Friendship and Society

From Micah Mattix’s recent Prufrock newletter:

I’ve finished the final lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The final two treat friendship and action. Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”

It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here about American culture) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.

The themes of friendship and hospitality have been coming through loud and clear as I’ve been rereading the Odyssey this summer. I’m teaching The Odyssey and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics next year to a group of high school freshman. Discussing the idea of “friendship” seems like a great place to start analyzing and understanding both works…not to mention the myriad of other connections to the other books we’ll read as well (e.g., The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Metamorphoses, etc.). It’s going to be a great year!

The Dalbeys are on the Move

A quick update on the family:

I recently accepted a job at The Saint Constantine School (TSCS) in Houston, TX. I will step into the position of Middle School Great Books Instructor and, hopefully over the next few years, work closely with the TSCS College as an English Instructor.5 Amazing Queen-Saints You Need To Know About – EpicPew

TSCS was started by a former professor of mine at Biola along with several friends in my graduating class. I’ve been following TSCS since it’s beginning, and I’m excited not only for the professional opportunities I will be afforded but for reconnecting with long-time friends.

If you’re interested in the Classical School movement–a movement that’s been gaining momentum over the past couple decades–you can’t do much better than TSCS. There are many aspects of its educational philosophy that excite me, some of which I will probably discuss in future posts. For now, check out their blog and podcasts to get an idea for their approach to education.

Despite the joy and excitement of transitioning into a new job, my wife and I will find it difficult to leave the community of people we’ve come to love here in Murfreesboro, TN. Thanks, in part, to our busy summer (we’re leaving for CA next week, and then we’ll have about a month to pack, find a place to rent, and move), we haven’t had the time to dwell on everything and everyone we’ll miss. But I know those tough days are not far ahead of us.

If you’re a praying person, I’d covet your prayers. In the meantime, you’ll find me singing Bilbo’s walking song (…this is the version sung in The Fellowship of the Ring as Bilbo leaves for Rivendell):

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

 

**Our busy summer will inevitably affect the frequency of my posting. I won’t lose touch with this site entirely. It’s been a great resource as a kind of commonplace notebook. But things will be slower here.

 

Math, Music, Poetry

All year, I’ve been telling my students that poetry = math, much to the dismay of those who prefer one over the other. They’ll be glad to know that I can add music to the equation and it’s still true forwards, backwards, inside-out, and upside-down.

Exhibit A: Dan Tepfer’s performance of Bach’s 1st Goldberg Variation.

Thinking through Hell: Guided by my Students

If hell was a museum, my students could be its docents. They just finished reading Dante’s Inferno, and as they read, they had to draw a chart of hell that illustrated the sin, the punishment, and any major characters Dante meets in each circle.

When I assign any kind of project that requires drawing, I set the standards low. After all, on my best days, I can draw stick figures that barely resemble the human form. I’m learning that I’m in the minority, since most of my students have more artistic ability in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body. Needless to say, the finished products were better than I could have hoped for.

img_3038img_3039img_3040

Not pictured: a pop-up book of hell. Easily one of my favorites.

They’ll do a similar project as we read through Purgatory over the next couple weeks. Pictures to come.

Preparing to Teach Dante

This weekend I’m preparing to teach Dante’s Divine Comedy for the next five weeks to a group of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students. The task feels overwhelming, especially when I consider the complexity and influence of his poem. Never mind The Divine Comedy, Without The Divine? – The Dishintroducing the Divine Comedy to a group of college/adult students, how do I distill the significance of Dante’s work for high school students without either misrepresenting the poem, making it impossibly tedious, or devoting the rest of the year to reading it?

I ask a similar question of almost every text I teach–this year alone, we’ve read The Consolation of Philosophy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Saga of the Volsungs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Murder in the Cathedral, etc. As far as I can tell, there is no easy or best answer. I can only hope to give students a sufficient introduction which will hopefully inspire them to return to the text later. This, after all, is only a first pass.

For the Divine Comedy, my introductory lecture will draw on Anthony Esolen’s introduction to the Inferno, where he lays out three underlying philosophical principles of Dante’s view of the world:

1. Things have an End

This is the Aristotelian conception of telos. All things have an end, by which Aristotle meant that all things have an ideal function/purpose. The fulfillment of that purpose will inevitably bring happiness (Greek: eudaimonia). To have accurate knowledge of a thing, you must know its telos, which is unique to every individual person/thing. The punishments in the Inferno correspond to each soul’s direct violation of his telos. The skin diseases of the alchemist, for example, “express, in brute corporeal form, the reality of the falsehoods the alchemists committed” (Esolen xv). Hell, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, is locked from the inside. God does not stand over hell imposing punishments on the sinners. They punish themselves by refusing to turn toward the true end and fulfillment of all their desires.

2. Things have Meaning

One of the most wonderful (or most tedious, depending on how you view it) is Dante’s belief that every minute detail plays into the overall importance of God’s created cosmos. Nothing is too small. Esolen illustrates the idea with Jesus’ reference to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the prophets Christ could have referenced–Isaiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, etc.–he chose one of the minor prophets as “a type, or forerunner” of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Jonah wasn’t merely a convenient symbol. He is a testament to the truth of salvation. It is possible to treat every aspect of Dante’s poem in the same way. Detailed descriptions of every punishment in Hell speak to the nature of the sin itself and of it’s corollary telos. This is true not only of the content of the poem but of its structure as well.

Here is Esolen’s description of Dante’s use of numerology:

Dante invented his rhyme scheme (terza rima) precisely to give glory to the Trinity; so, too, the threefold division of the poem, reflecting the threefold division of the hereafter into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Since tradition held that Christ died at age thirty-three, each of the sections of the poem contains thirty-three cantos, except for the unworthy Inferno, which contains either thirty-four or thirty-two, an excess or a deficiency, depending on whether we consider that Hell begins in the first canto or at the gates in Canto Three. Just as the fall of Adam is the happy fault that brought the Redeemer into the world, so the numerical blemish for the Inferno brings the whole Comedy to an even one hundred cantos, the square of ten, itself the square of the Trinity plus Unity. (Inferno xvi)

3. Things are Connected

If everything has a telos and if everything has meaning, then naturally everything is connected in some way. For Dante, “each thing reflects the mind and plan of its Architect” (xx). Simultaneously, “it is not possible to separate, in this universe, those things which have to do with divinity from those things which do not” (xx). The endless interconnections of Dante’s universe speaks directly to the truth, power, and beauty of Christ’s incarnation. When God took on flesh, He did not merely save human souls, He set in motion the sanctification of the created physical world. This includes everything from mountain ranges to (it pains me to say) mosquitoes. Some of the best descriptions of the comprehensive nature of Christ’s redemptive work occurred during the debates surrounding the Christian veneration of icons in the eighth century. In support of the use of icons, St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation…”

Since Christ saw fit to take on flesh, so Dante sees fit to spend much of his poetic energy in describing the physical appearance & condition of the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In the Inferno, gruesome descriptions of bodily punishments (e.g., those who sow discord in the body) are balanced with physical beauty. It’s Beatrice’s physical beauty, for example, that makes Virgil himself eager to obey her request to guide Dante back to the “straight and true” path:

When she had finished speaking to me so,

she turned her glistening eyes all bright with tears–

which made me all the readier to go,

And so I came to you as she desired,

raising you from the beast that faced you down

and stole for you the short way up the hill.

Will a discussion about these three principles be sufficient to excite my students about reading the Divine Comedy? Will it be enough to help them grasp some of the basic and essential thematic components of the narrative? Maybe. I probably won’t know until we’ve moved on to a new book, and I’m again busy asking the same questions.

Sabbath Poetry: G.K. Chesterton

I’m reading (and teaching!) G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re willing to set aside things like “historical accuracy” and revel in the idea and legends of Alfred the Great.

In typical Chestertonian fashion, here’s a great section on the differences between pride and humility:

Pride flings frail palaces at the sky,

As a man flings up sand,

But the firm feet of humility

Take hold of heavy land.

 

Pride juggles with her toppling towers,

They strike the sun and cease,

But the firm feet of humility

They grip the ground like trees. (IV.256-63)

 

Ozymandias

I read “Ozymandias” with my 7th, 8th, and 9th grade writing students today. I was not prepared for the intense discussion that followed.

At first, they rolled their eyes that we were reading poetry. As we read the poem, we worked on finding the narrative and saying what we see. Twenty minutes later every student in the class–including my 7th graders!–knew what the poem was about and had very strong opinions.

We landed on the question, “Is it true that everything we do will be forgotten someday?”

One 8th grade student didn’t think so. His evidence? Michael Jordan. According to him, because Jordan is the greatest basketball player to ever live, and because everyone loves his “Air Jordan” shoes, it was not possible for him to be forgotten. Some of the other students quickly pointed out the flaws in his example, but the question was still being contested when we finished class.

It’s always a strange moment for me when I see students become intensely interested in something as revered as Shelley’s poetry. But I also love these moments. Despite the tendency to compartmentalize learning, and then to categorize people as a “Math Person,” a “Literature Person,” a “Science Person,” etc., our curiosity is actually unbounded by such arbitrary delineations.

No one is actually a “Literature/Math/Science person.” We’re attracted to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty wherever we happen to find them.