve outside the
monastery should not delay long outside unless some evident necessity demands it.
They should conduct themselves virtuously and speak little, so that those who see
them may always be edified” (Francis and Clare 221). Clare traded the perceived
confining institution of marriage (and motherhood) for the spiritual liberation of the
monastic life. Interestingly, she retained nuptial wording and symbolism in her articulation of her vocation. In the first of four letters to St. Agnes of Prague, Clare
speaks of Jesus Christ as her beloved spouse:
have chosen with your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution. Thus you took a spouse of a more noble lineage, Who will keep your virginity
ever unspotted and unsullied, the Lord Jesus Christ:
When You have loved , You shall be chaste; when You have touched ,
You shall become pure; when you have accepted , You shall be a virgin.
Whose power is stronger,
Whose generosity is more abundant,
Whose appearance more beautiful,
Whose love more tender,
Whose courtesy more gracious.
In Whose embrace You are already caught up;
Who has adorned Your breast with precious stones . . .
and placed on Your head a golden crown
as a sign of your Holiness.
Clare refers explicitly to Agnes, and implicitly to herself, as “the spouse and the
mother and the sister of my Lord Jesus Christ.”8
Clare at once transcends normative
social gender roles and reappropriates those same roles in a monastic context.
Second, as MacHaffie suggests, religious women of the Middle Ages were often
“empowered” by their holiness and secured either formal or informal positions of
In Clare’s case, she was renowned for her strict religious observance and
became the abbess of her religious community. Despite her influence and authority,
Clare retained an air of profound humility. In the first verses of The Rule of St. Clare,
she refers to herself as “Clare, the unworthy handmaid of Christ and the little plant of
the most blessed Father Francis.”10 The self-effacement and deference demonstrated
118 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
here at once reflect St. Clare’s complex status as one who is eclipsed yet illuminated:
she is fundamentally shadowed by St. Francis, yet her radical humility elevates her.
Centuries later, Clare is still lauded for her devotion, modesty, and chastity.11
Third, MacHaffie notes that the holy life gave medieval women the opportunity
to study and acquire learning, and often rewarded them with intellectual achievement (57). While Clare is known (particularly in Catholic circles) for her piety and
poverty, she perhaps should be best known for her use of the pen. While living the
religious life, Clare wrote the first set of monastic guidelines by and for women: The
Rule of St. Clare. Fourth, as MacHaffie observes, the ascetic life also allowed for
friendships between women and men (58). By symbolically removing their sexuality
(through vows of celibacy, cutting of hair, and donning of asexual robes), women
transgressed gender norms. By becoming “like men,” they were free to cultivate
deep spiritual friendships with men. This was surely the case with Clare and Francis.
Pope Benedict XVI referred to Francis as Clare’s “brotherly friend” and wrote of the
“profound friendship” between Clare and Francis “on the journey toward Christian
perfection” (246). Further, in her book Women Saints: Lives of Faith and Courage,
Kathleen Jones calls Clare and Francis “collaborators” and commemorates their
close relationship. She speculates, “In his later life, Francis said he never looked
directly at (women), and that he knew only two women by sight. If his mother was
one, we may hope that Clare was the other” (94).
Living by Her Own Rule: Clare as a Religious Outsider
Christian monasticism represents one answer to the fundamental question: “How do
I live the Christian life?” For Christian ascetics, the answer to this question involved
a withdrawal from the world in order to devote themselves fully to their Christian vocation, a vocation that often required vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These
Christians claimed Jesus and his apostles—hence the use of the term vita apostolica,
or apostolic life—as describing this particular approach to the Christian life.
The question of whether women could live the vita apostolica and come together in community, and on their own terms, was controversial, to say the least. During
the Middle Ages, many new types of ascetic communities emerged, but they often
denied women or severely restricted them (MacHafffie 54). For example, the Cistercians (an order established in France in the eleventh century that adhered to The
Rule of St. Benedict) believed that “the female sex was not capable of obeying the
austere rules and attaining the level of perfection demanded by the order,” and they
refused to recognize women’s religious communities (MacHaffie 55). In a time when
women’s capacity for religious achievement was suspect, and women were seen as
threats to the spiritual well-being of monks, it is astounding that Clare succeeded in
creating her own spiritual community and, ultimately, on her own terms.
In the center of her text, the forma vitae (or “form of life,” which later comes to
be known as The Rule of St. Clare), Clare reflects on the early years of monastic life.
She speaks in the first person and includes Francis’s voice through verbatim quotes:
After the Most High Heavenly Father saw fit by His grace to enlighten my heart
to do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed father
Saint Francis, shortly after his own conversion, I, together with my sisters, willingly
Breaking the Rule 119
promised him obedience. When the Blessed Father saw we had no fear of poverty,
hard work, trial, shame, or contempt of world, but, instead, we held them as great
delights, moved by piety he wrote a form of life for us as follows:
“Because by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and handmaids
of the most High, most Exalted King, the heavenly Father, and have taken the Holy
Spirit as your spouse, choosing to live according to perfection of the holy Gospel, I
resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers always to have the same loving
care and special solicitude for you as for them.” As long as he lived he diligently fulfilled this and wished that it always be fulfilled by the brothers. (cited in Mooney 31)
Clearly, Clare’s religious life (and that of her sisters) was integrally tied to
Francis—his support, inspiration, and collaboration. Catherine M. Mooney emphasizes the “highly unusual format” of Clare’s writing as demonstrative of this
vital relationship: “she interrupts a legislative text, the 1253 forma vitae , with her highly personalized first-person voice, then encloses within
that the first-person voice of Francis himself” (33). While it appears from this excerpt that Francis wielded effective authority over Clare and her sisters, it is also
evident that Clare navigated the religious life according to her own terms. For
example, Francis and the bishop of Assisi commanded Clare to eat at least half a
roll of bread on certain days of the week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—for
she had been eating nothing at all (Mooney 35). Whether or not Clare practiced
this “moderation” is unknown. Further, witnesses describe Clare’s harsh sleeping arrangements: in one account she reportedly slept on a bed of twigs and
branches, in another a coarse board, in yet another a simple mat. When Clare fell
ill, Francis had to cajole her to sleep on a sack of straw (Mooney 52). In the case
of both food and sleeping practices, Clare was radical and manifested her vow
of poverty beyond what made her spiritual father, Francis, and Church authority
While the Order of St. Clare (as her community came to be called) paralleled
the Order of St. Francis, she did not merely imitate Francis, particularly with respect
to her understanding of poverty (McKelvie 3–4). Clare focused intensely on living
poorly—“in highest poverty” is her phrase. In fact, in the face of an established
Church rule that monastic orders have some ownership of possessions and property,
Clare resisted. Clare requested papal approval of her vocation to live “in highest
poverty” and for her sisters at San Damiano to live without possessions or property.
In 1216, she was given “The Privilege of Poverty” by Pope Innocent III: “Therefore,
we confirm with our apostolic authority, as you requested, your proposal of most high
poverty (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:2), granting you by the authority of this letter that no one
can compel you to receive possessions” (cited in McKelvie 6). This vow of radical
poverty is evidenced in her Rule:
Chapter VIII: The Sisters Shall Not Acquire Anything as Their Own; Begging Alms;
the Sick Sisters
- The sisters shall not acquire anything as their own, neither a house nor a place nor
anything at all; instead, as pilgrims and strangers in this world who serve the Lord
in poverty and humility, let them send confidently for alms. 2. Nor should they feel
ashamed, since the Lord made Himself poor for us in this world. This is that summit
of highest poverty which has established you, my dearest sisters, as heirs and queens
120 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
of the kingdom of heaven; it has made you poor in the things but has
exalted you in virtue.13
According to historian R. C. Dhont, poverty was, for Clare, the single most
important element of her religious life (cited in Gerrard 550). Similarly, Mooney
suggests that “poverty, the poverty and humility of the poor Christ, seemed to be the
beginning and foundation of Clare’s religious life” (101).
Beyond defending a lifestyle of radical poverty, Clare insisted that the sisters should exercise responsibility and power within their community (Gerrard
559). According to her Rule, the sisters should exercise authority in electing the
Chapter IV: The Election and Office of the Abbess; the Chapter. Those Who
Hold Office and the Discreets
- In the election of the Abbess, the sisters are bound to observe the canonical
form. . . . 3. And no one is to be elected who is not professed. And if a nonprofessed
should be elected or otherwise given to them, she is not to be obeyed unless she first
professes our form of poverty.
- At her death the election of another Abbess is to take place.
- Likewise, if at any time it should appear to the entire body of the sisters that
she is not competent for their service and common welfare, the sisters are bound to
elect another as Abbess and mother as soon as possible according to the form given
Moreover, the sisters should meet “at least once a week” to discuss the “welfare
and good of the monastery.”15 The spirit of mutuality and shared responsibility and
power is further evidenced in The Rule of St. Clare, Chapter IV, v. 16: “To preserve
the unity of mutual love and peace, all who hold offices in the monastery should be
chosen by the common consent of all the sisters” (Francis and Clare 216). Notably,
Clare’s humility and self-effacement goes in tandem with the female responsibility
and power she preaches to her sisters. To illustrate, in her letters to her sister Agnes,
Clare refers to herself as: “Clare, an unworthy servant of Jesus Christ and useless
handmaid (Lk 17:10)” and “Clare, useless and unworthy handmaid of the Poor Ladies.”16 All the while, she exhorts Agnes to live a life of Christian poverty, humility,
and contemplation.17 Likewise, in Chapter I of her Rule, Clare introduces herself
as: “Clare, the unworthy servant of Christ and the little plant of the most Blessed
Clare’s determination to defend her way of living and to write a Rule was a
“radical departure from the religious norms of her time” (Sotelo). The Rule of St.
Clare was officially approved by Pope Innocent IV only two days before Clare’s
death on August 11, 1253. She was the first woman to have a Rule she had written
for her community approved by the papacy (Gerrard 548). The original document
(the papal bull approving her Rule) was brought to Clare on her deathbed, and it is
reported that she kissed it many times (Francis and Clare 209).
“Hidden in the Cloistered Life”: Clare as a Core Texts Outsider
Pope Alexander IV canonized Clare in 1255, two years after her death. In the bull on
the Canonization of St. Clare, Pope Alexander IV writes of St. Clare:
Breaking the Rule 121
How powerful was the illumination of this light and how strong the brightness of
this source of light. Truly this light was kept hidden in the cloistered life; and outside
them shone with gleaming rays; Clare, in fact, lay hidden, but her life was revealed
to all. Clare was silent, but her fame was shouted out.” (cited in Pope Benedict XVI
As Roberta McKelvie contends, Clare of Assisi is “perhaps one of the most
remarkable women of the Middle Ages” (1). She was the first foundress to write
up her own Rule for monastic living and the first woman to have a Rule approved
by the papacy. The Order of St. Clare, or the “Poor Clares,” as they have come to
be called, persists to this day. The Poor Clares number over 20,000 sisters in over
seventy countries.19 Poor Clare monasteries are autonomous communities, individually governed and completely independent from other monastic orders such
as the Benedictine, Dominican, Visitation, or Carmelite nunneries. In the spirit of
Clare’s life, the Poor Clares uphold the spiritual values of prayer, simplicity, community. and joy.
While Clare’s legacy lives on in religious human community, she is largely
obscured in the core texts curriculum. Clare of Assisi is an important figure in her
own right and, I would contend, warrants status as a Core Texts insider, particularly if attention is paid to the Christian intellectual tradition. In the words of a
“Poor Clare” nun: “the return to the sources has let us see her as a great saint and
foundress on her own account, not just as a follower of Francis” (cited in Gerrard 550). In a beautiful autobiographical reflection, The Testament of Saint Clare,
Clare speaks of her hopes for the future of the Poor Clares, while remembering its
origins: “If these sisters should ever leave this place and go elsewhere, after my
death, wherever they may be, they are bound nonetheless to observe that form of
poverty which we have promised God and our most blessed Father Francis” (Francis and Clare 230).
Conclusion: Clare as an “Insider/Outsider”
In many respects, Clare works within the parameters of the institutions within which
she finds herself to achieve her goals. While she may be considered a “social outsider” due to her rejection of the normative roles of marriage and motherhood, she
adopts traditional nuptial and familial language in her religious writing. Further,
though Clare breaks new ground for religious women by writing her own Rule and
gaining its approval by the papacy, she figuratively places herself below Father Francis’s leadership.
In some respects she breaks patriarchal norms—namely, by rejecting marriage
and by living decisively on her own terms. In other respects, she adheres to patriarchal paradigms—through her adoption of conventional nuptial and familial language, and her deference to Francis, in her religious writings. Retrospectively, Clare
finessed a fine line between traditionalism/conservativism and innovation/progressivism. One might consider Clare an “insider/outsider” in both social and religious
respects. Clare’s pioneering authorship, along with how her life and work speak to
the gendered realities of medieval history, Church history, and core texts curriculums, surely warrant her inclusion in core texts programs and scholarship.
122 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
- Clare’s birth year is disputed: she was born in either 1193 or 1194 (Mooney 17).
- The events of Clare’s early life are largely obscured because most of the details about
this period of her life “derive from hagiographic sources composed only after Clare’s death”
- The popular story is that Clare heard Francis preach at the cathedral of San Ruffino or in
its piazza. However, as Mooney critiques, “no evidence establishes this” (18), yet she claims
that “it is certainly plausible” (19). Mooney indicates that Clare had already “taken up the
penitential life” while still at home (19). Further, she suggests the possibility (based on testimony from Clare’s sister, Beatrice) that “it was Francis, having heard of Clare, who repeatedly
sought her out to preach to her,” though where this may have occurred is not specified (19).
One thing we know for sure is that Clare was associated with Francis (and his companions).
- It is interesting and telling to note that, initially, Francis took Clare to a Benedictine convent; however, Clare insisted that she had no intention of becoming a Benedictine nun but
desired “to become a follower of Francis and of Christ in evangelical poverty” (Jantzen 199–
200). It was then that Francis aided Clare and her companions in securing the rebuilt church of
San Damiano, which became the locus of the Order of the Poor Clares.
- Later, more relatives and acquaintances would enter, making San Damiano “a family affair” (Mooney 49).
- According to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, any religious community of women had
to follow some (existing) Rule. The Rule of Hugolino di Segni, cardinal archbishop of Ostia
and Velletri, is an example of a Rule imposed on Clare and her sisters: “ must live
enclosed throughout their lifetime, and after they have entered in the enclosure of this Order,
taking the regular habit, the permission or faculty to go out may no longer be given to them,
unless to plant or build that same Order” (cited in Jantzen 201).
- “The First Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague” (Francis and Clare 191).
- Clare continues to use similar marital and familial language in her four letters to St. Agnes,
such as “Queen and Bride of the Lamb,” “bride of Christ,” “queen and spouse of Jesus Christ,”
and “mother and daughter, spouse of the King of all ages.” See Francis and Clare 189–206.
- This echoes Eleanor McLaughlin’s claim that “(Medieval Christian) women in their pursuit of wholeness or holiness were empowered” (56).
- The Rule of St. Clare, Chapter I, v. 3 (Francis and Clare 211).
- To illustrate, Pope Benedict XVI refers to Clare as “the pure and beautiful bride of Christ”
- Evidence suggests that Clare tempered such asceticism with regard to her sisters. As
Benvenuta da Perugia noted, Clare used “rough hair-cloths and shirts for herself, but was
very merciful to the sisters who could not endure such harshness and willingly gave them
consolation” (cited in Mooney 52). However, in relation to her younger sister, Agnes, Clare
“forcefully urges Agnes to live in utmost poverty” (Mooney 100). For a profound examination of food practices among medieval religious women, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy
Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (University of
California Press, 1988).
- The Rule of St. Clare, Chapter VIII, v. 1–2 (Francis and Clare 219–20).
- The Rule of St. Clare, Chapter IV, v. 1–5 (Francis and Clare 215).
- The Rule of St. Clare, Chapter IV, v. 11–13 (Francis and Clare 216).
- “First Letter of St. Clare to Agnes” (http://www.slr-ofs.org/uploads/9/5/5/8/95584600/1_-_
the_first_letter_of_st_clare.pdf Accessed 8 March 2018) and “Third Letter of St. Clare to Agnes (http://www.slr-ofs.org/uploads/9/5/5/8/95584600/3_-_the_third_letter_of_st._clare.pdf.
Accessed 8 March 2018).
Breaking the Rule 123
- Clare’s four letters to her sister, Agnes, span nineteen years. Like Clare, Agnes gave up
the worldly life to live a life of Christian virginity, poverty, and piety.
- The Rule of St. Clare, Chapter I. (https://ourladyofthepearlcom681.files.wordpress.
com/2016/02/rule_st_clare.pdf (Accessed 8 March 2018).
- http://poorclare.org/ (Accessed 8 March 2018).
Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. Trans. Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C.
Brady. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.
Gerrard, Paul M. “St Clare of Assisi and the Poor Clares: A New Spring.” Studies in
Church History 33 (1997): 547–61.
Jantzen, Grace M. Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism. New York: Cambridge
Jones, Kathleen. Women Saints: Lives of Faith and Courage. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis
MacHaffie, Barbara J. “Virgin and Witch: Women in Medieval Christianity.” Her
Story: Women in Christian Tradition, 2d ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006,
McKelvie, Roberta. “Clare’s Rule: Weaving Together Law and Life.” Clare of Assisi: Investigations, ed. Mary Francis Hone. St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan
Institute, St. Bonaventure University, 1993, 1–20.
McLaughlin, Eleanor. “The Christian Past: Does It Hold a Future for Women?” Anglican Theological Review 57, no. 1 (January 1975): 36–56.
Mooney, Catherine M. Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church: Religious
Women, Rules, and Resistance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
Mueller, Joan. The Privilege of Poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the
Struggle for a Franciscan Rule for Women. University Park: Pennsylvania State
Pope Benedict XVI. Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church Through the
Middle Ages. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.
Sotelo, Nicole. “Can Women Write the Rules? St. Clare of Assisi Did.” National
Catholic Reporter, August 28, 2014. https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/youngvoices/can-women-write-rules-st-clare-assisi-did/. Accessed March 8, 2018.
Giving a Generous Reading: Elizabeth
Bennet and the Intellectual Virtue of
University of Dallas
At the crux of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, who has always
prided herself on her perception, learns how gravely she has misjudged the two men
vying for her affections. The charming Mr. Wickham is an unscrupulous and coldhearted fortune hunter, and Mr. Darcy, whom Elizabeth has so loved to hate, may
actually have a good deal of honor and heart. As Elizabeth reorients her thinking
around this discovery, as she revisits earlier interchanges and reinterprets them in
light of this new information, she does not merely rebuke herself for blindness or
stupidity. She considers her mistake to be morally culpable. Elizabeth insists that she
has “courted prepossession and ignorance” and “driven reason away”; she insists that
her “distrust” of Mr. Darcy was “blamable” (137).
What, exactly, is blamable about Elizabeth’s distrust? What Elizabeth diagnoses in herself is a lack of candor. When we use the word “candor” now, we almost
exclusively mean “honesty” or “frankness,” but in Austen’s day the word was only
beginning to be used this way. Austen and her contemporaries generally used “candor” to refer first of all to lack of prejudice—to fair, impartial judgment; but they
also regularly pushed the term even further to mean a positive generosity of judgment, a disposition to give people the benefit of the doubt.1
I would argue that Austen
makes good use of the ambiguity, the multivalence of this term throughout Pride and
Prejudice. What Elizabeth realizes as she digests Darcy’s letter is that she was unjust
and prejudiced exactly because she was ungenerous. This paper will argue that in
126 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Pride and Prejudice Austen is teaching her readers, alongside Elizabeth, this crucial
intellectual virtue of candor—a virtue that the great texts both require and inculcate.
The theme of this year’s conference was crossing borders, and this paper explores
in particular the border between reader and text, arguing that true understanding of a
text depends on the reader’s predisposition to listen, to attend, to postpone judgment,
to read generously, and to reread.
Elizabeth Bennet is sharp, perceptive, and critical. Her tendency to laugh at
the follies of others requires her to make speedy judgments about them, to quickly
categorize, and sometimes caricature, the people she comes into contact with. She
implicitly contrasts her critical tendency with her sister Jane’s perhaps excessive
candor. As they compare notes about a ball, Elizabeth laughs at Jane’s desperation
to paint all the people Elizabeth is criticizing in the best light possible. “ou are a
great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general,” she tells Jane. “You never see
a fault in any body. . . . I never heard you speak ill of a human being in my life” (10).
When Jane protests that she always says exactly what she thinks, Elizabeth replies,
I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense to
be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candour is
common enough;—one meets it every where. But to be candid without ostentation
or design . . . belongs to you alone. (10–11)
There is surely affection, and even grudging admiration, in Elizabeth’s characterization of Jane’s candor here, but it is clear nonetheless that Elizabeth prefers
and privileges her own incisiveness. She portrays Jane as a paragon of intellectual
generosity in proportions just extreme enough that Elizabeth need not feel chastened
by Jane’s example—after all, such candor “belongs to alone.” But Elizabeth
also concludes that Jane’s candor is lovely only because it is honest. Because her
own candor could not be natural and unconscious like Jane’s is, because she cannot be “honestly blind” like Jane to the “follies and nonsense of others,” Elizabeth
is absolved from responsibility where candor is concerned. Her ready discernment
excuses her from being intellectually generous to others because in her, this kind of
candor could only be an “affectation.” If indeed candor is a virtue, Elizabeth implies,
it is not the virtue of a critic.
The reader initially feels very little unease with Elizabeth’s critical spirit. Her
playful mockery, the “mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which
it difficult for her to affront anybody” . . . “bewitche” the reader as much
as it bewitches Mr. Darcy (35). Elizabeth’s critical spirit is not merely charming;
it initially appears quite insightful: all of Elizabeth’s first impressions seem to be
confirmed. The Bingley sisters are scheming and insincere, their brother is a bit of
a pushover, and Mr. Darcy is not only the unpleasant snob Elizabeth took him for at
first but also a bully and scoundrel, as the testimony of Mr. Wickham demonstrates
irrefutably. We and Elizabeth feel confident in her opinions—confident in her interpretation of events, in the truthfulness of the lens through which we have witnessed
the scenes we have witnessed—until, that is, another voice enters the narrative.
It is as Elizabeth reads Mr. Darcy’s letter that Austen begins to show us how
little candor—even of the merely unprejudiced kind—Elizabeth really has. Elizabeth
begins to read the letter “ith a strong prejudice against every thing he might say,”
Giving a Generous Reading 127
and initially it “ her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice” (134);
she is convinced that there is nothing the man can say to mollify her. While we may
share her frustration with Darcy at this point in the novel, her explicit lack of objectivity here should make us uneasy—but likely does not. In a brilliant piece of colored
narrative, we read the first half of the letter through her eyes: we learn that “e expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent,
but haughty. It was all pride and insolence” (134). Although we have just been told
that Elizabeth is not giving the letter a fair reading because of this slow shift from
factual information (“he expressed no regret which satisfied her”) to specific but
subjective criticism (“his style was not penitent”) to an enormous generalization (“it
was all pride and insolence”), we nonetheless read this her prejudiced judgment as if
it is an unbiased authorial pronouncement about the letter. Elizabeth has been making this move consistently up until this point in the novel: leaping from impressions
to judgments without bothering to distinguish between them, allowing everything to
confirm her preconceived ideas. Now, however, Austen has slowed down the tape so
that we can actually see this process taking place.2
But in the second part of the letter, where Mr. Darcy accuses Mr. Wickham,
Elizabeth’s innate rationality forces her to pause and reconsider her own presuppositions. She revisits old conversations with Mr. Wickham, comparing them point by
point with Darcy’s account. She “read, and re-read” Mr. Darcy’s words “with
the closest attention” (135). While she is by no means immediately persuaded of the
truth of his story, she is forced to acknowledge what she would not acknowledge before: “that the affair . . . capable of a turn which must make entirely
blameless throughout the whole” (135). She now “weigh every circumstance with
what she mean to be impartiality” (135). Elizabeth is restored to a state of bare
minimum candor—the desire to be impartial—at which point we realize how prejudiced her thinking has been up until now. She realizes it, too. As the true situation
emerges with painful clarity, she discovers that “she been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (137).
What Elizabeth chides herself for is not first and foremost her lack of suspicion
toward Mr. Wickham. It is her “blamable distrust” toward Mr. Darcy, a distrust that
she contrasts explicitly with her sister’s candor:
How despicably have I acted! . . . I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—
I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous
candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust. . . .
Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not
love, has been my folly. (137)
In their earlier discussion of candor—which Elizabeth surely has in mind—it was
Jane whom Elizabeth accused of blindness—honest blindness, that naive desperation
to think well of everyone. Now Elizabeth admits that she herself was blind—and not
honestly so. Her distrust of Mr. Darcy was an emotional response to his insult. The
source of her distrust was not insight but vanity—a vanity that a dose of Jane’s candor might have counteracted. One man flattered her; she therefore wanted him to be a
good man. The other refused to flatter her; she therefore very much wanted him to be
villainous. What would have saved her, she realizes, was not a more ready suspicion
128 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
of everyone; what would have saved her was generosity, a willingness and eagerness
to give Mr. Darcy the benefit of the doubt even after he had insulted her. The appropriate suspicion about Mr. Wickham’s checkered testimony would have emerged
naturally from a candid disposition toward Mr. Darcy; had she not been prejudiced
against the one, she would not have been prejudiced toward the other.
Elizabeth realizes that candor not merely of the negative, unprejudiced kind but
of the positive, generous kind is a necessary antidote to vanity, to our natural and
innate prejudice toward ourselves. It is not enough to be impartial, because what we
think is impartiality may very well be biased. Everyone privileges his or her own
opinion, and the intelligent more than anyone. We must take the further step—or
seemingly overstep—of assuming and even wishing good of others—and particularly of those we are not disposed to like, to counteract our disposition to think well of
ourselves. Far from being excused from the necessity of candor by her incisiveness,
Elizabeth learns that she is all the more responsible for cultivating it.
Our desire to think well or badly of someone or something enormously affects
what we see: the application of Elizabeth’s discovery to our own relationships is obvious. But it is important that Austen sets up the issue of candor as an issue of reading
and rereading. In Austen’s novels, where physical descriptions are scarce and spare,
we become acquainted with characters primarily through their words—through the
language they use. In a very real sense, people are texts, or rather compilations of
texts. Elizabeth’s opinion of Mr. Darcy is formed by her analysis of one tiny piece of
verbal text (his overheard diss); appropriately, her revised opinion is shaped by her
analysis of a literal text: his letter, which causes her to go back and re-analyze the
other “texts” she has been privy to, rereading the mental transcripts of her previous
conversations with a more honest, more generous eye.
Austen thus deftly communicates that the virtue of candor is a reader’s virtue.
Negative criticism is remarkably easy, requiring little more than intelligence and
ironic detachment, and while it is sometimes warranted, it is also an easy substitute
for genuine engagement and understanding. To what degree even at the heights of
our sophistication does our criticism instinctively privilege not a particular literary
standard but our own preferences? How often do we criticize negatively not because
we sense real literary failure, but because we feel that a text does not flatter our intelligence or expectations? Our approach to texts can often resemble our approach to
other people. Our instinct when confronted with a text that challenges us, whether by
its difficulty, its distance, or its unfamiliarity, is, sadly, not always or perhaps even
often to diagnose a lacking in ourselves and put ourselves under the text’s tutelage,
but rather to dismiss, to caricature, and even to mock—and thus to cut ourselves off
from the insight it has to offer.
But students of literature who have vocally despised books on first reading have
also known, like Elizabeth, the embarrassing necessity of eating their words—often
under the direction of a teacher who demanded candor. And what Austen reveals is
that often that teacher is the book itself. Elizabeth nearly tosses Darcy’s letter aside
after reading the first half, declaring that she will “never look in it again” (135). The
letter, however, has gotten under her skin, and when, forced to pick it up again, she
finally finishes it—she cannot read it again in the same way. The great books get bet-
Giving a Generous Reading 129
ter with time because, like Mr. Darcy, they resist our attempts to dismiss or diminish
them, because—also like Mr. Darcy—they teach us how to read them. We return
to them a second—and third and fourth—time with our minds shaped by them and
therefore better able to appreciate what they have to offer us. Such, in fact, is many
people’s experience with Austen’s novels.
The predisposition to give a text the benefit of the doubt—perhaps in the teeth of
our vanity—is a prerequisite to any sort of insight. Good scholarship is candid scholarship, characterized by a reluctance to categorize and critique too quickly, characterized by an insistence on self-doubt and rereading, characterized by the desire that
there be something of real value there to be found. Only generosity ensures real justice. One may discover eventually, of course, that candor was wasted on a genuinely
worthless book. But only candor makes possible the best literary criticism, criticism
resulting from patient reading and affectionate rereading, criticism presented in a
spirit of generous wonder.
Mr. Darcy’s letter sets Elizabeth the task of rereading the man she has misinterpreted, and the second half of Pride and Prejudice is the story of this rereading.
Some chapters later, Elizabeth visits Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s home. In a new spirit
of penitent candor,3
with shy curiosity, with a sincere if somewhat shamefaced desire
to become acquainted with the real man, she walks around the house and land that
belong to him; she listens to the testimony of his housekeeper, who has known him
since he was a child. Elizabeth is astonished and touched by everything she sees and
hears, finding everywhere evidence of his good taste and kindness. When Mr. Darcy
himself appears, he is a different man—gentlemanly, attentive, eager to please. We
are left to wonder whether his altered character is entirely accounted for by his own
exertions or whether Elizabeth finds him so agreeable because she is finally looking at him through candid eyes. The reader cannot help but feel the fresh air in the
Pemberley passages, and such is the power of this episode that when Elizabeth later
claims that she began to love Mr. Darcy after “first seeing his beautiful grounds at
Pemberley” (244), she is not being entirely flippant: love grew out of those first unprejudiced impressions. And if good literary criticism creates in its readers a similar
sensation of breathing fresh air, of looking out onto widening vistas, it is because
such criticism is written in Elizabeth Bennet’s candid spirit—replete with wonder,
poised to love.
- According to the OED, these two definitions of “candor” cover overlapping periods of
time. For candor defined as “freedom from mental bias, openness of mind; fairness, impartiality, justice,” the OED provides examples beginning in 1616 with Ben Jonson and ending
in 1854 with Henry Read. For candor defined as “freedom from malice, favorable disposition, kindliness; ‘sweetness of temper, kindness’ (Johnson),” it provides examples spanning
1653–1802, including Izaak Walton, John Dryden, and Samuel Johnson. The first instance of
the modern use of the word (“freedom from reserve in one’s statements; openness, frankness,
ingenuousness, outspokenness”) that it records is W. Draper in 1769. Although in her novels
Austen occasionally uses the term in the latter sense to refer to honesty or frankness, in the
majority of instances she uses it to refer to judgment rather than self-expression and thus assumes one of the two former definitions.
130 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
- Jan Fergus argues that in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth’s dislike of Darcy colors the
readers’ perception of him almost from page one of the novel, requiring us to reread without
prejudice before we can understand his character (110–15).
- While Elizabeth does not consider her changing feelings for Mr. Darcy in terms of developing candor, we can see a transition taking place in her, particularly during the Pemberley
episode, from a mere willingness to do Mr. Darcy justice to a positive desire to think well of
him. Especially interesting is the moment when Elizabeth’s feelings, as she contemplates Mr.
Darcy’s portrait, shift from open-mindedness to an acceptance of his goodness and a desire for
that goodness that make her even alter some of her memories of him:
There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth’s mind, a more gentle sensation
towards , than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance. . .
. Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to
his character, and as she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and
fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of
gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened
its impropriety of expression. (162)
Here Elizabeth seems to be doing with Darcy exactly what she earlier accused the candid
Jane of doing with everyone: “tak the good” of Mr. Darcy and “mak it still better,
and say nothing of the bad” (11).
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray. 3rd ed. New York: Norton
Critical Edition, 2001.
Fergus, Jan. Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble,
OED Online. “candour | candor n.” Oxford UP, January 2018: www.oed.com/view/
Entry/27009. Accessed February 15, 2018.
Ethics, Aesthetics, Agriculture, and
Technology: Wendell Berry’s Intellectual
Bernd K. Estabrook
To employ core texts today in our courses is implicitly to be a dissenter, a rebel,
perhaps even a utopian. In an age of increasing specialization, quantification, and
automation, core texts violate the sensibilities of our increasingly specialized world
because their sympathies are with wholes rather than with parts. The effort to join
disparate disciplines or bodies of knowledge through interdisciplinary connections
diverges from our contemporary tendency to fragment, isolate, and objectify human
When I began to explore new possibilities for core texts in my college’s firstyear seminar a decade ago, I realized that there were two kinds of core texts that I
wanted to include in the course. The first were canonical texts from the past, valuable
both because they were recognized constituents of Western culture and because they
yielded interesting connections to current events and ideas. The second set of key
core texts involved contemporary articles and books that helped students bridge the
gap between their everyday lives and the intellectual and academic goals of a college
education. The former texts bring students into relationship with their cultural and
intellectual past; the latter argue for the value of that relationship.
I would like to share my experiences with the writings of Wendell Berry, an important figure in American life and letters for the last fifty years. His essays, novels,
poetry, and lectures are quintessentially American: he draws on intellectual traditions that range from Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Muir,
132 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Rachel Carson, and Neil Postman. Fundamental to his world view are his cultural
and personal roots in Kentucky, where he farms, writes, protests, and reflects on the
world in which we live.
Berry’s work exemplifies key liberal arts values: critical thinking, familiarity
with our cultural heritage, interdisciplinary connections, moral integrity, and the
analysis of values. His essays are studies in thoughtful, critical, and lively writing.
For these reasons alone, his books (such as Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition) work well as core texts for a first-year seminar. They teach both by
precept and by example how a liberally educated mind engages the world.
But the familiar buzzwords of the liberal arts, the catchphrases mentioned
above, do not in themselves constitute the true meaning of what it means to be liberally educated. The significance of the liberal arts today for our particular students is
its access to modes of knowing that run counter to the societal mainstream—a world
dominated by technology. This is something Wendell Berry knows all too well, In a
quotation from Life is a Miracle he says:
A little harder to encompass is the danger that we can give up on life also by presuming to “understand” it—that is, by reducing it to the terms of our understanding and
by treating it as predictable or mechanical. The most radical influence of reductive
science has been the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all parts of its creatures are machines—that is, that there is no difference
between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation. Our
language, wherever it is used, is now almost invariably conditioned by the assumption that fleshly bodies are machines full of mechanisms, fully compatible with the
mechanisms of medicine, industry, and commerce; and that minds are computers
fully compatible with electronic technology. (Berry, 6)
This problem is a familiar one for most faculty. Our students define their lives
through their machines. Their social interactions are mediated by Instagram and text
messaging, their attention constantly diverted to glowing screens, and their knowledge is largely obtained from the Internet. They start with the presumption of a world
that is encompassed, controlled, and framed by electronic technology. Their assumed
understanding of the world allows them to control that world through their devices,
and such awe as they do feel comes from their power to manipulate the abstract
symbols of digital culture. They have no need for the past because they are infatuated with an oncoming future, a limitless horizon that promises to meet every desire
What Wendell Berry reminds us is that the past does not exist to be subordinated
to contemporary ideas and then stored on a hard drive; that past is a vital storehouse
of ideas, experiences, and modes of knowing that still have meaning and significance
for us today—indeed, without that connection with the past, we find ourselves cast
adrift and lost in a glut of information.
Berry emphasizes the vital role of context for any meaningful understanding of
objects, ideas, and perceptions. In his view the acquisition of data—a modern obsession—is, in itself, trivial and pointless. Data, to be meaningful, requires interpretation—the making of connections that bring the data into relationship with the world
in which we live. A good student in a liberal arts setting is not a collector of data so
Ethics, Aesthetics, Agriculture, and Technology 133
much as an interpreter of it. Our desperate need in our society today is not—as all too
many of us assume—that we must collect more data to solve our current challenges,
but rather that we must apply our intelligence to create meaning from the information that we possess. Our problem today is not lack of knowledge but the failure to
integrate the knowledge that we have acquired.
Berry reminds us that the distinctive essence of any particular thing has meaning
not exclusively through its essence but also through its connections with everything
else. He stands in the tradition of John Muir and his famous quote: “When we try
to pick out anything by itself, we find it is hitched to everything else in the Universe.” When we isolate our understanding of things from their embedded nature
in the world, we necessarily have only a partial understanding that masquerades as
a full understanding—which leads to illusion and hubris. Our failure to recognize
the importance of context in this way has led, in Berry’s view, to many of our worst
ecological disasters, to say nothing of deformations in our economic and social lives.
Wendell Berry’s notion of context makes him an eloquent defender of place.
What we do or what we choose in any situation is intimately connected with our
location; the land in which we work and live is the context of that work and that life.
Our failure to embed ourselves in our landscapes today allows us to ravage those
landscapes for “raw materials”—as if we were somehow detached from our environment and could therefore use it recklessly.
He argues for recognition of such contexts in the education of our young people.
Agriculture is not, in his view, a separate discipline for land-grant universities but
rather something that we should all be familiar with because our lives depend upon
the food we grow. The subordination of agriculture to economic and political concerns in our society and its isolation in technical educational institutions has led to
extraordinary abuses of the land that, over the long term, threaten our ability to feed
The point that Wendell Berry makes, however, is not merely that the neglect of
our landscapes will lead to unpleasant or dangerous consequences, but also that our
literature, our politics, our economic life, our religious life, and our societal interactions are all impoverished because they have been disconnected from the physical
landscapes in which they take place. The devastation of our land through exploitation, bad farming practices, or corporate greed are a symptom of our failure to connect agriculture and poetry, land use and aesthetics, business and stewardship.
This disconnect in many of our educational establishments promotes the desecration of natural landscapes in the name of immediate economic advantage. When
they are considered as isolated, partial understandings, these landscapes are little
more than objects to be manipulated and controlled. Our current failure to manage
our landscapes is explained in an essay from Berry’s book Our Only World:
We have come to this by way of the disembodiment of thought—a mentalization, almost a puritanization, of thought—depriving us of the physical basis of a sympathy
that might join us kindly to landscapes and their creatures, including their human
creatures. This purity or sublimity of thought is hard to account for, for it has come
about under the sponsorship of materialism. Perhaps it happened because materialists, instead of assigning ultimate value to materiality as would have been reason-
134 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
able, have abstracted “material” to “mechanical,” and thus have removed from it all
bodily or creaturely attributes. (7)
Berry is famous for his activism against large-scale strip mining in Kentucky, a
practice that, aside from its pollution of water sources and its devastation of natural
habitats, leaves ugly scars across the land. His protests are a liberal arts–inspired
response to our society’s instrumentalization and objectification of the natural world.
An isolated understanding of a strip mine can only view such a mine as a source of
raw materials. A liberal arts–influenced perspective, however, understands mining
and the land not only economically but also aesthetically, culturally, environmentally
and—dare we say it?—even spiritually. The truth of agriculture—its value in our
education—is as likely to come from our poetic reflections as from our economic studies. Different modes of knowing, when properly employed in a liberal arts
framework, are mutually supporting and equally necessary to a profound understanding of how we can and should use the land that sustains us.
I will close with reflections on how this core text provides a model for program
development. In an increasingly technological world, there are times when it seems
that we will never be able to keep up with the pace of new technologies—and if we
view things this way, we are condemned to be left behind and disadvantaged. In contrast, Berry’s integrative approach to education places primacy not upon the tools that
our society uses but upon the skills, aptitudes, and attitudes of the educated tool user.
Berry demonstrates to us that the headlong rush to develop new tools ought
to be accompanied by an equal focus on the values and moral development of the
tool user—and it is precisely this education that the liberal arts are concerned with.
The liberal arts are not timeless (they must change and adapt with our culture), but
they are not secondary to the demands of our modern technological infatuation with
novelty, speed, quantity, and power. Not unless we redefine them to conform to those
Those who discount the humanities because they are not state-of-the-art new,
like our electronic technologies, and who assume therefore that the liberal arts are
antiquated or even irrelevant, are missing the point. Without the development of our
students’ innate capacities, without the fostering of our students’ own talents embodied in their own experiences, without the unfolding of our students’ native mental
and physical possibilities, they will be slaves to their own tools. Berry is arguing for
an admittedly ancient but by no means antiquated notion of wisdom—a liberal arts
education of tool users who are judicious, thoughtful, discerning, restrained, patient,
and imaginative. The point is that integrative knowing has very little to do with tools
as such; what we possess in our heritage as human beings—our innate abilities—is
not tools that we use but parts of ourselves. They belong to us in ways no external
tool ever could, and as such they constitute an authentic identity—and are vital to
As faculty we are not required to keep up with current technological trends in
order to be relevant or vital to our students’ education—but we must encourage them
to challenge the facile assumptions made by technological enthusiasts, and we must
guide them toward discovery of their own remarkable potentials. The most important
powers that they will one day wield are not external but internal.
Ethics, Aesthetics, Agriculture, and Technology 135
Wendell Berry argues that we should take liberal arts education seriously, that
we should educate our students to recognize the value of context and the necessity
for imaginative and cross-disciplinary connections, and to respect the incredible possibilities inherent in each of us as human beings. If our core programs are concerned
with developing a matrix of truly human potentials, we could learn a great deal from
Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Berkeley:
Counterpoint Press, 2000.
Berry, Wendell. Our Only World: Ten Essays. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2015.
Theological and Psychological Subjects
At the Heart of Atheism: Aquinas on Two
Basic Objections to God’s Existence
Matthew D. Walz
University of Dallas
Intellectually speaking, is there any wider divide to be bridged than that between
theism and atheism, i.e., between the conviction that God exists and the conviction
that God does not exist? Everyone recognizes implicitly that one’s position concerning God’s existence suffuses all that one considers metaphysically, cosmologically,
politically, ethically, and perhaps even scientifically—which could explain the often
bitter tone of debates about this question. And the question, of course, is not new,
nor are the numerous arguments martialed on behalf of theism or atheism. They have
always been with us.
It may be surprising, then, to discover that in perhaps the most famous text
written by Thomas Aquinas—the article from the Summa theologiae in which he
attempts to prove that God exists by five ways—he presents only two objections.
Could he not think of other arguments that give voice to atheistic concerns? Or does
he have some other end in mind here in presenting the two objections? Some context
may help us to answer these questions.
In the prologue to the whole Summa theologiae, Aquinas tells us why he wrote
We have considered how beginning students of this teaching are impeded in several
ways by works written by diverse authors. This is owing partly to the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly to the fact that the things
they need to know are not treated according to the order of learning, but instead
according to what the exposition of a certain book demands or according to what
the occasion of a disputation offers; and partly to the fact that frequent repetition in
140 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
these writings produces both loathing and confusion in the minds of hearers. Intent
on avoiding these and other such things, and with confident trust in divine help, we
will attempt to pursue what belongs to sacred teaching briefly and lucidly, so far as
the subject matter allows.1
In the Summa theologiae, then, Aquinas aims to present his teaching “briefly and
lucidly” (or “concisely and clearly,” breviter ac dilucide) in order to foster learning
among those at the initial stages of theological study.2
In light of Aquinas’s aims in
the Summa theologiae as a whole, I want to call attention to two features of the objections he presents: a quantitative one, i.e., the actual number of objections Aquinas
presents, wherein Aquinas opts for conciseness; and a qualitative one, i.e., the mode
or manner in which he presents those objections, whereby Aquinas aims for clarity.
Quantitatively speaking, Aquinas does not include as many objections in the
Summa theologiae as he could; he is concise. To see this, one can simply compare
the Summa theologiae to other works of his, in which he sometimes articulates upward of twenty objections and sed contras in a single article.3
In those works, one
could argue, he represents more adequately the number and variety of objections that
one is likely to encounter—or that Aquinas himself actually encountered—during a
disputation or in the classroom. In the Summa theologiae, by contrast, Aquinas usually articulates only three or four objections, though on occasion there are just two or
more than four. He limits his objections in the Summa theologiae, which suits well
the brevity for which he aims. Undoubtedly, then, Aquinas agrees with the Bard:
brevity is the soul of wit.
But is Aquinas aiming for brevity simply for brevity’s sake? In other words,
why are there so few objections in the Summa theologiae? The answer has to do with
the qualitative dimension of the objections, i.e., their mode or manner, which is determined by why Aquinas has objections in the Summa theologiae in the first place.
Put succinctly, in the Summa theologiae, despite its format, Aquinas is not disputing;
rather, he is teaching. He operates not in debate mode, but in pedagogical mode. He
does not present objections with a view to overcoming this or that opponent; rather,
his concern is more universal, namely, putting into words the principal obstacles and
default tendencies of human reason that hinder the achievement of truth concerning
the question at hand. He wants to correct the basic misunderstandings or intellectual
dispositions that obscure the truth of the matter at issue. He wants, in other words,
to get at the “rational heart” of the difficulty, first unveiling and eventually countering the human learner’s chief ways of going astray regarding a specific issue. Hence
Aquinas’s brevity is at the service of lucidity; he is concise in order to clear away the
fundamental sources of opacity in the human learner’s mind.
This is especially evident when Aquinas tries to prove that God exists. By presenting only two objections, Aquinas suggests that when it comes to being well disposed to reason toward God’s existence, two principal sources of opacity stand in the
way. This is what Aquinas says:
It seems that God does not exist.
This is because if one of two contraries were infinite, then the other
would be totally destroyed. Now, understood in the name “God” is this: that he is
At the Heart of Atheism 141
an infinite good. Thus if God exists, no evil would be found. But evil is found in the
world. Therefore God does not exist.
Moreover, what can be accomplished through fewer principles does
not come about through more. Now, when it is assumed that God does not exist, it
seems that all things that appear in the world can be accomplished through other
principles. For things that are natural are traced back to a principle (i.e., a nature),
while things that arise from a purpose are also traced back to a principle (i.e., human
reason or will). Thus there is no need to assert that God exists.4
When considering God’s existence, then, a human learner might be held back
by the presence of evil in the world, incapable of reconciling it with a good God.
Or that learner might limit the sorts of explanations to which he or she is open, recognizing no need to go beyond explanations rooted in principles belonging to this
world. These may be called, respectively, “the obstacle of evil” and “a delimiting
For Aquinas, the obstacle of evil and a delimiting naturalism are at the rational
heart of atheism. By “atheism,” moreover, I do not mean merely a person’s firm conviction that God does not exist; I also mean a certain gravitational pull, as it were,
on the intellect of every human learner, which detracts it from apprehending as fully
as possible the permanent reality of God’s existence. Even someone who believes in
God deeply, then, benefits from working through these two objections, since an exercise of this sort can straighten up certain intellectual declinations that are preventing
that person from accessing God’s existence as rationally as possible. In fact, given
Aquinas’s intended audience for the Summa theologiae, he likely has precisely such
already believing learners in mind when articulating these two objections.
This helps to explain, moreover, the matter-of-fact manner in which Aquinas
presents these two objections. Consider the obstacle of evil as he presents it. Under normal circumstances, such an objection is likely emotionally and rhetorically
charged, referring (say) to the apparently excessive suffering that scars our human
experience. For Aquinas, by contrast, the obstacle of evil seems a purely logical matter: if one contrary be infinite, the other would never be found; logically speaking,
then, evil and God just cannot coexist.
With these two objections, then, Aquinas suggests that misunderstanding divine goodness and/or divine causality prevents a human learner from reasoning well
about God’s existence. The learner who takes these objections seriously, then, enters
into the subsequent five ways that Aquinas articulates with a more unrestricted notion of God, a notion signifying a reality that manifests a unique form of goodness
and a unique mode of causality. Thus alerted to shortcomings in how he or she may
be predisposed to conceive of God, the learner undertakes the reasoning process
toward God’s existence with greater clarity of mind.
When it comes to his replies to the two objections, Aquinas plumbs the misunderstandings behind them more deeply, with hints as to where they might come from.
Consider how he addresses the obstacle of evil:
To the first, it should be said that, as Augustine says in his Enchiridion, “God, since
he is the highest good, would in no way allow something of evil to exist in his works
142 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
unless he were so all-powerful and good that even from evil he could make well.”
Thus this belongs to the infiniteness of God: that he permit evils to exist and that
from them he draw out goods.5
Aquinas does not deny any premise of the argument in the objection, nor does he
question the logic of contraries. And he certainly does not explain away the existence
of evil by appealing to its metaphysical status as a privation of a good that is owed.
Instead, Aquinas focuses on understanding divine infiniteness properly, an infiniteness not conditioned by anything. In their infiniteness, the attributes of God stand
outside of the range within which contraries exist.
God’s infiniteness places him beyond any range, any logical or metaphysical
category, in a way similar to how an author subsists outside and independent of the
world of characters about which he writes. As a consequence, God exists freely in
relation to evil, which is manifest not only in his permitting evils to exist, but also in
his drawing certain goods out of them.
Notice, moreover, how Aquinas ends his reply: “Thus this belongs to the infiniteness of God: that he permit evils to exist and that from them he draw out goods.”
I want to highlight the “and” in this sentence—in Latin, et. It is an et (“and”), not an
ut (“so that”). God does not permit evils to exist so that he may draw goods out of
them. Rather, one might say, there are two distinct facts in play: God permits evils to
exist, and from evils God draws out goods. Are these facts connected? They are not
connected logically, at least not in the sense that one can conclude the second fact
from the first. If there be a connection, then, it must be through God’s infinite goodness, whereby he exists freely in relation to evil. Indeed, had Aquinas used ut rather
than et—“so that” rather than “and”—then one might surmise that God wants evils
to exist in order to bring good things out of them, which is a terrible thought. In the
face of the world’s evils, though, one ought not to be so presumptuous, just as one
ought not to despair.
Aquinas’s reply suggests, then, that when it comes to considering God’s existence, the human learner’s proper disposition is neither presumption nor despair, but
hope—hope rooted in an understanding of God’s goodness that aims to be adequate
to its infiniteness. Presumption and despair undercut reason’s approach toward God’s
existence, whereas hope encourages it. In different ways, both a presumptuous person and a despairing person have already confined their God—or at least their notion
of God—in a box. Only a hopeful learner appropriately opens himself or herself to
being rationally surprised, as it were, by God’s infinitely good existence.
What about the second objection, a delimiting naturalism, i.e., the view that all
happenings in the world can be explained by causes within the world itself, either
natural or volitional? Aquinas says:
To the second, it should be said that since a nature works on account of a determinate
end owing to the direction of a higher agent, it is necessary that one trace even those
things that come about by nature back to God as to a first cause. Likewise, one must
trace even those things that come about from a purpose back to a higher cause that
is not human reason and will, because human reason and will are changeable and
able to fall short. Now, everything that is changeable and able to fall short has to be
traced back to a first principle that is unchangeable and necessary in its own right.6
At the Heart of Atheism 143
Aquinas’s first claim in this reply is not surprising coming from him: God must
be invoked to explain the teleological ordering of the natures found in things. For
a natural entity does not give itself its own end; rather, from its beginning, its very
existence is on a trajectory toward given ends.
But why must one look beyond human reason and will as causes? According
to Aquinas, it is not only because reason and will are changeable, but also because
they are defectibilia, “able to fall short.” Put more colloquially, we human beings
make mistakes, we mess up, we sin. Moreover, recognizing this about ourselves may
be necessary for us learners to be properly disposed to apprehend God’s existence
rationally. Is Aquinas suggesting, then, that a sense of guilt, broadly conceived, is
indispensable for breaking out of a delimiting naturalism, since guilt hints at a divine reality that transcends human reason and will? The alternative, it seems, is to
consider ourselves as rational agents to be the highest realities that exist. Our rather
obvious intellectual and moral fallibility, however, tell a different story, making any
such claim about ourselves hard to swallow, if not downright depressing. In fact,
considering ourselves to be the highest realities that exist either is either presumptuous or likely to cause us to despair—which, of course, pushes us back into the
obstacle of evil!
What holds a human learner back from reasoning well toward God’s existence?
In other words, what is at the heart of atheism taken as a settled disposition, or at least
as a downward pull on our all-too-human intellects? The two objections to God’s
existence that Aquinas articulates in the Summa theologiae suggest an intriguing
answer, namely, lack of hope in the face of evils encountered in the world and lack of
guilt that springs from recognition of intellectual and moral failure. And so, Aquinas
seems to suggest, if a learner wants to be disposed to reason well toward God’s existence, a dash of hope and a sliver of guilt may be indispensable. For both attitudes
get us learners out of ourselves, opening our minds up to the possibility that a divine
reality exists that, though generously causing this world, nonetheless transcends its
categories through infinite goodness.
If, then, a learner intends to bridge the divide between atheism and theism, the
road should be paved by hope and guilt as predispositions of the human heart. Moreover, if a theist and an atheist are to converse seriously about the plausibility of God’s
existence, considerations of the validity of these two basic human experiences—hope
in the face of evils and guilt in the face of failures—may be just the place to begin.
For, as Aquinas indicates in the Summa theologiae, embracing and investigating the
intelligibility of these experiences dwells at the heart of a fully rational exploration
of God’s existence.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (ST), I, proem. (The Latin text of this passage from
ST as well as the others translated in this paper is at http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/iopera.
html. All translations in this paper are mine.)
- By “beginning students of this teaching” in the Prologue of ST, Aquinas is referring to
young men, usually confreres in the Dominican order, who finished philosophical studies,
which were equivalent to something like a bachelor’s degree in a traditional and systematic
144 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
philosophy major. For more on this, see L. Boyle, “The Setting of the Summa Theologiae,” in
Aquinas, “‘Summa Theologiae’”: Critical Essays, ed. B. Davies (Lanham, MD: Rowman &
Littlefield, 2006), 1–24.
- Consider, e.g., Quaestiones disputatae de anima, q. 1 (also available at http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/iopera.html). In this question Aquinas entertains eighteen objections, followed by two sed contras. Examples like this abound in many of Aquinas’s works. When it
comes to objections, then, ST stands out as exceptional in its conciseness.
- ST, I, q. 2, a. 3, obj. 1–2.
- ST, I, q. 2, a. 3, ad 1.
- ST, I, q. 2, a. 3, ad 2.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa theologiae. Accessed March 10, 2018. http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/iopera.html.
Boyle, Leonard. “The Setting of the Summa Theologiae.” In: Aquinas’s “Summa
Theologiae’“ Critical Essays, ed. Brian Davies (Lanham, MD: Rowman &
Littlefield, 2006), 1–24.
The Structure of Dante’s Paradiso:
Transhumanization of the Ethical Life
Neil G. Robertson
University of King’s College
Not unique by any means, but at least distinctive of the Foundation Year Programme
at the University of King’s College among core text or Great Books programs, is
the reading and study of the entire Divine Comedy of Dante. Many programs cover
Dante either by reading the Inferno or through selections. I do not want to undermine
these laudable practices. But I do want to suggest that something crucial is lost in
not reading all of the Divine Comedy, and in particular in giving short shrift to the
Paradiso: the culmination and purpose of the whole poetic journey.
As the culmination of the Divine Comedy, the Paradiso speaks to our conference theme: it is precisely about crossing divides, above all the divine-human divide.
And in traversing this most radical of divisions—one that for Aristotle in his Ethics
prohibited the possibility of divine-human friendship—all interhuman division is,
in principle, transcended and at the same recognized and included. In this sense, to
pick up on another aspect of the conference theme, as we shall see, the Paradiso is a
vision of “community building”: a vision of a city in which differences and oppositions irresolvable from an earthly perspective become complementary and mutually
sustaining when viewed in the gracious vision of paradise. The goal of this paper
is to articulate the logic of the structure that leads to the vision made available by
I know that there are formidable pedagogical reasons not to read, or not read all
of, the Paradiso. We live in an age of diminishing attention spans and a diminishing
capacity within both us and our students to be free of distractions and the need for
sensible stimulation. Dante’s Paradiso, after two massive canticles of poetry, seems
146 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
too much. It appears to be the least dramatic, most theological, and least compelling
of the canticles—dry and filled with outdated or partisan orthodoxy. It can seem like
a long and diffuse Sunday school or confirmation class for even those of a Christian
background. How, then, can I argue for its inclusion in the core of an undergraduate
There is, of course, the basic pedagogical point about reading whole texts as
much as possible: any selection involves interpretation in which the reader—the students—have been rendered ignorant and incompetent to offer resistance. But I want
to suggest something more, to make two points very briefly: (1) the Paradiso is in
fact a deeply dramatic work that properly concludes this masterpiece, if only we can
get hold of the theatrical space of the drama. (2) Through a grasp of the drama of the
Paradiso—above all as a drama of the soul, as a psychological thriller—the student
is afforded an opportunity to see the powerful medieval articulation of the human
personality, but further to see in it the development of the modern self and our postDantean modern world. I would argue that Dante knows that he is on the cusp of a
new world coming to be all around him—though he sees it as a loss or corruption.
In my analysis of the Paradiso, I will follow the standpoint outlined by Dante in
his dedicatory letter to Cangrande, which gives us the crucial principle by which to
interpret the Divine Comedy as a whole and the Paradiso in particular. There Dante
argues that while at the literal level the work is about the disposition of souls in the
afterlife and a journey that passes from Hell through Purgatory to Paradise, its spiritual or allegorical meaning—its fundamental and determining meaning—is ethical
and about this life: “Dropping all subtle investigation, we may say briefly that the
end of the whole and of the part is to remove those living in this life from misery
and lead them to happiness.” He tells us—and it is so easy to forget this point—that
“the whole was undertaken not for speculation but for practical results” (Dante, 366).
So questions like, “Why doesn’t Virgil get to go to Paradise?” or “What about those
unbaptized children?” or “How could Dante be so judgmental about the absolute end
of this or that person?” are all genre mistakes. Dante’s work uses theological reflection and church teaching as well as Biblical history and pagan mythology, but not for
speculative purposes—though in a sense it ends in speculation or contemplation, or,
even better, adoration as the highest human activity. But what, then, about all the discussions of theoretical or philosophical matters throughout the Divine Comedy, and
especially in the Paradiso? These discussions need to be seen as part of the drama,
the ethical drama of moral psychology that is the plot of this poem. In each case, the
moment of theological or philosophic reflection needs to be understood as removing
an obstacle or misunderstanding that prevents Dante, the pilgrim, from coming to a
more adequate ethical standpoint, a standpoint that more fully integrates and realizes
his personality. The goal of the poem is, then, to build up in the reader just such an
ethical development in this life.
But let me be clear: while Dante’s account in the Paradiso is about happiness in
this life, that by no means excludes or denies a “beatific vision” belonging to a more
complete happiness in the afterlife. Its post-visionary conclusion—“Here ceased the
powers of my high fantasy”—points us to this as it moves us beyond the poetic altogether (Dante 359). Indeed, the poem everywhere points to the dependency of the
The Structure of Dante’s Paradiso 147
practical happiness of this life upon the speculative or beatific happiness of the next.
As he says in Canto I:
I have been in that heaven He makes most bright
and seen things neither mind can hold nor tongue utter. (3)
The relationship between the primarily practical happiness figured through the
allegory and the speculative happiness of a beatific vision beyond all poetry is a
complex matter and one that Dante addresses throughout the poem and in his further
discussion in the Cangrande letter. We can also see a more particular reflection on
these matters in his account, in the Sphere of the Sun, of the circle led by Thomas
Aquinas, which is above all structured by a concern about the relation of earthly and
heavenly knowledge and particularly knowledge of separate substances (see Crouse,
148–50). All of this is to say that nothing about the allegorical meaning of the Paradiso should be read to deny a perfectly orthodox belief on Dante’s part in the afterlife; it only means that the literal account in the poem is not his effort at providing
such a portrayal.
What, then, is the plot of the Paradiso? One way to describe it is through the
word Dante coins and uses in the first canto: “transumanar,” to transhumanize. This
word captures a principle that Aquinas articulated in the Summa Theologica as
“Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it” (6). Dante’s argument in the whole
of the Divine Comedy is toward this standpoint: the Paradiso is the articulation of it.
Each step of that canticle is toward a more and more complete integration of nature
and grace in and through the more complete realization of human personality. In so
doing, Dante overcomes the limitations of a pagan nature and prepares the ground for
a modern account of human subjectivity, the birth of the modern self.
Let me just sketch the logic of this movement in the Paradiso, which is really,
for much of the text, the logic of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity
(as understood and grounded in Augustine’s account of human personality)—that
become directly the object of examination in the sphere of the fixed stars, the last
visible ground of the celestial motion. The logic of the first three spheres—the Moon,
Mercury, and Venus—is, and here I follow a number of commentators, the logic
of faith defective through lack of hope exemplified by broken vows, in the Moon;
hope defective through a lack of faith exemplified by a worldly pursuit of glory, in
Mercury; and in Venus a love made insufficient by its worldliness. For all three, this
defective character is signaled by the planets’ falling under the shadow of the Earth
and so remaining with a kind of pagan finitude that limits and corrupts the realization
of the virtues. So, we have here still an unresolved opposition of earth and heaven,
nature and grace.
It is with the four middle spheres of the Paradiso that interpretive issues become
more problematic, and it is here that I want to argue that the principle of “transhumanization,” of grace perfecting nature, is most deeply at work. Here the question is
how nature can become fully transparent to grace, how nature can be both affirmed
and yet also have no residual otherness to grace that might limit or impede its work,
as was still the case under the shadow of Earth.
Interpreters of these middle spheres—the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—argue
variously about how we are to understand them ethically. Some—in fact, most—see
148 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
them as embodying the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance respectively. Some of these readers will argue that they belong in Paradise
because they are the Christian form of these pagan virtues: so, theologians and not
philosophers, Christian martyr warriors and not pagan soldiers, providential rulers
and not philosopher kings, and monks and not sober citizens. At King’s, the Dante
lecture was done for decades by Robert Crouse, a very significant historian of medieval thought, who argued that these spheres were about not the cardinal virtues,
but the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (the latter in two forms as love
of neighbor in Jupiter and love of God in Saturn). Certainly, on the face of it, it does
not make sense that Dante would turn to the cardinal virtues in celestial paradise. If
they are operative, it would surely be in the earthly paradise, as he argues clearly in
his De Monarchia.
Dante knows that Aristotle’s Ethics, which is such a crucial guide to the Comedy, ends in an ambiguous or even tragic standpoint. The highest practical end for
both the Ethics and the Divine Comedy is the happiest life actualized above all in the
life of God, the unmoved mover, which is most fully attained humanly in contemplation. Aristotle tells us two things: First, that it is a life too high for man. But then,
rather than just telling us to stay with embodied natural ends, he secondly argues
that this life of contemplation is one we should strive for as far as we are able, and
indeed that it is the work of the divine within us. So there is a kind of unresolved
desire (the sighing of Limbo) made present through a divine spark within, which
points to and moves us toward a life that is also too high for us. It is the possibility
of transhumanization, made available through the Incarnation, which suggests the
capacity to transcend this tragic condition. It is this specifically Christian reworking
of principles that I wish to call the “infinitization of virtue” in the planetary spheres
beyond the shadow of the earth.
Let us take an example. Mars, the planet in which courage is transhumanized
into hope, has as one of the figures present: Roland, the great medieval Christian
warrior celebrated in the chanson de geste, The Song of Roland, one of the most
widely celebrated figures of the medieval period. In the Chanson, Roland is presented in contrast to his companion Oliver. In a moment caused by treachery, the small
rearguard that Roland commands is faced by an overwhelming Saracen force that
Oliver recognizes will destroy them. But Roland refuses Oliver’s advice to blow his
horn and call upon the main force of Charlemagne’s army to come to their aid. Oliver comes to accuse Roland of “recklessness.” This is a very exact judgment. From
an Aristotelian perspective, it is exactly right. Courage, like any other virtue, was
understood by Aristotle to be a mean between extremes. On the one side is cowardice—fleeing when one should stand firm—but on the other is recklessness—standing
firm when one should flee. Courage, like any other virtue, requires prudence—a virtue Oliver possesses—and this is the capacity to judge in relation to a given context
how one should act. A virtue is not just a certain disposition but includes this aspect
of judgment of appropriateness. Roland appears to lack this aspect of courage pretty
massively and so from an Aristotelian point of view should be regarded as committing the vice of recklessness. From this perspective, one could at best see The Song
of Roland as a tragedy, if not a simple morality tale about the folly of recklessness.
The Structure of Dante’s Paradiso 149
But, of course, this is not the perspective of the Chanson. Roland’s death, symbolized
through the return of his glove to the angel Gabriel, fully exemplifies the fidelity of
the feudal knight in relation to his lord. What Roland sees and Oliver fails to see is
that, from the medieval point of view, all finite contexts are secondary to the absolute
or infinite context of Roland’s end, life with God. It is fidelity to this end that transforms, for the medieval standpoint, Roland’s courage into hope, a will absolutely
secure in its infinite end. And so, as Roland makes clear in the poem, the “pagans”
cannot make him blow his horn, even in their overwhelming numbers.
What is this perfecting of nature doing to the virtue? It is making it inherently
speculative or free, with its ground not in nature or human nature but in God as creator of both nature and human nature and the redeemer of both. Thus, the sphere of
the fixed stars gathers up this infinitization, this transhumanizing of the ethical life,
through an examination of the three theological virtues on their own terms and as
constitutive of happiness in this life.
But the poem does not end there. I can only briefly touch upon the Primum Mobile and Empyrean Heaven. The poem moves us beyond the subjective appropriation
of the content of happiness in this life to the subjective recognition of the principles
or realities that made possible this appropriation. We make a transition from the
subjective to the objective and in doing so come to see what has in fact been moving in us in the drama. This work of transition occurs through two aspects: (1) the
Virgin Mary as the object of Romance and her charity as the mediating, penultimate
moment, makes available the absolute divine mediation of the Incarnation; (2) the
inversion of perspective that is made possible through grasping that the principles
of the virtues are not (to use the celestial image) the “planets”—the habits or virtues
themselves—but rather the angelic intelligences that properly move the “planets”:
the pure act of the soul that is providential and absolute. But then, beyond this, the
turn of the soul to the actual humanity of Christ within the Trinity is the completed
perfection of human personality in its total end, uniting subjective and objective in
a total activity of love. This happiness—and Dante is drawing not only on Aristotle,
but also on Augustine, Boethius, and really the whole medieval tradition—is the
activity of the soul as at once practical and theoretical. In this the ancient tragedy has
become a human-divine comedy. But if one regards the Renaissance as the unwritten
fourth canticle, this medieval comedy will bring forth all manner of new, modern
tragedies, precisely because the human soul has been “transhumanized.”
Aquinas, St. Thomas. The Summa Theologica. Vol. 1. Trans. Fathers of the English
Dominican Province. Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1948.
Crouse, Robert. “Dante as Philosopher: Christian Aristotelianism.” Dionysius 16
Dante. Paradise. Trans. Anthony Esolen. New York: Modern Library, 2007.
Grieving for the World through Core Texts
The 2017 ACTC conference proposal speaks to the power of the liberal arts to address suffering and loss:
To realize that the worst of humanity can be counteracted by the best is to commit to liberal arts education in core texts. To commit to the openness of core texts—
their huge traditions of conversation, substance, invention, and appreciation—is to
construct the antithesis of a closed, divisive world, to work for a free and open world.
. . . A liberal arts core text education, especially in college, constructs communities
out of the diversity of traditions and human beings. A community of liberal arts
education using core texts is committed to comparisons, across genres, disciplines,
eras, languages, cultures, and civilizations…. It knows that today’s problems—be
they violence, demographics, economics, politics, arts, sciences, or technology—are
addressable. What can a communal chorus of human voices say to these human problems and potentials?
Encountering the reality of environmental degradation with undergraduates
brings with it a grief for the world we are losing that is better acknowledged than
left unspoken. I have found that in reading post-apocalyptic texts such as Cormac
McCarthy’s The Road, which vividly portrays the end of human civilization, it is important to counterbalance that narrative of impending doom with one that allows for
hope, and happiness. In my Honors Research Writing course, Barbara Kingsolver’s
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle plays that role. I use these two texts to address the larger
question of grief at seeing the natural world destroyed.
As Aldo Leopold famously said,
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world
of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An
152 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in
a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” (197)
So as we train students to be literate in science and versed in cultural criticism,
we have a duty to leave space to explore the emotional impact of the knowledge they
gain. The human community described in the conference invitation is at the center of
these pre- and post-apocalyptic narratives.
I have argued elsewhere that many of our very popular post-apocalyptic narratives, including The Road, provide a sense of catharsis for the collective unconscious as we realize, sometimes underneath denial, that we are destroying the planet,
and with it, some of our most precious democratic ideals and other fragile fruits of
civilization. One of the news stories most illustrative of this in recent weeks is the
response of the reading public to Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” remark and
the flagrant mendacity of the Trump administration: George Orwell’s 1984 shot to
number one on Amazon’s bestseller list (Schaub). People turn to literature for comfort, explanation, and sometimes a place to work out a reality that seems too terrible
to confront head-on.
Work in psychology about denials of climate change attests to both the likelihood of climate change denial and the difficulty of seeing that such a grave problem
could be ameliorated by personal actions, a phenomenon sometimes called climate
change helplessness (Solomon et al. 1). One major finding is that people are already
afraid enough of climate change; what they need is to believe that changed behaviors
could be efficacious (ibid.). Others find that “being anxious about a given issue is a
necessary if not a sufficient condition to being persuaded by the validity of counterarguments” (Nai et al. 137). Anxiety can increase “attention, awareness, and learning”
(ibid., 140). The balance is delicate.
The news I share with students about the environment is always shocking to
them. They do not know some very basic facts about climate change: pollution of
air, water, and soil; the Pacific garbage patch; deforestation; and the health effects
resulting from toxic contamination of every human alive, including every child they
will ever give birth to. This year, the news has been more astonishingly bad than ever,
and we sometimes take a few minutes to debrief. I ask the students if they are fine and
if they would prefer not to know. One student, shaken, nevertheless said, “No—it’s
better to be woke!” Every day seems to bring a new horror, from the slashing of the
EPA budget, to climate and science deniers at the helm of the executive branch, to
credible evidence that the collusion between Russia and the Trump administration is
in part motivated by a desire to keep the fossil fuel bubble going a little longer, planet
be damned (Kramer and Krauss; Wasserman).
For our Scholars students, McCarthy’s The Road illustrates the worst-case scenario of complete environmental devastation, but it is also haunted by a vision of
what, at that future time, has been lost, what is for us still present, though threatened.
This is perhaps more important: showing what can be saved by effective environmental action now. McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic fable ends with an invocation of a
peak ecosystem, of natural beauty worthy of Thoreau:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them
The Oral Voice in Ancient and Contemporary Texts 153
standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in
the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional.
On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right
again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they
hummed of mystery. (286–87)
Students often misread this gorgeous passage as a harbinger of hope. But the key
term here, the phrase that makes this an environmental novel is “a thing which could
not be put back.” These are the precious things that we are losing now, year by year,
minute by minute, in a sort of reverse Creation: The Great Barrier Reef, for instance,
which even the New York Times said we should shed a tear for (New York Times
Editorial Board 1). Sometimes, we may not even have names for the things we lose,
as when undiscovered treasures of the ecosystem silently blink out in the Amazon.
McCarthy talks about the loss not only of things, but of the names for them: “The
names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of
birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile
than he would have thought. . . . The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of
its reality” (88–89). Sometimes it takes a poet to describe the pathos that scientists
anticipate, and themselves feel. Sometimes, as in the case of Sandra Steingraber
and Jim Hansen, who visited our campus last year, scientists use poetry to convey
This year, my scholars did not appreciate Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, an account of how her family lived for a year mostly from local food or food they
grew themselves on their small farm. The scholars found the carefully crafted, playful prose cloying and overwritten. For them, her appeals to do better were too obvious, too sanctimonious and self-congratulatory. I could see their point at times. But
I tried to make them aware of Kingsolver’s narrative purpose: to make needed environmental and cultural change palatable. She often qualifies claims about her project,
but Kingsolver is indeed unremittingly cheerful, even chirpy, relegating scientific
facts and economics figures about the cost of our food system to sidebars, right until
the end. I let them live with their criticisms of her prose, but on the last day, we spent
most of a class period on this passage from among the last pages of the book:
The truth is so horrific: we are marching ourselves to the maw of our own extinction. An audience that doesn’t really get that will amble out of the theater unmoved,
go home and change nothing. But an audience that does get it may be so terrified
they’ll feel doomed already” (345)
Kingsolver labels fatalism child abuse and calls saving the planet on which life
evolved “A now or never project” (345). Students see that all along she was pulling
her punches, hiding grim facts among hilarious passages about turkey sex in order to
make them acceptable to a general audience. But Kingsolver could not be more clear
that she lives her joyous life and exerts herself in ridiculous-seeming home economics projects as a rebellion, an effort to do something—“recycling or carpooling or
growing a garden or saving a species or something”—all the while knowing that we
are “marching ourselves to the maw of our own extinction” (345–46). She points out,
addressing precisely the students’ concern with her perceived hypocrisy, that “It is
154 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
the worst of bad manners . . . to ridicule the small gesture. . . . Small stepwise changes
in personal habits aren’t trivial. Ultimately they will, or won’t, add up to having
been the thing that mattered” (346). This changed the students’ view of her project
entirely, although we debated what approach, scaring people or cheering them on, is
most effective in helping them change.
This is the role of cultural criticism in shaping society. There is an assumption in
ecocriticism—and in socially conscious literature of all types—that by understanding our culture, we can change it for the better. I explicitly point out to my students
that these are the transferable skills I expect them to gain from cultural and literary
criticism: the ability to read and analyze carefully, to step outside the envelope of
our culture and critique it, to be able to say that what we are doing is crazy, and to
address changing the culture in order to save civilization. This is the crux of Garrett
Hardin’s famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which we also read: the
problem has no technological fix. Environmental degradation is a problem of culture,
society, character, and politics. Is it fixable? Are humans smarter than bacteria in a
petri dish? James Lovelock has speculated in recent years about the capability of
humans to avert catastrophic climate change; he thought we were not smart enough,
even though all the technology is in place (Hickman). Perhaps that is true, but it is
essential to try.
It can be very difficult to balance with student information that increases anxiety about outcomes—particularly fiction works that imagine negative outcomes, like
The Road—and works that bolster belief in the efficacy of action—like Animals,
Vegetables, Miracle. In any case, reading primary, core texts help students not only to
learn the message but also to internalize it. I am constantly in search of core texts that
will do this. Facts are not enough—those could be gained by way of PowerPoints and
visits to the websites of NASA, NOAA, IPCC, and the National Academies of Sciences. We need students to emotionally engage with these issues in order to prompt
them to act. Arguably, never in the last century of American history has it been more
important that the “worst of humanity can be counteracted by the best.” As educators, we play a live role in motivating that action, and our choice of core texts augments our action. Our ability to “construct communities out of the diversity of traditions and human beings” is essential, and never more important than now, when our
dearest democratic ideals and the environment on which all life is based are in peril.
We recognize what we are losing, sometimes, only after we have lost it irrevocably, and yet hope shadows the project of reading about environmental devastation,
hope that we will prevent further damage and preserve the best of what has been.
Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Journal of Science 162.1243
Hickman, Leo. “James Lovelock: Humans Are Too Stupid to Prevent Climate
Change.” The Guardian, March 29, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/mar/29/james-lovelock-climate-change/.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. New York:
The Oral Voice in Ancient and Contemporary Texts 155
Kramer, Andrew E., and Clifford Krauss. “Rex Tillerson’s Company, Exxon, Has
Billions at Stake Over Sanctions on Russia.” New York Times, December 12,
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine, 1966.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
Nai, Alessandro, Yves Schemail, and Jean-Luis Marie. “Anxiety, Sophistication,
and Resistance to Persuasion: Evidence from a Quasi-Experimental Survey on
Global Climate Change.” International Society of Political Psychology 38.1
New York Times Editorial Board. “Shed a Tear for the Reefs.” New York Times,
March 18, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/18/opinion/shed-a-tear-for-thereefs.html?_r=0/.
Schaub, Michael. “Not an ‘alternative fact’: George Orwell’s ‘1984’ tops Amazon’s
bestseller list.” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2017, www.latimes.com/books/
Solomon, Erika, Jesse Preston, and Melanie Tannenbaum. “Climate Change Helplessness and the (De)moralization of Individual Energy Behavior.” Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Applied 23.1 (2017): 15–28.
Wasserman, Lee. “What Rex Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil Track Record Tells Us.” LA
Times, January 3, 2017, www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-wasserman-rextillerson-exxonmobil-20170103-story.html.
Memory and Forgetting: Vietnam Veterans
Memorial, Washington, DC
Memorials in the public landscape easily become subject to a reverential gaze. Too
much reverence can dampen curiosity and lead to passive consumption of the memorial as a “thing.” This, of course, gives way to boredom and ultimately to the habit
of hurrying past without a second look as the memorials become part of the visual
“white noise” of the world we live in. One of my goals as a teacher of undergraduates
is to help students abandon the habit of hurrying past in favor of a vivacious reading
practice of memorials as material texts. In this paper I address the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial as a specific core text and also the pedagogy of reading material memorial
texts in general.
I treat the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a core text in my first-year interdisciplinary seminar “Memory and Forgetting” along with other texts of many different
media and genres. Our pedagogy is to put vivacious texts into conversation with each
other over the arch of the semester as we develop a memory-and-forgetting conceptual vocabulary. We never “finish” a text. We circle back and reconsider. Like the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial itself, our reading practice is active, multi-vocal, incomplete, and open to further debate. As ambiguity and incompleteness are not comfortable conditions for many eighteen-year-olds, we must practice this reading practice.
On the National Mall, in the center of the center of the nation’s capital, the
most visible of places, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is nearly invisible until you
are upon it. It consists of two 246-foot-long walls of polished black granite, each of
which is made up of seventy-four panels that gradually increase in height from eight
inches to more than ten feet at the center, where they meet at a 125-degree angle. The
158 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
names of those who died in the Vietnam Conflict (Congress never declared war) between October 21, 1957, and May 15, 1975, are engraved in the granite. A diamond
or a plus symbol indicates whether a person is confirmed dead or missing in action.
The names are listed according to the day of death starting at the vertex in the center,
extending to the shallow end of the east wall and then continuing from the shallow
end of the west wall back to the center. This turns something linear into a circle, putting the last death next to the first death.
Although it is easily recognizable as an example of the memorial genre, the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial is distinctive in its liveliness and contestation. This liveliness is expressed in the generation of associated rituals that continue to develop
even today, thirty-five years after its dedication. It also has a resounding voice in the
battle on the National Mall for authority over the meaning of twentieth-century wars.
This interactive vitality supports the treatment of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as
a text, a core text, as opposed to a work, to use Barthes’s useful model. Blair et al.
(1991) richly apply Barthes’s distinction to the memorial, emphasizing that it invites
interrogation and interaction rather than offering an authoritative metanarrative. In
“From Work to Text,” Barthes (1997) makes a distinction between a work and a text,
arguing that the meaning of a work is singular, definite, and complete. By contrast, a
text is dynamic, inviting an interactive reading, and it has a plurality of open-ended
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is intrinsically interactive. Nearly all of the
5 million annual visitors walk down into the earth and back up along the 500-foot
length of the memorial. Nearly all of them touch some of the engraved names and
see their own images mirrored in the shiny black granite. Many people search for
a specific name and possibly make a rubbing, which is promoted by the Park Service. Over the last thirty-five years, hundreds of thousands of spontaneous personal
shrines have been left along the wall, another way for one memorial to speak to
another. These personal shrines are stored by the Park Service, including the boots,
bottles of whiskey, and the Harley-Davidson motorcycle that have been left. Every
small shrine whispers its own story.
Rituals of every scale have been generated by the memorial. One of the most
dramatic is the Run for the Wall, an annual ten-day cross-country motorcycle pilgrimage from California to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in honor of Memorial
Day. Many of the nearly 10,000 riders who travel in tight disciplined formation are
Vietnam veterans, their families, descendants, and supporters. Growing steadily
since 1989, the pilgrimage now has three routes across the country.
The Wall itself goes on the road in the form of the Wall that Heals, a half-scale
aluminum replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that travels to communities
throughout the United States. Since its dedication in 1996, the Wall That Heals has
visited more than 400 cities and towns. Each of these visits proliferates its own
memorial rituals. Our memorial reading practice challenges us to consider what cultural, psychological, and spiritual space these rituals are meant to fill.
The first and perhaps most important idea that we discuss in the Memory and
Forgetting course is Maurice Halbwachs’s (1992) proposition that there is no memory without forgetting. Although many critics argued that Maya Lin “forgot” what
Memory and Forgetting 159
a war memorial is supposed to be, refraining from valorizing valor and hallowing
sacrifice, her design paradoxically acknowledges that model in its departure from it.
Conversely, her design “remembers” one of the most famous of all war memorials,
the Thievpal Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The engraving of the simple
given names of the 72,246 British and South African servicemen who died in the
World War I Battles of the Somme moved Maya Lin to use a nearly identical font
to engrave on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial the 58,318 simple given names of the
American military dead. We follow Bakhtin (1992) in asserting that the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial is necessarily in dialogue with memorials that went before it.
Making this dialogue “visibly audible” is part of a vivacious reading practice and a
reminder of another dimension of the liveliness of this specific memorial.
Halbwachs would tell us that there can be no remembering of 58,318 without
forgetting. We cannot read a memorial text without asking who is not there. Early on
in the life of this memorial, the absence of realistic representations of virility and sacrifice engendered a contest to include a statue of three soldiers from the three armed
services. Their “in country” gear is meticulously rendered, as are their racially diverse yet stereotyped faces: one Caucasian, one Hispanic, and one African American.
Once there were representations of men, the absence/exclusion of women became
visible, and in 1993 the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a statue of three uniformed
women aiding a wounded male soldier, was added to the site. Further struggles over
absence/exclusion have concerned the question of veterans who have died of war
injuries, including suicides caused by PTSD and cancers caused by Agent Orange,
since the official end of the conflict in 1975. This issue was addressed by the addition
of a plaque in 2004, which reads: “In Memory of the men and women who served in
the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember
their sacrifice.” Although the plaque reads “In Memory,” it must also anticipate the
deaths of those whose war-incurred injuries and illnesses have yet to kill them. These
newcomers are not engraved on the black granite wall due to the official categorization of their war wounds; rather, they are inducted into a virtual honor roll every
Memorial Day. We use the expression “cast in stone” to signal the immutable final
version of something. As I write this, less than a month ago five of the MIA diamond
symbols were changed to confirmed-dead plus symbols, and three new names were
engraved due to a revised understanding of how and where these soldiers died. They
are now officially remembered. Our vivacious reading practice encourages us to excavate the categorization that determines what and who counts and is counted and
what and who does not.
Nearby on the National Mall are the 1995 Korean War Veterans Memorial and
the 2004 National World War II Memorial. Since they were both designed and dedicated after the 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, they have to be read as interlocutors
in the often-heated memorial conversation about nation, war, and death. Neither of
these designs includes individual soldiers’ names or the order of death as organizing
principles. The Korean War Veterans Memorial localizes its symbols in the specifics of time and place, foregrounding detailed representations of uniforms, vehicles,
weapons, technology, and specific yet anonymous scenes. Visitors walk up a hill as
if on patrol, along with nineteen larger-than-life statues wearing realistic ponchos,
160 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
squinting in the imagined rain. A granite wall is etched with detailed images from
unidentified photographs of various moments of the 1950–53 war. The memorial distinguishes U.S. troops from UN troops and divides each of these military populations
into numbers killed, captured, and wounded.
The paradoxically youngest of these memorials, the National World War II Memorial, harkens back to classical architectural forms using triumphal arches, statues
of Winged Victory, sparkling white pillars, laurel wreaths, gold stars, and exuberant
fountains in a large pool. Primary distinguishing categories are the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war and the states, districts, and territories from which the soldiers
hailed. The undifferentiated dead are acknowledged on a wall of gold stars, with
one star standing for 100 dead. Each system of memorial categories makes other
In his book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh
Nguyen (2016) makes an argument about the ethics of memory and proposes a model
for just memory. He says that we must first notice that our memorials and cultural
memory practices are encouraging us to remember in a certain way. Generally, we
are taught to see only our own humanity and the inhumanity of the other, the enemy.
Just memory requires that we be equally willing and able to see our own inhumanity
and the humanity of the other. Less than this, Nguyen argues, perpetuates the binary
on which unjust memory (and war) depends. Nguyen often quotes philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who said that ethics is optics, a new way of looking at things, a way
of looking at things that is relational at a face-to-face level. The vivacious memorial reading practice I try to nurture in my students is both a critical and an ethical
practice. The critical practice recognizes the layers of meaning and considers the
complexities and contradictions of design. The ethical practice notices what and who
is not there and imagines other ways that it might be and could be.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: U of Texas P,
Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” Image Music Text. New York: Farrar, Straus,
Blair, Carole, et al. “Public Memorializing in Postmodernity: The Vietnam Veterans
Memorial: A Prototype.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 77 (1991): 263–88.
Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Chicago: U of C Press, 1992.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2016.
Hermeneutics and the Human Condition
Talking with the Ancestors: Hermeneutics
in the Classroom
Albert B. Fernandez
Shimer School of North Central College
An excess of history is detrimental to life.
The theme of the 2017 conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses was
“Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building: Core Texts, Liberal Arts,
College and the Human Voice.” That covers a lot, but it would seem that the divide
to be bridged that is most manifest to those of us who teach core texts is the one
between contemporary students and Western authors from before the Enlightenment,
especially when it comes to moral and political discourse. I heard a student say not
long ago, “I don’t think that Socrates or Plato has anything to say to me.” And this
paper originated in a discussion at Shimer College in Chicago during which a member of the faculty expressed dismay at knee-jerk student repudiations of Aristotle’s
qualified endorsement of slavery in ancient Athens, which can be found in Book 2 of
the philosopher’s Politics. That colleague went on to suggest that our students should
be provided with more historical background, which would place them in a better or
more informed position for passing judgment on the political opinions of Aristotle.
As an alternate way of responding to student rejections of ancient minds, I proposed
asking such students: “What would you say to Aristotle (who is present in this classroom)?” To be followed by “And, what do you suppose, based on Aristotle’s text,
would be his response to you?” This paper maintains that this approach is more likely
164 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
to bridge the divide between the contemporary student or reader and the old books
than historical contextualization.
“Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?” These are the
opening lines of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers (3). Actually, there is a tradition, a long-evolving school of thought, that has been devoted to plumbing that well,
to bridging the gap between the present and the ancient. It’s called “hermeneutics.”
Hermeneutics asnwers the deeply rooted desire to communicate with long-dead ancestors, without misinterpretation or distortion of what they had to say. To ask a student to
attempt to converse with an author is very much within the tradition of hermeneutics
and could be said to capture its essence, or to be adapted for the classroom.
Hermeneutics is itself a deep well, going back at least to early Christians attempting to understand what they had begun to call the “Old Testament” in such a way that
it would be reconciled with the Gospels. This art or science of interpretation, applied
to Judeo-Christian and eventually to pagan texts, came to be called “hermeneutics,”
after the messenger god, Hermes. The awareness of a difference between the moral
ideas and practices of the Hebrews and those of the Christians was the embryonic
form of historical consciousness. Yes, the Greeks may be credited as the originators of historiography, but note how Plato and Aristotle, and even Herodotus and
Thucydides, though they were aware of historical events, always treated someone’s
teaching or opinion as if it did not matter how long ago or how far away those ideas
Of course, there is value in historical contextualization, although some exponents
of the Great Books type of core curriculum have claimed that “The Great Books teach
themselves,” and the original Robert Maynard Hutchins curriculum for the University of Chicago excluded historical study from the undergraduate curriculum (though
it was not implemented, largely because of opposition from the history department).
Awareness of historical and philological knowledge helps to forestall the “presentist”
fallacy, which can take several forms. Most often, presentism is based on an unexamined assumption that the ancestors were “folks just like us.” But presentism can also
take the form of underscoring historical or cultural difference, while at the same time
imposing a gross caricature on the past. The paradigm of what we might call “snotty
presentism” would be the Enlightenment philosophes, who regarded medieval Christendom as an aggregate of “superstitions” that reason had simply superseded. Today,
the kind of presentism that is probably most often brought up is the application of our
modern moral values and judgments to persons who lived in the distant past. It is also
the most debated kind, since rejection of such transhistorical judgments implies rejection of their grounds, which may be upheld as natural law, international law, universal
human rights, or common decency.
It is easy to come up with examples of the value of contextualization—historical,
biographical, bibliographical, etc. To properly evaluate Aristotle’s conditional acceptance of slavery, the student should know that in all civilizations, not just Western
civilization, slavery was a well-established institution, a way of life; that the Athenian
economy was utterly dependent on slavery; that slavery in Athens was a lot less harsh
than in Sparta; and that, not just in Greece, slavery was the routine fate of prisoners
of war. Indeed, such historical awareness makes it possible to see that Aristotle, in
Talking with the Ancestors 165
condemning the indiscriminate enslavement of war captives, may have been the first
Western thinker to recognize a group other than one’s own as what we would now
Yet there is a danger in contextualization, in that it can lead to evasion of the reality that we have the text because there was once a person or persons of flesh and blood
who were trying to say something, however much they were cobbling and quoting
from others, and that something, moreover, may call into question our own cherished
ideas and values. Elucidation through contextualization can approach a mode of
understanding in which what persons say and do is much like natural phenomena that
can be accounted for as caused by historical, biographical, and/or cultural factors or
forces. With the help of evocations of historical distance, whatever the ancestor said
that clashes with modern values can be disposed of as . . . just the sort of thing that
people thought in those days. Thus, if presentism inclines toward the assumption that
everybody’s folks like us, the complementary fallacy is to assume that people who
can only be read about today are like Martians, and we can’t possibly understand
them in the way that my classroom question points to. It may be that modern education has had the effect of making the presentist fallacy recede, while unintentionally
promoting the alienating fallacy of regarding the other as a being one could never
understand, which ensues from the application of a strict empiricism to human subjects (“The only thing we can say about those people is . . .”) On campuses today,
one recurrently hears declarations in the form of “No one who is not an X, Y, or Z
could possibly understand the experience of an X, Y, or Z,” which unwittingly echo
attitudes toward other cultures that were rife before the advent of cultural anthropology and that played into racist and orientalist attitudes (“For who can understand the
dark peoples of the vast . . . ”).
The view that the classics “have nothing to say” to contemporary students is
entirely compatible with regarding them as objects of scientific investigation. Hans
Georg Gadamer, a disciple of Martin Heidegger and the great twentieth-century hermeneuticist, had this to say about scholarly contextualization:
We think we understand when we see the past from a historical standpoint—i.e.
transpose ourselves into the historical situation and try to reconstruct the historical
horizon. In fact, however, we have given up the claim to find in the past any truth that
is valid and intelligible for ourselves. Acknowledging the otherness of the other in
this way, making him the object of objective knowledge, involves the fundamental
suspension of his claim to truth. (303)
How much of an evasion contextualization can be may be appreciated if we
imagine addressing a student in class who says something unconventional in this
way: “Well, John or Jill, it’s understandable that you’re saying that, considering your
background.” Of course, that would be an insult, because it implicitly denies that
the speaker is the agent of what s/he says. The question, “What would you say to
Aristotle, who is part of this class?” is not just a tactic for eliciting commentary on a
text but is also intended to work as a channeled appellation, a relayed call reminding
the student that there is another person here, a dead but speaking ancestor, who is
addressing you and who should not be buried a second time. On this point, Gadamer
166 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
The experience of the Thou manifests the paradox that something standing over
against me asserts its own rights and requires absolute recognition, and in that very
process is “understood.” (xxxv)
Awareness of the shortcomings of scholarly contextualization emerged within the hermeneutic tradition after Hegel and during Romanticism, when Friedrich
Schleiermacher distinguished between what he called “grammatical” understanding
and the “psychological” kind. By the former he meant supplying background, the art
of the footnote, responding to questions like “Whom did the Athenians refer to as a
‘mechanic’?” and by the latter, psychological understanding, responding to the sort of
question that arises not when we do not understand vocabulary or reference but when
we understand the words but not their intent or when we wonder how anyone could
have seriously written such a thing.
Schleiermacher began to see that the two forms of hermeneutic differ not only
in what they attend to but also in their very mode of understanding. It was Wilhelm Dilthey, later in the nineteenth century, who fully theorized the difference. For
Dilthey, the explanatory mode of the natural sciences is the establishing of causeeffect relations, but in what he was the first to call the “human sciences” (Geisteswissenschaften), the explanatory mode consists of showing relations between part and
whole, which Heidegger eventually dubbed “the hermeneutic circle.” In trying to
account for a natural phenomenon, we collect data and concatenate factors that cause
or impel the phenomenon. But if we’re trying to understand a person or a fictional
personage, the details concerning them are not likely to be “data” but rather statements or socially meaningful actions that will in themselves require interpretation,
guided by reference to the whole, to the overall psychology or “character,” which, in
turn, needs to be revised so as to fit in new details, in the manner of a progressively
The sociologist Max Weber performed a very similar sort of operation in attempting to portray “ideal types” of persons in bygone social milieus, such as the
protestant follower of the work ethic in the seventeenth century, constructing the type
by tacking back and forth between psychological speculation and textual and other
kinds of source material, in contrast to the statistical sociology of Emil Durkheim,
which followed the classic inductive approach of establishing empirical data and then
drawing inferences from it. Contrasting the two kinds of social science, Weber wrote:
In the case of “social systems” (as opposed to “organisms”) we are in a position not
only to formulate functional interrelations and regularities (or “laws”), but also to
achieve something which must lie forever beyond the reach of all forms of “natural
science.” . . . What we can do is to “understand” the behavior of the individuals involved, whereas we do not “understand” the behavior of, say, cells. All we can do in
the case of cells is to grasp their behaviour in functional terms. (18–19)
And as José Ortega y Gasset asserts in his interpretive biography of the painter
Francisco de Goya, “The primary function of the facts is to obligate us to imagine
hypotheses that would account for them” (31).
Hermeneuticists do not necessarily look for what an author intended or had in
mind. They may rather seek in a work an originary meaning that was in the mind of
not only one author. For Gadamer, who died in 2002, what hermeneutics attempts
Talking with the Ancestors 167
to retrieve is what he calls the hermeneutic “horizon” (302 & passim) or universe of
meanings available to an author or authors at a given time and place.
Schleiermacher’s idea of “grammatical” hermeneutics was similar to Gadamer’s
pursuit of the “horizon” in that it looked for formerly available shared meanings,
but Schleiermacher’s method of “psychological” hermeneutics for understanding the
psychology of old authors and poets was not like Gadamer’s. It was very much like
the one that in the twentieth century Jorge Luis Borges satirized in “Pierre Menard,
Author of the Quixote” (36): the interpreter is to become the author. According to
Schleiermacher, readers are to abnegate themselves, to purify themselves of all modern, personal ideas or assumptions that would interfere with what he actually calls
“divination” of the ancestor’s meaning.
Nowadays, when presentist distortions or burial by contextualization are detected in an academic discussion, or when contemporary political themes are perceived
as being brought up too readily, a common admonition is that we should “read the
text in its own terms.” But by now, hermeneutics recognizes that to attempt to “read
a text in its own terms” is as chimerical as Pierre Menard becoming Cervantes himself. All understanding is translation. It may be the greatest insight of hermeneutic
thought that the meaning of the old books is neither irretrievable in that “bottomless”
well nor to be summoned like a spirit in an act of divination. Rather, the thoughts of
the ancestors are brought out of concealment in a dialogue between the reader and the
text, which proceeds back and forth between the expectations of the former and the
challenges that spring from the latter.
Schleiermacher and Dilthey, as well as Gadamer, take for granted a will to understanding, and even reverence, on the part of students and readers. It is revealing
in this connection that the earliest versions of Great Books courses appeared during
World War I and were intended for American troops before they were sent to Europe.
The idea was that if they read the Great Books, they would be more motivated to fight
the Huns, notwithstanding that, as you may have noticed, the Great Books are loaded
with Huns. Today most of us who teach classic texts expect and have a right to expect
that will to understanding on the part of students. But, as for reverence, that was then,
this is now. We cannot expect or make it a requirement for the baccalaureate degree
that students agree, or approve of, or admire any book, or author, or work of art, or,
for that matter, of Western civilization (and vice versa). But if disapproval is to be the
outcome of a contemporary student’s encounter with Western or other classics, let it
be deep disapproval. Let it be based on as deep as possible an understanding, which
may well be an understanding of where the final, irreconcilable differences lie.
Gadamer, like previous hermeneuticists, assumes that students and readers of the
classics will be on board with Western Civilization. He published his magnum opus,
Truth and Method, in 1960, just a few years before the outbreak of the culture wars.
Yet his theory is well suited to accommodate adversarial readers. He conceives of
hermeneutic understanding as something that arises from conflict. For Gadamer, the
hermeneutic encounter happens when the text, in his phrasing, “brings us up short,”
or “pulls us up short” (268 & passim); that is, when we come across something that
we can’t make sense of, either because the meaning is obscure or because we cannot
understand how anybody could have said such a thing. For Gadamer, that is the most
168 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
valuable thing in a text, that is the learning opportunity, not because the reader is
necessarily going to end up agreeing with what is being said, but because if we do not
shield ourselves from being “brought up short,” the experience will make it possible
to understand a psychology or a situation or a thinking that we did not understand
before the shock of the text.
Within two years of Thomas Kuhn’s bringing the study of crises into the historiography of science (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), Gadamer was seeing that
the reading of texts in their historical alterity consists, most importantly and fruitfully,
of paradigm challenges. To understand the thought that “brings us up short” requires
exertion to see “how what is being said could be true” (292, 297), or rather, that to
understand consists of seeing how something could be true, with what meanings, on
the basis of which premises, within what horizon.
The sense of “being brought up short” is not distant from “feeling offended,” and
seeing how the thought that makes us feel offended could be true is precisely what
is prohibited within the narrowness of ideology, any ideology in the pejorative sense
of the term intimated by Karl Marx and later worked out by Karl Mannheim. To understand, even in the sense of understanding how something could be true, is not the
same as to concur. Agreement with Aristotle’s quasi-defense of slavery is not likely
from a student brought up in a modern democratic culture that in countless ways,
popular and esoteric, including Kant’s categorical imperative, communicates that the
quintessence of the human being is freedom. But by reading Aristotle’s Politics with
an effort to see in what way he might be speaking truth can lead to learning that for
Aristotle, and many of the ancestors, hierarchy was natural, as natural as freedom
was for Rousseau.
Besides modern biases or “prejudices”—a term that Gadamer, following Heidegger, redefines as nothing but the starting point for any understanding—that might
impede coming to terms with minds like Aristotle’s or Rousseau’s, there are other
influences in our classrooms that work against focusing on “what brings us up short”
and getting as close and personal as the question that my point of departure invites.
There is the dominance in academia, in spite of Hutchins and others, of the latenineteenth-century science-oriented model of university study, sometimes called the
“German Model” (not in the same sense as in economics), which goes back to Emil
Durkheim and other originators of “human sciences” such as sociology and cultural
anthropology, and which casts the professor, even the professor of humanities, more
as a specialized scholar and researcher than as a teacher and Socratic questioner.
The dispassionate professionalism prescribed for all branches of study by the latenineteenth-century model dovetails with the wish to avoid unseemly contention in the
classroom, which can grow into a form of what Plato called “misology.” Additionally,
the tail-wagging-the-dog importance of recruitment and retention in contemporary
American colleges likewise discourages discussions in which students can get upset.
And yet in the humanities and in social thought, it is not possible to take seriously
many of the questions raised by major authors—what is justice? what is virtue?—
without risking distress and angst among students. Sticking to scholarly contextualization, however, is a way to bypass such potential hot spots.
There is yet one more influence that works against hermeneutic and, in general,
Talking with the Ancestors 169
humanist approaches that cannot pass unmentioned here because of the directness of
its challenge and the genuine forcefulness of its arguments. If hermeneutics can be
thought of as an attempt to recover presence, albeit in the imperfect form of a ghostly
interlocutor, it hardly needs saying that it is vigorously challenged by postmodernist philosophy and literary theory. The additional space it would require to rehearse
the arguments against the possibility of recovering original meaning is, however, not
really needed in this context, because ultimately, the reason for hermeneutics— for
attempting to recover authorial meaning—is not that it’s the best way of reading, or
that it results in more complete or more reliable interpretations, or that the recovery
of authorial presence is even fully achievable, or any reason that arises from literary
theory and criticism. The reason for being of hermeneutics is ethical. Irreducibly,
every text refers to a person or persons of flesh and blood who were trying to say
something. And to try to understand what they said is a matter of respect for the dead.
Aristotle. Politics. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed.
Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Trans. James E. Irby. In
Labyrinths. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions,
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Trans. W. Glen-Doepel, Joel Weinsheimer,
and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 1997.
Mann, Thomas. Joseph and His Brothers. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Everyman’s Library–Knopf, 2005.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. Trans.
Adrian Collins. New York: Liberal Arts–Macmillan, 1957.
Ortega y Gasset, José. Goya. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1962.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Hermeneutics and Criticism: And Other Writings. Ed. Andrew Bowie. Cambridge: University Press, 1998.
Weber, Max. “The Nature of Social Action.” In Weber: Selections in Translation.
Trans. E. Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.
Honey, Please: Emerson & Merleau-Ponty
on the Human Condition
Mary Catherine McDonald
Old Dominion University
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty are two philosophers who are not
often brought together, and most certainly not on the topic of loss and honey. After
all, Emerson died two decades before Merleau-Ponty was born. However, these gaps
of time and topic are easily bridged, and doing so sheds light on each. Both philosophers talk about the human condition as it is mediated through our experience with
the slippery and sticky external world. In this paper, I will look closely at two passages, one from Emerson and one from Merleau-Ponty. In each passage they discuss
grasping and slipping away, both to illustrate a particular experience with the world
and to underscore a part of the human condition.
Emerson takes “the evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them
slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome
part of our condition” (Essays 473). Emerson’s comment is curiously echoed by
Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological reflections on honey: “While it undoubtedly has
a certain consistency and allows itself to be grasped, soon creeps slyly from
the fingers and returns to where it started from. It comes apart as soon as it has been
given a particular shape and . . . reverses the roles by grasping the hands of whoever
would take hold of it” (60–61).
I will do three things with these two passages in order to build a bridge from Emerson to Merleau-Ponty. The first is consider for both authors the following question:
In what way is the instability or impermanence of objects reflective of the human
condition? In other words, why does the lubricity of objects say anything about us?
Second, I will point out something that is implicit in Emerson and more explicit
172 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
in Merleau-Ponty, which is that we are also lubricious. There is a way of reading Emerson here that can trick us into thinking that the world and the people in it are objects
for us to grasp. We might think that the lesson is that when objects slip through our
fingers we are disappointed, and nature reminds us that we are not in charge. If we
think about lubricity being bivalent—if it goes both ways, meaning that which grasps
also slips away—then Emerson’s statement becomes even more profound.
Finally, I will suggest that these philosophers are talking about the human condition in a much larger sense than it may seem. Emerson is not just talking about
instances in which we lose, and Merleau-Ponty is not just talking about the way that
we interact with objects in the world. They both remark that they are illuminating the
human condition in these paradigms. So what are they saying, exactly? I will propose
that they are suggesting that the human condition is marked by lubricity. In other
words, in some foundational way, what it means to be human is to grasp what is slipping away, and to be grasped while slipping away. A continuous grasping and slipping away constitutes all of our relationships, both with people and with the world.
Emerson’s passage can be found in his essay “Experience.” Emerson remarks
that the most unhandsome part of the human condition is “the evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch
hardest” (Essays, 473). This statement is curious. How are the instability and impermanence of objects somehow the most unhandsome part of the human condition? As
I said earlier, this is not a mistake or a clumsy statement. It is rather a commentary on
the nature of human existence, the entangled nature of our relationships with people
and things, and our precarious (and permanent) placement on the precipice of loss.
In “Experience,” Emerson is mourning the loss of his son Waldo: Waldo, who
was “my little Waldo” (Porte, 198). Waldo, who “when he came to a tuft of violets in
the wood, knelt down on the ground, smell of them, kiss them, & depart
without plucking them” (277). Waldo, who “gave up his little innocent breath like a
bird” (276). This loss wasn’t Emerson’s first brush with death, but his writings suggest that it was by far his most astonishing loss.
If we think of losses like turning over unfamiliar soil, sometimes we are left
with dry clay that will not yield any growth. Other times, we are left with rich, fertile
soil that yields new growth. In many ways, we could say that the loss of Waldo was
Emerson’s richest loss. It brought him his greatest grief, but it also brought him to
this realization, not just about himself but also about the human condition—namely,
that we clutch. In fact, when we feel like what we are clutching is slipping, we clutch
all the harder. We cannot help it. It is in our nature.
Many might interpret Emerson’s description of “clutching” as “unhandsome”
as a sign of his coldness. He seems to be remarking, from a distance, that grief is an
unseemly part of our nature, one that is unnecessary, overly emotional, and one that
we should reject or conquer. Perhaps that is not quite right. Stanley Cavell has suggested that Emerson chose the word in order to anticipate the “hand” that clutches.
It is even possible that Emerson is quoting Shakespeare here.1
One of the first uses
of “unhandsome” appears in Henry IV in reference to the carrying of corpses. In the
scene, soldiers are berated for carrying the “unhandsome” corpses too close to their
superior. Maybe Emerson was remarking on the fact that we continue clutching even
Emerson & Merleau-Ponty on the Human Condition 173
through and past death. We cannot let go. We clutch the dead.
Or perhaps instead of removing himself from his grief, Emerson was trying to
get at the inevitability of it, the innateness of this tendency to clutch, this tendency
of the things we clutch to slip away. The state of being handsome or unhandsome
is something we are born with; it is not something one can change. In this way,
Emerson suggests closeness rather than distance. Our unhandsomeness is written
in our blood; it is inherent, unavoidable. We are made to clutch, and the world is
made to resist.
Emerson’s essay, then, can be regarded as a piece that helps us understand
how to grieve, what it means to grieve, what constitutes grieving. In so doing,
Emerson ended up inevitably explaining this most unhandsome part of our condition. However, what he ended up hinting at was something more foundational than
that—more fertile, more fruitful—an undercurrent that defines all of our relationships with each other.
In her book The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison writes, “A root system of loss
stretches radial and rhyzomatic under the entire territory of my life” (5). It is a beautiful phrase, and she is writing of her own experience, but it is true of all of us, all the
time. Merleau-Ponty can help us live into an explanation.
If Emerson can teach us about our human condition and the way we clutch that
which we cannot hold, Merleau-Ponty reminds us that we also cannot be held, that
this relationship is bivalent. In all of our clutching, we are also slipping away. In all
of our losing, we are also being lost. Though it may sound like a contradiction, it is
this “root system” of loss that defines our connections with one another and makes
In a series of radio addresses commissioned by French national radio in 1948
(over a hundred years after the publication of “Experience”), Merleau-Ponty
gave seven lectures intended to serve as an introduction to his work. The lectures
spanned all manner of topics, from politics to art and literature, from embodiment
The lecture that is most relevant here is the third one, “Exploring the World of
Perception: Sensory Objects.” In it, Merleau-Ponty considers what it means to be a
being-in-a-world—a world defined at least in part by what and how one perceives.
Since Merleau-Ponty is a phenomenologist, his account is more tactile and fleshier
than Emerson’s. He considers the experience of honeyedness as paradigmatic of human experience.
Honey is a slow-moving liquid; while it undoubtedly has a certain consistency and
allows itself to be grasped, it soon creeps slyly from the fingers and returns to where
it started from. It comes apart as soon as it has been given a particular shape and,
what is more, it reverses the roles by grasping the hands of whoever would take hold
of it. The living, exploring hand which thought it could master this thing instead
discovers that it is embroiled in a sticky external object. (60–61)
We can weave our way through this passage from the end back to the beginning.
At the end, we find ourselves back at our hands, back to lubricity, back to the experiencing of clutching that which resists being held, that which slips through our fingers
even faster the harder we hold. And then, we are back to the object. Just like with
174 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
Emerson, it is again the object that is doing the slipping away, coming apart as soon
as it is given shape. And yet, if we go to the beginning of the passage, somewhat curiously we see that this description of objects is supposed to tell us something about us
and our experience, not the outside world.
What matters about the honey is not simply that it is lubricious, that it is sticky,
that it slips through our fingers—but that we experience it that way. This is how we
meet the honey in the world, and how it behaves is what it means to us. So when we
use the word “honeyed,” we are not just describing something in the strict sense of
“using a descriptor,” we are assigning meaning to it—a meaning that would not be
possible were it not for our bodied experience in the world.
Further—and this is a crucial phenomenological point—we consider ourselves
masters, arbiters of control over the external world. We are subjects, and the things
we encounter are merely objects to be overtaken. But the honey “reverses the roles.”
It grasps us—as it slips away. Just like that, we are embroiled in a game that we did
If we return to Emerson for a moment, we might notice that Waldo is like the
honey in this way. He grasps Emerson even as he slips away. In the same journal
entry, Emerson writes, “It seems as if I ought to call upon the winds to describe my
boy, my fast receding boy” (Porte 277). Waldo slips away. And then, “Every place
is handsome or tolerable where he has been. Once he sat in the pew” (277). Waldo
grasps. Waldo’s presence is not diminished by his absence—in a way it seems his
absence magnifies his presence.
This is not all. As with the Emerson passage, there is something even deeper and
more foundational going on here. Merleau-Ponty continues:
Sartre, who must take the credit for this elegant analysis, writes: “in one sense it is
like the supreme docility of the possessed, the fidelity of a dog who gives himself
even when one does not want him any longer, and in another sense there is underneath this docility a surreptitious appropriation of the possessor by the possessed.”
So the quality of being honeyed—and this is why this epithet can be used to symbolise an entire pattern of human behaviour—can only be understood in the light
of the dialogue between me as an embodied subject and the external object which
bears this quality. (61)
The honey, in one sense, is an object. I pick it up, I put it in my hands, play with
it. In another sense, it defies me. It sticks to me and then slips away. I cannot get it to
do what I want. I am possessed by it. We are not just talking about honey anymore.
This is the entire human theater; connection, friendship, love, and loss, in one metaphor about honey.
This is what Merleau-Ponty means when he says that this epithet can be used
to symbolize an entire human pattern of behavior. We are always at the same time
both the subject (the person playing with the honey) and the object (the honey). As
Merleau-Ponty says, in the middle of the game, the roles get reversed. We are at once
wanting and wanted, docile and empowered, possessor and possessed. Even the pitiful, docile dog—unwanted—possesses us, grasps us.
To return to Emerson’s words, we are not just unhandsome in that we think we
Emerson & Merleau-Ponty on the Human Condition 175
can grasp that which cannot be held (which leaves us with messy, sticky hands). Our
unhandsomeness extends to our honeyedness. We allow ourselves to be grasped and
then we creep slyly away—we cannot help it. We ask to be given a shape, and then
as soon as we get it, we come apart—again, we cannot help it. We trick ourselves
into thinking that we are the “living, exploring, hand,” but we are also lubricious and
In the Work of Mourning, Derrida writes,
To have a friend, to look at him, to follow him with your eyes, to admire him in
friendship, is to know in a more intense way, already injured, always insistent, and
more and more unforgettable, that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other
All of our relationships are marked with inevitable loss. It looms large on the
horizon, an ever-present specter. That passage takes the breath away in its truth.
However, what Merleau-Ponty shows us with the example of the honey is that the
loss is not looming, it is already here. At the very moment when we connect, we
already begin slipping away. Our relationships are comprised—indeed constituted—
by becoming entangled and then slipping away.
It is helpful to consider desire alongside of death in order to understand this.
When we desire someone else we long for them. What does that mean? In Old
English, to long is to yearn after, to grieve. Isn’t that strange? In the midst of desire, we are already grieving. Then, when we connect with one another, there is a
kind of reaching out. I tell you something about myself; I show you something of
mine. “The honey allows itself to be grasped.” But what I give you—a thought,
a secret, a hug—recedes as soon as it is given. “The honey creeps slyly from the
fingers and returns to where it started from.” Then I ask something of you, what
do you think? How do you feel? What do you like? “The honey reverses the roles
by grasping the hands of whoever would take hold of it.” Just like that, we are
embroiled. We do not need death to lose—we are slipping away from each other
all the time.
Taken together, Emerson and Merleau-Ponty suggest that we are not just unhandsome in that we think we can grasp that which cannot be held. Our condition
mirrors that of the honey. We allow ourselves to be grasped only (and inevitably)
to “creep slyly” away while somehow adhering to people and things. Neither fully
grasping, nor fully grasped, we live our lubricity through the practice of philosophy.
Though there are over a hundred years between them, these essays come together to issue a philosophical corrective. They serve to remind us that despite all of
the mastery that we think we have but do not have, we are not intact. What it means
to be human is to be transient, to come undone, to grasp and to lose, to mourn and to
heal, and then to forget and try to clutch all over again.
This is our job—to struggle with this and to try not to get too stuck on the
clutching or the keening—and thankfully, honey is sweet and abundant. As Emerson
remarked in a lecture in 1855, “When love has reached this height that all our pretty
rhetoric begins to have meaning . . . it adds to the soul a new soul, it is honey in the
mouth, music in the ear and balsam in the heart” (Later Lectures, 23).
176 Bridging Divides, Crossing Borders, Community Building
- This is not actually that much of a leap. Emerson was heavily influenced by Shakespeare,
who appears in his “Representative Men,” as well as in his Letters. Further, parts of Henry IV
appear in a poetry anthology (Parnassas 1880) edited by Emerson.
Cavell, Stanley. Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP,
Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. U Chicago P, 2001.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Lectures. New York: Penguin, 1983.
———. The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1843–1871. Ed. Ronald A.
Bosco and Joel Myerson. U of Georgia P, 2010.
———, ed. Parnassus: An Anthology of Poetry. Boston: Houghton, Osgood, 1880;
Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.
Porte, Joel. Emerson in His Journals. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. Henry IV, Part 1. Oxford: Oxford
Association for Core Texts and Courses
ACTC Liberal Arts Institute at the University of Dallas
Box 725, 1845 E. Northgate Drive
Irving, TX 75062