Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Great Conversations, part 2

In the ’60s, my grandparents saved on their phone bill each month by paying for a party line. Imagine the disappointment of my six-year-old self when I found out that their telephone contract had nothing to do with cakes and balloons! The situation fascinated me, though, and every once in a while on a visit to their house, I would gently and noiselessly lift the handset off the cradle just to see what I could hear. The sneaking was intended to avoid my parents’ attention as much as that of the strangers sharing of the line. Still, I never listened long; the novelty provided reward enough without having to eavesdrop on business I had no interest in anyway.

In reading, on the other hand, I get to listen in on conversations for as long as I want. A few days ago, I blogged about some conversations between Will Durant, C. S. Lewis, and Miguel de Cervantes I had been enjoying. The next day in the car, another conversation of sorts came to my mind. At the opening ceremonies of the Rio Summer Olympic Games, we found that the Brazilians think that their Alberto Santos-Dumont invented the airplane. The announcers just laughed about it and said something to the order of, “What’s up with that? I thought the Wright Brothers invented the airplane.” Sadly, it didn’t occur to any of these “journalists” to look up the man after learning about him during the dress rehearsal in order to interpret the events for the viewing public. Historian David McCullough, however, has quite a lot to say about Santos-Dumont in his biography of the Wright Brothers, which I’ve been listening to in the car lately, and his detailed exposition, coming to my ears just a few weeks after the Rio Games, sounded very much like a direct conversational response. The simple story is that Santos-Dumont made the first flight certified by the French-based International Federation of Aeronautics. The Brazilians claim that the Wrights must have kept their work “secret” in order to hide lack of success, when in reality, Kitty Hawk just has a much smaller press corps than Paris. McCullough leaves me wondering, though, whether Brazil’s “father of aviation” shouldn’t receive proper credit as an inventor of the airplane just as Leibniz and Newton share the honors for the invention of calculus.

I finished Durant’s volume on the Reformation last week. Once again he proved himself instructive and pictorial by putting large movements into comprehensible frames. He achieves the task at hand, summing up the early sixteenth century in Europe, with, of all things, a conversation: this one an imagined conversation between Catholicism, Protestantism, and Enlightenment. The Catholic Church speaks up first, pointing out that in the period in question, it went from being the most corrupt institution on Earth to what was, in Durant's day, the model of morality (cue Bing Crosby singing “Going My Way”), accomplishing this remarkable feat in just a few decades with reforms that touched every level from the Vatican itself to the village priest. Protestantism in the mean time, says Durant’s Catholic interlocutor, broke up European unity, squashed art, and saw decreases in morality and charity. Protestantism speaks up for itself then with a two-pronged defense: first that its rise led to the very reforms the Catholic Church boasts of and, second, that eventually, its lands became wealthier, more moral, more charitable, and more hard-working than the Catholic countries of Italy, Spain, and France. Durant closes with the Enlightenment’s remarks, left until last perhaps because a history book fittingly puts movements in chronological order but also probably because Durant wanted to give the last word to the view with which his sympathies most lay. The personification of late-sixteenth and seventeenth-century humanism tells both wings of western Christianity that it took advantage of the breaking of dogmas and trust in authority that the Protestant movement brought about but challenged both religious views by declaring Reason the new authority, one within the reach of every thinking person. I can hear twenty-first-century America now, adding its voice to the dialog: “That’s right! Everyone is their own authority. [Twenty-first-century America doesn’t care much for grammar.] So forget tradition, religious authority, and reasoned argument. Just say what you feel, and call the other person a liar.” *sigh*

Later this year I will finish for the second time Boswell's Life of Johnson, the great monument to good conversation. Dr. Johnson and his biographer blended all Durant’s debating factions – tradition, authority, reason, and Christian charity – and spoke about the healthy combination (or recombination) in eloquent language most of our self-authorized society can’t follow. I will weep for more than one reason when I turn the last page.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Great Conversations, part 1

My poor literature students! Some high-school world-lit classes read a couple of novels, a couple of short stories, and a play by Shakespeare, and call it a year. In my class at a local homeschool co-op, we’re dipping our noses into The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities, stories by Tolstoy, Hesse, and Doyle, plays by Shakespeare and Ibsen, poetry by Donne, Gray, Wordsworth, and Keats, and much more. So, yeah: “poor” students now, but they’ll be loaded with riches when I’m through with them!

This Tuesday we started Don Quixote, and I told the students truthfully that that very morning during my walk I had read in C. S. Lewis's Miracles that certain theologians had been “quixotic.” (Lewis meant that these particular thinkers pursued a noble end but had gone too far; the details don’t concern my topic today.)  Cross-references like this happen all the time in my reading. Mortimer Adler says that the Great Books take the form of a Great Conversation because they constantly refer to the same Great Ideas and treat them in counterpoint. Concerning the same fact, Lewis says, “Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else.”

This week I've experienced several conversations in print. One example involves the history of the understanding of the universe. In a chapter called “Science in the Age of Copernicus,” Will Durant says the Copernican Revolution posed the greatest challenge to religion in all of history. “When men stopped to ponder the implications of the new system they must have wondered at the assumption that the Creator of this immense and orderly cosmos had sent His Son to die on this middling planet. All the lovely poetry of Christianity seemed to ‘go up in smoke’ (as Goethe was to put it) at the touch of the Polish clergyman.”

But, again in Lewis, I read a response to this idea just a couple of days later. He may have been (at the end of his career) a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, but his Discarded Image finds its way onto required-reading lists in History of Science classes. So I believe him when he tells me who believed what when about the shape of the heavens. Lewis says that the ancients knew the Earth was tiny. Some even knew that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, that Ptolemy placed it there. So, contrary to Durant’s observation, the science of the modern era didn’t discover the astronomical unimportance of the Earth; Christians in the Middle Ages believed both in God and the tininess of Earth. Says Lewis, “The real question is why the spatial insignificance of Earth, after being asserted by Christian philosophers, sung by Christian poets, and commented on by Christian moralists for some fifteen centuries, without the slightest suspicion that it conflicted with their theology, should suddenly in quite modern times have been set up as a stock argument against Christianity and enjoyed, in that capacity, a brilliant career.”

A friend has asked me to read and discuss with him a book called Chance or Dance by Union University professors Jimmy Davis and Harry Poe. Reading in that book this week, I came across yet a third reference to the argument: a further contribution to the conversation about the theological views of the unfathomable size of space. Here the authors address statements by Carl Sagan and others to the effect that if humanity had some central significance in God’s eye, we’d have to admit that He wasted a lot of space and stellar material. Lewis also addresses this outlook (it sometimes seems difficult to find something he didn’t think about) when he points out that Nature has a predilection for overkill. Think of the extravagance in the number of spermatozoa that venture forth in search of an ovum when it only takes one to do the job. I doubt that that answer would give many nonbelievers a moment’s hesitation, but Lewis offers another a much more significant response to the thought that a minuscule race in a cosmological backwater doesn’t merit God’s attention, and I’m left wondering why Christians don’t generally have this central understanding at the ready: we never claimed to merit the attention we receive from Him. In fact, the better we understand how contemptible our position is, the more we love Him.

Update, Nov. 11: I just read in Augustine a couple of days ago an indication that he understood quite well, way back in the fifth century, the vastness of the heavens in comparison with the tiny earth. The conversation continues.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Declaration

The other day I found an article by Mortimer Adler lying around in my office. I must have printed it out at some time and forgotten about it. How it ended up lying on a table with some games and a stack of mail, I don’t know. In any case, I enjoyed reading it . . . again? In the article, Adler lays out some of the thinking behind the editorial committee’s decisions for changes of content in the second edition of the Britannica Great Books. I certainly didn’t always like what I read; some of their particular decisions rubbed me the wrong way. For instance, whatever and wherever hackles may be, the editors’ unceremonious abandonment of Tristram Shandy raised mine.

Much more useful and less ire-exciting was Adler’s explanation of the three criteria by which the board selected the books for inclusion: (1) relevance to people of all times, (2) reference to a wide variety of ideas, and (3) rereadability. About a book with the third characteristic, Adler says, “It cannot be fully understood on one, two, or three readings. More is to be found on all subsequent readings.” Those lines certainly apply to one of the two books I’m immersed in right now: C. S. Lewis’s Miracles.

When I first read Miracles (as a teen), it was the most difficult book I had ever attempted. Just as with A Tale of Two Cities (the holder of my “Hardest Book” record for the previous six years or so), I loved it for challenging me as well as for other aspects. I had never read or thought about determinism or self-existence or theories of thought and consciousness, at least not to the extent Lewis’s arguments demanded. I had never read Plato or Aristotle or Descartes or Locke or Hume or Kant or Darwin. Lewis’s synthesis of the issues provided me my first exposure to all this grand edifice. So you could say that he started my tour of the house by an inspection of the roof. The situation seemed reasonable to me until I learned enough to lean over the edge of the eaves and find that I couldn’t see any walls or foundation holding things up. I knew the supports had to be there (roofs not normally in the habit of just floating about), but they were made of a fine quintessence too subtle for my gross eyes.

Now on this, my third time through what I still consider Lewis’s most daunting book, I find it difficult because I’ve read Plato and Aristotle and Descartes and Locke and Hume and Kant and Darwin. I find myself slowing down to examine the good professor’s arguments in the light of what his predecessors have said. To continue my image from before, I’m taking the time to inspect a few of the places where the roof attaches to the frame. And of course it costs me some effort sometimes to remember just what Locke or Kant said.

In any case, the book continues to grow. But it has the other characteristics Adler’s editors looked for, as well. Its main topics of God, nature, and reason concern humans of all periods of history, and it touches on many more of what Adler calls the Great Ideas: being, truth, beauty, democracy, progress, definition, change, cause, eternity, world, knowledge, physics, and more. Since it fulfills all three criteria, I, editorial committee of one, hereby declare Miracles a Great Book.

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Plan for the Third Decade

I’ve certainly put the electrons through their paces. My mini-ministers have performed their digital jumping jacks for me hundreds of times during the past few journeys around the sun as I’ve added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided novels, poems, dramas, stories, treatises, and collections into a set of organized lists for a third decade of planned reading. And now, finally, in less than three months, I’ll embark on my new ten-year odyssey.

My plan has thirty-eight (mostly) defined categories with ten entries in each, one for each year of the schedule:

1. Drama: Plautus, Marlowe, Stoppard, Mamet, etc.
2. Adventure novels (aka reliving my teen years): Dumas, Scott, Verne, etc.
3. Asimov: rereading all the robot novels, empire novels, and foundation novels
4. Histories of countries: France, Japan, etc.
5. William James: finishing Principles of Psychology, then reading Varieties of Rel. Exp.
6. Civil War history: Shelby Foote, Thomas Connelly
7. Civil War biographies: Lincoln, Grant, Lee, etc.
8. Poetry: Browning, Longfellow, Frost, etc.
9. Modern Christian literature: Waugh, Barfield, Wangerin, etc.
10. George MacDonald: mostly novels (unabridged!), also some sermons
11. Galsworthy: The Forsyte Saga
12. Augustine: On Grace and Free Will, Homilies on the Gospel of John, etc.
13. Medieval theology: Aquinas, Abelard, Peter Lombard
14. This and That: a disorganized list including Truman Capote, Sidney’s Arcadia and more
15. Plato and Aristotle: just reviewing my hundreds of pages of notes
16. Ancient literature: Horace, Cicero, etc.
17. Durant: I should finish volume XI, Age of Napoleon, just about ten years from today.
18. Church Fathers: Justin Martyr, Cyprian, etc.
19. Early modern epic: Tasso, Spenser, Ariosto
20. Shakespeare: rereading all my favorites twice each
21. Other novels: rereading War and Peace, Karamazov, etc. and attempting Finnegan’s Wake
22. Dickens: of course
23. Dickens and Austen: because one list isn’t enough for all of Dickens
24. Trollope: ten more of his amazing displays of the complexities of life and society
25. Lewis: rereading Narnia and more, reading some of his professional work for the first time
26. Chesterton: Illustrated London News columns, Everlasting Man
27. Tolkien and Williams: uncomfortable friends in life, side by side on my plan
28. Patrick O’Brian: Aubrey and Maturin can’t be enjoyed just once!
29. The Golden Legend: approximately eighty of these medieval, legendary accounts of the saints
30. Burroughs, Grey, Haggard: More reliving of teen years. Tarzan, I’ve missed you!
31. Mystery: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers
32. England: rereading Churchill and Rutherford, plus some Arthuriana
33. Large Things: “. . . And Ladies of the Club,” “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” etc.
34. Miscellany: completely different from no. 14, “This and That”!
35. Samuel Johnson: Prayers and Meditations, highlights from Boswell
36. American History: mostly volumes of the Oxford History of the United States
37. Music and Society: ten volumes from a series by that name
38. More Arthuriana: Malory, Stewart, Lawhead

Some of these Books are decidedly less than Great. Almost all will feel like pure fun to me. No more German philosophy. No more Calvin. (I’m not sure which one felt less like fun.) St. Paul may not approve of the idea, but to a large extent I’m setting aside the life of a man and taking up childish ways again. But I haven’t tossed aside medieval theology, serious history, or heavy Russian novels; I just happen to think they’re fun. And I anticipate, as Handel said of the audience at the first performance of his Messiah, that in addition to being entertained, I will be made better.