Saturday, November 19, 2016

Augustine Was Half Right

“Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” With these words in book II of On Christian Doctrine, the great Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, summarized his endorsement of pagan literature in Chirstian education. As the Israelites took jewels from Egypt, he says in an interesting example of his method of interpreting the Old Testament, let us accept the best and most valuable ideas from Greek and Roman writers while carefully rejecting their devotion to a pantheon of false gods.

This tolerant view from the most influential Christian of his time (the most influential Christian, in fact, of any time since the first century) set the curricular tone for higher education in Europe for the next several hundred years. And yet Augustine, throughout On Christian Doctrine, advocates searching for all God’s truth – in Greek philosophy, in the study of nature, in the skills and knowledge of the arts and crafts, and elsewhere – only for the sake of understanding the Scriptures. How are we to understand the timing of the festivals in Deuteronomy, for instance, without some understanding of the motions of the moon? Fair enough.

But, Augustine (I’m conversing with him now), properly understanding the Scriptures entails living out their precepts in mundane life: doing well at work, trading fairly, caring for our families and for our bodies. Doesn’t this mean we should learn as much as we can, for all truth is God’s Truth, in order to live well, to work well, to interact with others well, to teach, to protect, to heal, to judge, to govern, to serve? Everything I learn, when I refer it to God, gives me deeper understanding of God’s wisdom and leads me to love and honor Him more. And if I need to go on, I could remind you that God encouraged and honored the pagan education of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, and these curricula included training in false religions and astrology. I’m grateful that you endorsed the study of science, history, philosophy, and poetry, but I think you’re only half right about the purpose and application of these pursuits.

Augustine (I’m talking to the reader again now) came by his position honestly: in his Confessions, he explains that Plato (or actually probably some neo-Platonists) taught him much that prepared him for the gospel. And as a good Platonist, Augustine had an interest in numbers. Now I’ve written previously in these posts (probably somewhere under Euclid) about whether ancient and medieval mathematicians did or didn’t accept the existence of fractions. I’ve talked with professors of math and science who insist that they did. But all the medieval music theorists I’ve read talk about comparisons of string lenghs as if fractions don’t exist. Ratios, yes; fractions, no. One string may be twice as long as another, but that doesn’t mean they had a conception of a fraction, of a number less than 1.

It’s next-to-impossible, of course, to find a smoking-gun admission on a concept that a culture doesn’t have. I don’t expect any ancient author to prove my position right by saying, “I don’t believe in fractions.” If the concept isn’t there yet, they can’t think about it either to believe or not to believe. Plato never said, “I don’t believe in x-ray machines,” even though he clearly didn’t. But I think I’ve found the clearest passage I’ve ever come across to confirm my historical understanding contra that of my well trained friends who have assured me I’m wrong. In chapter 38 of book II of On Christian Doctrine, he says that nine is one-and-a-half times the number six. So surely, my colleagues would say, he recognizes that one-and-a-half is a number. But before that sentence ends, Augustine adds that nine is “not the double of any number because odd numbers have no half.” Odd numbers have no half. How can he say in one phrase that nine is one-and-a-half times six and in the next that three is not the double of any number? We could point out to him that three is the double of that one-and-a-half that he just mentioned. He might agree at some level and might even recognize some sort of existence for one-and-a-half. But for Augustine, as for other ancients (at least the Platonists) and for my medieval music theorists, one-and-a-half is a relationship; it is not a number. Augustine's sentence just doesn’t make sense any other way.

So now I can confidently say that my friends who have tried to correct me are only half right.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Chesterton, War and After

Sometime back in the early 80s, while I was a graduate student at Baylor University, I started reading G. K. Chesterton’s columns from the London Illustrated News. I found hard-bound collections with editors’ titles such as Tremendous Trifles and Alarms and Discursions in the university library and read all I could. I could see by the rarely stamped log pasted inside the covers that these volumes hadn’t been checked out by anyone in twenty years, so I freely marked the tables of contents, putting one slash by the titles of essays I especially liked and two slashes by the titles that had caused healthy mental upheavals. I figured I might want to go back and reread just the favorites before I graduated: and I did give a second, third, and possibly fourth read to “Sound and Sense in Poetry,” “A Tax on Talking,” and “On Cheese.”

A few years ago, I purchased all the weekly columns – published now by Ignatius Press with no fanciful titles other than the journal’s name and the years – and now finally I’m on a multi-year project to read them all, two published years per reading year. This plan went along pretty well through the 190x’s and the early teens. I started up my old system again and marked the titles I would ideally read again one day: one mark by some and, three to five times a year, two marks by others. But in 1914, World War I broke out, and the Chesterton began to devote every column to the war, to England’s duty, and to Germany’s moral shortcomings. It was so difficult to get through, I decided that for the duration, I’d read in each year of my time one war year and one year from after the war. This year, for instance, I read all the columns from 1917 and 1922.

Now, the war years have become more interesting since the first shock of 1914. In the 1917 set, Chesterton delves into political theory, the Russian Revolution, Wilson and America’s role, whether a League of Nations could work, the nature of war, and more fascinating veins. But still, as with last year and the year before, when I moved ahead to the post-war columns, the variety, insight, and pertinence seemed to explode. Over the last week, I’ve read about dangerous toys, modern poetry, the fascination with royal weddings, popular views of esoteric science, spiritualism, political activity of youth, Thomas Hardy, Edwin Drood, free love, the Fascists, Ireland, laws about beggars, misconceptions about the Middle Ages, prohibition, realism in the theater, cinema, the rules of writing a detective story (or rather the need for a compilation of the rules), King Arthur, Christmas, and much, much more. As I did a couple of years ago, I enjoyed them so much, I marked at least 80% of the titles. If I really intend to reread all those in the future, it will take me twenty years again to go through it all. I could limit myself to the ones I mark with two marks, but I still ended up double-slashing seventeen of the fifty-two weekly titles from 1922: about four times as many as I marked in any year between 1905 and 1914.

So then I start to wonder why I go so crazy with the approval ratings. Am I just so relieved to get away from anti-Prussian rhetoric, everything sounds brilliant by contrast? Or does Chesterton start to talk more frequently about timeless (or at least less topical) issues after Armistice in 1918? Did he feel relieved from the burden of speaking on the national catastrophe every week?

I’m starting to think that my enthusiasm doesn’t just come from the contrast with the war columns. I think Chesterton hit his mature stride around 1919 and I’m just now, thirty-five years after I started, rediscovering what I fell in love with from the beginning: the inimitable turns of phrase, the clinical splaying of nonsense in the words of others, the courageous stances for Christianity as sanity in a world gone mad. Maybe I should just start looking forward to rereading hundreds of these essays yet again. If I’m still around to finish them all in ten years, I guess I’ll find out. In the mean time, though, if I ever pass through Waco again, I’m thinking I should find the old books in the school library and see just how many marks I made.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Top 100 – Part VI

In May of 2015, I said I might not make it before December 2016. But I have written exactly 599 blog posts before today, and that makes this one . . . that’s right: no. 600. (Ooh, give me a moment to imagine belonging to a different 600 Club along with Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, A-Rod, The Babe, Hank Aaron, and— eh, Barry Bonds broke the spell.) I originally thought that on every hundredth post, I’d write on my favorite one-hundred books. I ended up just recounting favorite moments from not necessarily favorite books, but the title stuck. You can see the one-hundredth, two-hundredth, three-hundredth, and four-hundredth posts at these links, and the five-hundredth at the link in the first sentence of this paragraph.

My task today is to share seven moments – they could be ideas, details, or scenes – from my reading that I think about often. Since I’ve taken up listening to books in the car again recently, I’ll begin with a few lasting impressions from audiobooks I’ve enjoyed.

• Conrad Anker, The Lost Explorer. Because I listened to this book about the search for the body of George Mallory seventy-five years after his disappearance on Mount Everest, I didn’t have access to the pictures. But I didn’t really need pictures. Anker’s description of the position of Mallory’s preserved, frozen body – on a slope above a precipice, fingers clutching the scree – blasted an image to my mind’s eye that has haunted me on numerous occasions in the last years.

• Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods. When Bryson decided to tackle the Appalachian Trail, he called up his old friend Katz and asked him to be his hiking buddy. Agreeing, Katz showed up to begin the 2,200-mile adventure with a backpack full of Snickers. The image of him flinging scores of chocolate bars across the mountain side an hour or so later, when he had tired of the weight, is hilarious but also emblematic of exactly twenty-nine interlocking problems, vices, and flaws plaguing Americans today.

• Cal Ripken, Jr., The Only Way I Know. I love baseball. (While we’re on the topic, I find it hard to assimilate the fact that the Cubs actually won. I find it hard to believe a certain someone won something else, too; but that’s really beside the point.) This isn’t the first reference to America’s Pastime (oh! how I wish it actually were the National Pastime; baseball is good for America), and it won’t be the last. I think often about the great Oriole playing professional, minor-league games in parks so poor they couldn’t pay anyone to mow the two-foot weeds. But the anecdote that crops up in my random stream of consciousness the most, oddly, has nothing to do with baseball per se. No, what settled in my mental play list is the passage in which Ripken explains how hard it was to teach his kids not to talk to strangers when he, the ultra-recognizable baseball star, couldn’t eat a meal out without greetings and handshakes from a few happy, well-meaning strangers.

• Jonathan Eig, Luckiest Man. Wouldn’t it have been great if Eig could have named his biography of my favorite Yankee Luckiest Man . . . man . . . an? Again, an obscure point far from the center lodged into my memory. Hollywood actually courted Lou Gehrig for the role of Tarzan, but when the producers saw the test photos, they decided his powerful thighs were actually too muscular. Weird.

I listened to the next book as well, but not from a recording. My sixth-grade teacher (who features in two blog posts found under the tag “Mrs. Brandenburg”) read it to the class.

• Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Walking around the campus of the University of Illinois in 1976, I had an epiphany: every kid my age had been tricked by advertising into thinking that wearing blue jeans was a sign of individualism. And so, to show that we were each totally unlike anyone else in the world, every last one of us wore jeans. That insight didn’t come from nowhere; I’m sure it sprang from the soil prepared by Madeleine L’Engle’s streetful of bizarre children all repeatedly bouncing a ball at the same time.

And now, since my blogging plan comes to an end in about eight weeks, long before I’d ever reach a seven-hundredth post, I have to finish with some favorite Dickens moments.

• Charles Dickens, David Copperfield. It is almost impossible for me to handle a wooden ruler without thinking of Wilkins Micawber thrusting his measuring stick and yelling, “HEEP!”

A Tale of Two Cities. My favorite scene from my favorite book takes place in an unidentified pub off of Fleet Street. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, favorite hangout of Dickens, Dr. Johnson, and numerous other stars of London’s literary firmament, justifiably claims to be the restaurant in question. In a case in the front dining room, they display a copy of A Tale of Two Cities open to the chapter. Next time you’re in London, you should go read it.

So it’s back to the normal routine now. The next couple of posts should feature reports on my current reading in Chesterton and Augustine. Until then, Read More Books. Someone in the U.S. needs to.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Sundry Pieces of Reading Material I Wouldn’t Normally Blog About

I've played games with forty-page rule books before. So I don't know if Virgin Queen is harder than the others, or if I'm just dealing with a mind four decades older than the teenage sponge I used to soak up wargames with in the 70s. But after studying the arcane code of laws for a month now, I’m still finding hidden truths in it. This game of religious wars in the Elizabethan era has persnickety rules such as this: “France may ally with Spain or the Protestant but not with both these powers on the same turn.” (Presumably, the Holy Roman Empire or Ottomans may ally with any combination of powers on the same turn, so remembering this detail is a special burden that only the French player must bear.) And that’s just one line on one page out of forty 8½” x 11” pages. So maybe I should quit worrying so much about diminishing mental capacities.

I've played a friend's copy of VQ several times over the years, and reading Will and Ariel Durant's history of the sixteenth century this fall got me thinking about the game enough to buy it, set it up, and start playing through it on my own. (I was an only child, so I grew up playing games in this solitary way. It may explain why I’m not a competitive player today; I conditioned myself to be philosophical about losing every game.) But when I made it to the chapter on Elizabeth, the Durants’ account actually read like a commentary on my game. Suppose I need help understanding the Edmund Campion card; I could look through the rules, or I could just consult page 21 of volume VII of Durant. Then I draw the Douai College card; I could read the text on the card to find out what happens, or I could just recall what the Durants had to say about the Jesuit school.

My title cites “sundry pieces of reading material” off the rosy path of Great Books. Besides the rules to a game, I also had in mind three articles I came across one glorious day earlier this week. I did (completely imaginary) cartwheels when I read words pulverizing three pieces of stomach-churning rot I used to get fed repeatedly in graduate exams at a certain School of Music of an unnamed University: (1) that a multicultural society is a melting pot, (2) that learning styles are the same as multiple intelligences, and (3) that learning styles are worth talking about at all.

The Los Angeles Times dropped the first bomb. Multiculturalism celebrates every color in the box of crayons. The image of a melting pot, on the other hand, is one that takes all the crayon colors of the cultures that feed into a population and blends them together into a drab brownish-gray. I wish I could go back in time and tell those graduate students about Henry Ford’s parade of nations, Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans walking into the stage prop in their nations’ traditional garb and then walking out again in identical business suits waving American flags. Those would-be grade-school music teachers would be horrified.

The second article, from the Washington Post, quoted Howard Gardner, daddy of the model of multiple intelligences, as he “set the record straight” about the difference between multiple intelligences and learning styles. They are as different as a room and a door – more different, since I can at least walk through a room, although I cannot stand inside a door. One is a means of access to knowledge or a skill, while the other is the possession of the knowledge or skill itself (or possibly the aptitude toward its possession). Some people take the elevator to the second floor, and some take the stairs, but only a crazy person – or a graduate student in music education – would confuse the stairs and the elevator for the nice woman who works in the second-floor office.

But Gardner didn’t even have to establish the difference if the third article is true. I first read that the common theory of learning styles is a myth on That institution of the noble Fourth Estate doesn’t have quite the reputation that the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times enjoy. But googling “learning styles myth” reveals a whole choir of angelic messengers singing the good news, including PBS and the Association for Psychological Science. I no longer have to think that by lecturing in college classes, I failed in my duty to teach Johnny, who can only learn through dance interpretations, and Susie, who can only learn by means of manipulables. I used to defend myself (under a cloud of guilt) by noting that students hearing my lecture, reading the board, and writing notes engaged aural, visual, verbal, symbolic, and kinesthetic modes of learning. I’ll still defend my old methods (which have, after all, produced a well-educated person or two over the last 2500 years), but the cloud above my head now glows with the saffron hues of a rising sun.