Sound Thinking

17 Sep

From myth to sacramentality

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/17/21

Craig Berthal on Tolkien’s understanding of what fairy tales are

“In [his 1939 essay] ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ Tolkien takes the ideas he set forth in [his 1931 poem] ‘Mythopoeia,’ and shows how they are realized in one literary genre, the fairy tale. Tolkien wrote few academic essays, yet, when he did write them, they had enormous influence. His essay on Beowulf, ‘The Monsters and the Critics,’ set the criticism of that poem on a new course, in which its artistic merit was considered rather than just its value as a source of historical data. His essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ sets forth Tolkien’s understanding of where fairy tales come from and what they are for. He wants to take the field in a new direction, rejecting contemporary ideas that fairy tales derive from actual persons or events. Rather, he says, they come out of the ‘story soup,’ the narrative inheritance of mankind, whose ingredients have many points of origin.

“Romantic ideas about perception, the imagination, and truth all lie at the foundation of Tolkien’s theory. Like Coleridge and Hopkins, Tolkien believed that the individual mind had a significant part in the ‘creation’ of the world. The simple viewing of any object depends on the point [of view] of the observer, the purpose of the observation, and the memories the observer brings. At nineteen, Hopkins wrote a poem on the problem, imagining many people observing a rainbow in a waterfall from different positions, none of them seeing the same rainbow. Everyone created a slightly different rainbow, making them, in Tolkien's terminology, all sub-creators per force, because perception itself is sub-creative, ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. [Coleridge’s famous declaration in Biographia Literaria].

“Tolkien asserts that reading fairy stories is a way to ‘recover’ the world. To see centaurs and dragons is to see afresh shepherds, sheep, dogs and horses; to see dragons is to see wolves again. Especially for modern man, whose world has long been ‘disenchanted,’ entering Faërie opens the senses to new possibilities, to ‘arresting strangeness.’ ‘Recovery’ entails regaining a clear vision of the world as something different and wondrous. A person open to the possibilities of Faërie is likely to be open to the possibilities of sacramentality — and hence, fairy stories can help us recover the world as sacrament.”

— from Craig Bernthal, Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle Earth (Second Spring, 2014]

17 Sep

Mythopoeic power

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/17/21

Stratford Caldecott on Tolkien’s literary achievement

“Tolkien’s importance as a postwar writer who used fantasy to explore profound moral and spiritual themes was not recognized when The Lord of the Rings was first published in the 1950s. Back in 1936, the subtitle of Tolkien’s academic paper on Beowulf, ‘The Monsters and the Critics,’ had half jokingly implied that the literary critics of the Old English poem which Tolkien loved were adversaries of the hero, perhaps even akin to monsters themselves. And so, when The Lord of the Rings did appear in print, Tolkien knew pretty well what to expect. In fact, it was derided by a number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic, Edmund Wilson famously describing it as ‘juvenile trash.’

“The reason often given for despising the novel was that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were so clearly delineated that the plot was simplistic and childish. But . . . Tolkien was well aware of the complexity and muddle of real life — and yet held his writing to be ‘realistic,’ indeed truer to the inner life than most of the supposedly ‘grown up’ novels the critics had in mind. . . .

Tolkien drew upon a much older tradition of storytelling than the modern novel, with its typically materialistic assumptions. He was retrieving the art of mythological or mythopoeic thinking, which is as old as mankind itself and deeply entwined with our religious sense. The book appeals to universal constants in human nature, constants that are reflected in traditional mythology and folklore the world over. Mythological thinking does not provide an ‘escape’ from reality so much as an ‘intensification’ of it, as another fantasy writer (Alan Garner) once rightly said. It is this that in part explains the novel’s wide appeal — and also the contempt it aroused among those whose world-view and mindset are closed in advance against all such uses of the imagination.

“The Lord of the Rings may be read, therefore, as an exciting story that spectacularly revives an almost-extinct literary genre. But it can also be enjoyed in other ways: as an extended meditation on what it means to be English, or as an imaginative response to the experience of modern warfare, or as a moving evocation of the intimate relationship between love and heroism. . . . [I]t can be read, too, as an exploration of the roots of human language and consciousness. Most strangely of all, perhaps, it can be read as a deliberate experiment in a kind of time travel using dreams and ‘linguistic ghosts’ to overcome the limitations of individual memory and experience.”

— from Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit (Crossroad, 2003 and 2012)

10 Sep

Loss of significance

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/10/21

Steve Talbott on alienation from the world

“We marvel at the incomprehensibly remote galaxies brought near to us by the modern telescope, and know that our existence on earth would be sadly impoverished without their austere majesty. And yet, by expanding the universe without limit, isolating our vision from our other senses, and encouraging us to view ourselves as chance objects among billions and billions of objects, far from the center of things, this same telescope has whispered to many: ‘You are an accident, lost in a vast, wind-blown desert where the grains of sand are stars.’

“Things, apparently, can be brought closer while at the same time becoming more remote, more disconnected from us. ‘We had to travel to the moon in 1969,’ surmises psychologist Robert Romanyshyn in Technology As Symptom and Dream, not because it had come so near to us, but ‘because it had gone so far away.’ . . .

“If the telescope not only brings things nearer, but also transforms and objectifies space in a way that can easily make us feel like chance intruders, it is not at all clear . . . that the rockets within which we fling our bodies through this alien space are vehicles of reconciliation and homecoming.

“Home, of course, is where every child belongs. But a world that feels like home is increasingly what we deny our children — this despite the televisions and Internet connections that bring the world into the intimacy of their bedrooms. Such devices, I would argue, only accentuate the central educational challenge: how do we help the child find his own connections to the world?

“I don’t think modern technology necessarily alienates us from the world it mediates. But a lot depends on our recognizing how it can do so. And the first thing to say here is that the problem is not and never was one of scale. It is badly mistaken to think: ‘The telescope reveals the earth as a mere fly speck in the cosmic infinitudes, so of course we can no longer consider ourselves significant in the old religious sense.’ That’s as confused a bit of thinking as any nonsense for which we ridicule the ancients. As C. S. Lewis reminded us, ‘Ptolemy knew just as well as Eddington that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space.’ Nor, Lewis adds, do we really believe that a six-foot man is more important than a five-foot man, or that a tree is more important than a human, or a leg more important than a brain. 

“Spatial dimension has never been a measure of significance. When we argue today that big is significant and small is insignificant, we merely testify to our loss of any sense for what is significant.

“So if telescopes and other instruments of modern science express our alienation from the world, it is not because of the dimensional scales they introduce, but because we have tended, with their encouragement, to substitute dimension for the things that count. Employing such tools, we are invited to ignore our own significant connections to the world, which are never merely quantitative. . . .

"There are many other symptoms of our estrangement from the world. I once spoke to an extremely intelligent high school graduate who was not sure in which direction the sun rose. Bill McKibben tells of a camping trip during which he learned that adolescents who had lived their whole lives in the Adirondacks did not know there was such a thing as the Milky Way. I’ve heard an astronomy teacher lamented that, after Star Wars, students lost interest in the ‘boring’ view through a telescope, and a naturalist complain about the television generation’s disinterest in the not-sufficiently-exotic local flora and fauna.

“None of this reflects a shortage of information. The problem is that today something is substituting for the child’s intimacy with the world. And if you want to know the nature of the substitution, consider the lenses, video screens, instrument panels, windows, phones, loudspeakers, books, faxes, billboards, newspapers, magazines, and various protected environments through which we gauge our relations to the world. How can the child possibly feel that the natural world counts for much of anything at all?”

— from Steve Talbott, Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines (O'Reilly Media, 2007)

10 Sep

On the re-enchantment of education

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/10/21

Stratford Caldecott on teaching in light of cosmic harmony 

“It is fairly clear that if the Seven Liberal Arts model is to become an adequate basis for education today, whether in colleges or in less formal settings, it needs to be broadened and adapted. Even by the thirteenth century the Liberal Arts were bursting at the seams trying to incorporate new knowledge.

“In The Crisis of Western Education and other works, Christopher Dawson argued that, while the universities should concentrate more on the Liberal Arts and less on the Servile Arts, a simple revival of the quadrivium would not be sufficient to bring about a return to right reason. Young people need to be made aware of the spiritual unity out of which the separate activities of our civilization have arisen, and his proposal was to do that by teaching culture historically, using the literature of medieval Europe rather than the classical sources the medievals themselves would have used. Teaching the story of Christian culture may be the best way to 'maintain the tradition of liberal education against the growing pressure of scientific specialization and utilitarian vocationalism,’ he thought. (Thinking like this lay behind the development of the ‘great books’ program in many American universities and colleges.)

“Symptoms of our educational crisis, such as the fragmentation of the disciplines, the separation of faith and reason, the reduction of quality to quantity, and the loss of a sense of ultimate purpose, are directly related to a lack of historical awareness on the part of students. An integrated curriculum must teach subjects, and it must teach the right subjects, but it should do so by incorporating each subject, even mathematics and the hard sciences, within the history of ideas, which is the history of our culture. Every subject has a history, a drama, and by imaginatively engaging with these stories we become part of the tradition.

“We also need to confront the secular mind-set that makes the cosmological assumptions of the quadrivium almost unintelligible today. . . . The sheer amount of information available in every discipline is far too great to be mastered by one person even in an entire lifetime. The purpose of an education is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor to train future workers and managers. It is to teach the ability to think, discriminate, speak, and write, and, along with this, the ability to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the logoi, of creation, which the ancient Christian Pythagorean tradition (right through the medieval period) understood in terms of number and cosmic harmony.”

— from Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-Enchantment of Education (Brazos Press, 2009)

3 Sep

Detached consumers of interesting facts

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/03/21

Richard Stivers on how statistical norms replaced moral norms

“The normal has supplanted the moral (in the traditional sense) in itself becoming the moral. We are speaking here of statistical normality, a statistical average. The two major forms this statistical morality assumes are public opinion and peer group norms. In the former instance, the norms are abstract and impersonal; in the latter, they are concrete and personal. Yet public opinion increasingly informs the attitudes and behavior of the peer group. What the majority of people do and say tends to become normative.

“There are three principal reasons, all related, for the triumph of normality. First, the growing prestige of science from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries elevated the status of the fact. The mission of mechanistic science was to break objects down to their ever smaller constituent parts. This atomistic approach produced a plethora of facts. From those positivistic scientists and layman there was a one-to-one relationship between the fact and its referent in the real world: perception was possible without the contaminating influence of preconception. With the gradual dissolution of the belief in the objectivity of religious and moral values, objectivity took up temporary residence in science. Objectivity lay in the laws of science that were a mirror of the laws of an autonomous nature. That part of natural law that spoke to the normative dimension of human existence eventually was seen as subjective. Facts were now objective, values subjective.

“Scientific theory has come to be seen to have a merely formal relationship to reality, arbitrary in its conceptual substance, but realistic in terms of the mathematical relationship between concepts and of conceptual parsimony. This further elevates the status of the fact, this time at the expense of theory. Atomistic science has produced in effect a universe of random facts. These facts both in and out of science can be disseminated to the public as fascinating information. Witness the incredible interest in books and games of facts, such as the Guinness Book of Records and Trivial Pursuit. We are fascinated with the most intimate details of a person’s life (the television talk shows) and in the exotic details of nature. The reason is clear: facts and reality are one, and our approach to reality is purely aesthetical. We are detached consumers of interesting facts. Reality is the sum of all facts but is known one fact at a time. Therefore reality is experienced as both fragmentary and interesting.

“The view that nature is ordered according to lawful relations amenable to scientific explanation is eventually applied to society as well. A growing immanentism (a belief that the world is a self-contained material reality), which cannot be attributed to science as such, rather to the use of science as a worldview, encouraged the elimination of the dualism of nature and society. There had been a long-standing idea in western civilization that the laws of both nature and society were normative, but that those of society could be violated by humans. Freedom implied the possibility of transgressing God’s laws. By the nineteenth century, however, immanentism was well in place, as understood by Nietzsche in his ‘Death of God’ proclamation. If science could be used to discern the laws of nature, there was no reason why they could not be used with respect to society. The rise of the social sciences in the nineteenth century attests to this belief. As Comte understood it, the laws of sociology, statistical norms, would replace outmoded moral norms. The normal supplants the moral.

“Traditional morality, moreover, is reduced to the status of ideology. The distinction between what ought to be and what is gives way to that between ideology and reality. Morality becomes a screen behind which the self-interests of the group and the individual are played out. Marx’s theory of ideology is, in this sense, only a reflection of the decline of a belief in the objectivity of moral norms in Western civilization. Marx’s materialism is but one form that radical immanentism has assumed.”

— from Richard Stivers, The Culture of Cynicism: American Morality in Decline (Blackwell, 1994)