We (my soul & I) are back in the High Doganate after our short wander. Dr Clarke’s book (see last post) proved worth the price of purchase, but her concluding scheme for re-archaizing our schools is disappointing: for it involves turning from, rather than towards classical Latin & Greek, & substituting Milton for Homer. Also: Burke for Demosthenes, Gibbon for Thucydides, & so forth, in the English-speaking realms. I almost wish I hadn’t read that chapter, for while my love for English letters is ardent, the term “English major” fills me with horror. Too, I am sick of pagan nationalism & racialism & tribalism & Stalinism, & just want Christendom back. And while Milton is grand, he is very English, & not quite Catholic (although, by the largeness of his spirit, much of his “music” is as Catholic as J.S. Bach’s).
En route to her rather grim conclusion — redemption through EngLit — Dr Clarke however establishes a big point to which I will surely return. It is the superiority of the narrative to the syllogistic in the education not only of children but of people, generally. Christ taught in parables, & by example. The Bible is an exemplary storybook, which has obvious use in the moralization not only of our pallid race, but of all races. And the technical foundation, in Latin & Greek (perhaps even a soupçon of Hebrew), is best advanced through the delight of the Classics. (The real Classics, the classic Classics, that take us back to the ground conditions of civilized human experience & language.) I think the mediaevals had the syllabus basically right, till they themselves blew it up — with, as ever, the best intentions. Now, hold that thought.
In our present view of the whole planet, we begin to insinuate the Oriental into the Occidental Classics — to absorb the kind of material C.S. Lewis put at the end of The Abolition of Man. I mention this because our spiritual prehistory today has spread beyond the Greek & the Roman, & the highest expressions of Oriental paganism are also worthy. Yet we must be on our guard against teaching more than any student can absorb. Dr Clarke & all wise pedagogues have always known focus & limitation are required, or the net is stretched so wide it can’t catch fish any more. This is a major unacknowledged problem in our schools today: the curriculum as a catch-all compost, & the catch including poisons so that nothing much can grow.
An effort was made in the High Middle Ages, of great consequence down to the present day. “Philosophy” triumphed over “poetry” (Plato would have been pleased), & more to the point, Theology over Scripture & Tradition, & the Doctors over the Fathers of the Church, as the basic study. We may date this transition fairly precisely, from the foundation of secular universities, outside the older cathedral schools. Today, we count the mediaeval invention of universities as an unmixed blessing; I am not so sure it was. For it involved the invention of a supercilious student body, freed from clerical discipline & responsibilities, exposed to urban fashions & the money economy, living wild & suffering the consequences of over-education — the very mark of which is the habit of piling abstraction upon abstraction. Thomas Aquinas was constantly on guard against this; lesser Schoolmen & many of his interpreters were not. But gentle reader will guess this is a Very Big Topic, on which Dr Clarke touches.
Consider alone, this aspect of the fallout. The Latinity of the earlier Middle Ages is fluent & attractive; that of the later, awkwardly over-precise, stilted & jargon-ridden. Towards what we now call “The Renaissance,” intellectuals rebelled against the kind of Latin that emerged in translations from Aristotle, & reverted to smooth Cicero with a vengeance.
They thought they were turning back the clock more than a dozen centuries, but were only really turning it back two or three. The reaction against the Schoolmen was combined with the transmutation of the achievement of Thomas Aquinas & company into “modern philosophy” via Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz & the boys. We have a fissure, a schism if you will, as if between soul & body. The good & the true continued to be sought, but in an increasingly technical & mechanistic way. Somehow the beautiful, the Gloria, came off the cart. And the Schoolmen were not without blame for this accident.
This is what, incidentally, a certain Hans Urs von Balthasar was dealing with, in his own life work, when, without necessarily disparaging the Schoolmen, he turned the light of interpretation back upon the Fathers of the Church, & the warmth & range & poetry of their teachings. He sought to escape the dryness of intellectual abstraction, & with it the reduction of the faith itself to the mechanical, to unthinking rote — to the wrong kind of reactionary sensibility, which progressively ignores planks, & magnifies motes, & is more concerned with killing things than bringing them to life.
As we all know, towards the end of his life, Saint Thomas himself had a vision from which he learnt that all he had written was as straw. He had reached the point beyond which no man could reach, not even perhaps the greatest intellect of the ages. We can climb only so high with our minds & hands, & still the Eagle flies over. All the Mysteries remain intact, & no man can explain them away. To know more, we will just have to ascend to Heaven.
But the road of ascent begins in the parables, & on the hard ground of Everyman’s Hebrew spiritual ancestors. (For God did choose them, among all the races of the Earth, to make clear the path to Our Lord.) The finest theological points are not for normal human minds; we must start from basics. And they are best implanted by stories. On this much I feel a kind of certainty. The highest rational flights are for the two or three or whatever percent of any population who might potentially benefit from attendance at universities. The rest of us would do better to acquire the very basics, as Christ taught, & get on with our several trades & callings.
Within Catholicism, there is the old joke that we do not read the Bible, the priests do that for us — only Protestants read it for themselves. The very real & present danger for the first Protestants was that they read it in an atmosphere of theological controversy; that they were, as it were, reading with imperfect understanding, through sectarian translations, & from ulterior motives. This was another unintended consequence of the Schoolmen, the original “pointy-headed intellectuals” with their “trickle-down effect.”
A Catholic re-evangelization, to my mind, must necessarily focus on re-teaching that very same Bible, through all the media of literature, music, & art, resolved & choreographed in the Liturgy. As much as possible, we must find a way to approach Scripture & Tradition on their own terms, & not through the blinders of faction; to be bravely “catholic” or “universal,” to say nothing of humble in our approach to this magnificent inheritance.
And back we must go to Augustine again, & his own deep insight into the “rhetorical” (in a sense of that word we only partially retain), in his own age of religious chaos. Our job is to retrieve the lost sheep for the Sacraments — starting with our own persons — & by a route which cannot start from where it ends. It must start in the cold “real” world of our post-modern chaos. It starts by telling the story, all over again, of how Christ came into our world; then gradually expanding upon this until our world is again filled with Christ’s story, & we are kneeling again to learn at His feet. For God has given us a very large story, which embraces everything & happens to be true. And we are as children to Him, who need teaching.