Intelligent Desire


We are created by what we desire.

Eros as the ancients understood it initiates our every act. Both our heroic sacrifices as well as our selfish degradations are undertaken out of desire, and the wisdom and quality of such responses become the main determinants of both our joy and our misery.

Eros is not a physical object, known with the five senses; it is more like gravity–a presence that can be detected by the effects it causes. We can detect it in our consciousness as a movement in the soul, some attraction in the mortal to something beyond. Though Socrates’ teaching dealt mainly with reason, at key moments he augmented reason with consultations with his daimon–his channel of communication with the divine.

To take sensory impressions as the most important news about reality is like being trapped in a cave. Aristotle called the faculty we use to detect such invisible realities as gravity or eros the “intellect.” It was the intellect that, Socrates taught, the philosopher must cultivate to escape the cave of sensory impressions, where people relied on shadows to orient themselves not to reality but to their perception of objects. Beyond the cave we can learn to perceive with the intellect the invisible world. It is comprised of increasingly large and important ideas. Socrates told Glaucon, his young follower, that “the idea of the good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort.”

Odysseus may linger in his own cave, but he does not forget transcendent reality. He remembers from his youth the vision that stirs his eros. Neither the spiritual wasteland nor the natural wilderness is his true home. He was made for a place where the promise of his youth might be commpleted, where he might live in marriage to his beloved, enjoying good food and drink amid friends and kin, and where none could make him afraid. It was the vision of his youth that evoked his soul’s full assent, and now, lost and far from home, his spiritual longing will not be satisfied with lesser things. Near the end of his Allegory of the Cave, Plato quotes Homer on the ignoble life of those who live amid a false reality: “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than to think as they do and live after their manner.” His desire defines him.

It impels him toward action. He’s eager at every moment to back it up with effort and courage, and it moves the cosmos, eliciting support from the slow and mysterious workings of justice. Odysseus chose the hero’s way, drawn forward by inextinguishable desire for home. He was, as Robert Frost put it, undergoing a “trial by existence.”

Frost held on to something vital in the intellectual heritage of the New England Puritans. For them, making sense of daily life was inseparable from regular reflection on the stories in the Old Testament. They saw the Bible as not merely or even mainly a collection of rules. Rather, it was a web of stories which reveals the transcendent patterns through which we can know things as they really are.

When Frost held that “a poem is metaphor or it is nothing,” he put understanding metaphor at the heart of literature. He also put literature at the heart of education. We could not understand what thinking was, he asserted, without understanding metaphor–all the ways we see one thing in terms of another. Such thinking was fundamental to the Puritans. They read the Bible typologically, seeing in the Old Testament a collection of types, or patterns, that prefigured the New Testament. Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage, through the Red Sea, and toward the Promised Land, which was a type for Christ leading sinners out of the bondage of sin, through the waters of baptism, toward the Kingdom of Heaven. This typological mode of thought was extended so that Christians could read all the Biblical stories as types for understanding their own lives and what was expected of them. The Puritans understood their own experience by finding in it a familiar pattern: they understood themselves as being led out of slavery in England, on a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and into the wilderness, on their way to a Promised Land. Mary Rowlandson found the meaning of her afflictions with the Wampanoags in the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den and in the Psalms of the Babylonian Captivity. They recognized the divine order amid the multiplicity of variations they experienced in the lived Creation.

As Puritanism waned their long and highly sophisticated habit of seeing in events patterns of meaning that were portable, and that could be used to understand other events, lost some of its relationship to Creation as Divinely Authored and thus ordered with meanings, but powerfully metaphorical thought persisted in the symbolism of New England literature of such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville–the sense that images and events signified greater and more universal meanings.

They weren’t the only thinkers who understood that events in the physical universe can be understood by human consciousness when they are given form in stories or theories. When Robert Frost encountered Einstein’s theory, he was struck by how similar Einstein’s thought was to his own. Frost incorporated Einstein’s thinking into his conception  ways the natural order is related to the mind of man. Harvard physicist Harvey Brooks said that the poet understood Einstein better than many of his colleagues in physics–specifically because they lacked the poet’s grasp of natural dualism led him to understand that  metaphorical thinking was the way to make nature intelligible. Frost referred to Einstein as a philosopher among scientists who trusted intuited perceptions which transcended the rational-empirical assumptions passed on by Galileo and Newton. Einstein was able to leap from sight to insight, using intuition in the way that an artist uses imagination. He was a convinced theist whose “cosmic religious feeling” was his “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”

After spending much time with Madame Curie, Einstein explained her inability to rise above the mechanistic determinism that followed seeing reality as pure matter by noting “Madame Curie never heard the birds sing.” For Einstein, the pursuit of a simplified view of the world as simply matter which could be understood by science was a catastrophic illusion.

Both Einstein and Frost were dualists who believed that human knowledge of nature was indirect, conveyed through metaphors and symbols, rather than direct, conveyed through empirical experience brought into focus by logic. For Einstein,  metaphors in science reveal “the unknown in terms of the known.” Frost saw that Einstein did for matter the same thing poetry did for spirit. Frost used Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory to deepen his thought about metaphor.  He noted the metaphor involved in describing a thing as being an event. Frost quoted him, saying, “in the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved.” This delighted him. “ Isn’t that a good one!”

Einstein’s theory rejects the monism of matter alone that has become widespread among contemporary scientists. By arguing that moving bodies are perceived “relative to the standpoint of observers,” he made the observer essential to the perception of all reality.

Einstein held that there was no such thing as an objective physical universe as recorded through sensory experience; there was only a conceptual mental world perceived through the “free play” of the mind through conceptual ideas working upon the raw materials provided by the senses. (Robert Frost, The Poet as Philosopher, 166)

In other words, an age’s scientific theories provide the metaphors by which that age perceives itself in relation to the universe. This is analogous to some postmodern writers who eschew metaphor. If the universe lacks a transcendent realm and we do not live in Creation but merely in a material universe governed by chance, then typology is not a true way to grasp reality, for reality does not really have any meaning beyond those we construct for ourselves for our own purposes. When postmodernists see the use of symbols and metaphors as a way of being false to reality–imbuing it with meanings and qualities that it does not possess–they are asserting, in essence, that reality has no meaning. The loss of faith or interest in symbols and metaphors is one consequence of a loss of faith generally.

Walker Percy saw an intimate linkage between Christianity and the main metaphor of most novels–that of a human character acting in time. He suggested that it was Christianity, mainly, with its view of reality as a meaningful story within which each person could find a meaningful life that accounted for the reality of narrative and the idea of the novel. “There is a special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity as an ethos…. It is no accident, I think, that the novel is a creature of the Christian West and is virtually nonexistent in the Buddhist, Taoist and Brahmin East, to say nothing of Marxist countries.” Further, he says “Though most current novelists may not be believing Christians or Jews, they are still living in a Judeo-Christian ethos. If, in fact, they are living on the fat of that faith, so to speak, one can’t help but wonder what happens when the fat is consumed. Perhaps there are already signs. Witness the current loss of narrative of character and events in the post-modern novel.”

Does the novel itself survive in the disenchanted world without metanarratives that postmodernists are urging on society? Joseph Epstein has observed that “literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.” He points out that “greatness of literature cannot be determined, solely by literary standards.” We also bring our “ethical, theological, and moral standards” to bear on such judgments. “Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards.” Unfortunately, as Eliot said decades ago, “‘there is no common agreement.'” Certainly, one can see the declining importance of literature in schools, along with a declining ability to say what literature is good for–except reading for reading’s sake. This loss of a trandscendant reality so far as education is concerned may be epitomized by the spread of John Dewey’s ideas.

Dewey was a dedicated monist. He hated talk about transcendence–metaphysics and religion. Science and sensory experience and a social process, he believed, would supercede the authority of the past, including religion but also to a great extent books. As Dewey’s pragmatism metastasized through schools–spreading the supposition that the cave from which Plato and others tried to liberate us, the cave of nontranscendant sensory experience and information, was all that we knew and all that we would ever know.

In Deweyan schools, we do not pass on the great insights of the past so much as we collaborate to resolve “felt difficulties”, with the collaboration very near an end in itself. It’s “social” and “democratic.” It “empowers” people by giving them a “voice.” “Constructed knowledge” is all the knowledge there is. A collaborating group is the purpose of the ideology. There is no truth that we can access ourselves, and there is no order to perceive in the transcendent.

We had little need for the noble intellect. What we needed were endless iterations of experiment and innovation. Ideas of good and evil–evil mainly–interfered with constant experimentation aimed at social redemption which could be ours within the cave. There is only now and our groups and our impulses. We can innovate and choose, and democracy empowered by science would replace noble old ideals concocted by philosophers and prophets.

Though being “student centered” was a useful slogan to shift the emphasis away from teaching the knowledge acquired by traditional academic disciplines, there’s precious little interest in individual students in Dewey. They are but abstractions in the social processes that were his real interest. Dewey sought a social process rather than individual virtue, imagining schools as a means of reconstructing society. The old ideals interfered with people accepting the ideology of social redemption. “Intelligence” and “growth”–never defined or explained clearly–should replace reason and tradition. “The point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.” Selves moved by impulse toward an ever receding horizon, unbothered by teachers, who had been replaced by guides and facilitators.

So like the denizens of Plato’s Cave we are governed by debating societies wherein members give each other degrees and awards to make it all seem real. We are slaves to laws promulgated by little emperors to make a name for themselves. What has happened in our progressive liberation from transcendental ideals has been a proliferation of moralistic substitutes. For cave dwellers, the coin of the realm is data.

What advice might Dewey give to Odysseus? The question brings to mind a comic picture. They would have little use for each other. Heros didn’t count for much in Dewey’s universe. For him, democracy was an end in itself, and he had nothing to say about the personal quest that, I think, should lie at the center of the educational journey of every student.

Great literature was long understood as the most important secular resource for awakening young people to who they are, where they are, how things work, and what is necessary for them to be and do. The old questions–Odysseus’s questions and Socrates’–are their questions: What is worth believing? What is worth approving? What is worth choosing?

What we mean by truth, beauty, and justice comprise the traditional answers to those questions, as well as we have for far been able thus far to form them. Such questions lay at the center of education for centuries, until the rise of modernity not long ago. Such questions will survive modernity, which will fail, as did Epicureanism and Hedonism and Stoicism because like them it can construct no satisfying solutions to the problem of despair.

What will also survive is the story that dominates the human past–that of the heroic quest. It’s true in ways we can’t exactly say, but we sense at its core that this is the way reality is structured. To be human is to be on a heroic quest. This is why Odysseus cannot linger on any enchanted isle. He needs to turn his life into a story, which means he needs desire and action even at the cost of death.

Joseph Campbell found versions of this story in human cultures throughout time. It isn’t necessary to understand this pattern, this type, in quite the way Campbell explicated it, as entangled in the Freudian and Jungian concepts that were familiar to him. The pattern doesn’t depend on Freud–it has emerged and been attractive to people throughout human history because of its essential human truth. We needn’t think the caves in which we find ourselves from time to time, even the enchanted ones, are our true home. As long as we are longing our journey is unfulfilled. We may need heroic endurance and courage–often in the form of remembering what we are after and learning better what that means–and we may find ourselves quite hapless without occasional cosmic intervention on our behalf.

What Homer saw was that it was possible to step forward boldly to string one’s own bow, relying on some cosmic justice that might impel the gods to take our side. The pragmatic revolution was premised on giving up that culture–turning from history and philosophy, turning from literature and books–in homage to the quite groundless faith that experience and science would get us, if not to the promised land, then at least to a reasonable adjustment to our plight.

That’s not what Odysseus wants, and it’s not what the best of our students want. His driving desire was to be free to live a fully human life–which meant getting home from the disorders of war and wilderness to a clearing in the light. It was to return to his marriage.

He knew the value of home because he could only have it only by choosing it, and the choice involved the loss of everlasting life with a forever young goddess. To make that choice he needed to desire marriage and home more than pleasure or ease. To speak as those who created this civilization often spoke, he needed to elevate his thoughts from the base to the sublime. The greatness of Homer is glimpsed in those moments when human characters experience, with assistance from the gods, an opening of the soul, a perception that the order in the world has its source in a transcendent order, the order of being.

These decisive realizations in Homer–that we are surrounded by an order that favors some sorts of actions and disfavors others–led to generations of discussion and questioning that formed a culture that, in time, formed the philosophers. Justice was an emotional response echoing the cosmos before it was a philosophical ideal. Existence has an order that extends beyond the senses–that transcends the cave and reaches to the divine.

To desire the higher things, we need to hear something of that. To claim his place and to fulfill the vision of his youth, Odysseus needed to liberate home from those who offended justice. Suitors had moved in, trying to claim his place–trying to steal his world. They abused the claims of hospitality, devouring what was not rightfully theirs. Odysseus purged his home of those who had chosen their doggie little lives–trying to win by deception and threat and flattery the world that Odysseus and Penelope had made.

Odysseus was sustained by memory and vision. Each day he left the cave of Calypso’s delights and stood at shore and gazing beyond the sea toward home. What was he thinking, lost on a somewhat enchanted isle with his back turned on delights that might titillate but could never satisfy him to the depths of his being in ways that he knew were right? Surrounded by a wilderness of wonders and terrors, he knows that the way forward, the direction of hope, is a return, a homecoming. The hero’s journey ends with a return home.

Students have an innate sense of justice, which is an innate sense of universal justice, of cosmic order. “That’s not fair!” is a thought expressed in every language in every culture. What they need, in much the way they need food for their bodies, are the old stories of the births and kings and the coming into the world of justice. What they need are the stories of the virtues we need to move toward our true home–courage, diligence, endurance, patience.

What they need are the compelling visions of who they are, where they, what is worth believing, what is worth admiring, and what is worth choosing. They need an education in desire. Even John Dewey understood that much: “The highest outcome of a sound education is intelligent desire.” It is desire that drives choice, and there a real sense in which every student at every moment exists on the verge of the transcendent moment–the moment of decision when one is “all in”–like a hero. Or not–like a captive.

Moments, though, are not moments until we see them.

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