Talking de Tocqueville with Students

For the second installment of the Fly on the Wall podcast, I spoke with two of our seniors, who shared their excitement about readings from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. This was also recorded back in November.

Audio Video

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Fly on the Wall — Pilot/Episode 1

Here’s a new effort. I thought I would try sharing some of the excitement of our college’s discussions. I recorded this pilot discussion with fellow Tutor, Christopher Oleson, who is leading Sophomore Seminar, the Roman/Medieval year. We talked about a selection from Plutarch’s lives of the Gracchi brothers, in which we witness the beginning of political violence in the Roman Republic. It was recorded shortly before the national elections last fall.

Audio Video

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Podcasts on Leaf by Niggle

I love this image from Mythology of JRR Tolkien

I was inspired by a question about Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle”, to share some of my understanding of this amazing little work in two podcasts available on our Institute’s website. I continue to have some of the best seminar discussions on this work, in which a little artist discovers what a gift he has received, and what it means that it is a gift. If you have time to listen, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Catholic Identity in Light of the Academic Curriculum

Critical remarks based on The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School

By Dr. Arthur Hippler

The National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (hereafter NSBECESS) aims to assist schools in strengthening their Catholic identity. In a time of great confusion about Catholic identity, the attempt to help schools reflect on their fundamental mission is always welcome. But the document quite deliberately sets aside the way in which Catholic identity should determine curriculum. The “standards” and “benchmarks” are “offered as school effectiveness standards rather than curriculum content standards, although they support development consistent with national standards and Common Core State Standards.” ( This is a grave defect. The content of the courses, what is actually taught, defines the school’s identity more than anything else.

Many if not most Catholic schools have science, history, and literature curricula that are identical to their secular counterparts. The acceptance of secular curricula in Catholic schools is even treated as a sign of academic excellence (e.g. Advanced Placement courses). NSBECESS seems to comply with the status quo, stating baldly that their document supports development of the curriculum in accord with completely secular standards such as “Common Core State Standards.” NSBECESS seems unaware that this has resulted in a “compartmentalizing” of the faith. Theology seems to have no bearing on the other subjects of the curriculum, unless by happy accident the teacher introduces it. The intellectual dimension of faith is sealed off from the rest of the subjects.

Cardinal Newman over a century ago explained the problem with this approach. A curriculum that acknowledges God as the universal cause of creation with theology as its center cannot and should not look the same as a curriculum for which this principle is doubted or denied. Why? Theology asserts that “All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful, all that is beneficent, be it great or small, be it perfect or fragmentary, natural as well as supernatural, moral as well as material, comes from Him.” As a logical consequence, theology “considered as knowledge” must be expected “to exert a powerful influence on philosophy, literature, and every intellectual creation or discovery whatever.” Newman asks rhetorically, “Does [theology] cast no light upon history? has it no influence upon the principles of ethics? is it without any sort of bearing on physics, metaphysics, and political science? Can we drop it out of the circle of knowledge, without allowing, either that that circle is thereby mutilated, or on the other hand, that Theology is really no science?” (Idea of the University, Discourse III, “Bearing of Theology on other branches of Knowledge,” §§7-8)

NSBECESS draws its guidelines from The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, and from statements by Pope Benedict XVI and the American bishops. Well and good. But a document that goes unmentioned is The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, promulgated by the Congregation for Catholic Education (4/7/88) This is particularly unfortunate, since that document specifically addresses the distinctive traits of the academic program in a Catholic school. In The Religious Dimension of a Catholic School, (hereafter RDECS) guidelines are given for four academic areas: 1) religion 2) science 3) history and 4) other “humanities” (philosophy, art, literature).


The tendency for decades has been to make the religion class the “easy” class, the least academically challenging part of the core curriculum. Even when schools avoided the fads and fashions in religion that gutted the academic content for “projects” and “activities,” religion texts were considerably lighter on content than science or history. Even today, religion courses are often the easiest, certainly never the hardest class in the school. NSBECESS states that “The school’s Catholic identity requires excellence in academic and intellectual formation in all subjects, including religious education.” But it does not make clear the comparative difficulty of religious instruction to other subjects.

RDECS insists that a Catholic secondary school “give special attention to the ‘challenges’ that human culture poses for faith. Students will be helped to attain that synthesis of faith and culture which is necessary for faith to be mature.” (52) There is no way to address those challenges in an “easy” course. It should therefore be expected that the religion class should required to have “the same systematic demands and the same rigour” as other classes, as is stated in the General Directory for Catechesis, promulgated by the Congregation for the Clergy a decade later. The General Directory, elaborating on this point from RDECS, explained that religious instruction “must present the Christian message and the Christian event with the same seriousness and the same depth with which other disciplines present their knowledge. It should not be an accessory alongside of these disciplines, but rather it should engage in a necessary inter-disciplinary dialogue.” (73§5)

Many Catholic educators struggle with this directive, because they think of the content of a religion class as fundamentally a matter of “faith,” while the secular courses offer “knowledge.” But Christian teaching can be an invitation to non-believers, just as the explanations and responses that are made to non-believers can be illuminating for believers. Hence, “religious instruction cannot help but strengthen the faith of a believing student, just as catechesis cannot help but increase one’s knowledge of the Christian message.” (69) The rational account one gives for faith provides an important “common ground” for believers and unbelievers alike.

Both believers and non-believers are therefore poorly served by intellectually undemanding religion courses that seem to have little to say to the challenges posed by the larger culture. RDECS makes an helpful distinction between “catechesis” and “religious instruction.” What a believing Christian learns in a religion class is “catechesis”: “catechesis presupposes that the hearer is receiving the Christian message as a salvific reality.” (68) What a non-believer receives is “religious instruction,” that is, an explanation of what the Churches teaches which does not presuppose acceptance of Church authority.


The engagement with the larger culture cannot be the sole responsibility of the religion faculty. It is the responsibility of all teachers in a Catholic school, albeit to varying degrees. It is perhaps no surprise that RDECS first raises the distinctive task of science instructors, who are exhorted to “help their students to understand that positive science, and the technology allied to it, is a part of the universe created by God.” (54)

To take one example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the eternal God gave a beginning to all that exists outside of himself; he alone is Creator….The totality of what exists…depends on the One who gives it being.” (n.290) From this, the Catechism denounces materialism as an error, which “reject[s] any transcendent origin for the world, but see[s] it as merely the interplay of matter that has always existed.” (n.285) And yet, secular science textbooks used in Catholic schools are overwhelmingly materialistic in their account. They virtually equate “materialism” with “the scientific method.” Students learn that God is the creator of all in their religion class, but then this basic principle is systematically denied in their science textbooks.

The same problem occurs in science texts’ treatment of the human person. RDECS condemns the “fragmented and insufficient curriculum” in which science does not “complement” religious knowledge of the human person, but merely contradicts it. Rather, “Teachers dealing with areas such as anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology and philosophy all have the opportunity to present a complete picture of the human person, including the religious dimension. Students should be helped to see the human person as a living creature having both a physical and a spiritual nature.” (55) Students learn in a religion class that man is defined by the possession of a rational soul. Students then learn in their science class that either man has no soul, or that the religious notion of “soul” has no explanatory power.

The Catechism teaches that “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (365) As a logical consequence, “The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not ‘produced’ by the parents—and also that it is immortal.” This is why the Church allows for an evolutionary development in the human body, but cannot allow a similar development in the human soul: “for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.” (Pius XII Humani generis n.36) Science textbooks however treat human origins entirely in terms of the body, implicitly or explicitly denying a soul. Man is merely a more advanced primate whose has evolved by chance. He is not a being who is “made to the image and likeness of God” as part of a providential plan.

The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (“Gaudium et spes”) spoke to our time as well as its own when it declared “today’s progress in science and technology can foster a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data, and an agnosticism about everything else. For the methods of investigation which these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth.” (57) The Council Fathers declare that, while the sciences have their own principles that must be respected, the autonomy of the sciences does not mean that they are divorced from the creator. “Without the Creator, the creature becomes unintelligible.” (GS 36) “Unintelligible” should not be taken as figurative speech. While having their own principles, natural things ultimately are not sufficient to explain themselves. We do not live in a universe governed “by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity” but rather “by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called ‘God’.” (CCC 284)

Philosophy and the “Humanities”

In a time that has seen the development of the STEM school (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math), the “humanities” courses can appear only necessary to give the rudiments of literacy and a veneer of culture. But RDECS insists that the “increased attention given to science and technology must not lead to a neglect of the humanities: philosophy, history, literature and art.” (60) For, in addition to the theoretical and practical knowledge that comes from the sciences, students still need an “understanding of all that is implied in the concept of ‘person’: intelligence and will, freedom and feelings, the capacity to be an active and creative agent; a being endowed with both rights and duties, capable of interpersonal relationships, called to a specific mission in the world.” (55) This is not exclusively or even primarily the task of religion courses. History, literature, and philosophy each in their own way help students understand human nature and the distinctive dignity of human life. This is one among many reasons why they are called “humanities.”

The Second Vatican Council was alarmed at the way that “the denial of God or of religion” had influenced “literature, the arts, the interpretation of the humanities and of history and civil laws themselves.” (7) While the scientific method yields impressive discoveries, its focus on controlled experimentation prevents it from answering questions “about the place and role of man in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective strivings, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity.” (3) The Council exhorted modern men to seek “wisdom”: “The intellectual nature of the human person is perfected by wisdom and needs to be, for wisdom gently attracts the mind of man to a quest and a love for what is true and good. Steeped in wisdom, man passes through visible realities to those which are unseen.” (15) Wisdom is not just another way of saying “theology”; the patrimony of philosophic and literary reflection offers wisdom too. (cf. GS 44, 56)

The Catholic school therefore should not emphasize science to the detriment of other forms of “knowing.” Indeed, it should help students see that one can reason about human nature and the universe in which he lives in other ways than the scientific method. The most evident way of seeing this is moral knowledge: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that.” (16) The moral law (or “natural law”) is known to all. It is evident in its basic commands in cultures throughout history.” (CCC 1958)

But for many students, all they know is moral disagreement and confusion. As RDECS notes, “Concepts such as truth, beauty and goodness have become so vague today that young people do not know where to turn to find help. ” (9) Indeed, they often live “in a one dimensional universe in which the only criterion is practical utility and the only value is economic and technological progress.” (10) While STEM programs can contribute to our physical well-being, courses in the humanities should contribute to understanding nature and purpose of human life. The exploration of cultures and the study of literature, for example, can bring to light the essential goods of human life: bravery, self-control, justice, judgment, love, friendship and ultimately wisdom.


The Catholic identity of a school does not demand that it teach history with an emphasis on “Church history” or a revisionist “pro-Catholic” version of secular history. Certainly, these might be more desirable than history texts that either ignore or denigrate the Church, which is too often the case. But RDECS does not call for merely “partisan” history that ignores or minimizes the moral failings of Catholics and other Christians.

Rather, it exhorts teachers in a Catholic school to consider history as a means for understanding human nature, and its supernatural possibilities. History is not, as many “progressive” history texts would have it, a narrative in which cultures proceed from religion and other forms of “superstition” to science and enlightenment. Rather, it is a “drama of human grandeur and human misery,” a “monumental struggle” between “the good and the evil that is within each individual.” (58)

This struggle is not resolved as the result of advances in technology, economic development and government reform. As Gaudium et spes makes clear, “man is split within himself. As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as though he is bound by chains.” (13) One does not have to believe in a doctrine of “original sin” to see that the human problem is not solved “technical” inventions, by having the “right” people in power, or better schools and public institutions, for “the disturbances which so frequently occur in the social order” ultimately “flow from man’s pride and selfishness.” (GS 25§3)

At the same, the study of history in a Catholic school should allow for hope. “When they are ready to appreciate it, students can be invited to reflect on the fact that this human struggle takes place within the divine history of universal salvation. At this moment, the religious dimension of history begins to shine forth in all its luminous grandeur” (RDECS 59) The “progressive” view of history always looks toward some heaven on earth, and is profoundly disappointed when it never comes. Indeed, many political projects in the name of “progress” have made life a hell on earth.

For its part, Christian belief and practice have given rise to real social progress, despite the sinful behavior of Christians. As John Paul II observed, “Through the power of the Gospel, down the centuries monks tilled the land, men and women Religious founded hospitals and shelters for the poor, Confraternities as well as individual men and women of all states of life devoted themselves to the needy and to those on the margins of society, convinced as they were that Christ’s words ‘as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40) were not intended to remain a pious wish, but were meant to become a concrete life commitment.” (Centesimus annus 57) Indeed, learning about these forms of genuine progress that can provide a reasonable optimism for students and “help to offset the disgust that comes from learning about the darker side of human history.” (RDECS 59) Catholic school students would be ill served if they graduated ignorant of the concrete ways in which the Gospel has improved human life.


Literature, like history, has its way of helping students understand their own humanity. The Second Vatican Council noted the contribution of “literature and the arts” for the way in which they “strive to make known the proper nature of man, his problems and his experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world.” (GS 62 §2) Our lived experience can often be very be narrow, but the broader range of experience that literature makes possible can help the student to see true human potential for nobility and wickedness.

There is always the temptation to give students stories primarily from their own culture and time, but the stories from far away places and the remote past provide greater opportunities for seeing our shared humanity. In great literature such as Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one sees “the struggles of societies, of families, and of individuals” which “spring from the depths of the human heart, revealing its lights and its shadows, its hope and its despair.” (RDECS 61)

The trend of secular education has been to turn literature into “consciousness raising” and other forms of political indoctrination. To be sure, politics is a part of literature. But students are denied the true greatness of literature if it is seen primarily through a “feminist,” or “pacifist” or “multiculturalist” lens. More important than political “categories” are the character “types” that manifest the moral and spiritual dimension of human life. To see the world through the eyes of a Roskalnikov or Antigone broadens the students ability to see the consequences of moral choices. C. S. Lewis put it best when he wrote “in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” (An Experiment in Criticism, p.141)

Within a Catholic school, literature courses should also allow students to encounter stories with a spiritual dimension. Even pre-Christian and non-Christian literature can do this to some extent, for “in every human culture, art and literature have been closely linked to religious beliefs.” (RDECS 60) But of course there is no substitute for exposure to classics informed by a Christian perspective: “The artistic and literary patrimony of Christianity, is vast and gives visible testimony to a faith that has been handed down through centuries.” (ibid)


The concerns of National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools to recall the faithful to a greater involvement and investment in our Catholic schools is laudable. The effort to have Catholic schools better governed, more affordable, and academically respectable however will bear little fruit if what the students learn merely imitates the curriculum of their secular counterparts, as if the Catholic intellectual tradition offered no distinctive perspective of its own. The “standards” and “benchmarks” call for an “integration of religious, spiritual, moral and ethical dimensions of learning in all subjects” (7.2), but they give no guidance for how that integration would begin to happen. This deficiency is aggravated by the document’s unqualified acceptance of “national standards and Common Core State Standards.” ( The Catholic school, in this document’s presentation, has no distinctive intellectual contribution.

The problem with integrating the Catholic intellectual tradition goes beyond the secular books that dominate the curriculum. Catholic schools are staffed by teachers who have largely secular formations in their various disciplines. God has no place in the science book, and the science teacher, even if personally devout, has no formation in how He would be added. The science teacher indeed may have no formation in any other mental categories besides “faith” and “science” — no place for the rational or “philosophic” exploration of man and nature apart from the “scientific method.” The same is true for the history teacher and the literature teacher; they are Catholics, and they are teachers, but they have little to no preparation in the Catholic intellectual tradition that would allow their subject to integrate the “religious, spiritual, moral and ethical dimensions of learning,” as NSBECESS requires.

Unless and until Catholic primary and secondary schools reform their curricula in view of the Catholic intellectual tradition, its philosophic and literary contributions, they will merely be a part of the larger secularized intellectual climate around them. They will be “private schools” with religious rituals and mottos. The symbolism of the school will be Catholic, but the substance, alas will not.

Summary Benchmarks

1. Religious instruction “must present the Christian message and the Christian event with the same seriousness and the same depth with which other disciplines present their knowledge. It should not be an accessory alongside of these disciplines, but rather it should engage in a necessary inter-disciplinary dialogue.” (73§5)

2. Scientific instruction should “help their students to understand that positive science, and the technology allied to it, is a part of the universe created by God.” (54)

3. Even in science classes, “Students should be helped to see the human person as a living creature having both a physical and a spiritual nature.” (55)

4. History should neither treat human beings as merely the instruments of social forces, nor the beneficiaries of inevitable progress. Humans are both morally wounded and capable of transformation by grace.

5. The study of history should not conflict with, but rather contribute to the study of salvation history.

6. Literature should help students understand “the proper nature of man, his problems and his experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world.”

7. The study of literature should happen especially in light of the Christian perspective which “goes beyond the merely human, and offers more penetrating criteria for understanding the human struggle and the mysteries of the human spirit.”

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Reflections on Votto’s Awakening

For five years, I shared hotel rooms with my African-American teammates. We shared pizzas, played video games, and listened to music together. We developed friendships. I look back on these years as some of the best of my life. 

But I also witnessed glimpses of racism that should have opened my eyes to the realities of being a black man in America. My teammates, my friends, the ones that I shared great times with, faced prejudices that I never did and when they shared their experiences …

I did not hear them.

I don’t think Joey Votto is a conformist; I respect the honesty that drove him to share his experience as a white of privilege. He probably expresses what many 20/30 something whites are experiencing. To a large extent, that they need to be awakened is the natural consequence of having been raised by parents who provided as good and safe an environment for them as they could. Growing up in the Shire (or in Rivendell or Valinor) tends to make you neglectful of what is happening where the Wild Things Are, and even contemptuous of those who do stupid things to mess up their lives. Perhaps it happens to blacks who grow up in white families; Moses did not know of the suffering of the Israelites.

Long was Melkor at work, and slow at first and barren was his labour. But he that sows lies in the end shall not lack of a harvest, and soon he may rest from toil indeed while others reap and sow in his stead.

But Votto is obviously not racist, unless people insist on a very dangerous equivocation. When someone who is easily and instinctively color-blind, who welcomes blacks as friends without the white condescension which should rightly irritate them, is still being called racist, we cannot be talking about the same thing that I learned from youth to condemn. It is at best a half-truth that will only inflame hatred, drive friends and families apart, and could lead to real civil war. Unlike Votto, I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. I had blacks who were friends, blacks whom I respected, blacks in authority who gave me whoopings I deserved, but also blacks who hated me because I was white, who threatened to smash my head in because I was white, who yelled at my mother because she let her white kids play with blacks.

Everything inside of me wants things to go back to normal. I don’t want to protest, raise my voice, or challenge someone. I don’t want to have heated arguments, break up friendships, or challenge previous norms. 

But I hear you now, and so that desire for normalcy is a privilege by which I can no longer abide.

It is very good for young, idealistic whites to become aware of the terrible situation of inner city blacks. Hopefully they can do more than cry Mea Culpa (not necessarily a bad start) and point fingers. But before rushing in to fix black problems (or demanding that others do it), they should take a serious look at history. I hope they will not forget that we Anglo-whites solve the problems of other peoples by colonizing them, putting them on reservations, and segregating them. Then we feel terrible and spend trillions of dollars to assuage our guilt, in the process destroying families through welfare and cheap whiskey, building project housing, engaging in forced busing, and locking kids in government schools that pretend to educate while excluding prayer and denying that human beings have souls. We make them objects of social experiments, and refuse to learn from our failures.

Good! Good!’ said Treebeard. ‘But I spoke hastily. We must not be hasty.
I have become too hot. I must cool myself and think; for it is easier to shout
stop! than to do it.’ He strode to the archway and stood for some time under the falling rain of the spring. Then he laughed and shook himself, and wherever the drops of
water fell glittering from him to the ground they glinted like red and green

If you want to demand that we give it another try, I suppose we will, as Minneapolis has committed to defunding the police with no idea at all about what will replace them. Likely we will fail worse than before — but we will feel better about ourselves.

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Clarence, Get Me Back! I Want to Live Again!

Brilliant use of It’s a Wonderful Life to express what so many of us feel. via Clarence, Get Me Back! I Want to Live Again!

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Fantasy Recommendations

When si40158._uy473_ss473_nging the praises of Tolkien’s works, I have often been asked to recommend contemporary examples of the fantasy/fairy-tale genre. Unfortunately, by and large, I do not have a taste for the genre, in spite of or perhaps because of my intense love for Tolkien’s works.

So I asked my now-adult children for their Fantasy recommendations, which I hope might do the trick.

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Webinar on Faerie Stories and a Note on Magic

Tuesday morning, I offered a webinar on Tolkien’s Essay on Faerie Stories and related writings – half hour presentation with about an hour of questions, all interesting, some challenging, especially those about magic. See my thoughts below.

This document has all the references to magic I could find in LotR, the Essay, and the few letters where Tolkien discussed it: Tolkien on Magic. (By the way, I urge all those seriously interested in Tolkien to read his letters. They are the best way to get to know the man and his thought about his works.)


With the caveat that Tolkien himself seemed to grapple with the term and how best to express his thought about it, I will identify three points drawn from my reading of his works that seem central to addressing concerns about the moral and spiritual effects of stories that involve magic.

1) Magic is a natural part of faerie stories (Faerie he thinks in a fundamental way is the realm of Magic) because it arises from fundamental human desires to be able to bring into being things we imagine without the necessary failings involved in ordinary human agency, which always passes through matter both as subject and instrument. We can even communicate with others only through the means of material words and signs, which inevitably limit the extent and power of our communication. We wish we  could being move material bodies as effortlessly and precisely as we move our fingers (even more); we imagine being able to directly share our thoughts and images with other minds. Being natural (following from the mind’s ability to separate what exists together in reality), there must be a healthy way of imagining this.

2) There is a strong sense that for human beings to desire to actually possess these powers, because they are not proper to our nature, is morally and spiritually questionable and dangerous at best, usually simply wrong,  To possess them, we must have the hubris to go beyond our nature and to enter into the realms of spiritual beings who are beyond us, usually driven by a desire to make them serve us. So in faerie stories, we imagine beings for whom these ways of acting are natural. These are called in various stories elves, gnomes, fairies, and “many other names besides”. To imagine how these powers might affect the delights and sorrows, the adventures and tribulations, of such beings, and even to imagine what it would be like for men to encounter them and share in their lives, is a healthy, even transcendent use of fantasy, the artistic perfection of our divinely-given power to sub-create.

3) Beings for whom magic and enchantment are natural find in them similar temptations to those offered by human powers such as science, craft and speech. They also have to ask themselves, “How will we use our knowledge and skill — will we destroy what we work on in order to accomplish what we desire? How will we enhance them — will we strive for control over the world than is proper to us as creatures? For what purposes — will we use them to aggrandize ourselves, or to make an insulated paradise for ourselves?” Tolkien sees two great evil desires that often corrupt the use of these powers – the desire to dominate others and the desire possess exclusively the things created by them. The corresponding good desires are the desire to bring matter and spirit to their innate fulfillment, and the desire to rejoice in one’s creations as gifts from the Giver and for all His children. By and large, elves (and Gandalf) work magic (as the lights which illumined Gildor and the elves whom Frodo met in the Shires) and enchantment (like the way their songs in the Hall of Fire communicated to Frodo though he did not know the words) by understanding and bringing to fulfillment potencies latent within matter and mind. (Perhaps this like Michaelangelo saying he simply released the statues latent in blocks of marble.)

Interestingly, the Rings of Power, even those made solely by the Elves for themselves, were questionable, because through them the Elves sought to enhance their own native powers beyond their natural limits, and so continue to flourish independently of the Valar. But they did not make them as instruments of domination, and so they were not finally corrupted by them (though it might have been a close call for Galadriel).

For what it’s worth, I think that the Star Wars movies (at least the original ones, probably most of them) got this, while I think the Harry Potter series did not.


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Does Euclid Make us Know

This is the PDF of a talk I gave as the Opening Lecture at Thomas Aquinas College some years ago, in which I took a critical look at Euclid’s demonstration that the interior angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles (I.32), in the light of the high demands that Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics makes of real knowledge. It also includes some reflections on the proper placement of the Fifth Postulate.

Does Euclid Make Us Know — 2003

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What Makes a People? City of God XIX.21, 24

A Talk Given at the American Catholic Philosophical Association (November, 2018)

The notion of “a people” is central to American self-understanding. The Declaration of Independence was written to explain why it was necessary for ‘one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another”, and declares that it is the right of the People to abolish old and institute new forms of government. The Constitution faithfully proclaims itself as an act of “We, the People”, while the Bill of Rights considers the People the possessors of many rights retained under it. But what makes a people? Is the term more than just a rhetorical flourish used by politicians? Are we still a people? How are we to judge?

In the City of God, St. Augustine reflects on this question, looking to the Roman authors, Sallust and Cicero, who considered deeply the question of what held their people together. He ends up rejecting the idea that justice is essential in favor of the idea that it is love which binds. In this paper, I want to explore his treatment of this question, then compare his account with that of Livy, who seems to incorporate the views of all Sallust, Cicero, and Augustine.


Augustine first raised the question, “What makes a people?” in Book II, when summarizing a portion of Cicero’s dialogue, De Republica. Augustine dedicated Book II to showing that Rome had great difficulties long before Christianity arose to prominence. The pagan enemies of the Christians blamed the sack of Rome in 410 on the ban on the worship of the ancient gods who been Rome’s protectors and the source of Rome’s glory. Augustine struck back by blaming the moral collapse of the Roman people on the licentious poetic and religious representations of the gods themselves. As Augustine knew from his own youth, the religious celebrations presented examples of corruption that exerted great influence on the morals of society. Leading first century BC Roman authors, such as historians Sallust and statesman/philosopher Cicero, blamed the civil bloodshed that dominated their lives on the moral corruption of society. Augustine argues that they should have realized the Roman gods were even more fundamentally to blame.

As summarized by Augustine, Sallust saw that civil bloodshed began with the rise and fall of the Gracchi brothers in the latter part of the second century B.C. Sallust did not think the class divisions between the Senatorial patricians and the common plebians began with the Gracchi; rather they were present from the very beginning of the Republic. Animosity between the classes was held in check, not because the ancient Romans by and large were better than their descendants, but through the great personal virtue of extraordinary Roman leaders coupled with the continual fear of foreign assault. The destruction of Carthage (146 BC) freed the Romans from external enemies, and brought in wealth that corrupted even the great men. Like his favorite Greek author, Thucydides, Sallust concluded that, with opposition removed, the natural animosity of the classes was given free rein.

As reported by Augustine, Cicero seems to have had a more idealistic view of the Roman founding. The main character of his dialogue is the very Scipio Aemelianus who finally destroyed Carthage. Scipio expresses the foundational problem of adversial classes of society, but thinks that a real polity achieves more than just an uneasy truce among natural enemies.

When the highest, lowest and, between them, the intermediate orders of society are balanced by reason as though they were [musical] voices, the city may embody a consonance blended of quite dissimilar elements. What musicians call harmony in singing is concord in the city, which is the most artful and best bond of security in the commonwealth, and which, without justice, cannot be secured at all.

Justice allows for concord in action, and a real union in being. Cicero has Scipio argue that such unity is implicit in the very meaning of “ResPublica”, which presupposes the existence of a people. Scipio defines the term as “an assembly united in fellowship by common agreement as to what is right and by a community of interest.” Without an agreement about what is just, as without a community of interests, there is no united multitude, no people, and no republic or commonwealth. Cicero seems to have believed that the strength of ancient Rome derived in large part from its common sense of what is just. Licentious moral corruption destroyed that common commitment to justice, and so destroyed the very people that had won such an empire:

Morals have perished from the want of great men; and we must not only be held accountable for so great an evil: we must, indeed, plead our cause as though charged with a capital offense. For it is because of our vices, and not through any mischance, that we now retain only the name of the commonwealth that we long ago lost in fact.

Augustine seems to agree that the commonwealth had been lost in Cicero’s time, but suggests that, in looking back, Cicero idealistically nostalgiac for a Rome that never existed:

Those who praise it should consider whether true justice flourished in it even in the ancient days of men and morals, or whether perhaps even then it was not rather a colored picture than a moral reality.

He finishes II.21 by saying that it was not the time to challenge Cicero on this topic. He promised that “in due course” “if God wills it” he would revert to the topic prove what he only suggests here. Ten years would elapse before he fulfilled that promise. Had it not been for this promise, the reader of his works would definitely have considered its reemergence in Book XIX.21 as an egregious example of Augustine’s tendency to diverge on to tangents. Even with his assurance that he is “now [at] the place where, as I promised…, I shall demonstrate that…there never was a Roman commonwealth,” the reader would be right to puzzle over why this is the right place.

Book XIX begins the portion of the work dedicated to comparing the different ends of the two cities. Augustine first argues that happiness, which all pagan philosophies and societies aimed at, cannot really be attained in this life. Neither the goods we can achieve personally, nor the goods we find in friendship and society, should be called “goods” rather than miseries. Only the City of God can afford to recognize the sad realities of this life, because it can find happiness in the hope of eternal life. Augustine then transitions to a marvelous discussion (ten chapters worth) on peace. Augustine treats peace as much more than simply the absence of immediate warfare. Peace, which he defines as “tranquillity of order”, is itself a cosmological good found at every level of created existence. Consequently, peace is a positive end, and the proper end of societies, corresponding to happiness as the end of individuals. Even societies such as bands of robbers and households of masters and slaves value and enjoy some real kind of peace.

Having established this, Augustine feels ready to formally attack Cicero’s definition of a people. A common agreement about what is just is not possible among a multitude of persons who are not themselves just and have no understanding of what justice really is. But those who worship demons, as Augustine has argued the Romans always did, can neither understand nor bring about what is really just.Their ruling passions corrupt their understanding of the just. Augustine reveals that in his dialogue, Cicero himself sought to justify Rome’s subjugation of all the Mediterranean peoples. Servitude is good for some men, Cicero said, as the rule of God is beneficial for all, as is that of the soul over the body, and reason over the passionate parts of man. Augustine insists that all these examples are connected. If God does not rule the man, neither will he be able to rule himself. Injustice is the natural consequence of such internal disorder, in individuals and, consequently, within a whole multitude. Where injustice rules, class strife is inevitable, and all that can really unite the multitude is an uneasy sense of the need for peace.

Augustine believes that Cicero’s idealistic definition of a people is realized in the City of God. It is truly a people united by common sense of right and of interest. The common sense of right is received from God Himself, and is maintained by a true though imperfect virtue of justice. The interior passions which wrecked every effort to build a pagan city without injustice are not absent from the people of God, but revelation corrects them at every turn, while the grace of God works in the Church to strengthen in all the warlike virtues necessary before the final glory and to raise up generation after generation of heroic examples. The City itself is “His most wonderful and best sacrifice and…celebrates the mystery of this sacrifice in [its] offerings.” “Thus justice is found where the one supreme God rules an obedient City according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but Him; and where, in consequence, the soul rules the body…and the reason faithfully rules the vices in lawful order.”


Augustine rejects Cicero’s definition, at least as applied to simply temporal societies. But he doesn’t agree with Sallust either. Pagan societies have a real unity, but it is a unity of love, rather than justice. . Augustine proposes defining a people as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love….Then it is not absurd to call it a ‘people’, no matter what the objects of its love may be.” In a way reminiscent of Plato’s account of different societies in Book VIII of the Republic, Augustine is suggesting that a people is united around a common vision of the good (in Plato, honor, wealth, freedom). This, he says, determines the moral character of the people: “Clearly however, the better the objects of this agreement,the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.”

In the light of this, Augustine is able to say that the Romans were, in the beginning, really a people, that the character of that people fundamentally changed through history, and that it was destroyed by the civil wars, but was reconstituted anew as people under Imperial rule. For every people, its peculiar kind of peace is an object of love, though that peace may be loved primarily as a means for a more profound object of love. In Book II, Augustine put in the mouths of his contemporary opponents the shameful character of their common love: “Only let [the Empire] stand, only let it flourish with abundant treasures, glorious in victory or – which is better – secure in peace, and what do we care? What is of more concern to us is that a man’s wealth should be always increasing for the support of his daily pleasure, and that the stronger may thereby be able to subject weaker men to themselves.” (The entire passage, of which this is a small portion, must be heartbreakingly familiar to us men of the 21st century.)

A corollary of this line of reasoning, and perhaps the reason Augustine waited until Book XIX to critique Cicero’s definition, is that, since every real people has a real good – peace – that they love, this good can also be loved by the people of God. “A people estranged from God must be wretched; yet even such a people as this loves a peace of its own, which is not be despised….For the time being it is advantageous to us also this people should have such peace in this life; for, while the two cities are intermingled, we also make use of the peace of Babylon.” This allows the two cities to exist in a political relationship, though, because the city of man loves peace for the sake of this life’s pleasure, the city of God must remain merely as resident aliens. (This can change if the temporal city will explicitly order itself to the eternal city.)

Livy’s Unification

Livy, with whom Augustine was also very familiar, presents an understanding of Roman unity similar to that of Augustine. Livy, writing during the reign of the first Emperor, looked back to the examples of Rome’s founding less for moral lessons than for comfort. Like Sallust and Cicero, he believed concord was the great problem facing the early Roman Republic. He agreed with Sallust that great leaders and the fear of the enemies that encircled them and constantly threatened them was crucial for Rome’s unity. He portrays one of those great men, the senator and savior of Rome, Cincinnatus, crying out, “By some mysterious fate, our gods favor us more in war than in peace.” 

But Livy, like Augustine, identified love as the deepest bond holding together classes always in danger of war. Livy believed the monarchy prepared the Romans for union, for a time when they would need to shoulder the responsibilities which the blessings of liberty demanded. During the monarchy, plebeians and patricians developed a love for the place where they were able to live happy family lives.

What would happen to them when they won immunity if not liberty under the sacred protection of asylum?  Uncowed by the absolute power of the king, they would have been stirred up by tribunician agitation and would have begun battling with the senators in a city not their own, before they became united in spirit by commitment to wives and children and by love for the soil – a love which takes a long time to develop.  The nation not yet grown up would have been torn apart by dissension.  But as it was, a calm and moderate exercise of governmental authority fostered and nourished it so that when it matured and grew strong, it was able to enjoy the excellent fruits of liberty. [II.1]

Livy goes further than Sallust or Augustine, incorporating something of Cicero’s notion. Because all Romans loved Rome, they remained committed to their common life long enough to allow a common sense of justice to develop. Religion played a prominent role, for the Romans, through reverence for the gods, held their oaths sacred, and so the plebians would not simply riot. Yet Livy recounts how the plebians, through dramatic decisions like secession, were able to wrest from the senate the “freedom and dignity” under law which they demanded. When push came to shove, the Senate bowed to the preeminent need for concord between the classes. It knew that concord between the classes gave Rome the strength to overcome the world. In the culminating book of his first Pentad, Livy shows a unified Rome emerging victorious from its death struggle with Veii, recounts Roman resiliency in beating back the fierce but wild Gauls after their sack of the City, and describes the Romans formally recommitting themselves to their homeland under the leadership of Camillus. Under such heroic leaders, a common love of the Roman soil and way of life bound together a people that, through a just application of law, could benefit from the full participation of patrician leadership and plebian strength.


I hope these reflections not only help us to understand Augustine on this point, but might be of some service to our current troubles. America was the offspring of both classical political thought and the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson attributed the ideas embodied in Declaration to Aristotle and Cicero, as well as Locke and Algernon Sydney. Madison’s Federalist 10, which might seem to suggest domestic tranquillity can be maintained without real union, is balanced by John Jay’s Federalist 2, in which he argues along Livyian and Augustinian lines that Americans are single people united by ties of blood, culture, opinions, customs, and common action:

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.

Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, called on this deep unity to try to prevent a civil war.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln’s appeal fell on deaf ears, and the war came. Should such a catastrophe threaten us again, let us not forget the closing words of his second inaugural:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


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