The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 11, 2018

Making Men without Chests: The Intellectual Life and Moral Imagination
R. J. Snell - 02/25/10
Achilles and Hector

This piece is adapted from a lecture given this past November to undergraduates at Eastern University in Saint Davids, Pennsylvania.

When a young man, I subsisted on a literature diet of romance novels—and I’m unafraid to admit that. And now, as a grown man, husband, and father, I wish I had more time to read romance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about those books one sees on supermarket shelves with the handsome man, shirt mostly unbuttoned, grasping the heroine with the windswept hair. Good grief, no. I read romance novels.

Romance involves adventure or warfare, pageantry or chivalry, and requires from the characters courage and skill in the face of danger. So I’d include Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, “Judges” and “Kings,” Beowulf, Ivanhoe, White Fang, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Narnia—and while I was forbidden from reading such things, I imagine certain comic books might fit the category as well.

And I’m reading these stories to my own children. My son, who’s three, knows that Aslan is on the move, and while he doesn’t yet know who Aslan is, like any Son of Adam (or Daughter of Eve) he feels the thrill of the announcement. A daughter, four, distrusts Edmund and likes Lucy. And she ought to. The more she dislikes Edmund, the more I trust her.

So why am I reading these books to my kids? Same reason I wanted to read them as a child, and read them even today—romance. That is, adventure, danger, courage, risk-taking. But why would I want my daughters and my son to have a diet of adventure, danger, courage, and risk-taking? Especially given the implausibility of so much of this?

A story: I grew up on a farm of several thousand acres on the prairies of Canada. There were very few trees, so one spring my parents planted ten thousand saplings in hopes of breaking the wind. That’s a lot of saplings. My mother toiled all that summer weeding and watering mile after mile of these trees so they would survive. One day I happened to see a small parachute land in the field near to where I anticipated she was working. Well, if you were me, raised in the mid-’80s, watching Red Dawn too often, and somewhat convinced that the Russians would pass through your land on their way to attack America, you too would have concluded that the first wave of Soviet aggressors had arrived. And you too would have grabbed your rifle, hopped on your dirt bike, and ridden out to defend mom’s safety, right to capital, and honor. And you too would have repeatedly shot the smallish plastic box as the spy device it so obviously was. And you too would have had, rather sheepishly, to explain to your father how you shot up a weather testing device owned by the government of Canada. But you would have been brave, wouldn’t you? Just like Lancelot, or Hector, or Deborah, or the Spartans, or Daniel Boone.

Where does such courage come from? Or honesty? Generosity, magnanimity, dignity, liberality, patience, industriousness, modesty, forbearance, good humor, nobility, and reverence? Where do these come from? All these virtues we need to live well—where do we get them?

Joseph and Potiphar's wife

They don’t come from argument. And they don’t come from theory. They come from imagination, or a certain kind of imagination which some have called “moral imagination.” They come from stories, theater, images, symbols, ideals, character types and archetypes, and, in an eminent way, from liturgy. From knowing the stories of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.

They certainly don’t come from argument or theory when it counts. When your friend is in danger. When temptation is strong. When greed or infidelity stalk you. When you are afraid or tired. There’s an old saying that “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” meaning, of course, that the virtues given to young men at play determined the ability and virtues of grown men at war and at government. During Waterloo there’s no time to reason, to think, to ponder, to debate; one must act, and one must act from the habits one already has. Aristotle, rightly, teaches that the beginning given to a child doesn’t just make a difference, it makes all the difference, for the habits and imagination determine what will be done when it counts.

C. S. Lewis, in his wonderful Abolition of Man, puts it this way:

Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that “a gentleman does not cheat,” than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment.

I’m hardly shy about my belief in reason, for I am very much committed to a variety of Christian Humanism which esteems and indeed privileges the Logos wherever it is found, and it is found in all that is fair. But I’m equally convinced that rationality pure and simple, understood in a kind of coldly efficient and technical way, is unreasonable and not all that great of an attainment, certainly not the point of genuine education—that is, liberal education.

Why are we educated? Anyone who values the liberal arts will know that it is not to attain a degree, make money, gain honor, avoid working with one’s hands, and so forth. But there is a mistake to avoid which is all too often embraced—namely, thinking that the liberal arts exist to form minds and intellects alone. There is an old notion in the West that the human is essentially the intellect, and since the highest good of a being pertains to its most essential function, the highest good of the human is an intellectual good, the attainment of knowledge. Initially this knowledge was understood as contemplative—i.e., knowledge of things highest, first, and divine—whereas in our own rather tepid age such knowledge has been reduced to the merely useful. But in both cases the assumption is that education, if it is to serve the human good, is about the formation of knowledge and of intellects.

As noble as such activity may be, it certainly is not the highest way, or at least not the Christian way. I remain fully committed to the life of the mind, to the pursuit of knowledge, to the Great Books, to all activities which are conducive to the Truth; I find fideism absurd and know-nothing versions of religion a scandal to men and women of good conscience. Yes, all of that, but the liberal arts, and especially Christian liberal arts, exist to make free women and free men, and this freedom is most concerned with acting and living well. The chancellor of Boston College, my beloved alma mater, a place I credit with teaching me something of fullness, puts it this way:

In Jewish and Christian biblical tradition, the measure of a man or a woman was never to be found in the magnitude of one’s intellectual attainments. That measure was to be found rather in how sensitively, how responsively, one exercised his or her freedom. . . . The final test of the civilizing process that is liberal education is to be found more accurately in the quality of choices one makes during life than in evidence of purely intellectual attainments.

Now we must be careful: Fr. Monan is in no way suggesting anti-intellectualism, a neutered pietism, personal edification, activism, or unthinking and unceasing efforts at poorly understood social reprogramming. Students are to study, and to study the hardest books in the most rigorous fashion that their teachers can manage. And if teachers can’t manage to provide hard books or rigorous teaching, students ought to request from them a just education, for a poor education is a deprivation of a due good. But the liberally educated oughtn’t become specialists, or masters of a method, or researchers, or pedants of the arcane—the liberal arts, as Monan puts it, “educate for the enriching and constructive exercise of liberty.” That is, to shape humans capable of wisdom, and wisdom is about good acting and living.

Good acting and living demands moral imagination, virtue, what Lewis calls a chest:

As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the “spirited element.” The head rules the belly through the chest . . . of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
Socrates and Plato

Of course, as one of Lewis’s characters would remind us, it’s all in Plato. This tripartite division of the human, of Reason, Spirit, and Appetites, is just Plato from the Republic. Plato, through Socrates, argues that the just regime, by which he really means the just person, is one where appetites are governed by reason with the support of spirit. Reason properly rules and the appetites properly obey, and it is spirit’s task to have appropriate anger, honor, shame, approval, and detestation. Appetites are powerful and tricky things, and before you realize it they can be governing your life, ordering reason about and commanding reason to become cunning in satisfying them. But the person who is able to be angry, which is the most rational of the emotions and the one to be most carefully cultivated and nurtured—that is, who is able to be angry at the very thought of acting shamefully or of wanting something detestable—this is the person most capable of acting and living well over the long haul, and especially when it counts.

The first books of the Republic, interestingly, are not about educating the philosopher but rather about moral imagination. A just education begins with fiction, with fairy tales about gods and heroes and noble men so as to educate taste, to educate a love of what is noble but disgust and shame about what is ignoble. This is an education of the moral imagination, for in stories are these tastes formed, and in tastes the loves, what is valued, and what is valued will sustain much longer, and much deeper, than what is merely believed. This is an education in right judgment, in orthodoxy, something to be remembered in an age where orthodoxies are attacked in the name of freedom.

The need for value is absolute, and in a vacuum we will find symbols, images, stories, and exemplars where they can be found, perhaps on TV, or sport, or celebrity, and this is serious business. Lewis puts it this way in discussing the crisis of post-Christian Humanist education: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

And we do laugh at honor, don’t we, living in a world which values the ironic, the cool, the detached, the unmasked, the transgressive. It’s thought naive to value spirit, tradition, nobility, ideals, reverence for the past, and piety for the dead; it’s thought rubbish to want to be a statesman. We mock provincial simplicity and choose rather to deconstruct our cultural patrimony. Our heroes are all emperors with no clothes, and we are geldings bid to be fruitful.

So, how to become fruitful? Chargers rather than geldings? Mares and stallions like Hwin and Bree, like Shadowfax? I’ve a few suggestions, briefly posed, to consider.

First, literature and poetry. The point, I take it, of literature and poetry is not to provide material to analyze and deconstruct. The poetic is, rather, a form of reason which allows us to know the real, the good, and the beautiful in a participatory way—i.e., that allows us to know and live in the truth of Being by a kind of kinship or acquaintanceship. Literature is true; it gives us a hook onto the real. Or perhaps I should say that good literature and poetry is true, and stories are particularly capable of forming our tastes, loves, and images. Who loves Sam Gamgee and wishes to be loyal like him? Who wants to be faithful and brave like Lucy? Gentle like Alyosha? Don’t let literature be destroyed by theory, or trivialized by fads. And read more of it. And read stories, not dissected objects of the newest form of literary criticism.

Second, history. Genuine education exists, among other things, to form statesmen. And statesmen need to know more than just dates, and they certainly need to know more than the small specializations of the obscure that the modern academic researcher is forced into. But the moments and ideals of civilization and its heroes, they form a chest. I was recently moved to tears by a line from the historian John Lukacs depicting Winston Churchill and his cabinet “like shop stewards in their Sunday best they looked. But they were, at that moment, the good, the reliable, the last best hope, the shop stewards of European civilization.” I wish we had more such shop stewards of European civilization, which was, in the end, Christian civilization. I miss it, and I want statesmen to value our deepest beliefs about the dignity of the human, about ordered liberty and the rule of law, about the value of free men and women serving the common good through the cultivation of their own property in the dignity of their own choice without the soft tyranny of needless state action. And we need good history to capture our affections for such an enterprise anew, although, again, history as a discipline risks sinking into the arcane of specialization, as does my own discipline of philosophy. And I think I’ll add rhetoric under history—good political rhetoric. Cicero and Frederick Douglass. Winston Churchill and MLK. Lincoln and JFK, Ronald Reagan and Sojourner Truth. Nothing can stir the imagination like something beautiful, especially, given our social nature, something political.

Third, a healthy ability to waste time. Ours is the age of efficiency, of technique, of time management and multitasking and Twitter and Blackboard and cable news networks and Wikipedia and YouTube and a thousand other inhumane and dehumanizing spectacles and devices. Faster, more, faster, more, more quickly, quickly now, manipulate the data, publish the paper, read the blog, comment on the new story, keep up to date, text a friend. Helpless in that milieu is an education system incapable of keeping up with all the content—who could, and who, frankly, wants to?—and so forced to resort to the two great enemies of seriousness, specialization, which forces us to know very much about extremely little, and technique, which enables us to know very little about extremely much. But efficiency and busyness are values of the machine and a machine age, and they grind imagination into the imagination of bolts and pulleys, computing and spitting out. Instead, refuse the tyranny of instrumental reason and learn to waste time well. Go for a walk in the woods. Tell some jokes. Explore a used bookstore. Haunt a church. Idle a day away staring at beautiful things in boutiques you cannot afford to go into—my own preference is for paper stores. At some point, such waste of time will become indulgent, but not just yet.

Fourth, architecture. Our space and place matter enormously. Plato suggests that everything in the city, absolutely everything, contributes to good or bad education—that is, to good or bad tastes and loves. And alas, ours is a place and time which seems actively at war with the beautiful and the noble. What does it say about our imaginations that we’ve created and are willing to live in communities of strip malls and Hardee’s restaurants, faux Venetian décor and McMansions. The Olive Garden. Academic spaces that look like office parks. Churches resembling movie theaters or shopping malls. These things ought to be actively resisted, and one of the reasons to work diligently in business is to give large gifts to your college for architectural purposes—not little gifts, but those Aristotle calls magnificent. I’ll not ever forget the law library at the University of Michigan, or Gargan Hall at Boston College, or the altar carved of stone in Salzburg. Those things make you want to be noble, to study, to be faithful, to be pious, to attain dignitas and gravitas. Again, the functional, the mass-produced, the utilitarian ought to be resisted as deformative.

Fifth, liturgy. For Christians imagination is formed primarily through story-formed community, which is to say through the narrative, images, and symbols of the church. Worship is the basic tool of formation we have, and as we worship so we will believe, and value. If our worship is self-centered, we will be self-centered. If our worship is entertainment and another form of consumerism, we can anticipate the results. If it is sentimental or kitschy, so will our souls be. And if it presents us a majestic and noble God . . . well, you get the picture. Even the simple insistence to worship as our spiritual fathers and mothers worshiped is an imaginative act of profound humility and reverence for the community, and a resistance and discipline against an age of technique, manipulation, advertising, and spiritual gimmickry.

C. S. Lewis

These suggestions are by no means exhaustive, nor adequately explained, but it’s a start and must do for the moment. The main thing is to avoid the impoverishment of imagination, for that will impoverish our loves and our tastes and in so doing remove us from the stream of Being. Such impoverishment makes us men without chests, and such men are useless, and illiberal.

And, of course, if education is to lead us into the real, then the imagination and what is loved and detested turns out to be a matter of truth, not merely of taste. I am not claiming that my five suggestions are preferences of mine, but rather that they are true and ought to be preferences for everyone. Lewis writes:

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. . . . Inanimate nature [was] such that certain responses could be more “just” or “ordinate” or “appropriate” to it than others.

And so, in the end, the intellectual life is not about the intellect nearly so much as is sometimes suggested. If my students end up as academic philosophers, that’s all fine and well; if they publish articles, as some former students have, I’ll be pleased and proud. But that’s not the point, which is to live well, and for that one needs a chest, one needs some spirit, and one must feel a whiff of contempt for the contemptible. This is, or ought to be, an education in liking and disliking, of having contempt the right way, for the right things, for the right reasons, and at the right times.

To learn more about the purpose of genuine education, visit the ISI short course on Higher Education.

R. J. Snell is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University.

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