Truth and its envious imitators

Judgement of Solomon

Evil often presents itself as a parody of goodness. Though it's tempting to wash our hands of the confusion this causes, we must judge. The truth is the only defense good people have against bad people.

A young woman–a former student–told me recently she does not like to pay attention to politics because she feels helpless to affect what is going to happen. Who doesn’t know that feeling?

Educators once understood that their work was of a piece with the ongoing work of establishing justice in the world, and that the means to do this was to pursue the truth. It’s worth asking why we now live in an age of such moral confusion and who this benefits.

One of the realities of American public education today is that if one attempts to talk among teachers about truth as though it matters one will be quickly assailed by versions of Pilate’s question, “what is truth?”  Whose truth? It’s become something of an intellectual habit to balk at the very mention of truth, and to feel that warmth of being among the right sort of people–the righteous–to talk of nonjudgmentalism and tolerance.

It remains an inconvenient truth, nonetheless, that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice. Justice is inseparable from truth. We can’t see that the right things are done if we don’t know the truth about what happened. The primary defense good people have against bad people is the truth. One could hope that a profession that has made The Crucible part of its canon would understand and teach such things. Alas, that story seems more often used as a parable about distrust of the wrong sort of people–Puritans and anticommunists. Ironic.

I think an important question for teachers today is why intellectuals from the mid-twentieth century on have labored so hard to mystify and problematize truth. It’s a real question and I think there are true answers that are worth understanding. The answers are not immediately obvious though to those who have been subjected to years of ideological indoctrination.

The trouble is that the confusion–intentionally sewn and cultivated, I think–is quite genuine. Consider Alexander Solzhenitisyn’s passionate naming of ideology in Gulag Archipelago as the source of so much modern evil:

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

We all recognize, at this stage in history, that true believers with their self-righteous finger pointing have done tremendous harm–that Eric Hoffer is correct when he asserts that most of the world’s evil is done by those who feel they are righteously engaged in crusades to destroy evil. The trickiness of recent decades can be glimpsed in the way that this truth has been distorted into ideological slogans that encourage a hatred of those who speak of truth as though it could be known. The cure for true believers, it is widely believed, is to disbelief assertions of truth, to say that there is no truth beyond “your truth” and “my truth” and to feel revulsion–hatred even–toward those who insist on talking about goodness and evil as if they exist out there in ways that demand that we take sides.

Still, it remains an inconvenient truth that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice. Most of our confusion is created by evil’s penchant for parodying goodness. Evil needs to work this way because it is absolutely uncreative. It only destroys.

Evil has no telos–purpose or goal–of its own. It is, at bottom, nothing–except opposition to goodness. Goodness is the only true game in the Cosmos–it is, in fact, our name for that true game. We can see evil’s agenda in the way that those who do evil are virtually required to pretend, even to themselves, that they are doing good. Rotten dictators do not usually say they are seeking power because they enjoy power, and that power is felt most keenly when we are harming or destroying another. When we harm a fellow we provoke the most pure and primal opposition and in overcoming that fully focused will of another we achieve the purest sense of our self’s will.  But the evil rarely admit this. What they say, generally, is that they are seeking some version of equality, fraternity, and liberty–because that is the true game.

In practice, it can be hard to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying. It’s so hard, sometimes, to tell what’s true that we are tempted to feel impotent and helpless, to wash our hands of the question. We note that partisans come to resemble each other, with each side making the same accusations of the other: they are lying, they have a hidden agenda of self-aggrandizement, etc. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum till the end of time.

And yet, it remains an inconvenient truth that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice.

One ancient text that focuses on the problem is the story of the judgment of Solomon, from  1 Kings 3:16-28. In this story, two young women who both had an infant son came to Solomon for a judgment. One woman claimed that the other had rolled over on her own son while sleeping, smothering him, and had then switched the two babies to make it appear that the living child was hers. The other woman denied this and so both women claimed to be the mother of the living son and said that the dead boy belonged to the other. Each accused the other of lying. At a glance, they appear indistinguishable.

But who would therefore conclude that there is no difference between them? Who would be content to say that there is no truth or that we cannot learn what it is? Who would that benefit?

King Solomon called for a sword. He declared that the live son must be split in two, each woman receiving half of the child. The true mother cried, “Please, My Lord, give her the live child—do not kill him!” However, the liar, a bitter and jealous being, agreed with the judgment, “It shall be neither mine nor yours—divide it!”

Solomon thus brought to light the critical difference between the two women who superficially appeared the same. He gave the live baby to the real mother, who was motivated by love, and he revealed the false desire of the liar. She did not love the baby. She perhaps envied the baby’s mother, and so her desire was a form of imitation rather than something authentic. Her borrowed desire for the baby, which she may at some level have believed, stemmed from envy of someone possessed of a fulfilling desire. No doubt part of her wished she could feel the way she imagined the real mother must feel. So the empty woman acted in ways that inevitably transformed the one she envied into a rival. Her dishonest desire led her inexorably toward hate.

We can see this disturbing pattern at every level in our society, from high school drama between jealous girls or boys fighting over the same girl, to intense political contests,  to international war. It’s a grave mistake to underestimate the power of envy or to remain oblivious to the ways it destroys worlds. Part of the learning we have in store for ourselves in the present age is the wisdom that lies behind the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.

This story of Solomon’s Judgment should resonate strongly in an age when, for many, the dominant political passions are envy, jealousy, and impotent hatred. For those wanting a better understanding of where the truth lies, attention to desire remains the key. What do they seek? What will satisfy them? Could anything satisfy them?

For an excellent study of what great literature (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Flaubert, Proust)  can teach us about good desire and its false parodies, read Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire & the Novel.

Teaching amid time, change and the invisible world

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it. . . .
Hannah Arendt, Teaching as Leading

To do a good job, it’s important to believe that we have time. Hurrying would be a mistake. To hurry, the Chinese proverb tells us, is to eat soup with a fork. All the difficulties we face can be solved, if we think in long enough time frames. Some problems require years of work. Some require decades, and some require generations. Artists at their work experience time as the ground from which their sensibility bodies forth into the world. For them as for lovers, time is deep and endless. There is enough and more.

Time is the very stuff of life. What we make of it is ultimately all we are. Introducing young people to the depths of time and what has happened there is important work. We should help them to feel and understand time as an inexhaustible wealth.

Unfortunately, students in many schools experience time in the way it is experienced by prisoners and slaves: as a burden. Because they can do no work, but only tasks and chores, their identity becomes weak and faint. Hope fades. Time hangs. The clock barely moves. Desire asphyxiates. Those who have gone into our classrooms to study what happens there report that little happens. Things are controlled but not much occurs. People goof off, but not with much zest, and nobody really cares. Boredom and lethargy rule. When we pass through airports, we are reminded of the way the administered life drifts toward endless lines, endless forms, slow motion order and the pervasive feeling of impotence to accelerate or change the process. Time, the very stuff of life, is wasted.

There is another way to get no work done, and that is to dissipate ourselves in a thousand tasks. This is the plight of many of us today. Our modern world developed with and through our technologies of organizing time. In the early 1400s a new technology-clocks-changed people’s relationship to each other by increasing their ability to coordinate their activities. Clocks were too large and expensive for individual ownership, but huge clock towers were built in the centers of many towns. The periodic tolling of great iron bells drifted through the countryside. Folks suddenly able to coordinate individual schedules with new precision began to collaborate in ways they had not previously imagined.

Today, we live in an extraordinarily organized society in which all of us keep, or are kept by, schedules. Our highly elaborated and precise sense of time has allowed for a society organized to an unprecedented degree, within which nearly all of us are specialists. An artist ordering invitations for a show featuring his old-fashioned oil paintings might drop his sketch off at a quick print franchise on main street. He need not be at all aware of what happens next: with clocks ticking every step of the way, the design is digitalized and bounced off a satellite to a print shop in Hong Kong where the bits are reconverted to atoms, arranged as black patterns on white paper. The package of printed invitations is rushed to the Hong Kong airport and loaded onto a jet. Later that week, the artist picks up the finished job back on main street. This everyday task required the organization of hundreds of people. It’s the way we live now.

But though society has never been so organized and we know our lives are deeply entangled with other people’s lives, we have never been more isolated in private agendas and personal schedules. We rush to appointments and meetings, bumping others on their way to other appointments and meetings. Time, it seems, has become the scarcest of resources. Thirty seconds of “gray bar time”-waiting for a computer program to finish-can seem much too long. Each of us now has our own clock strapped to our arms and mounted on our dashboards, and we rush through the week without a village tower in sight. Time, the very stuff of life, seems to be running out.

For the most part, we did not shape the systems that now shape us. We don’t even know for sure who did shape them or what they are really up to. Because commerce has made the most visible and spectacular use of modern organization, we suspect that a lot of what is happening is because someone is making money. Though this may not be bad, enriching someone else is hardly a goal that brings people together. Instead, we tend to keep moving, trying to put aside a little something for ourselves. Time is money, it seems.

The world is moving faster and faster and change is the name of the game, the somewhat manic consultants keep assuring us. We need to forget faster and faster, just to make room for the new. Who remembers DOS commands?

At a town meeting not long ago the school superintendent became quite animated, talking about the pressures that rapid change put upon schools. His voice getting urgent, he cited statistics and painted a picture in which we were all going to become obsolescent if we didn’t do something. Our students were not prepared for the world that was forming around us. He was trained to keep up with the times. I wondered if that training had given him the perspective to distinguish between a fad and a trend. I wondered if it had given him the experience to set priorities wisely.

I suggested that if many things were changing too rapidly for schools to keep up, maybe more time should be spent studying things that changed very slowly, if they changed at all.

He looked perplexed. “What things might those be?” he asked.

Running a school, by his lights, was not all that different from playing a video game. Keep your eyes on the screen. Keep moving. Last year it was community service. Right now it is school-to-work. Whatever. Just react. Hurry. We need to change.

The unfortunate effect of such leadership is a kind of self-inflicted dementia. Dedication to staying in sync with rapidly changing fads leads schools to change directions with every shifting breeze of fashion. One school I worked for was like a person with Alzheimer’s, unable to remember from moment to moment what it was doing, what remained to be done or even who its friends were. We began lots of things but finished nothing. The bookshelves in the administrative offices were laden with unread binders, all that was left of abandoned projects that not so long ago had been touted as the solution to our worst problems.

Every apostle of change wants to retrain all the teachers, of course, so teachers were accustomed to being corralled into workshops and given lots of handouts and hearing lots of promises, but they knew there would be no follow through. Next year they would be on to something different. They would efficiently forget all this. They sat politely but they no longer really listened.

When I was studying to become an English teacher in the late 1970s, one of the books I was given to read was The Educated Imagination, first published in 1964 by Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. Near the end of that book, Frye said that “The society around us looks like the real world, but . . . there’s a great deal of illusion in it, the kind of illusion that propaganda and slanted news and prejudice and a great deal of advertising appeal to. . .It changes very rapidly, and people who don’t know of any other world can never understand what makes it change.”

Might not this have been written this morning? Frye goes on to argue that the real world is not the one that’s changing. “The real world,” he says, “is the world of what humanity has done, and therefore can do, the world revealed to us in the arts and sciences. This is the world that won’t go away, the world out of which we built the Canada of 1942, are now building the Canada of 1962, and will be building the quite different Canada of 1982.”

The real world, like gravity, may be invisible. We do not see it but see its effects. The best education is about learning to apprehend, behind those effects, the things that do not change: the timeless patterns and the eternal forces. These are things that educators, even school superintendents, might usefully ponder, if they can find the time.

The Art of Slow Thinking

The most powerful education is not driven by markets or election cycles. Instead, it aims passing on cultural knowledge that has taken centuries to build and that will remain useful even after our business partners change and our transportation systems are re-invented. It’s okay that cultural mores and institutional practices change more slowly than markets. That’s their job.

“Don’t hurry,” should be the motto inscribed over every schoolroom door. But also, “Don’t stop. Don’t waste time.” Schools should primarily be caretakers of the slow knowledge we call wisdom.

Teachers should be less interested in high velocity markets and the shifting priorities of political election cycles than in passing on the techniques of intelligence–such things as how to evaluate evidence, how to use math to perceive patterns too large or too small for direct observation, what it takes to develop friendships and alliances, how to organize a town and hold it together, what it feels like to win a kingdom but lose your soul, how fights begin and how they end, how justice comes into the world and how it perishes, how to discern between things ephemeral and things of permanent worth and so on.

Change, of course, is assured–indeed, it is irrepressible. But the more things change, the more important it becomes that we learn to see what does not change, or changes only slowly. We need to know what is solid ground. We need firm footing to wrestle with what comes.

Familiarity with the past more than anything else provides us with that footing. In times of rapid change the institutions we most need to strengthen are those that preserve memory. The most reliable way to know something of the future is to know the past. It is long memory that encourages the longest possible view of the future.

In The Clock of the Long Now Stewart Brand reports that in 1980 the Swedish Navy received a letter from the Forestry Department announcing that the ship lumber that had been requested was ready. In 1829, the Swedish Parliament had ordered twenty thousand trees planted on Visingsö, in the lake Vätern. It took 150 years for an oak to mature and they anticipated a shortage of ship lumber during the 1990s. The move had been opposed by the Bishop of Strängnäs because he didn’t believe people would still have wars by then and even if they did ships would probably no longer be made of wood. Parliament overrode him. They got the details wrong but by thinking in the long term they did the right thing anyway. The worth of that mature oak forest today is beyond calculation.

Wisdom tends to come to older people because they have had to live with more consequences of bad choices. As people see and understand longer time frames, their thinking gets stronger and their decision making gets better. The same is true of institutions. Wendell Berry has noted that morality is nothing other than long-term practicality, and companies that rely on repeat customers tend to be more honest and fair than those who believe that tomorrow will always be a brand new game.

The single simplest thing to do to make schools more sensible institutions and to make the education they deliver of more worth is to develop institutional practices that lead people-administrators, teachers, board members, parents and students-to consider what is happening over much longer periods of time. Schools today need institutional practices and institutional goals that organize their daily labors around visions longer than a 45-minute period, longer than a semester, longer than a superintendent’s tenure, longer than this political cycle’s hot problem and longer even than a teacher’s career.

It may be helpful to think about what James P. Carse, religion professor at New York University, calls “the infinite game.” He says “a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game.” Football is a finite game. Gardening is an infinite game. A political campaign is a finite game. A family is an infinite game. A business deal is a finite game. A religion is an infinite game.

Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars built upon Carse’s thought. In a finite game, they pointed out, winners exclude losers. In an infinite game, winners teach losers better plays.

In a finite game, the winner takes all. In an infinite game, winning is widely shared.

In a finite game, the players’ aims are identical. In an infinite game, the players’ aims are diverse.

In a finite game, rules are fixed in advance to guarantee a single winner. In an infinite game, rules are changed along the way by agreement.

In a finite game, energy is focused in short-term, decisive contests. In an infinite game, energy is invested in the long term.

Finite games focus on how they end. Infinite games focus on how they continue.

Good schools, like good communities, good economies and good families, are playing an infinite game. They may include finite games within them, but they ensure that these games don’t displace the larger play or corrupt it. James Carse ends his book with a statement that bears further reflection: there is but one infinite game.

The story of that one infinite game is the right story for schools to organize their practices around.

Playing the Infinite Game

I have some thoughts about the infinite game and how it should be played. So do you. Here are the basics: it includes everybody, it involves all knowledge, and it includes all of the past and all of the future. That’s quite a bit. So where do we start?

We start with families. Family, suggests historian Elliott West, is the tool that can help students connect all the disconnections of time and place they face in the modern world. In a speech to the Montana Heritage Project he pointed out that “Families intertwine the chaotic details of every past time and bind them with the present and with us. For those of us interested in how societies have worked, families have always been the center of ordinary human lives. Their greatest power is to implicate you and me in the emotional world of real people who have come and gone, people we will join soon enough.”

He suggested that we study the past using our own families as a point of entry, and as a linking principle. Fortunately, recommending the study of family history as one of the animating principles of schools is not a quixotic thing to do. In fact, the evidence suggests that millions already feel this is just what they need and are flocking toward it. Just as people responded to the realities of their sedentary lives in the 1970s by taking up jogging and finding gyms, people today are responding to the feeling of disconnection in today’s world by flocking in vast numbers toward family history, which at its best is genuine history but with a personal connection.

Doing family history research is not simply about creating pedigree charts. Rather, it is about understanding the human experience. Through the internet, people are connecting not only with their distant ancestors, re-imagining the worlds they knew and pondering what they faced and how their world grew into our world, they are also connecting with like-minded people around the world. They are forming, of their own free will, ambitions on a massive scale. These ambitions will only be realized by shared effort. Stewart Brand points out that “Thousands of users of a program called Family Tree Maker are linking their research into a World Family Tree on the Web. So far it has tied together seventy-five thousand family trees, a total of fifty million names. The goal, once unthinkable, is to eventually document and link every named human who ever lived.”

Every named human who ever lived. Think about that for a moment, or maybe even for an hour.

Through a focus on family history research, students can be drawn to oral history, which involves reading, writing, speaking, listening, summarizing and analyzing as well as the fundamental work of turning towards elders with interest and compassion. They can be drawn to primary document research, which includes making a research plan, using finding aids, writing letters, evaluating conflicting evidence and synthesizing original conclusions. They can be drawn to published texts that treat historical periods, specific events, political history, personal experience and the rest of the human record.

But that’s not all. As they join the worldwide effort of others who are trying to understand the world through the work of finding their families, they will find that they can contribute to the world’s memory. They can discover what has been lost. They can contribute important information to the shared work.

The work of reconstructing the past is not a passing fad but a historical trend that cannot be turned back or stopped any more than the industrial revolution could have been halted. Those who decide to help with the work will find that history is on their side. In Thoreau’s terms, they will “meet with success unanticipated in commoner hours.”

They will begin to see that this work drives other work. They will see that in doing this work, the stories of various sects become entangled with one another. Muslims and Jews find each other connected through not just through their modems but also through the intertwined stories of their intertwined families.

Conducting family history research is a central human project at this time and as we do it we will put vast amounts of the world’s knowledge online and we will steadily increase all people’s access to it. The distributed research and linked computers of millions of searchers will exceed by many orders of magnitude the power of the government’s largest super-computers.

That woman in Ireland who is looking for an uncle who was last heard from somewhere in Montana in 1875-how is she to find what happened to him? The answer may lie on a gravestone in that cemetery just up the hill on the windswept prairies. If she had the name and the date on that gravestone, she could find an obituary, and if she had the obituary she might have the name of employers, information about historical events that touched his life. One thing leads to another and to another and, given time, to all things.

Right now there is work to do. The cemetery records, the courthouse records of real estate transactions and marriages, it can all be put online. Students who share this work and learn to organize information, to create and maintain data bases, to research and to write, and to place a value upon the human record will not be getting a provincial education. They will be stepping into the central story of our times.

To find every person who has ever lived, people in each village and town and city need to find those who lived there. While people in Scotland or China are finding your relatives there, you can help them find theirs where you are. Much of this is work that students can do. Much of it is work that grandparents can do. And much of it is work that they can share.

Schools that act as catalysts for this work will find support coming from every direction. They will find that students are motivated, teachers revitalized and communities re-engaged. They will, of course, continue other studies and they will still have proms and basketball games. The infinite game, after all, has room for us all with all our interests.

And though we start with families, we don’t stop there. Family history leads to community history, and community history leads to national and world history and history includes all other disciplines. As schools, in partnerships with museums and historical societies, begin to maintain community archives containing research done by students and other community members, these archives will become the most important institution in the school.

If you would like to test the educational value of such materials, you can conduct a simple test. Set up two tables in a classroom. On one table, put the most seductive materials you can locate from the large publishers of educational materials, with their four-color illustrations and lavish layouts. On the other table place some old photographs of the local neighborhood, a few old maps of the place and a collection of old newspapers. Bring some kids into the room and watch where they go and what they do. Be ready to be quiet for a while, because the students will not hear you. They’ll be buzzing with excitement, pointing things out to one another.

A good local archives will include long-term ecological studies, local geography, studies of transportation systems and public utilities and studies of local folkways and traditions. Caring for such a collection of local research and adding to it will be everyone’s responsibility. And the work that is done in such schools will not be ephemera, as most school work has been. It will be intended to last forever.

Joined in Time

Some of the work will be in file folders, awaiting the right researcher to take it farther. Some will be in published documents, that hold in place organized bodies of work that have been done. And some will be ready for publication online. Since the work is intended to last forever, it is not done in undue haste.

The collection will not seem grand at first. The first year it might have only fourteen biographical essays done by a senior English class. But fourteen essays is something, if it is kept. In ten years, the value will be more clear. There will be hundreds of documents, and teachers who had shown no interest at the beginning will begin to pay attention. Nearly every student in their classes will be able to find information on their own families. This will provoke further questions.

In twenty years, everyone will understand the value of what is being done. The archives will be quite large and everybody will have a personal interest in some part of it. Community members will come to the school to do their own research alongside students.

In doing the work, they will come to understand more and more of what it has meant and now means to be human. They will see the world from all its perspectives: that of victors, that of the defeated, that of women, that of kings, that of slaves. They might be brought to ponder the way consequences follow actions, not always quickly and not always fairly. They might meditate on justice. They might learn new songs. They might be stirred to compassion.

Maybe they learn that every life has its lessons to teach, and that if those lessons are learned then every life, no matter how hopeless it might have seemed, has its value. As Elliott West reminded us, “All of us sleep with ghosts. When we invite them into our own day, we learn about the world they knew, and how it grew into ours. But we do something more. We resurrect our humanness.”

In fifty years, people will have a hard time imagining a school without an archives. A school without an archives would be, would be-well, a place full of busy work, a place where time was a burden and people watched the clock and waited, a place where nothing that was done was real or permanent, a place where people thought mostly about token rewards and cliques, a place where people were bored and restless and angry-in other words, a place where people wasted the very essence of their lives: time.

Whoever you are, if you are still you might feel the stirring of ghosts, of lost souls returning, bearing gifts, walking the halls and towers of a vast library where all the voices of humanity speak as a stirring in the dust. Wherever you are, if you listen slowly enough, you might hear now the gentle tolling of a giant bell in a distant commons, calling you home.

It’s only a story, but a story already coming true.

I could not have imagined this

Cranesbill and peonies

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.

The truth about dragons

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. Revelation 12:9

Slaying the dragonOne thing I wish we could teach young people is the truth about dragons. It has to be taught indirectly, through metaphor, because the unseen world is–well, unseen. Some people who read this might become a little annoyed because something doesn’t want them to believe it. I think that sort of anger is the dragon’s breath, warning them away.

The primary mission of dragons is simply to keep people from the truth, particularly those truths that lead most directly and surely to joy. This is mainly because dragons are not themselves happy, having chosen to follow the theory that joy could be theirs as an entitlement rather than as what it always has been and always will be–a momentary balance requiring eternal care.

So now they wander the dark regions, trying to vindicate themselves by blocking the way of others to rather simple moments that unaccountably become forever.

I’ve acquired a taste for meeting dragons–often quite suddenly–because I’ve learned, slowly and after long, torturous detours, that, first, dragons are a sure sign of treasure–some truth that’s new to me is close at hand–and, second, dragons are mainly bluff. They have no real power–except the power of illusion and dread. It’s true that they often trick people into doing awful things, which is their only way to make anything happen. The easiest way to defeat a dragon (though not always the people who have been deceived by one) is to ignore it, and boldly to step forward as though endless joy were your right. I admit that it isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s simpler.

The treasure, as I said, is always the truth–though I don’t mean truth in the way that scientists usually use the word. Their brand of truth is okay–very useful and very powerful–but it’s concerned with inventing props and manipulating the setting–it cannot discern the plot.

The kind of truth I mean is the truth of stories, the truth for which we live, the sum and good of our desire.

Truths of this sort have to be created–not out of nothing, but out of the stories we become, out of life itself. Is it true that you live in a happy family? Is it true that you have faithful friends? Is it true that you are kind and generous? If so, then these are truths that you have helped make more than they are truths that you have discovered. The important truths we create, mainly by using now to bind the past and the future into a pattern we choose, by making and remembering promises–some of them to ourselves, some of them to God, many of them to people we want with us sharing the special kingdom we are making of our lives.

Dragons may be found anywhere, but one predictable abode is near the hearts of young girls. The truth they are guarding has to do with what young girls want. What young women want most is to be loved by an admirable man–who sees and acts with his whole self. This is not a selfish or a petty thing, properly understood, so much as it is one of the attributes of godliness–every good kingdom is held together by love, and so being lovely is part of God’s design for our joy.

Unfortunately, the desire to be lovely makes some young girls vulnerable to insinuations that loveliness must be bought–all the fragrances, and face paints, and costly costumes. Or, it leads them to settle for attracting counterfeit forms of love–attention, lust, and all that–by dressing and speaking immodestly, as though the treasure of their truest being were some sort of joke.

So for them, that’s what it becomes.

Fortunately, the counterfeits are only that. Love is also real. This is what most torments dragons. They come here from a reality before the world where they believed that power alone was enough to create a kingdom worth having. What really enrages them is when an admirable young man enters the story who wants the young woman for more than a game–who sees in her the source of a better life, a true partner in making of the world a kingdom governed by love.

The reason that dragons are so often associated with knights is because nothing upsets them more than an admirable young man. The very existence of such men gives the lie to everything dragons have stood for, because what such young men truly want is not power or money or a high score in Modern Warfare but the admiration of a lovely woman, one who’s not too easily impressed, too soon made glad.

Unfortunately, this desire to be admired leaves young men vulnerable to all sorts of foolish ambitions. Where there is a chance to demonstrate their strength, or skill, or smarts, or daring they are likely to be found snowboarding off cliffs, sticking their heads in the mouths of alligators, or strapping themselves to rockets. Dragons enjoy such spectacles but they don’t get involved.

Dragons do get involved when an admirable young man sets out to demonstrate his worth to a lovely young woman. Trouble comes, often through the usual human weaknesses: doubt, fear, selfishness, pettiness, impatience, deception, jealousy.

Such moments, properly understood, become little or nothing.

Which is not the same as saying the tests are not real, or that they require of us less than courage, nobility, and genuine heroism. Dragons, remember, work through dread, and though dread is an illusion it is an illusion as deep as consciousness itself, and it can only be dissolved by a faith that is equally deep.

There is no avoiding it. A moment will come when wisdom requires us to move past the point of no return, push all our chips to the center of the table, put everything on the line, and risk it all. That’s our fundamental choice: dread or faith.

Dragons are dragons because they choose dread. Knights and princesses live happily ever after because they don’t.