Parents as Educators/Models for Teachers

Back in November, I was honored to give a talk to parents in Denver for The First Educator series. I focused on how parents can draw on The Holy See’s Teachings on Catholic Schools to both aid them in choosing a Catholic school for their children and in guiding their own teaching of their children. The audio is now available here.

I also recommend watching “From a Mother’s Heart: Why Catholic Education is the Answer”, in which Institute VP Chris Weir beautifully shows how parents provide a model for Catholic educators.

Posted in Classical Education, For Teachers, Audio/Video | Leave a comment

Hamlet and the Problem of Conscience

Originally published in the St. Austin Review (March/April 2016)


I have never really liked Hamlet, neither the character nor the play. The character I found too full of self-doubts, too wistfully desirous of death as a solution to his problems, too full of contradictions to engage hamlet-and-gravedigger.jpgmuch of my sympathy; the play contained too many unconnected moments, culminating in an accidental on-stage bloodbath befitting a caricatured opera. Like many, I found Hamlet’s words wonderful for their powerful expression of the burdens of life. But Hamlet’s death failed to move me.

Wanting to be moved, I happened upon George MacDonald’s edition and study of Hamlet (free on Kindle!). I was intrigued by the discovery — an accomplished story-teller telling the story of Hamlet was just what I wanted. I was not disappointed. MacDonald unashamedly championed Hamlet as one of the the noblest figures in literature, and considered the play “the grandest of all Shakespeare’s presentations”. He was convinced that most students of the play are misled by things they have already heard about the central character – that Hamlet’s problem is thinking too much. Richard Grant White, MacDonald’s contemporary, re-told the tragedy of Hamlet1 as the vacillations of an obsessively melancholic, emotionally self-indulgent, petty-souled man, who muddles a clear call to action by luxuriating in excessive reflection. White drew the natural conclusion from his line of interpretation:

…The lesson that it teaches…If a man have not strong, urgent, exclusive desire, which compels him to put his impulses and will into action, and seek one single object, if indeed he be not ballasted with principle and impelled by purpose, he will be blown about by every flaw of fortune, and be sucked down into the quicksand of irresolution….In the words of the wicked King, which gave the key of Shakespeare’s meaning, “That we would do, We should do when we would….”

White’s Hamlet could move no one. The thought, the expression remain great, Hamlet’s every word is precious, but under that sort of reading, the action of the play fails to evoke fear, pity, or anything but frustration. Appropriately, Grant thought that only the most superlative of actors can make Hamlet anything tolerable to watch. Yet, since Shakespeare’s plays were very popular in his day, shouldn’t the dramatic difficulty White admits be a prima facie reason to question his interpretation? Nor should any, especially lovers of moral reflection, readily acquiesce in the idea that thought hinders action. Should we think that the wicked king really expresses the lesson of Hamlet? Could the same Shakespeare who makes us shudder at Macbeth’s maxim, “The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings on my hand,” offer us “We should do when we would” as the lesson to take from Hamlet?

MacDonald rightly criticizes those like White, who “pounce upon [Hamlet] with vituperation, as if he were one of the vile, and they infinitely better.” By contrast, his admiration of the character offers us a much more likeable Hamlet and a much more moving play. Yet he wants so badly for Hamlet to be the great Christian hero that he explains away what I consider to be the central drama of the story – Hamlet’s near spiritual destruction and Providential rescue. At the heart of that drama is the problem of conscience.

The Problem of Conscience

In the terrible loneliness that he feels after the departure of the players and his disappointing friends (II.7 end), Hamlet vents against himself the frustration felt by White:

What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her? What would he do if he had the motive and the cue for passion that I have?

Why, then, Hamlet asks himself, have I said nothing, done nothing? The question fills him with self-loathing and leads him to a terrible thought: “Am I a coward?” “I must be a coward,” he thinks, “I must be afraid to stand up to my father’s murderer and get the revenge that any red-blooded man would risk everything for. I don’t even feel the passion I ought to feel about it.” He cannot stand to face the thought, so he turns to think of a way to begin doing something – “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”2

But the question does not let go of Hamlet. In what might be a Shakespearean singularity, we next see Hamlet again in soliloquy, so intent that he does not realize he is not alone. The conclusion of his “To be or not to be soliloquy” suggests that he continues to dwell on his self-accusation. He has finally found a scapegoat –

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet believes his entire audience knows the truth — Conscience makes all of us cowards, conscience prevents us from doing what we feel in the depths of our bones must be done, what our nature groans to do. Any person of conscience can no doubt sympathize with Hamlet here. In particular, Christians can sympathize. How bitter is it to “turn the other cheek”, to try to forgive our offensive brother from our heart? Does it make us feel like we are less than men?

Hamlet blames his conscience for his inaction. Why? Is this Hamlet thinking excessively? What scruple does he see setting itself in his way? In his previous soliloquy (II.7 end), Hamlet determined that before doing anything he must know whether the King really murdered his father. But that is a question of fact, not of conscience. So why blame conscience? Because even should his Mousetrap confirm the Ghost’s charge, the question will remain, “Should I seek revenge?” His conscience tells him, “No.” Why? Because the one who seeks vengeance, when he dies, must face eternal judgment. Hamlet tells himself that he is not afraid to die; why should he be when life is full of heartache and a “thousand natural shocks”? Death should be a blessed sleep. Yet he must fear death, because to die in the act of revenge will make him liable to the fires of Gehenna.

But isn’t Hamlet only seeking justice? Shouldn’t Claudius pay for his crime? Who can do it, if not Hamlet? Yet what is The Iliad but a long grand warning against the horrific evils of a justified anger? And has not the wisdom of ages always taken the sword from the hand of the one to be avenged and placed it in the hands of those who have not been personally affected, like the jury that brings a happy close to the Oresteian tragedies of Aeschylus?

Revenge is a much more prominent theme in Hamlet than justice. The words “revenge” and “vengeance” are used at least 16 times in the play, words related to justice a mere five times. The Ghost gave the great commission in terms of vengeance: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” (I.5) The Ghost approves of Hamlet’s natural, impulsive response, “Haste me to know it…that I may sweep to my revenge.” In telling his story, the Ghost does all he can to rouse Hamlet to a rage. He lingers on the physical pains of the sufferings that Claudius caused him, using nine lines to describe the effects of the poison, and another five lines to express his current torments – “Oh horrible, O horrible, most horrible!” He speaks of Claudius as a “serpent”, “beast”, a user of “witchcraft”, “garbage”. He invokes not Hamlet’s sense of justice, but his love for his father. He relies, not on Hamlet’s reason, his virtue, his concern for the common good, but nature at work in him, responding viscerally to the Ghost’s images:

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.

In fact, other than “the secrets of his prison house”, there is nothing remarkably supernatural in what the Ghost says to Hamlet. Any man who had suffered betrayal by brother and wife could express similar disbelief, repugnance and anger. Had the poison failed to kill him but left him an invalid in a secret prison, Hamlet the king might have said just the same to his son. The Ghost had been violated; the memory of the wrong will not have ceased to pain him until he has had his revenge. In the Rhetoric, a work that Shakespeare knew well,3 Aristotle tells us that anger desires revenge: “Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends.” (Book II, Chapter 2, 1378a) Anger arises, not just because another has caused us pain, but because the other person has slighted us, treated us as of little worth, as persons unable to do anything about a personal injury.4 Anger seeks “conspicuous revenge”. The offender’s suffering will show him and the world that “I am not so low account5 that you can injure me without fear.” Until vengeance is exacted, a man’s own sense of self-worth is undermined.6

So it is deeply natural that Hamlet castigates himself for failing to seek revenge and feels himself a coward. In his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, he identifies himself with all those who have been slighted:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes….

Nature drives us to settle our accounts (make our “quietus”) with violence. Only conscience, with the accompanying dread of judgment after death, would prevent a young man of spirit from settling his scores in this way. For a Christian especially, conscience presents an obstacle to revenge. How many pious mothers could answer their son’s questions: “’Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?’ Our Lord who meekly bore all the insolence of the scourging and the crown? ‘Who would these fardels bear?’ Our Sweet Savior who bore with His Cross all the sins and sufferings of the fallen world?” Their answers might refrain their sons, but, whether righteous or not, they will struggle with the womanly feeling that all cowards know.

Laertes shows us what we really would want to do, what we might wish Hamlet had done. Laertes, whose cause is so like Hamlet’s, will have nothing of calming thought. Pausing for thought would make him feel like a bastard with no natural feelings for his murdered father. No human structures, no warnings of conscience, or promptings of grace will stop the natural anger that overwhelms him.

To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation.

Claudius eggs Laertes on — no holy place, no treacherous deed should hold him back from vengeance, or else his pretended love for his father is merely a painting of sorrow, “A face without a heart”. (IV.3)

Hamlet himself experiences the same emotions. When the play has exposed the conscience of the King (III.2), he exults in the expectation that makes anger, as Achilles said (Iliad XVIII, 109) “Sweeter…by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetness.” Yet Hamlet knows that Christian vengeance must be more spiritual. When he comes across the kneeling King, he has the perfect opportunity to satisfy his earthly passion, but he refrains. (III.3) The King is praying, and so death will bring him to heavenly reward. “O This is hire and salary, not revenge!” Achilles’s rage could not be satisfied except by never-ending humiliation of Hector’s mortal remains (Iliad XXIV, 1ff), so Hamlet will wait until he can make sure his foe’s “soul may be as damn’d and black As hell, whereto it goes.” Earlier he had feared the devil might be abusing him in order to damn him; now Hamlet himself has assumed the devil’s role in order to damn his uncle.7

Conscience intensely afflicts one other character in the play — Claudius. The first reference to conscience occurs in the last line of Act 2. Hamlet intends to “Catch the conscience of the King.” The King’s conscience is hiding; Claudius has been hiding his guilt. Hamlet prepares the play to expose it. What Hamlet doesn’t know is that the King’s conscience has already begun to show itself. In an aside as he and Polonius prepare Ophelia as a test for Hamlet (III.1), Claudius reveals that he has been bearing the “heavy burthen” of conscience for some time. It has made him so sensitive that Polonius’s gentle lament over the necessity of hypocrisy feels like a lash to him. What a torment the open performance of his seduction and murder must be! The play exposes his conscience to all, but also gets it working interiorly in ways that Hamlet never dreams. Conscience proclaims Claudius guilty, spurs him to prayer, but also prevents him from praying. Grave sinners might find the King’s cry the most pitiable lines in any drama: “Oh bosom, black as death: Oh limed soul that struggling to be free art more engaged.” (III.3) When he bends hopelessly into the posture of prayer, he begs for angelic help and, in a plea that would have shaken St. Augustine, he commands what he can in no way bring about himself, “…Heart with strings of steel, Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!”

Embracing Conscience

So conscience is a real problem in the play – frustrating Hamlet, lashing Claudius, rejected by Laertes.

But conscience returns in Act V as a friend to Hamlet. Hamlet accepts the judgment of conscience, which clears him of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildensterne (V.2).8 Conscience now approves of him “quitting” the one who has “killed my King”, “whored my Mother”, stolen the crown, and attempted to murder him. Conscience will even damn him should he “let this Canker of our nature come in further evil.” (V.2)

How is this change brought about? Much has rightly been made of Hamlet’s new-found sense of Providence in Act V, which amazes, comforts, calms and strengthens him. He recounts to Horatio the providential accidents that brought him back alive to Denmark, and entrusts his life to its care. Perhaps this has an important role in reconciling Hamlet to his conscience. But before he can embrace Providence, he must put aside his demonic desire for revenge. Hamlet’s conversion happened in the Queen’s bedroom. (III.4) When Hamlet heads to meet his mother, his anger against her is as strong as that against his uncle. He is tempted to murder her, but recoils at an act too unnatural, too Nero-esque. But he intends to shame her, even to torment her, by bringing up her awful crime and flinging it in her face.

Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;

He will need all his will power to make himself be satisfied with mere verbal lashings.

In using her conscience as a tool of torment, Hamlet is following the Ghost’s lead. The Ghost had no doubt that his “seeming virtuous queen” had succumbed to her lust before his death. (I.5) Her betrayal was more of a torment to him than his brother’s violence. He lost track of the time as he wondered how she could have left his celestial bed to “prey on garbage”. He knew that his natural rage would infect Hamlet, so he warned him to let Heaven sting her:

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.

Even before hearing the Ghost’s accusations, her evident joy at marrying his uncle had poisoned Hamlet’s view of the whole world. (I.2) After the Ghost’s departure, Hamlet lamented his mother even before accusing his uncle, “O most pernicious woman. O villain, villain, smiling damned villain.” Now, in her bedroom, (III.4) he vents his shame that she is his mother. He blames her not only for her sin, but for the ruin of all his hopes in virtue, in love, in religion.

Such an act That…Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers’ oaths…and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven’s face doth glow:

His accusations have their effect; Hamlet makes his mother look into her soul and see how black it is. But he is not done. She begs him to stop, but he goes on to portray love-making in such disgusting terms as would make Iago proud. Hamlet, finally having reached her conscience, uses it not just to prick her and sting her, but to bludgeon and bludgeon her.

At this moment, the Ghost appears. He has come to chide his son for inaction, but he sees his unfaithful wife in her torment. In Act I, he desired her to be pricked by guilt. But now that he sees her, his natural tenderness for her comes back to him, and he tells Hamlet to “step between her and her fighting soul”. He knows she cannot bear direct contact with the world beyond nature. His look of tenderness is so full of pity that it leads Hamlet to lose that thirst for “hot blood” that he so desperately need as the fuel for his actions.

Do not look upon me, Lest with this piteous action you convert My stern effects. Then what I have to do Will want true color—tears perchance for blood.

The Ghost does convert Hamlet’s “stern effects”. He begins to preach to his mother. He urges her to desire grace, confess herself, repent of her past, and begin the long and difficult road to virtue. He offers her Aristotelian advice on the benefit of good actions chosen with difficulty. And he promises he’ll ask her forgiveness when she admits she needs his.

In the Tragedy of Hamlet, instead of rising to greatness and then plunging to disaster, the central character plunges down into the moral abyss and then dramatically is lifted out of it. Hamlet’s rise begins right here, in the middle of the scene with his mother. Hamlet had become satanic9, determined to use the conscience of his enemies to trap them, damn them and torment them. But the Ghost’s expression of natural pity “converts” Hamlet, who then uses his mother’s conscience to correct her, inspire her and direct her to prayer. He awakens her sense of conscience and encourages her to accept its condemnation so that she can embrace the possibility of repentance that it offers:

_Qu._ Oh Hamlet, Thou hast cleft my heart in twaine.

_Ham._ O throw away the worser part of it, And Live the purer with the other halfe.

Hamlet finally recognizes that even the heart of his adulterous, incestuous mother has a purer part. He no longer condemns nature as “a foule and pestilent congregation of vapours” nor see man simply as “This Quintessence of dust.”

Hamlet’s intense experience with his mother immediately opens him to his own conscience as he faces the body of Polonius. It also seems to make him aware of the action of Providence in his life.

For this same Lord, I do repent: but heaven hath pleas’d it so, To punish me with this, and this with me, That I must be their Scourge and Minister.

Perhaps the reconciliation between natural feeling and conscience has opened him up to the Lord of both Nature and Mind.

In the bedroom scene, at the heart of the play, we see Hamlet’s turn toward conscience and Providence. When he returns from his trip toward England, he is a new man – ready to trust his life and death to a Providence which he sees at work in his life, ready to be judged and directed by conscience, ready to repent and amend for the wrong he had done to Laertes in Ophelia’s grave. He is no longer filled with rage nor does he need to be in a rage to act. He soberly judges that his right and duty lies in an attempt to challenge the king; he is ready to act though he is scared; he believes that Providence will provide the right opportunity.

In the final, disastrous duel (V.2), Hamlet shows his true character. He makes a moving apology to Laertes which quenches the rage of “Nature, Whose motive in this case should stirre me most to my Revenge.” Hamlet so touches the better angel of Laertes’ nature that it wakens his conscience, which nearly prevents him from carrying through with the duel. Having been poisoned by his own blade, he admits that his death is just, defends Hamlet’s slaying of the King and dies begging forgiveness:

Exchange forgivenesse with me, Noble _Hamlet; Mine and my Father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me.

Hamlet readily responds: “Heaven make thee free of it, I follow thee.”

The Tragedy of Hamlet is not a typical tragedy for Hamlet. He suffers from the beginning a trial that shakes his seemingly happy life from its foundation. The fabric of natural loves that has nurtured his life has been torn to shreds. Without this natural context, he feels within himself, when he can feel at all, only the base, angry part of nature, which makes the demands of Christian conscience seem external fiats enforced by eternal intimidation. Yet the other side of nature, the natural pity arising from love, lies latent even in the betrayed Ghost. The Ghost to his own surprise is overwhelmed by it, and awakens it in Hamlet, teaching him to hope that his mother’s heart has a “purer part” that can be reached by grace. Hamlet thus begins his rise from demonic manipulation of conscience to embracing Christian conscience as the guide to just action. Perhaps his father is finally able to let go as well; he is seen no more on earth.

The really tragic figure in the play is Claudius. Brought by Hamlet’s Mousetrap to the brink of repentance, he has not the strength in himself to soften his heart and let go of his unjust gains. Instead, like Macbeth, he confirms himself in evil, corrupts Laertes, and becomes the instrument of death for his queen, Laertes, Hamlet, and even himself. Little doubt that his soul ends “as damned and black as Hell whereto it goes.” Had he not led Laertes into treachery, into poisoning the blade, Hamlet would have lived to tell his own story. Yet this was not Providence abandoning Hamlet. Rather, It allowed him to suffer justly for his role in the tragedy. For when Claudius cried out, “Help, angels!”, Hamlet appeared, not as an angel of mercy, but as the angel of condemnation. What might have happened had Hamlet shown himself to Claudius at that moment, and accused him as he later did his mother? Would that have melted those “strings of steel”? We will never know.

1In an essay entitled “The Case of Hamlet the Younger”, Studies in Shakespeare, 1895.

2 N.B. The Folio edition omits his second long soliloquy on the question, the one provoked by Fortinbras’ assault on Poland (IV.4).

3 Cf. Sr. Miriam Joseph’s, Shakespeare and the Art of Rhetoric.

4 No doubt, Aristotle would think of Achilles here.

5Or a “dishonored vagabond”, as Achilles would say (Iliad 9.648).

6 St. Thomas Aquinas accepts this definition of anger – 1-2.48.2. He also holds that anger is, on the part of the subject, the most natural of the passions – 1-2.46.5.

7The spiritual horror of this scene is so intense that Victorian audiences would not stand for it to be performed.

8 Hamlet says their deaths are “not near my conscience”. MacDonald gives a good explanation of Hamlet’s reasoning.

9The Adversary of the Book of Job, whose anti-thesis is the Paraclete, The Advocate, promised by Our Lord.

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Hamlet’s Split Soliloquy

Years ago, a student became notorious at our college for arguing that Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy is not about suicide. It became the subject of Soren’s senior thesis, which led him to draft a book (which I don’t think he ever published). He passionately argued his view with anyone who would listen. I almost always listen to people when they express their opinions passionately and articulately, no matter how crazy they seem. I am usually skeptical, rarely convinced, but almost always find that I learn a lot from their arguments.

In this case, the student’s arguments did not convince me at the time, but his insistence did make me take a closer look at why I was sure the soliloquy is about suicide. Some of his textual challenges weakened my own conviction. In particular, I remember his pointing to “take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them,” as not sounding like suicide but assault, and his asking how Hamlet could be thinking of suicide as among the “enterprises of great pitch and moment [which] with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” I had readings of these portions that fit with suicide, but when I looked at them critically, they seemed pale and forced.

george-macdonald-06I have since come to agree strongly with the Soren’s position, strengthened in this conviction by an essay and study of Hamlet by George MacDonald, 19th century Christian fantasy author and inspiration to Lewis and Tolkien, in which he states: Neither in its first verse, then, nor in it anywhere else, do I find even an allusion to suicide. His description of how he came to this judgment was eerily familiar:

But we are terribly trammelled and hindered, as in the understanding of Hamlet throughout, so here in the understanding of his meditation, by traditional assumption. I was roused to think in the right direction concerning it, by the honoured friend and relative to whom I have feebly acknowledged my obligation by dedicating to him this book. I could not at first see it as he saw it: ‘Think about it, and you will,’ he said. I did think, and by degrees–not very quickly–my prejudgments thinned, faded, and almost vanished.

Although I don’t share MacDonald’s entire reading of either this soliloquy or of the play, I do feel as he felt: I trust I see it now as a whole, and in its true relations, internal and external–its relations to itself, to the play, and to the Hamlet of Shakspere.

MacDonald thinks we cannot know “what Hamlet is referring to in the said first verse [To be or not to be]…for it is but the vanishing ripple of a preceding ocean of thought, from which he is just stepping out upon the shore of the articulate.” But I think we can get a very good guess from realizing that dramatically this soliloquy is a continuation of his previous “O, what a rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. Hamlet has no interactions with anyone between the scenes, so it makes dramatic sense (though not necessary) that his mind is turning upon related issues. The central question of that soliloquy is, “Am I a coward?” Hamlet does not understand why the passion for revenge awakened by the Ghost has not driven him on to attempt to kill his uncle. The only idea he has is that he must be a coward, he must be afraid that in his pursuit of revenge he will himself die. The self-loathing that Hamlet unpacks in words arises from his fear that he lacks true manly nobility of feeling. He feels himself the lowest and meanest of men: a “rogue”, a “peasant slave”, “pigeon-livered”, “an ass”, “a whore”, “a drab”, “a scullion”.

I don’t think Hamlet fully understands the complexities that are churning in his soul, but we can clearly see what is on Hamlet’s mind in this soliloquy. And this provides the proper context for the “To Be” soliloquy. In the beginning, he is wondering whether suffering “slings and arrows” is better than to fight against them; in the middle, he runs through a litany of offenses that would make a real man lash out to settle the score (“when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin”); at the end, he explicitly returns to cowardice, which keeps the weak from undertaking the great deed. The middle of both soliloquies makes the continuity of thought palpable.

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face? Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat, As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?


‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall To make oppression bitter, or ere this I should have fatted all the region kites With this slave’s offal….

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life….

There are great differences. Passion and imagination drive Hamlet in the first soliloquy, the feeling of shame arising from seeing himself in the mirror of the Player’s passion. But the brain which Hamlet engaged at its end (“About my brain”) dominates the second. Hamlet intellectually analyzes cowardice – it comes down to a question of being and not-Falstaff Final Dress _November 7, 2013 -into-the-valley-of-the-shadow-of-death-rode-the-six-hundred-13-638being. Is it better to stay alive (a la Falstaff’s “catechism” on honor) or to die, which will likely happen if one rides with the Six Hundred into the Valley of Death. An analysis of death first makes it appear as the greatest of blessings, but then as the entrance to the most fearful of objects – eternal damnation. The dread which arises from a consideration of our eternal fate is what makes thinking men live as cowards, cowards who fear to allow the natural desires for revenge to lead them to action.

I can’t remember what of this reading I might have gained from conversations with Soren (or from reading the draft of his book). But I am very grateful to him for having passionately argued his thesis, which forced me not only to reconsider the meaning of the soliloquy, but become more aware of the central dramatic examination of the passion for revenge from a Christian perspective.

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Tolkien Essays

I just added a page featuring three of my essays on Tolkien’s works, which have meant so much to me from the time I encountered them as a teenager.

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What Good Are Exams?

Over the past few years, I have grown more concerned about the negative effects of written exams on our students. In spite of our efforts to promote “learning for its own sake”, and success in generating engaging discussions ‘from time to time, most of our students seem to approach exams in a slavish or childish spirit.

I reached a breaking point in the middle of the recently-concluded exam week, after C0155576-Descartes_mesolabe-SPLreading the exams from a wonderful group of Junior students. We had had excellent conversations on the origins and significance of algebra as we worked through the Geometry of Descartes. The exam essay question, accompanied by provocative quotations, offered a wide range of possibilities for the students to express their reflections on some of the grand claims made for algebra by Descartes and his predecessor Viete, and to integrate ideas from their seminar readings in early modern thought and the birth of physics discussed in their natural science class.

What I received were mostly bland essays with the same relatively narrow focus, the same strengths, the same errors, not all of them ones that had come up in our class discus2012.05.13-20 Roma for 25th 370sions. They smacked of industrial production, about as exciting and varied as McDonald’s (which my wife and I can attest tastes the same in Assisi as in Santa Paula). I’ll bet my colleagues, who probably had many different discussions throughout the semester, received very similar exams. I think I can account for this. Over the past few years, I have become aware that many of our students prepare for exams by using review guides that have been put together by other students from previous years. From inquiries I have made, I estimate that these guides form an important part of exam preparation for over half, perhaps as many as three-quarters, of our students.

The Junior math exams threw me into a state of obsessive gloom, as I faced the need of creating an examination for my Freshman Philosophy students, who had spent a semester in frenetic, delightful, serious, at times life-changing discussions of Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s Categories. I could not stomach the thought of making them write mass-produced, soulless essays. But what to do?

A few years ago, I experimented with giving oral exams to Senior Math students. That was a great experience for me and for many of the students. I spent half an hour with each student, questioning them in depth about the most interesting ideas that came up in the course, suggesting new lines of thought to help them connect ideas they were developing. It was vastly better than having them spend two hours regurgitating on paper, then having me spend an entire day tasting the results. (Tolkien referred to gradingmarking exams as “the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children.”)

Oral exams were the norm in Western education before the middle of the 19th century. In other words, back when liberal education was the norm. (For an excellent example, see Newman, “Elementary Studies: Grammar, ss.2-3.) As education became more industrialized, the British began to copy the practice of their civil service, which had recently imported the practice of basing preferment on written exams from the Chinese, whose bureaucracy provided for amazing cultural continuity in spite of tumultuous changes in rulers. (See A Brief History of Exams and the Wikipedia article on testing.) To be fair, the Jesuits had begun imitating the Chinese in the 17th century, in order to increase a competitive spirit among their students.

As a student, I enjoyed much about exam week. I enjoyed the learning experience of comprehensive reviews, helping fellow students understand some of the more basic concepts with which they had struggled, and putting down in writing what I had come to understand with greater clarity and precision than during the semester. Still, I often wondered why our College, so different in so many ways from almost every other educational institution of the twentieth century, thought this modern practice a great advance over the tradition. During 25 years of discussing the issue from time to time, two reasons frequently recur for our practice – the belief that an external threat is needed to prompt students to engage in the important practice of review, and the need to give grades to students who do not participate in class discussions. I don’t understand how either of these reasons fits with our institutional ordering towards truly free education. In today’s “nothing but the test” educational climate, they have a crippling effect on all we do.

My melancholic reflections led me to consider intently what I hope for from exams. For 204914the students, I hope that the formality and solemnity of having an entire week devoted to review and writing will lead them to truly re-view. As John Milton Gregory expressed,

A review is something more than a repetition. A machine may repeat a process, but only an intelligent agent can review it….A repetition by the mind is the re-thinking of a thought….It involves fresh conceptions and new associations, and brings an increase of facility and power.

They should be able to identify what is most worth knowing in what they have studied and, in assessing themselves, gain a sense of what they understand and don’t understand about it. In preparing to answer questions for themselves, they should come to a clearer realization of what they know for themselves, as distinct from what they depend on others to articulate. The whole experience should make them long for more time than they have to re-visit the books, and prepare them for further thought and exploration in later studies.

For myself, I hope exams will allow me to get to know each student better. I want to gain a greater sense, not simply of what they have learned, but of their capabilities, of the progress they have made, of the next steps they need to take in their individual development. I also want to assess my work with the students – have they all missed something important? Was it a result of my neglect as a teacher? Among the least important uses of the exam is determining grades for the students. Not only do I consider grading (as distinct from other ways of communicating my assessment to interested parties) barely to be tolerated as a necessity demanded by today’s universal practice, but I have found over the years that exams only affect the grades of a handful of students – those who do not participate in class discussions, and those whose participation grades straddle the B+/A- line.

As a result of my reflections (along with conversation with my daughter, a recent graduate of our college), I came to the sharp realization that the current climate regarding exams made it so that I am unable to learn what I really want to know, and detrimentally affected the development of my students. So, before handing the exams to my students, I told them that nothing they wrote or did not write would have a negative impact on their grade. The result was a batch of 31 essays that I honestly enjoyed reading, and that helped me to understand my students much better than exams had for years.

Now I have to plan for next semester. I still have hope that the goods I desire can come from the exam experience. Review classes neither allow students the time for thorough review nor seem to give them impetus to take the review seriously. They are also dominated by the same students who dominate discussions all year; other students will not be personally accountable. I want each student to be responsible for making some orderly, encompassing, challenging presentation.

So here’s what I would like to do. To relieve the slavish desire while still allowing for a healthy sense of striving for excellence, I will keep the premise that the examination can only improve grades. Yet, I am convinced that written essays alone will not reliably reveal the mind of students to me; an oral element that will allow me to question the profesor-asks-questions-exam-student-explaining-hands-oral-32883407students is essential for assessment, as well as allowing me to initiate a discussion tailored to the student’s needs. The traditions of liberal education agree with me on this. On the other hand, I want students to present some complete idea, as they do in an essay. So my current thought is to give students an hour or so to prepare a five minute presentation on some question I set them, which they may either write out in full or in note form. I will have them make the presentation to me, then engage in a limited ten minutes of discussion with me about it. I will have to work through some details to make this workable for 31 students on the last school day of the year, but I don’t think they are insurmountable. Perhaps I can do it with two or three students at a time, and allow them to question each other? Probably not.


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The Frenzy of Philosophy

For the second semester in a row, I handed out copies of “What I Learn From Exams”. Last year, it led to intense in-class discussions about what grades mean to students, and about aspects of our college’s culture that inadvertently feed excessive anxiety about exams, nearly suffocating the real desire for learning we so carefully try to cultivate. This year, we did not discuss it in class, perhaps because I have mostly freshmen, who have yet to experience the frenzy of exam week. But at a lunch table Thursday, I asked one what she thought of it, which provoked a common discussion of the topic at the senior-dominated table, and provided myself and a fellow tutor a bully-pulpit for preaching against grade consciousness.

It also provided the opportunity for one senior to voice something that had been troubling her for some time. Senior year, she said, had caused serious crises for her. Reading some of the modern philosophers, and learning more of modern science and mathematics, had raised questions for her about things she thought she knew, and she karl-marxdidn’t know how to answer them. She wasn’t too challenged by Hegel, but Marx seemed to her scarily compelling. Dedekind and Lobachevsky have made her question her certainty about Euclid’s geometry, and Maxwell’s electromagnetic studies made her doubt she understood anything about the composition of the material universe.

The whole experience had depressed her. She felt her legs had been cut out from under her. This wasn’t what she thought would happen. She expected that her Catholic liberal education would give her an understanding of theology and philosophy together with the tools of the liberal arts that would allow her to answer the confusions of the modern world, and prepare her to save people from its deceits. Instead she has found she more profound questions than ever.

I felt for the girl, but I am afraid it also gladdened my heart. I had had this student when she was a freshman. Throughout the year, she revealed a beautiful soul. She was an important part of a most memorable conversation of Plato’s Symposium. I always like to start that seminar, which culminates the entire year, with this passage:

Now up to this point my tale could fairly be told to anybody; but from here onwards I would not have continued in your hearing were it not that…I share the plight of the man who was bitten by the snake: you know it is related of one in such a plight that he refused to describe his sensations to any but persons who had been bitten themselves, since they alone would understand him and stand up for him if he should give way to wild words and actions in his agony. Now I have been bitten by a more painful creature, in the most painful way that one can be bitten: in my heart, or my soul, or whatever one is to call it, I am stricken and stung by [Socrates’] philosophic discourses, which adhere more fiercely than any adder when once they lay hold of a young and not ungifted soul, and force it to do or say whatever they will….Every one of you has had his share of Bacchic frenzy of philosophy, so all of you shall hear. You shall stand up alike for what then was done and for what now is spoken. But the domestics, and all else profane and clownish, must clap the heaviest of doors upon their ears.

My question to the freshmen is this: Have we had a share in the “Bacchic frenzy of night-e1450465689181philosophy”? This is a question that I usually have to ask several times during the discussion, since my students have a difficult time even imagining the experience Alcibiades described. In this particular discussion, when the wildness of the claim about philosophy finally became clear, some eager conversationalist in the group said, “No! It’s not like you wake up in the morning thinking about this stuff.” To which the student of my tale replied, “Oh yes you do!” and proceeded to defend Plato’s presentation for the rest of the evening.

I often wondered whether she had continued to live the philosophic life with that intensity. Her quandary as a senior shows that she has indeed. It is a terrible thing to discover that the road to wisdom really does lead into valleys of darkness and doubt, but wisdom is a woman hardly to be gained without trying the depths of the soul. The education of the philosopher, as Plato saw it, should hopefully follow upon a healthy education of heart and imagination, but needs to proceed through mathematical studies, to test the student’s power of reasoning and the love of learning, but even more to discover whether he would be alive to wrestling with the most difficult questions about the foundations of mathematical thinking, which, since math promises to reveal the foundations of the material world, involves wonder about everything. Plato would have his overseers choose those young for further training (what he called “intellectual gymnastics”).

My own collegiate experience mirrored that of my student. The first two years, focused largely on Greeks, Romans, and Medievals, made me confident that there was beautiful and good truth that could be known, while the last two years presented modern challenges that I could not completely and satisfactorily answer. After graduation, this experience made me hesitant to strike back against those I thought presented wrong ideas, and more inclined to ask them questions to discover why they thought what they did. That was hard! I did not like being unsure of myself, especially when it concerned matters that were important to our faith. But, in the long run, I think that listening to those in error (an ability fostered by my liberal arts training) provided me with a deeper understanding of what was attractive about their error, and so an ability later in life, having incorporated what was worthwhile into my own view, to offer more satisfactory answers to those who were struggling with the same issues.

I shared much of this with my troubled senior, and I hope that it offered her comfort. At one point she exclaimed, “If it weren’t for the Faith, I don’t know what I would do!” I concurred, adding that our Faith in the One True, Good, and Beautiful allows us to face the real state of our knowledge. As Socrates said to Meno, in a passage that has dominated my intellectual life, “That knowledge differs from true opinion is no matter of christ-the-teacher-icon-550conjecture with me. There are not many things which I profess to know, but this is most certainly one of them.” Socrates and his philosophic frenzy enters into our heart, making us restlessly suspicious of what we think we know. This can lead to skeptical despair and even in our days a high rate of suicide. Thank God that we have the reliable authority Socrates lacked, so that we might be able to bear the realization of our own ignorance, and learn to be so patient and docile that we can gradually approach the gates of the house of wisdom.

I left the table grateful to be working with such a beautiful young soul, while praying for God to present to her with His rod and His staff. That night, my wife and I decided to Chrysostomosreturn to the College for Adoration. As we walked into the chapel, we were stunned to see it filled with well over 100 students, kneeling before the Lord in the monstrance, while student-led choirs filled the chapel with their pure voices raised in adoring song. This is the heart of Catholic liberal education.

Posted in Living It, Philosophy, Reflections on the Books | 1 Comment

Human Exceptionalism Proven by Science!

A study released earlier this year of DNA strands from a large variety of species and millions of different individuals reveals that, while species genetically differ from one another markedly (there are no “blurred” lines among species), individuals within a species show very little genetic diversity. Scientists are drawing many fascinating ideas from this — e.g. 90% of animal species started off with a primary couple sometime within the last 200,000 years, suggesting a cataclysmic event, possibly a viral pandemic.  But the one stands out, as revealed by the title of the Phys.Org article:

Far from special: Humanity’s tiny DNA differences are ‘average’ in animal kingdom

One of the lead scientists suggests profound anthropological consequences:stoeckle-thaler_orig

Says Dr. Stoeckle: “Culture, life experience and other things can make people very different but in terms of basic biology, we’re like the birds. By determining the genetic variety within species of the animal kingdom, made possible only recently by the burgeoning number of DNA sequences, we’ve documented the absence of human exceptionalism.”

The director of the research institute overseeing the study draws ethical and sociological implications:

“At a time when humans place so much emphasis on individual and group differences, maybe we should spend more time on the ways in which we resemble one another and the rest of the animal kingdom.”
With a little more imagination and a lot better education, these scientists might have considered what stands out to me: The extraordinary diversity among human individuals and cultures has little to do with biological diversity. Being much less biologically diverse than other species, we completely blow them out of the water in terms of life diversity. Human exceptionalism was never more clear.
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Unexpected Classroom Enchantment

A few weeks ago, I was not looking forward to my morning class. Family health care issues had gotten me down, and I had little energy or inspiration for Sophomore Language. The translation assignment I had given them I did not think would take too long to go over, and I couldn’t count on it provoking interesting discussion. The passage they prepared was from the first chapter of St. Anselm’s Proslogion, which is a beautifulp00415 prayer arousing the mind to contemplation. I want to discuss it with students because it is one of the few places in our curriculum, which is ordered to contemplation, where they can see what contemplation really looks like. This is a topic I find fascinating, but I never know whether students will respond to it, whether they will see much of interest in it or not. So I had to have a backup plan for other things we might do with extra time. I really hate not knowing whether I will be able to generate conversation.

It turned out that we never got through more than one sentence, never got to the questions I might have wanted to discuss, and never had a lull in the conversation. I had asked them to compare a Latin paragraph with the English translation on the facing page of the edition they would use in their Theology class next semester. I wanted them to pay careful attention to the Latin forms, and be able to account for them syntactically. When I asked how it went, they were uneasy. They had had a difficulty with this sentence:

Fateor, Domine, et gratias ago, quia creasti in me hanc “imaginem tuam”, ut tui memor te cogitem, te amem.

When I asked one of them to translate it, he did it correctly: “I speak, O Lord, and I give thanks, because you created this your image in me, so that, mindful of you, I might think of you, I might love you.” I said that was fine. But the uneasiness persisted. The English translator had rendered the last part of the sentence, “so that I might remember you, think of you, love you.” What puzzled them was that they thought “memor” is an adjective in Latin, but “remember” in English is a verb. At first, they thought they must have misunderstood what part of speech “memor” is. Having confirmed their knowledge, I then asked whether the Latin expression is significantly different from the English. One of the students pointed out that, while the English presented the three acts as on the same level, the Latin suggested that “being mindful” is a condition for thinking and loving the Lord.

Now this was getting interesting; I thought we might start exploring Trinitarian implications in St. Anselm’s description of the image. But then one of the students blurted out, partly in astonishment, partly in indignation, “But that’s against the rules!” It latin-noun-mastery-chartswas an ingenuous expression of the feeling of a student who had been trained for some years of her young life to memorize all the rules for correct translation, and had often lost points on quizzes and tests for making the very mistake that this published translator was making. How could he dare to translate an adjective by verb? Or was he so bad that he didn’t realize he was making a mistake?

This question determined the rest of the conversation. We started to explore what translating really is. We discussed what language, especially in the hands of a masterful author like St. Anselm, is able to convey, and the students saw, seemingly for the first time, how many difficult choices a translator faces. As the conversation developed, I was delightfully surprised at the students’ genuine, intense, even invested interest in the question. Perhaps it struck them so because translating has formed a prominent part of their education, and they were realizing for the first time that they had never really understood what they were doing. Several of the students lit up as they were able to voice their appreciation for the contextual and emotional aspects of language, which most often had to be pushed aside to achieve technically correct translations.

At some point, I noticed that my own temporal anxieties had vanished; for just a little while I myself was enchanted with the question, and with witnessing my students’ minds open onto a small but not insignificant stream leading into the ocean of wisdom.


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Esolen Describes Beautiful Schools

Anthony Esolen shares his delight in being a part of a small, fully intentional Catholic educational community in ways that many of us have been blessed to recognize:

Yesterday as I was walking to class, two of my students, an alto and a bass, were singing “White Christmas” out of the window, in harmony, hailing the arrival of the first snow.  They sometimes hiccoughed in their harmony for laughing.  I sat at lunch next to a student and a colleague, the former carving up the latter over a chessboard.  Every day I see things I have not seen before.  They are ordinary things, in order, and not the result of a committee.

There is an intellectual and artistic liveliness among them too.  One of them, perhaps the quietest of all, spent fifteen minutes asking me questions about free verse, blank verse, why stress was the most prominent feature of English verse, whether that was so in other languages, and where he could learn more about the matter.  I gave him a book to read.


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Five Definitions of Man

Five Definitions of Man

Am I a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typho, or a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny? Socrates, Phaedo

I have long wondered why Aristotle never really defined man, and why no one seems to have noticed. At our institution, freshmen read Porphyry before anything of Aristotle, and thereafter wittingly or unwittingly follow St. Thomas’s habit of using “rational animal” as the preeminent example of a definition. (That St. Thomas seems to inform this practice, though they have not read him, is suggested through how quickly Porphyry’s actual definition, “rational and mortal animal”, is forgotten.) The strength of the practice is seen in the seemingly total unawareness that Aristotle never uses the expression in his logical works we read, preferring “two-footed featherless animal” when he needs a non-mathematical definition. In fact, suspecting a wild goose chase but not certain because I have not read all of his extant works, I have challenged students and fellow faculty members to find anywhere that Aristotle uses the expression. So far the goose remains as elusive as the loon.

Thanks to working with a very diligent, studious and inquiring senior a few years ago, I have come to the conclusion that, if he ever considered it, Aristotle likely never used the expression in a logical work because it would lead his readers and students to think that the magical expression solved the greatest mystery in the sub-lunar universe, “What is man?” My student’s thesis work was driven by her strong intuition that only God’s revealed words have offered the best definition of man, “Let us make man to our Image and Likeness.” In the course of our discussions and re-readings of the Posterior Analytics, I have come to think that Aristotelean/Thomistic principles suggest five definitions of man, divided according to the different kinds of study that might think about man. Without going into too much argumentation, I offer them for consideration and discussion.

Logical – “Rational Animal” – Logic offers ways to define all things based on our common conceptions of them, apart from any specialized inquiry. This begins with categorization and proceeds through difference. With regard to substances, commonly accepted differences for each genus should be determined, and all those that apply to a particular being are its definition, when arranged according to priority and posteriority. Porphyry follows this when he determines that the differences of animals are rational/irrational, mortal/immortal. Since we no longer believe in the gods and their horses, we should only use the one division.

Political – “Political Animal Capable of Speech to Express the Useful and Unuseful (and consequently the Just and Unjust”) – In Politics I.1, Aristotle comes as close as he ever does to offering a formal definition of man (as in Ethics I.12 he comes as close as he ever does to the expression “rational animal”). This follows the logical pattern in identifying a genus (Political Animal includes herd and colonial animals, as cattle and bees) and a difference, adapting the pattern to the concern of the kind of knowledge he is seeking, identifying the whole of which man is a part, and suggesting something of his preeminent activity and final cause (speaking about the just, for the sake of the whole, potentially eternal city). Strikingly, Aristotle has already concluded near the end of the Ethics that the political life, while offering properly human happiness, is not a life of the individual as such, nor does it attain the highest happiness of which the individual is capable.

Natural – “Intelligent soul that gives life to a body capable of the imaginations suitable for thought.” The natural philosopher seeks the material and formal principles of each being and defines accordingly. Aristotle’s study of soul reveals that the highest soul has the power of intelligence and needs a body that makes understanding possible. Strikingly, Aristotle shows that the activity and the existence of the intellectual soul transcends the body which it informs.

Metaphysical – “A Purely Potential Intelligence that Must Share its Existence with a Body” – This is suggested by St. Thomas’s On Being and Essence, and follows naturally from the considerations found in the Political and Natural studies. Considered with respect to all being, man is not best seen as a composition of body and soul that is part of a temporal community, but against the backdrop of all the possibilities of intelligent (angelic) existence, whose differences are grasped according to degree of act and possibility in their existence. Our intellect is the lowest possible, beginning being with no actual understanding at all, and needing a body substantially united to it in order to come to know.

Theological – “A Creature Made by God to His Image and Likeness as the Culmination of His Material Creation” – This definition includes formal, material, efficient and final causes.

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