Cranesbill and Peonies--Umphrey's gardens
A garden is an epiphany, at least for the gardener. The orchestration of visible beauty, according to invisible processes in time, gives us the metaphors to think about the order of being. The astonishing thing is not merely how life is, but that it is capable of, indeed prone to, such beauty.
I take that to be the most important truth of many truths one can know only by experience. No philosopher confined to his study would have imagined anything so wondrous as even my little garden. The great philosophers all know this–their work is full of nature and of history, taking its bearings from the real world that they have opened themselves to knowing.
Since ancient days, one of the uses of gardens has been a refuge from worlds gone awry. I’ve used gardening this summer to reorient myself to teaching, after an unusually discouraging year. This is an unpromising time to be a teacher dedicated to passing on some understanding of the order of being discovered and explored through the great classic literature of the West.
The enemies of such as Homer, Socrates, Moses, Jesus, Shakespeare et al have always been here. In recent decades, they have been triumphant at the level of pop culture, which, regrettably, includes public education, and many young people have been thoroughly indoctrinated in the “isms” of ersatz religion before they reach high school or college, with results described memorably by philosopher Allan Bloom in his controversial best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind and summarized by James M Rhodes in Eros, Wisdom and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues:
American students believe that truth is relative. They are astonished by anyone who does not accept this proposition as self-evident. Consequently, they lack intellectual seriousness and learn little. Their relativistic families are also spiritually dreary, colorless, devoid of inspiring visions of mankind’s meaning and good, intellectually moribund, bourgeois, and incapable of transmitting ethical principles effectively because their relativism has robbed them of moral authority. The students do not read great books anymore, thanks to relativism and the successful feminist assault on the Western canon. Instead, they are addicted to rock music. This music has “one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored….
Like severe drug addiction, he says, this “gutter phenomenon … ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.” The sexual frenzy of the music is part of a broader phenomenon. Sex has become “the national project.” The students have joined this enterprise. They have abolished sexual limits and modesty and now engage in multiple “relationships, ” not promiscuously, but serially. The sex is easy and it has become “no big deal.” The result is that “sexual passion no longer includes the illusion of eternity.”
Young people, and not only they, “have studied and practiced a crippled eros that can no longer take wing, and does not contain within it the longing for eternity and the divination of one’s relatedness to being.” This eroticism is sated, sterile, lame, and “is not the divine madness that Socrates praised.” Casual relationships have also fostered the habit of approaching marriage with egocentric attitudes that lack constancy. This has contributed to the runaway divorce rate that “is surely America’s most urgent social problem.” The children of divorced parents are irreparably harmed. It does not matter that armies of psychologists are hired to persuade them that their parents love them and will spend “quality time” with them. The children feel grievously wronged, come to mistrust love, and develop a slight deformity of the spirit that closes them to the serious study of philosophy and literature. In addition to all this, the students are self-centered, that is, more interested in their careers and enjoyments than in other human beings or in great spiritual or political issues. In the vast majority of cases, they arrive at their universities seeking vocational training, without the sense that they are embarking upon grand intellectual adventures that might yield answers to the question, “What is man?” Thus, a defective American eros, not only in its sexual forms but also in all its branches, has prevented our students from waxing in wisdom and grace. By and large, American students become “flat souled.”
“Flat souled” would seem a precise name of the affliction. Rhodes in main agrees with Bloom, though he thinks the situation may not always be as grim as Bloom states it. What he does agree with, though, is that youth today are taught to understand their sexuality in ways that are quite destructive to the higher learning–knowledge of the transcendent order of being. Though Rhodes is talking about undergraduates, the same dynamic is increasingly present in high school:
It [many] cases, the students’ sex has really become so easy that it is “no big deal.” In these instances, the eros has surely become sterile, devoid of Socratic divine madness, and incapable of taking wing into eternity, as Bloom contends. Also, there is usually exploitation in these kinds of relationships. Almost invariably, somebody gets hurt. Undoubtedly, there are exceptions. There must be a number of cases in which there is perfect mutual giving of self to other and a firm intention of permanence. These instances are marriage in all but name and can be expected to eventuate in the Socratic winged flights. The normal result, though, is heartbreak. Socratic teachers cannot save students from these mistakes by prying into their private lives or policing bedrooms. Neither can they prevent the errors by preaching religious morality or the lessons of Plato’s dialogues from their bully classroom pulpits; words are mere abstractions to the young until the realities of their self-inflicted injuries become manifest as pain. All the Socratic professors can do is to wait for the heartbroken students to crash-land in tears in their offices and classrooms. When this occurs, the youths do not need pinch-faced authorities in tall, pointy hats to inform them that something has gone badly wrong with their love affairs. Rather, they need advice on how to heal their wounds and fulfill their erotic natures in true love. Here, Bloom seems mistaken if he supposes that the eros of the damaged souls can never take wing. Sometimes, it is disaster that opens unhappy souls to philosophy. The teacher must be prepared to lead the students to a more philosophic eros when it is needed and wanted. In this role, the Socratic professor can help some of the sorrowing youngsters.
I have no faith in the profession of teachers–they are part of the pop culture that has become the problem, but I do wish more parents understood that what young people are being taught by pop culture is not some accidental cultural evolution. It has been planned, and the planning has not been a secret conspiracy so much as an out loud and in your face revolutionary movment that can be clearly traced in history.
The way of faith has always been too demanding for some, and intellectuals have from the beginning offered alternatives to it, all having to do with the idea that humans direct history and can make of the world what they want. These are false prophets in the sense that what they promise does not happen, but false prophets have been plentiful, offering escape from what Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquistor in The Brothers Karamazov called “the terrible freedom” brought into the world by Christianity.
Eric Voegelin is one major philosopher who traces such false prophets through history, detailing the murder of God and the establishment of ersatz religion. He focuses on the major philosophers–Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel and Heidegger–and he includes in his list of false teachings “progressivism, positivism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism, fascism, and national socialism.” The way these movements have influenced pop culture has been detailed in dozens of books that are less dense and easier to grasp than most of Voegelin. They aren’t hard to find. It’s only necessary to desire.
The main thing about truth–the true order of being–is that it is hidden just enough that it’s necessary to desire it to find it. To one who desires it and is opened by love to it, it reveals itself. But it’s hidden by design from others, so that we can be free to choose what we really do desire.
Years ago, I reached the conclusion that the goal of teaching is simply to make a case for the order of being–to put before young people the record in literature of those moments, such as when Achilles learns of Patrocles’ death, when Moses knows that he will confront Pharaoh armed only with faith and that Pharoah is powerless, when Hamlet reaches the divine present and knows finally that he need only respond in that presence–“the readiness is all”–in short, all those moments when great souls break through mundane reality into the presence of transcendent being and glimpse its order.
It is not, as a student said last year, that we are telling them how to live. It is that we are pointing them toward witnesses of how things are, so that they are more free to choose wisely.
On those few occasions when I have suggested to individual young people that there is a force in the cosmos with us that wants us to act in some ways and not in others, and sensing this is the beginning of communication with deity, the idea has not been rejected outright. So the game continues and hope remains.
What I know as a gardener is that the force before which Odysseus and Hamlet found themselves present is the same force “that through the green fuse drives the flower.” It is the force that creates and sustains moment by moment the order of being. To be a gardener is to know that it is a force that can be known, that it reveals itself bit by bit as we ask and listen.
I am asking, and I am learning to listen.