Lincoln’s Autobiographies

From Abraham Lincoln Online

June 1858
Abraham Lincoln wrote three autobiographies in a two-year period. This first, terse effort was prepared at the request of Charles Lanman, who was compiling the Dictionary of Congress.

Born, February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky.
Education defective.
Profession, a lawyer.
Have been a captain of volunteers in Black Hawk war.
Postmaster at a very small office.
Four times a member of the Illinois legislature, and was a member of the lower house of Congress.

December 20, 1859
Lincoln wrote this second autobiography for Jesse Fell, a long-time Illinois Republican friend who was a native of Pennsylvania. Fell used his influence to get the piece incorporated into an article appearing in a Pennsylvania newspaper on February 11, 1860. Lincoln enclosed the autobiography in a letter to Fell, remarking, "There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me."

I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families-- second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks, some of whom now reside in Adams, and others in Macon Counties, Illinois. My paternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, emigrated from Rockingham County, Virginia, to Kentucky, about 1781 or 2, where, a year or two later, he was killed by indians, not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest. His ancestors, who were Quakers, went to Virginia from Berks County, Pennsylvania. An effort to identify them with the New-England family of the same name ended in nothing more definite, than a similarity of Christian names in both families, such as Enoch, Levi, Mordecai, Solomon, Abraham, and the like.

My father, at the death of his father, was but six years of age; and he grew up, litterally [sic] without education. He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in my eighth year. We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals, still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond "readin, writin, and cipherin" to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard [sic]. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.

I was raised to farm work, which I continued till I was twenty-two. At twenty one I came to Illinois, and passed the first year in Macon County. Then I got to New-Salem (at that time in Sangamon, now in Menard County), where I remained a year as a sort of Clerk in a store. Then came the Black-Hawk war; and I was elected a Captain of Volunteers--a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since. I went the campaign, was elated, ran for the Legislature the same year (1832) and was beaten--the only time I ever have been beaten by the people. The next, and three succeeding biennial elections, I was elected to the Legislature. I was not a candidate afterwards. During this Legislative period I had studied law, and removed to Springfield to practise it. In 1846 I was once elected to the lower House of Congress. Was not a candidate for re-election. From 1849 to 1854, both inclusive, practiced law more assiduously than ever before. Always a whig in politics, and generally on the whig electoral tickets, making active canvasses--I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known.

If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes--no other marks or brands recollected.

June 1860
When Lincoln first ran for President, John L. Scripps of the Chicago Press and Tribune asked him for an autobiography to write a campaign biography about him. This third-person account is the result. The longest of his autobiographies, it offers fascinating information about his early years.

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, then in Hardin, now in the more recently formed county of La Rue, Kentucky. His father, Thomas, and grandfather, Abraham, were born in Rockingham County, Virginia, whither their ancestors had come from Berks County, Pennsylvania. His lineage has been traced no father back than this. The family were originally Quakers, though in later times they have fallen away from the peculiar habits of that people. The grandfather, Abraham, had four brothers--Isaac, Jacob, John, and Thomas. So far as known, the descendants of Jacob and John are still in Virginia. Isaac went to a place near where Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee join; and his descendants are in that region. Thomas came to Kentucky, and after many years died there, whence his descendants went to Missouri. Abraham, grandfather of the subject of this sketch, came to Kentucky, and was killed by Indians about the year 1784. He left a widow, three sons, and two daughters. The eldest son, Mordecai, remained in Kentucky till late in life, when he removed to Hancock County, Illinois, where soon after he died, and where several of his descendants still remain. The second son, Josiah, removed at an early day to a place on Blue River, now within Hancock County, Indiana, but no recent information of him or his family has been obtained. The eldest sister, Mary, married Ralph Crume, and some of her descendants are now known to be in Breckenridge County, Kentucky. The second sister, Nancy, married William Brumfield, and her family are not known to have left Kentucky, but there is no recent information from them. Thomas, the youngest son, and the father of the present subject, by the early death of his father, and very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood was a wandering laboring-boy, and grew up literally without education. He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly write his own name. Before he was grown he passed one year as a hired hand with his uncle Isaac on Watauga, a branch of the Holston River. Getting back into Kentucky, and having reached his twenty-eighth year, he married Nancy Hanks--mother of the present subject--in the year 1806. She also was born in Virginia; and relatives of hers of the name of Hanks, and of other names, now reside in Coles, in Macon, and in Adams counties, Illinois, and also in Iowa. The present subject has no brother or sister of the whole or half blood. He had a sister, older than himself, who was grown and married, but died many years ago, leaving no child; also a brother, younger than himself, who died in infancy. Before leaving Kentucky, he and his sister were sent, for short periods, to A B C schools, the first kept by Zachariah Riney, and the second by Caleb Hazel.

At this time his father resided on Knob Creek, on the road from Bardstown, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, at a point three or three and a half miles south or southwest of Atherton's Ferry, on the Rolling Fork. From this place he removed to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in the autumn of 1816, Abraham then being in his eighth year. This removal was partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky. He settled in an unbroken forest, and the clearing away of surplus wood was the great task ahead. Abraham, though very young, was large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument--less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons. At this place Abraham took an early start as a hunter, which was never much improved afterward. A few days before the completion of his eighth year, in the absence of his father, a flock of wild turkeys approached the new log cabin, and Abraham with a rifle-gun, standing inside, shot through a crack and killed one of them. He has never since pulled a trigger on any larger game. In the autumn of 1818 his mother died; and a year afterward his father married Mrs. Sally Johnston, at Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a widow with three children of her first marriage. She proved a good and kind mother to Abraham, and is still living in Coles County, Illinois. There were no children of this second marriage. His father's residence continued at the same place in Indiana till 1830. While here Abraham went to A B C schools by littles, kept successively by Andrew Crawford,--Sweeney, and Azel W. Dorsey. He does not remember any other. The family of Mr. Dorsey now resides in Schuyler County, Illinois. Abraham now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law license. What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar--imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want. In his tenth year he was kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time. When he was nineteen, still residing in Indiana, he made his first trip upon a flatboat to New Orleans. He was a hired hand merely, and he and a son of the owner, without other assistance, made the trip. The nature of part of the "cargo-load," as it was called, made it necessary for them to linger and trade along the sugar-coast; and one night they were attacked by seven negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the mêlée, but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, and then "cut cable," "weighed anchor," and left.

March 1, 1830, Abraham having just completed his twenty-first year, his father and family, with the families of the two daughters and sons-in-law of his stepmother, left the old homestead in Indiana and came to Illinois. Their mode of conveyance was wagons drawn by ox-teams, and Abraham drove one of the teams. They reached the county of Macon, and stopped there some time within the same month of March. His father and family settled a new place on the north side of the Sangamon River, at the junction of the timberland and prairie, about ten miles westerly from Decatur. Here they built a log cabin, into which they removed, and made sufficient of rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and broke the ground, and raised a crop of sown corn upon it the same year. These are, or are supposed to be, the rails about which so much is being said just now, though these are far from being the first or only rails ever made by Abraham.

The sons-in-law were temporarily settled in other places in the county. In the autumn all hands were greatly afflicted with ague and fever, to which they had not been used, and by which they were greatly discouraged, so much so that they determined on leaving the county. They remained, however, through the succeeding winter, which was the winter of the very celebrated "deep snow" of Illinois. During that winter Abraham, together with his stepmother's son, John D. Johnston, and John Hanks, yet residing in Macon County, hired themselves to Denton Offutt to take a flatboat from Beardstown, Illinois, to New Orleans; and for that purpose were to join him--Offutt--at Springfield, Illinois, so soon as the snow should go off. When it did go off, which was about the first of March, 1831, the county was so flooded as to make traveling by land impracticable; to obviate which difficulty they purchased a large canoe, and came down the Sangamon River in it. This is the time and the manner of Abraham's first entrance into Sangamon County. They found Offutt at Springfield, but learned from him that he had failed in getting a boat at Beardstown. This led to their hiring themselves to him for twelve dollars per month each, and getting the timber out of the trees and building a boat at Old Sangamon town on the Sangamon River, seven miles northwest of Springfield, which boat they took to New Orleans, substantially upon the old contract.

During this boat-enterprise acquaintance with Offutt, who was previously an entire stranger, he conceived a liking for Abraham, and believing he could turn him to account, he contracted with him to act as clerk for him, on his return from New Orleans, in charge of a store and mill at New Salem, then in Sangamon, now in Menard County. Hanks had not gone to New Orleans, but having a family, and being likely to be detained from home longer than at first expected, had turned back from St. Louis. He is the same John Hanks who now engineers the "rail enterprise" at Decatur, and is a first cousin to Abraham's mother. Abraham's father, with his own family and others mentioned, had, in pursuance of their intention, removed from Macon to Coles County. John D. Johnston, the stepmother's son, went with them, and Abraham stopped indefinitely and for the first time, as it were, by himself at New Salem, before mentioned. This was in July, 1831. Here he rapidly made acquaintances and friends. In less than a year Offutt's business was failing--had almost failed--when the Black Hawk war of 1832 broke out. Abraham joined a volunteer company, and, to his own surprise, was elected captain of it. He says he has not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction. He went to the campaign, served near three months, met the ordinary hardships of such an expedition, but was in no battle. He now owns, in Iowa, the land upon which his own warrants for the service were located. Returning from the campaign, and encouraged by his great popularity among his immediate neighbors, he the same year ran for the legislature, and was beaten,--his own precinct, however, casting its votes 277 for and 7 against him--and that, too, while he was an avowed Clay man, and the precinct the autumn afterward giving a majority of 115 to General Jackson over Mr. Clay. This was the only time Abraham was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people. He was now without means and out of business, but was anxious to remain with his friends who had treated him with so much generosity, especially as he had nothing elsewhere to go to. He studied what he should do--thought of learning the blacksmith trade--thought of trying to study law--rather thought he could not succeed at that without a better education. Before long, strangely enough, a man offered to sell, and did sell, to Abraham and another as poor as himself, an old stock of goods, upon credit. They opened as merchants; and he says that was the store. Of course they did nothing but get deeper and deeper in debt. He was appointed postmaster at New Salem--the office being too insignificant to make his politics an objection. The store winked out. The surveyor of Sangamon offered to depute to Abraham that portion of his work which was within his part of the county. He accepted, procured a compass and chain, studied Flint and Gibson a little, and went at it. This procured bread, and kept soul and body together. The election of 1834 came, and he was then elected to the legislature by the highest vote cast for any candidate. Major John T. Stuart, then in full practice of the law, was also elected. During the canvass, in a private conversation he encouraged Abraham [to] study law. After the election he borrowed books of Stuart, took them home with him, and went at it in good earnest. He studied with nobody. He still mixed in the surveying to pay board and clothing bills. When the legislature met, the lawbooks were dropped, but were taken up again at the end of the session. He was reelected in 1836, 1838, and 1840. In the autumn of 1836 he obtained a law license, and on April 15, 1837, removed to Springfield, and commenced the practice--his old friend Stuart taking him into partnership. March 3, 1837, by a protest entered upon the "Illinois House Journal" of that date, at pages 817 and 818, Abraham, with Dan Stone, another representative of Sangamon, briefly defined his position on the slavery question; and so far as it goes, it was then the same that it is now. The protest is as follows:

"Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the General Assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of the same.

"They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation of Abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its evils.

"They believe that the Congress of the United States has no power under the Constitution to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.

"They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, but that the power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of the District.

"The difference between these opinions and those contained in the above resolutions is their reason for entering this protest.

"Dan Stone,
"A Lincoln,
"Representatives from the County of Sangamon."

In 1838 and 1840, Mr. Lincoln's party voted for him as Speaker, but being in the minority he was not elected. After 1840 he declined a reelection to the legislature. He was on the Harrison electoral ticket in 1840, and on that of Clay in 1844, and spent much time and labor in both those canvasses. In November, 1842, he was married to Mary, daughter of Robert S. Todd, of Lexington, Kentucky. They have three living children, all sons, one born in 1843, one in 1850, and one in 1853. They lost one, who was born in 1846.

In 1846 he was elected to the lower House of Congress, and served one term only, commencing in December, 1847, and ending with the inauguration of General Taylor, in March 1849. All the battles of the Mexican war had been fought before Mr. Lincoln took his seat in Congress, but the American army was still in Mexico, and the treaty of peace was not fully and formally ratified till the June afterward. Much has been said of his course in Congress in regard to this war. A careful examination of the "Journal" and "Congressional Globe" shows that he voted for all the supply measures that came up, and for all the measures in any way favorable to the officers, soldiers, and their families, who conducted the war through: with the exception that some of these measures passed without yeas and nays, leaving no record as to how particular men voted. The "Journal" and "Globe" also show him voting that the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States. This is the language of Mr. Ashmun's amendment, for which Mr. Lincoln and nearly or quite all other Whigs of the House of Representatives voted.

Mr. Lincoln's reasons for the opinion expressed by this vote were briefly that the President had sent General Taylor into an inhabited part of the country belonging to Mexico, and not to the United States, and thereby had provoked the first act of hostility, in fact the commencement of the war; that the place, being the country bordering on the east bank of the Rio Grande, was inhabited by native Mexicans, born there under the Mexican government, and had never submitted to, nor been conquered by, Texas or the United States, nor transferred to either by treaty; that although Texas claimed the Rio Grande as her boundary, Mexico had never recognized it, and neither Texas nor the United States had ever enforced it; that there was a broad desert between that and the country over which Texas had actual control; that the country where hostilities commenced, having once belonged to Mexico, must remain so until it was somehow legally transferred, which had never been done.

Mr. Lincoln thought the act of sending an armed force among the Mexicans was unnecessary, inasmuch as Mexico was in no way molesting or menacing the United States or the people thereof; and that it was unconstitutional, because the power of levying war is vested in Congress, and not in the President. He thought the principal motive for the act was to divert public attention from the surrender of "Fifty-four, forty, or fight" to Great Britain, on the Oregon boundary question.

Mr. Lincoln was not a candidate for reelection. This was determined upon and declared before he went to Washington, in accordance with an understanding among Whig friends, by which Colonel Hardin and Colonel Baker had each previously served a single term in this same district.

In 1848, during his term in Congress, he advocated General Taylor's nomination for the presidency, in opposition to all others, and also took an active part for his election after his nomination, speaking a few times in Maryland, near Washington, several times in Massachusetts, and canvassing quite fully his own district in Illinois, which was followed by a majority in the district of over 1500 for General Taylor.

Upon his return from Congress he went to the practice of the law with greater earnestness than ever before. In 1852 he was upon the Scott electoral ticket, and did something in the way of canvassing, but owing to the hopelessness of the cause in Illinois he did less than in previous presidential canvasses.

In 1854 his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before.

In the autumn of that year he took the stump with no broader practical aim or object than to secure, if possible, the reelection of Hon. Richard Yates to Congress. His speeches at once attracted a more marked attention than they had ever before done. As the canvass proceeded he was drawn to different parts of the State outside of Mr. Yates' district. He did not abandon the law, but gave his attention by turns to that and politics. The State agricultural fair was at Springfield that year, and Douglas was announced to speak there.

In the canvass of 1856 Mr. Lincoln made over fifty speeches, no one of which, so far as he remembers, was put in print. One of them was made at Galena, but Mr. Lincoln has no recollection of any part of it being printed; nor does he remember whether in that speech he said anything about a Supreme Court decision. He may have spoken upon that subject, and some of the newspapers may have reported him as saying what it now ascribed to him, but he thinks he could not have expressed himself as represented.

The Power of Art: Making the Ordinary Romantic

For quite a number of years now, art has become an important part of my life. One of the main values I take from art is its ability to change how I see the world. It helps me see beyond the ordinary and see essentials. Each branch of art can do this in a different way. I’d like to share a story from a recent trip to Paris and Israel that I think can demonstrate the power of art and, hopefully, convince you to make it part of your life.

World War II has always fascinated me – the scale of the conflict, the righteousness of the cause, and the stories of heroism have captured my imagination and interest. When I found myself in France last spring, I knew I had to make the trip to the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy.

Throughout the day we toured the various battle sites, hearing tales of heroism. Our tour ended at the American cemetery at Omaha beach. It’s a beautiful place. The gardens are immaculate. The setting is beautiful and peaceful.

Overlooking the rows of grave markers is a statue of a young man. When I first saw it I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was not expecting it. I couldn’t help but feel in awe looking up at him towering over me. His body is triumphant and yet there’s a sadness in his face. It’s beautiful and tragic. The title of this statue is “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From The Waves”. I felt overwhelmed. Even writing about it now is difficult.

This statue made everything I had experienced that day more vivid. It captured my feelings on the triumph and tragedy of World War 2 and the immense gratitude I feel for those people who fought for something they believed in. The statue embodies the spirit of the American youth who went on to defeat the Nazis but also the tragedy of the price that was paid. The statue and what it represented would come back to me in an unexpected way.

A week later I arrived in Israel. For those of you who don’t know, Israel has a mandatory army service starting at 18. Nearly every Israeli does at least a few years of service. It’s common to see young off-duty soldiers walking the streets of Tel Aviv in their army fatigues, a gun slung over their shoulder, enjoying their day. This is normal in Israel. It’s ordinary. I was expecting to see this. What I didn’t expect was how I would react. Each time I passed one of these soldiers, I saw the statue from Omaha beach. I would well up with emotion. Instead of seeing a young adult doing their grocery shopping, I would see “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From The Waves” and everything it represented to me.

My experience in Israel demonstrates one of the most powerful ways art can enhance life. Art can change how you look at the world. It can capture the essence of an idea and value and present it to you in a way that is intense and vivid. It can become a lens through which you can see the world in a different way. It allows you to see your values embedded in the ordinary world around you. Instead of seeing a young soldier, I saw the statue and felt a wave of gratitude.

As you go out into the world, I hope you’ll look for art that you can use in a similar way. I hope you will look for art that will help make the world around you more vivid and that will allow you to experience your values.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to use art in this way, I recommend visiting Touching the Art. Luc Travers has a method of reading artworks that can help you connect with art and make it part of your life.

Through the Lenses of Rhetoric: A Classical Look at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

In 2021, I taught a course on the Trivium for the first time, and have taught it several times since. There is nothing like teaching for learning, and I have learned a great deal as I have taught, especially about rhetoric. I had taught small portions of Aristotle’s Rhetoric before, but remained ignorant of most of it, and I knew almost nothing about later traditions of rhetoric. I still think of myself as merely an advanced beginner in rhetoric rather than a professor of it, but I am becoming an amateur, a lover. Aristotle’s Rhetoric has educated me in the range of the orator’s understanding of the minds and hearts of ordinary people, while the traditional canons of rhetoric, its various figures, and the exercises of progymnasmata have improved my approach to speaking and to analyzing the speeches of others.

Though I have been a passionate as well as professional reader of great texts, I find I am gaining significant insight into and appreciation of historically great speeches. Getting to know the trees in the forest of rhetoric (especially through the Silva Rhetoricae website) has led me to ask certain questions habitually and in an orderly way, helping me get inside the mind of the author. I have learned to think about the occasion and the audience, distinguish appeals to logos and pathos and ethos, understand the flow of a speech and the choices made by its author through the canons of invention and arrangement. I am even beginning to become conversant with the common figures, tropes, and schemes.

It has been a particular joy to gain greater insight into Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I have always loved the speech for its deeply moving conclusion - “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right….” Yet, in spite of having read it many times in my career, even studying it carefully on several occasions, I had still found it a difficult speech to follow. Lincoln seems to wander around from the conspiracies that took place at his first inauguration to slavery, prayer, and the Almighty, before his culminating exhortation “to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan….” But looking at it through the lenses of classical rhetorical techniques helped bring his order into focus for me.

The most general and encompassing ideas in classical rhetoric are those of Kairos and audience. The first, connected to the occasion giving rise to the speech, leads us to ask what sort of speech would seem appropriate to the formal occasion, as well as what opportunities it offers to the speaker for taking on larger issues. The second makes us ask what is the character and disposition of the audience he is facing? Is he addressing multiple audiences? What difficulties might they present for effective communication? How should he overcome them?

Referring to the formal occasion is often a great introduction, and allows the speaker to let his audience know what he wants to talk about. Lincoln’s first paragraph distinguishes the occasion of this inauguration from that of his first inaugural address; the first demanded a detailed account of how he intended to proceed in a time of crisis, but this does not. He does not tell them what he thinks this occasion really demands. However, he puts aside what his immediate audience might expect - that he would lead them in anticipatory celebrations of imminent triumph - with a gentle understatement: “The progress of our arms…is I trust reasonably satisfactory.” His audience is left wondering what can he say that will be timely now, what does he think they need to hear? Readers of the speech can tell from the conclusion that he wants to bring them to a place where they will put aside all malice and embrace charity for all, even for Southerners. We can imagine how unwelcome that might be.
Arrangement is another central rhetorical consideration. How has the speaker structured his speech? What are its constituent parts, and how does each contribute to his central point? Lincoln uses two structural techniques, the more obvious of which is parallelism. In the second paragraph Lincoln initiates a comparison between the two sides in the war that extends through the rest of the speech.

All dreaded it ~ all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war ~ seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

Parallel sentence structure creates antithesis, which highlights their different purposes: to save the union without war, to destroy it without war; make war rather than let the nation survive; accept war rather than let it perish. But he speaks of their areas of agreement as well as disagreement. They agreed in dreading war. Each recognized that if it had not been for the existence of slaves, there would have been no war. They each expected the war to be over quickly; neither expected the war would bring slavery to an end. Each prayed that God would aid them against the other.

While parallelism is woven throughout the main body of the speech, the speech naturally divides into two sections  according to a classical distinction particularly appropriate to a courtroom. First comes a statement of straightforward facts about a dispute (narratio), then comes the proof that establishes the speaker’s main point (confirmatio). The facts should be relatively uncontroversial, yet presented so as to prepare the ground for the controversial argument.

Lincoln presents the facts in a strikingly impersonal way. He does not speak in terms of “we” and “they,” but simply of one side and the other. Lincoln chooses to use the word “party” instead of side, as though bidding the audience to look at the dispute from the impartial standpoint of a judge, one who has seen many disputes in his days, and knows that there is usually plenty of blame to go around.

The second paragraph ends briefly, impersonally, soberly. And the war came. There is no human subject for that sentence, as though the war came on its own, inevitably, apart from any human decision. This ending naturally leads to a question, not “Who started the war? Which side is to blame?” but “How did the war come?” The existence of slaves was, somehow, the cause of the war. The commas in the text no doubt reflect a pause on “somehow”, helping the audience hear that the implicit question has only been vaguely answered. Although other issues were involved, all knew that in some way the war came because the two parties had different intentions with regard to slaves.

As Lincoln begins to move into the hard part, where he must bring his audience to conclusions they might not like, he brings in prayer, the Bible, and God. He references four different Scripture passages in seven sentences. He places his hope to persuade his audience on authority, the highest authority, the most powerful authority in the Union.

He begins by implying a question. No one expected the war to be so big, nor for slavery to cease before the war ended. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both sides prayed that God would be on their side; the magnitude of the war made evident that He was not fully on either side. In another brief, undecorated but powerful sentence, Lincoln expresses the key turn in thought he wishes his audience to have: The Almighty has his own purposes. Those who believe in a providential God must expect that they are not the primary agents in so great an event. The question becomes, not what did each party intend, but what did the Almighty intend?

Lincoln, with the rest of the North, can understand why God would not be on the side of those who prayed that slavery would be extended. Lincoln adapts the language of Genesis 3:19 to suggest the hypocrisy of Christian slave owners: It may seem strange that any should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces…. Yet he immediately invokes Matthew 7 so his audience can hear the warning of Jesus against indulging in such sentiments: “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”

The implicit heartfelt question of the Northern party is, “Why has He not been entirely on our side? Aren’t we the just ones in this dispute? Why have we suffered so much bloodshed and devastation?” Lincoln uses a hypothetical statement to respectfully suggest a providential purpose for the war: God is using it as a scourge to punish those responsible for the evils of slavery. He offers evidence from a Scriptural text: Woe to that man by whom the offenses come. By whom did the offense come? Lincoln must make his audience face the hard truth that both parties share in the guilt of slavery. Though at the beginning of the war, slaves were localized in the South, it had not been so from the beginning of America. …He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came. He names it now, not “Southern slavery”, but “American slavery”, which for 250 years, from the earliest days of the colonies, had brought wealth to the owners and unjust suffering to the slaves. He therefore bids his Christian audience, not to triumph as the just, but to follow Scripture in praising the Lord as they accept His scourge: “...As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

Lincoln educated himself to be a master orator through textbooks and Euclid and Shakespeare and years of advocacy and debate.  In this speech, we admire how, having laid the groundwork for his argument with lawyerly objectivity, he brings it home with the forcefulness of a revival preacher, a style that befits an American statesman (as does its brevity), preparing his audience, chastened in both mind and heart, to receive his gentle invitation to embrace a Christian attitude towards the suffering of friend and enemy alike:

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

From the Director

Dear Reader,

Over 25 years into the classical liberal arts revival, we are launching into a period of accelerated growth. My sense of this has been confirmed by recent participation in the Transforming Culture Symposium at Benedictine College in Kansas, and an Alcuin Retreat for classical education leaders at the University of Virginia on the theme of “The Academic Return of  the Great Tradition.” Mainstream education today is looking worse and worse, while veterans in the movement have founded institutions that are now very good at offering parents, educators, administrators, pastors, and social leaders the aid they need to build or re-build school communities with a high rate of success.

Recently I was asked, “If classical education were to increase tenfold, what would the future look like in two generations?” “Who knows?” is the truest answer. The present is so uncertain; we stand in real danger of losing the freedom and social stability necessary for education. Still, it’s interesting to muse. “Classical education” means different things to different people; those who have been involved in the renewal for some years are now trying to sort through these different ideas. If we take it to refer generally to a serious education grounded in the best of Western cultural traditions and ordered to the true, good, and beautiful, today’s growth gives hope of great fruit in fifty years. The demand is certainly there, and growing; if we can meet it while providing all the necessary teacher formation, which is the most important part of the work, and avoiding the teacher and student burnout that can afflict networks that grow too quickly, then we would be graduating several hundred thousand each year, between 5% and 10% of the total high school graduates. In 30 years or 40 years perhaps 10 million adults will have been nurtured in serious, often joyful, learning communities, with a high rate of alumni devotion. They will be grounded talented well-formed people, a good chunk of whom will have significant life experience under their belt. And that’s only in the United States. Many around the world are seeing what is happening in the US, and doing all they can to begin movements in their countries.

Is that a critical mass large enough to topple the hollowed out husks of the educational and cultural institutions already showing signs of eventual collapse by providing real, workable, worthwhile alternatives? At least it should be enough to pass on in a beautiful way the best of Christian Western civilization in the midst of general cultural collapse. Maybe, it will even bring about in some form a new birth of wisdom, which we so desperately need. We need our knowledge of the truth to blossom into wisdom, we need our preservation of the beautiful to create profundity, we need our love of the good to produce statesmen.

Our society is plagued by a lack of wisdom; the modern era was grounded on a complete rejection of the possibility and desirability of wisdom. We need wise educators, creators, and leaders to inspire us, persuade us, instruct us, and show us the way. The larger the number of those well-educated, the more likely we are to produce these great people, especially as we foster those special souls who give themselves over to the pursuit of wisdom with a passionate life intensity, and as we develop a greater diversity of thoughts and practices among those who love those things and are able to argue about them, for in a real way wisdom is born of deep and serious questions.

In this edition of our bulletin, we can see the fruits of Abraham Lincoln’s education in serious grammar study and reading Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Euclid, and Blackstone, as we mine the deep spiritual wisdom expressed beautifully and powerfully in his Second Inaugural Address. Boethius Fellow Joseph Tabenkin shows how his openness to art allowed a powerful sculpture to fulfill his experience of Normandy Beach.


From the Director

Dear Reader,

This issue of the Arts of Liberty Bulletin features different pieces related to literature, and arises from a number of providential connections. I encountered Arnold Bennett’s 1907 Literary Taste and How to Form It through my collaboration with Lisa Vandamme’s Read With Me project. We led a series of conversations on the short, practical, challenging, inspiring guide which I found very fruitful. Here is a teaser: The makers of literature are those who have seen and felt the miraculous interestingness of the universe. A “chance-meeting” at last year’s National Symposium for Classical Education introduced me to Megan Lindsay, a Great Hearts’ drama and literature teacher who shared with me some of her secrets for opening the minds and hearts of her students to the power of Shakespeare (which I adapted for a very successful workshop at an elementary school in Kentucky). I celebrated Providence in the works of JRR Tolkien and the classical liberal arts revival in my talk at last year’s Circe Institute conference.

The new year has seen our work at the Boethius Institute continue to develop. Our Fellows in formation just completed a short course on logic by considering the ways in which it helps perfect our reasoning even in matters where we can’t attain the mathematical certainty, and encountering Aristotle’s description of the magical moment of intellectual insight that elevates us above the limited but powerful realm of sensory experience. We will now turn to look at classical rhetoric in theory and practice. Senior Fellow Erik Ellis discussed criteria for a canon of great books with colleagues in South America. Matthew Walz gave a talk on Benedict XVI’s concern for healing reason at the Circe Institute’s Forma Symposium. Jeffrey Lehman and I offered talks on the liberal arts and the history of Catholic education at the St. John Bosco Conference in Denver, and soon we will begin our modern mathematics sequence with our students at the Pascal Institute in the Netherlands.

Many more seeds are germinating to bear fruit in the summer and beyond. I look forward to reporting on them for our next Bulletin.

Literary Taste: How to Form It

Chapter 1 The Aim of Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arthur Bennet

File:Fragonard, The Reader.jpgAt the beginning a misconception must be removed from the path. Many people, if not most, look on literary taste as an elegant accomplishment, by acquiring which they will complete themselves, and make themselves finally fit as members of a correct society. They are secretly ashamed of their ignorance of literature, in the same way as they would be ashamed of their ignorance of etiquette at a high entertainment, or of their inability to ride a horse if suddenly called upon to do so. There are certain things that a man ought to know, or to know about, and literature is one of them: such is their idea. They have learnt to dress themselves with propriety, and to behave with propriety on all occasions; they are fairly "up" in the questions of the day; by industry and enterprise they are succeeding in their vocations; it behoves them, then, not to forget that an acquaintance with literature is an indispensable part of a self-respecting man's personal baggage. Painting doesn't matter; music doesn't matter very much. But "everyone is supposed to know" about literature. Then, literature is such a charming distraction! Literary taste thus serves two purposes: as a certificate of correct culture and as a private pastime. A young professor of mathematics, immense at mathematics and games, dangerous at chess, capable of Haydn on the violin, once said to me, after listening to some chat on books, "Yes, I must take up literature." As though saying: "I was rather forgetting literature. However, I've polished off all these other things. I'll have a shy at literature now."

This attitude, or any attitude which resembles it, is wrong. To him who really comprehends what literature is, and what the function of literature is, this attitude is simply ludicrous. It is also fatal to the formation of literary taste. People who regard literary taste simply as an accomplishment, and literature simply as a distraction, will never truly succeed either in acquiring the accomplishment or in using it half-acquired as a distraction; though the one is the most perfect of distractions, and though the other is unsurpassed by any other accomplishment in elegance or in power to impress the universal snobbery of civilised mankind. Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. I am extremely anxious to avoid rhetorical exaggerations. I do not think I am guilty of one in asserting that he who has not been "presented to the freedom" of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep. He is merely not born. He can't see; he can't hear; he can't feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner. What more than anything else annoys people who know the true function of literature, and have profited thereby, is the spectacle of so many thousands of individuals going about under the delusion that they are alive, when, as a fact, they are no nearer being alive than a bear in winter.

I will tell you what literature is! No—I only wish I could. But I can't. No one can. Gleams can be thrown on the secret, inklings given, but no more. I will try to give you an inkling. And, to do so, I will take you back into your own history, or forward into it. That evening when you went for a walk with your faithful friend, the friend from whom you hid nothing— or almost nothing...! You were, in truth, somewhat inclined to hide from him the particular matter which monopolised your mind that evening, but somehow you contrived to get on to it, drawn by an overpowering fascination. And as your faithful friend was sympathetic and discreet, and flattered you by a respectful curiosity, you proceeded further and further into the said matter, growing more and more confidential, until at last you cried out, in a terrific whisper: "My boy, she is simply miraculous!" At that moment you were in the domain of literature.

Let me explain. Of course, in the ordinary acceptation of the word, she was notFile:Godward The Old Old Story 1903.jpg miraculous. Your faithful friend had never noticed that she was miraculous, nor had about forty thousand other fairly keen observers. She was just a girl. Troy had not been burnt for her. A girl cannot be called a miracle. If a girl is to be called a miracle, then you might call pretty nearly anything a miracle.... That is just it: you might. You can. You ought. Amid all the miracles of the universe you had just wakened up to one. You were full of your discovery. You were under a divine impulsion to impart that discovery. You had a strong sense of the marvellous beauty of something, and you had to share it. You were in a passion about something, and you had to vent yourself on somebody. You were drawn towards the whole of the rest of the human race. Mark the effect of your mood and utterance on your faithful friend. He knew that she was not a miracle. No other person could have made him believe that she was a miracle. But you, by the force and sincerity of your own vision of her, and by the fervour of your desire to make him participate in your vision, did for quite a long time cause him to feel that he had been blind to the miracle of that girl.

You were producing literature. You were alive. Your eyes were unlidded, your ears were unstopped, to some part of the beauty and the strangeness of the world; and a strong instinct within you forced you to tell someone. It was not enough for you that you saw and heard. Others had to see and hear. Others had to be wakened up. And they were! It is quite possible—I am not quite sure— that your faithful friend the very next day, or the next month, looked at some other girl, and suddenly saw that she, too, was miraculous! The influence of literature!

The makers of literature are those who have seen and felt the miraculous interestingness of the universe. And the greatest makers of literature are those whose vision has been the widest, and whose feeling has been the most intense. Your own fragment of insight was accidental, and perhaps temporary. Their lives are one long ecstasy of denying that the world is a dull place. Is it nothing to you to learn to understand that the world is not a dull place? Is it nothing to you to be led out of the tunnel on to the hill-side, to have all your senses quickened, to be invigorated by the true savour of life, to feel your heart beating under that correct necktie of yours? These makers of literature render you their equals.

File:Jan Brueghel the Younger - Snowy Landscape, after 1625.jpgThe aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it is to be alive, to intensify one's capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours. It is to change utterly one's relations with the world. An understanding appreciation of literature means an understanding appreciation of the world, and it means nothing else. Not isolated and unconnected parts of life, but all of life, brought together and correlated in a synthetic map! The spirit of literature is unifying; it joins the candle and the star, and by the magic of an image shows that the beauty of the greater is in the less. And, not content with the disclosure of beauty and the bringing together of all things whatever within its focus, it enforces a moral wisdom by the tracing everywhere of cause and effect. It consoles doubly— by the revelation of unsuspected loveliness, and by the proof that our lot is the common lot. It is the supreme cry of the discoverer, offering sympathy and asking for it in a single gesture. In attending a University Extension Lecture on the sources of Shakespeare's plots, or in studying the researches of George Saintsbury into the origins of English prosody, or in weighing the evidence for and against the assertion that Rousseau was a scoundrel, one is apt to forget what literature really is and is for. It is well to remind ourselves that literature is first and last a means of life, and that the enterprise of forming one's literary taste is an enterprise of learning how best to use this means of life. People who don't want to live, people who would sooner hibernate than feel intensely, will be wise to eschew literature. They had better, to quote from the finest passage in a fine poem, "sit around and eat blackberries." The sight of a "common bush afire with God" might upset their nerves.

Providence and The Lord of the Rings

This article is adapted from Dr. Seeley’s Russell Kirk Paideia Prize acceptance speech at the Circe Institute Conference last July.

ProvidenceFile:El Señor de los Anillos lectura.jpg is often difficult to see, especially in the present, especially in the midst of great evils, especially for those fighting what JRR Tolkien called “the long defeat.” In similar times, Boethius needed consolation: his major complaint as he sat in prison facing death was that it seemed that the Lord who ruled the heavens and the earth did not rule in the affairs of men.

For me it has not been so difficult to believe. Even before I had faith in the Almighty, I received daily consolation of heart and imagination from The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were for me what the Iliad and the Odyssey were for the Greeks, what the Scriptures were for the medieval monks. As a teenager, I read The Lord of the Rings continually, to the extent that I had it practically memorized. I judged my life by its characters – Would Sam and Gandalf and Aragorn be friends with me? In their eyes, I wouldn’t look so pretty, which led me to conviction, contrition, prayer, and eventually mercy. Over the years, its words and scenes have come spontaneously to my mind to help me interpret the living world around me.

I have found over the years that I am not alone, I am not the only one who could say he was saved in part by reading Tolkien. It is hard to overestimate the influence of this work on those who have spawned the Christian classical renewal. It is easy to underestimate the wisdom and the art and the thought about art contained in Tolkien’s works.

The Lord of the Rings is a song of merciful Providence. The wise in its stories are models of leaders who use all their wit to follow the guidance of Providence. Gandalf, when speaking of the crazy fact that the Ring was found by Bilbo of the Shire, told Frodo, “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the ringmaker. I can put it in no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.” “It is not,” said Frodo.

I have witnessed great things. Beth Sullivan and I were reminiscing about the crazy things that the Lord has accomplished through us nobodies. Ten years ago, we organized our first conference of Catholic classical schools. 72 people participated. Ten years later, over 400 will participate next week in our National Conference, with a waiting list and a large live-streaming contingent. I estimate there are over 300 schools that share similar visions of education. Greater things are to come. We have formed a network of over 50 diocesan superintendents representing a quarter of all the dioceses in the country.

I am sure many of you  have similar stories to tell! It is not easy, following Providence, though it can be exciting. How many of you have thought like Frodo: 'I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why was I chosen?' 'Such questions cannot be answered,' said Gandalf. 'You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.'

With Gandalf's help, Frodo determined that he had to leave the Shire; with Elrond's counsel he determined that he was meant to undertake the Quest to destroy the Ring. How ridiculous that a halfling should be chosen for something so important. Who was he? What did he know? He was no hero, not one of the Wise. But he accepted it, with deep reluctance:

A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ’I will take the Ring,' he said, `though I do not know the way.' 

Thomas Aquinas CollegeHow many of us have felt this way? “Small hands do them because they must.” My wife, Lisa, and I never expected to do anything great. In Thomas Aquinas College and the community that grew up around it – faith-filled, family-centered, fun and talented – we had our Shire. Our greatest aspiration was to be boring. Great enterprises were for different folks. To try to change the downward spiral of Church and society was for the wiser and stronger. But I came to think I heard the call of the Lord, that the Church wanted me to share my experience of beautiful Catholic education. After discussion, prayer, reflection and consultation, we chose to respond, though we did not know the way.

Every trip filled me with dread; often I wondered why I was flying to this place or that. Like Frodo, I wished someone wiser and stronger would take the burden; I would have been happy to help them. But it was not without its rewards. Elrond foretold to Frodo,  “You may find friends upon your way when you least look for it.” Andrew Pudewa, Andrew Kern, Brian Phillips, Martin Cothran, Chris and Christine Perrin were among the early friends. Their generous encouragement, advice, and help at a time when ICLE was just a cell phone in my pocket were gifts from God. Companions had been prepared for me, though neither they nor I knew it – Beth, Mary Pat Donoghue (now Secretary of Education for the national Bishops Conference), Chris Weir, Colleen Richards, and more.

“Posterity shall serve Him. Men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that He has wrought it.” We must share the stories of our adventures in the Lord with the younger generation. For better or worse, we are now for them the Wise and the Great. They will live, as the Chinese curse says, “in interesting times”. Even ordinary life is requiring more and more heroism: fidelity to our Lord, raising our children well, fulfilling our duties, serving our communities. We must encourage them to maintain in the midst of this the spirit of Abraham. When God called him every few decades, Abraham always answered, “Here I am,” in our idiom, “Ready!” We must prepare them to see that difficulties, problems, oppositions, even disasters are not in themselves signs to turn back.

We must also help our children to appreciate their unique gifts asFile:Southington, Connecticut. At an early age school children learn about the meaning of the American flag (LOC).jpg Americans. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Americans for the Christian classical renewal. It is easy to underestimate the goodness found in the American regime. It is no accident that the renewal of liberal education has begun, is flourishing, and becoming ever more fruitful in America. We are particularly suited to actively undertake great things for the Lord. We are a free people – free in our laws, our institutions, our customs, our traditions, our spirit. Our heroes are those who, though small and insignificant in their origins, undertook great challenges and made great sacrifices to bring something great into the world that had never been before. Our forefathers did not want to rebel, but they cherished freedom with a manly spirit and did what they judged God called them to do: “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Our liberty is a great gift from the Lord and from them. John Adams said to us, “Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.” Let us never disappoint him.

 “We're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?” Sam came to this realization in the cleft of Cirith Ungol. We are in the same tale as the Psalmist, as the Church, as America, even, essentially, as Sam. It has been a great tale so far. But it is all too likely that some young ones in the future will say at this point: "Shut the book now, dad; we don't want to read any more." But I will latch on to Andrew Kern’s optimism, and hope that the end, at least for our children, will be: And they lived happily ever after till the end of their days. It is a good ending, and none the worse for having been used before.

We should always be open to the extraordinary.. Often tell God, “I am open to your will.” If you begin to suspect that God is calling you to something crazy, no need to rush. Open yourself to the idea in prayer, asking God to help you know His will. Think it through. Take counsel with those close to you, especially those who seem spiritually wise, and those who will be most affected. Pay attention to weird signs – they shouldn't lead you in the discernment, but they do confirm, or encourage you to keep discerning. Try to stay as peaceful as possible through the whole thing – agitation is often a bad sign.

Once you decide as well as you can that God is asking something of you, or you begin to want to do it yourself, trust Him that, if you begin, He will bless you and others through you. Ask Him to tell you “No” if you aren't supposed to do it. This can be difficult, because we know that difficulties, problems, oppositions are often not signs that you are supposed to drop it. Often disasters are God's way of saying, “I wanted you to attempt this, but that was to prepare you for something else.” Boethius thought his gift to the world was to translate the works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin and show how they were in fundamental agreement. A noble enterprise! But then he was imprisoned, and eventually martyred. Yet he gifted the West with his Consolation of Philosophy, which had a more profound effect. Above all, remember that in difficulties, when God's will seems completely hidden, Wait! He is always at work, and will reveal His will in time.

To you I lift up my eyes,Illuminated Psalm

    O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

2 As the eyes of servants

    look to the hand of their master,

as the eyes of a maid

    to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the Lord our God,

    until he has mercy upon us.

Teaching Shakespeare to the Young: An Interview with Megan Lindsay

I enjoy attending conferences, especially when I have no responsibilities, and am just free to attend talks of interest, reconnect with old friends, and make new ones. At last year’s National Classical Education Symposium in Phoenix, I was free to feed my passion for Shakespearian drama by attending 3 workshops by Globe director/actor/teacher, Nicholas Hutchison. They were wonderful, but I came away more excited to have made the acquaintance of Megan Lindsay, a drama instructor and director at Cicero Preparatory Academy, who introduced all three sessions. I discovered that we shared not only a common love of Shakespeare but also a conviction of the formative effects that performing his works can have on the young.

Like many involved in the liberal arts renewal, Megan stumbled into involvement because of her kids.  She visited her child’s third grade classroom at a classical Christian school, where they were being taught Shakespeare as a grammar stage activity in connection with Renaissance history. Megan had loved acting when she was young so much that she wanted to study acting in college. (“My parents said, ‘No. That has no future.’ So I studied philosophy and history to spite them!”)

Megan was deeply disturbed by what she saw. The teacher seemed to have no idea how to teach Shakespeare to the young. It was obvious that the kids had no idea what Shakespeare was saying. They had no idea the drama was about real people. “I am the kind who raises their hand to solve a problem before I think it out. I asked the school whether I could stage Shakespeare scenes to show parents? ‘Ok, on your own time.’ As I left I gasped to myself, ‘What did I just do?!”

File:Macbeth consults the three witches; an apparition appears of Wellcome V0025890.jpgMegan didn’t really know what kids that young could do. But she thought, ‘I’ll throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks.” She  started with some scenes that she thought could be really fun for the kids – the  witches’ cauldron scene from Macbeth, and the scene featuring the drunken sailors and the monster, Caliban, from The Tempest. It was daring – imagine third graders at a Christian school playing as witches and drunkards. But the kids had a great time!

She decided to begin by having them just experience Shakespeare’s language. She had them say the words in different ways, playing with their sounds. “‘Double, double’ is full of assonance and big vowels. They enjoyed saying the words though they didn’t know what a lot of them meant. As I watched them, I realized how natural this approach is for kids – they are used to learning from listening to adults although much of the vocabulary is beyond them.”

Then she had them act out the scene according to the way the words sounded to them and what they could get of the words. She supplied meanings for a few of the words, but for the most part she let them develop the story without direction from her. “They discovered the story! This was so freeing for me as a teacher. I discovered that my role was less to tell them the meaning than to help them discover that meaning through acting it out.”

Megan also saw how they began to learn about themselves through the process of discovering the story through Shakespeare’s words. “Caliban the monster was played by a lovely little boy. He struggled to understand Caliban’s anger, he couldn’t feel it himself. I asked him, ‘Do you ever feel your parents are unfair? Like some time when your mom said no to you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘when I really wanted the gum in her purse.” ‘Did you take it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How did you feel?’ ‘Guilty, but I was still mad at her for being unfair!’ ‘That’s how Caliban felt,” I said. Mowing the lawn when he thought his brother should have done it helped him connect with Caliban who had to carry logs. I never told him, but I was teaching him the acting technique of substitution.”

She has applied this technique to learning Shakespeare and to many other kinds of literature. Sound it out, act it out, then add meaning. This works, she believes because it is so natural. “Kids come to language in a pre-rational way. Language lies in the human heart. It is our way of making meaning.”

Megan also has found that acting contributes to forming what Vigen Guroian has called the moral imagination, and so influences how they live their lives. Through acting, students discover that thoughts (The True) carry emotions (The Beautiful), which make us want to act (The Good). Likewise with the false, the ugly, and the bad. She once heard a Junior who had played Macbeth trying to help his little sister, who was struggling with playing a giddy girl in another play. “‘We struggle,’ he said, ‘with characters because we are judging them; we are not seeing things as they would see them. I had to understand Macbeth’s pride. And I realized that I am like him.’”

It takes time for an actor to experience his character as real.  “New actors have to begin with external representation, until the performance starts to come from within and feel more authentic.”  As a director, Megan conveys to her actors that they have a responsibility to the characters they are creating. “You must be true to your character, who is just words until you incarnate him. If you portray him truthfully, he will become real. And this might affect your life.”

Megan experienced this herself recently while playing a narcissistic controlling mom. “Classical education allowed me to enter into her while still maintaining separation. I made her so real that audience members said afterwards, ‘I hate you.’ Then I went backstage, and took the whole mask off. Yet this woman has influenced me. I was humbled, I could see the beginnings of her character in myself. I became more sensitive to conflicts with my daughters as they went off to college, less willing to sweep things under the carpet, even with my husband.”

Megan fosters this experience with her students by having them, after a performance, articulate what they learned. “They will go into life knowing many kinds of people. And they will have been trained in the art of moral imagination.”

A giant spider

Megan has adapted this technique for Shakespeare works for all literature. She tried it with the chapter, “Shelob’s Lair,” from The Lord of the Rings.” She read it herself, and put together a list of great quotations. She then noticed patterns. “In this chapter, Tolkien focuses on the sensible. He highlights the loss of all the  senses except smell, which is heightened. He chooses gross words like ‘foul’ and ‘reek’. Darkness becomes a thing destroying all senses, and even the memory of sensations. This is a great description: ‘a shadow that being cast by no light, no light could dissipate.’” She wrote out the best quotations and put them up around the room. As with Shakespeare, she had her students read them, say them, and act them out, even if they didn’t yet understand. Then they talked about them, starting generally with, “What did you notice?” eventually moving to “What is darkness? Is it fitting to portray darkness as evil? Why is it Sam who remembers the light, not Frodo?”

Megan was extraordinarily generous with her time and her resources. Her advice helped me have one of the most delightful experiences of my professional career – a two-day Shakespeare workshop with elementary students. The success of today’s  classical education movement comes from having aroused thoughtful, passionate, generous teachers like Megan.

Einstein’s Imagination

Excerpt from Relativity: The Special and General Theories by Albert Einstein.

Part of Einstein’s genius was his ability to think things through using just his imagination. In this excerpt, Einstein shows how imagining an elevator accelerating in empty space led him to posit that gravity can be understood as a relative phenomenon. 

In contrast to electric and magnetic fields, the gravitational field exhibits a most remarkable property, which is of fundamental importance for what follows. Bodies which are moving under the sole influence of a gravitational field receive an acceleration, which does not in the least depend either on the material or on the physical state of the body. For instance, a piece of lead and a piece of wood fall in exactly the same manner in a gravitational field (in vacuo), when they start off from rest or with the same initial velocity…We then have the following law: The gravitational mass of a body is equal to its inertial mass.

It is true that this important law had hitherto been recorded in mechanics, but it had not been interpreted. A satisfactory interpretation can be obtained only if we recognize the following fact: The same quality of a body manifests itself according to circumstances as “inertia” or as “weight” (lit. “heaviness”). In the following section we shall show to what extent this is actually the case, and how this question is connected with the general postulate of relativity.

WE imagine a large portion of empty space, so far removed from stars and other appreciable masses that we have before us approximately the conditions required by the fundamental law of Galilei. It is then possible to choose a Galileian reference-body for this part of space (world), relative to which points at rest remain at rest and points in motion continue permanently in uniform rectilinear motion. As reference-body let us imagine a spacious chest resembling a room with an observer inside who is equipped with apparatus. Gravitation naturally does not exist for this observer. He must fasten himself with strings to the floor, otherwise the slightest impact against the floor will cause him to rise slowly towards the ceiling of the room.

To the middle of the lid of the chest is fixed externally a hook with rope attached, and now a “being” (what kind of a being is immaterial to us) begins pulling at this with a constant force. The chest together with the observer then begin to move “upwards” with a uniformly accelerated motion. In course of time their velocity will reach unheard-of values—provided that we are viewing all this from another reference-body which is not being pulled with a rope. But how does the man in the chest regard the process? The acceleration of the chest will be transmitted to him by the reaction of the floor of the chest. He must therefore take up this pressure by means of his legs if he does not wish to be laid out full length on the floor. He is then standing in the chest in exactly the same way as anyone stands in a room of a house on our earth. If he release a body which he previously had in his hand, the acceleration of the chest will no longer be transmitted to this body, and for this reason the body will approach the floor of the chest with an accelerated relative motion. The observer will further convince himself that the acceleration of the body towards the floor of the chest is always of the same magnitude, whatever kind of body he may happen to use for the experiment.

Relying on his knowledge of the gravitational field (as it was discussed in the preceding section), the man in the chest will thus come to the conclusion that he and the chest are in a gravitational field which is constant with regard to time. Of course he will be puzzled for a moment as to why the chest does not fall in this gravitational field. Just then, however, he discovers the hook in the middle of the lid of the chest and the rope which is attached to it, and he consequently comes to the conclusion that the chest is suspended at rest in the gravitational field.

Ought we to smile at the man and say that he errs in his conclusion? I do not believe we ought if we wish to remain consistent; we must rather admit that his mode of grasping the situation violates neither reason nor known mechanical laws. Even though it is being accelerated with respect to the “Galileian space” first considered, we can nevertheless regard the chest as being at rest. We have thus good grounds for extending the principle of relativity to include bodies of reference which are accelerated with respect to each other, and as a result we have gained a powerful argument for a generalised postulate of relativity.

We must note carefully that the possibility of this mode of interpretation rests on the fundamental property of the gravitational field of giving all bodies the same acceleration, or, what comes to the same thing, on the law of the equality of inertial and gravitational mass. If this natural law did not exist, the man in the accelerated chest would not be able to interpret the behavior of the bodies around him on the supposition of a gravitational field, and he would not be justified on the grounds of experience in supposing his reference-body to be “at rest."

Suppose that the man in the chest fixes a rope to the inner side of the lid, and that he attaches a body to the free end of the rope. The result of his will be to stretch the rope so that it will hang “vertically” downwards. If we ask for an opinion of the cause of tension in the rope, the man in the chest will say: “The suspended body experiences a downward force in the gravitational field, and this is neutralized by the tension of the rope; what determines the magnitude of the tension of the rope is the gravitational mass of the suspended body.” On the other hand, an observer who is poised freely in space will interpret the condition of things thus: “The rope must perforce take part in the accelerated motion of the chest, and it transmits this motion to the body attached to it. The tension of the rope is just large enough to effect the acceleration of the body. That which determines the magnitude of the tension of the rope is the inertial mass of the body.” Guided by this example, we see that our extension of the principle of relativity implies the necessity of the law of the equality of inertial and gravitational mass. Thus we have obtained a physical interpretation of this law.

From our consideration of the accelerated chest we see that a general theory of relativity must yield important results on the laws of gravitation. In point of fact, the systematic pursuit of the general idea of relativity has supplied the laws satisfied by the gravitational field. Before proceeding farther, however, I must warn the reader against a misconception suggested by these considerations. A gravitational field exists for the man in the chest, despite the fact that there was no such field for the co-ordinate system first chosen.

Now we might easily suppose that the existence of a gravitational field is always only an apparent one. We might also think that, regardless of the kind of gravitational field which may be present, we could always choose another reference-body such that no gravitational field exists with reference to it. This is by no means true for all gravitational fields, but only for those of quite special form. It is, for instance, impossible to choose a body of reference such that, as judged from it, the gravitational field of the earth (in its entirety) vanishes.

We can now appreciate why that argument is not convincing, which we brought forward against the general principle of relativity at the end of the general principle of relativity at the end of Section XVIII. It is certainly true that the observer in the railway carriage experiences a jerk forwards as a result of the application of the brake, and that he recognises in this the nonuniformity of motion (retardation) of the carriage. But he is compelled by nobody to refer this jerk to a “real” acceleration (retardation) of the carriage. He might also interpret his experience thus: “My body of reference (the carriage) remains permanently at rest. With reference to it, however, there exists (during the period of application of the brakes) a gravitational field which is directed forwards and which is variable with respect to time. Under the influence of this field, the embankment together with the earth moves non-uniformly in such a manner that their original velocity in the backwards direction is continuously reduced.

The Path Less Traveled: Early Education in the Liberal Arts

I fell in love with liberal education during the pandemic. I was teaching first grade at a poor school that had only recently decided to renew its curriculum and embrace the liberal arts. But through all of the training sessions, retreats, and curriculum writing, I continually encountered the same frustration: All of this would be so useful if only my students could read!

Our school primarily served immigrant families, so a variety of factors – particularly competing spoken languages between home and school – delayed literacy. I knew these children deserved the freedom provided by the liberal arts and, in fact, that the very philosophical underpinnings of liberal education all but demand that preliterate learners be included in this fully human way of engaging reality. But so few of our resources could accommodate these sweet, eager minds.

There’s much work to be done in exploring best practices of modern-day early liberal education. While I’m convicted of that, I’m not qualified to provide much of the necessary scholastic momentum. Instead, I would like to humbly highlight three qualities that, it seems to me, set early liberal education apart from other pedagogies. Perhaps these can be a starting point for deeper consideration by those wiser and more experienced than me.

First: imaginative. 

Modern pedagogy often uses children’s natural propensity for imagination as an engagement tool for otherwise sterile lessons. This use is improper. Imagination is not an alternative to reality – it’s the key to reality. Imagination helps us to understand the most fundamental truths around us: it helps us to explore what is beyond the physical limitations of the moment; it helps us to explore what isn’t by showing us what is preventing it from being so; and it helps us to explore what could be by going beyond the is and isn’ts and into the unknown.

One of my favorite and oft-repeated lessons comes to mind. Each year, my own five- and six-year-old students spent our much-anticipated Dinosaur Day studying fossils, biological adaptation, deductive reasoning, and earning “doctorates” in paleontology. The crowning moment of the event was when, donning their handmade T-Rex hats, they “became” dinosaurs. With elbows tucked to their sides and secured with soft, oversized yarn, the young T-Rexes were simply asked to extend two fingers from their closed fists and then go about the rest of the day. It wasn’t a particularly interesting itinerary for human students – eating a snack, putting on a backpack, opening the door, drawing a picture, free play with friends – but the dinosaurs alternated between laughter, frustration, and exhaustion as they discovered the evolutionary disadvantages of a T-Rex’s short arms and few, non-opposable digits. Some students resorted to holding pencils in their mouths. A pair of boys playing Tic-Tac-Toe with sidewalk chalk repeatedly lost balance as their truncated arms failed to reach the ground, even from a kneeling position. Catching a fall was hard, getting up was even worse. Duck-Duck-Goose had to be adapted. Cretaceous chaos reigned.

No adult merely informing them about evolutionary adaptation would have seared the reality into their minds the way that imaginative play did all on its own.

Such an example confirms that when learning, young children ascend a ladder which is equal parts imagination and reality–often done through nature’s own pedagogy: play. Children need to begin in imagination, measure it against reality, and then return to imagination to process what they’ve learned. This means finding the virtuous middle between sterile lessons which employ imagination as an afterthought and abandoning children to their own devices in largely unstructured “play education.”

Second: nurturing of true schola. 

To explain this, please pardon a brief departure from the topic at hand.

Schola refers to leisure devoted to learning. For the ancients the ability to study was leisure – that is, time away from the physical demands of survival. But education as leisurely seems contradictory to modern sensibilities. For myself, when I think of school, I think “restriction” and “stress.” When I think of leisure, I think “engaging” and “freedom.”

Freedom is the intention of the liberal arts; that is, freedom to see the Truth of things. The ability to teach oneself well is a freedom that opens up greater access to Truth, and knowing that Truth allows us to work with things as they are, rather than being restrained by assumptions, projections, and guesses.

Beyond even that, discovery is what happens when we see what is (that is: the Truth), embrace it, and make new connections. More properly, we make connections that are new to us. This discovery deepens our delight in the complex nexus of truths made by Him who is Truth so that we may further delight in Him. True understanding, then, is that which allows us to more deeply delight in Truth. If the liberal arts free us to see the Truth of things, the understanding gained therein frees us to delight in that Truth.

Here we return more directly to the topic at hand: the ideal of the liberal arts – to connect schola to the modern understanding of leisure and further, to the freedom to delight in God – is perhaps most easily achievable in early childhood.

These things should, of course, be intuitively connected at any age, but we live in a fallen world with a further fallen education system which has masterfully divorced leisure from discovery and discovery from delight for many of its students.

Early education is the ideal time to bring ancient and modern understandings of leisure together by making learning truly delightful. Examples are truly endless. Preschoolers may encounter evaporation firsthand as they “paint” with water on a hot sidewalk and watches their art disappear before their very eyes; kindergarteners may dissolve into fits of giggles as they learn to manipulate words by changing the first letter of “cat” to an “f”; first graders may be confronted with the difficulty of making a teepee stand on its own as they explore the difficult implications of a nomadic lifestyle; second graders alternating between laughter, frustration, and gratitude for the human form as they go about their day with their elbows tucked to their sides and only two fingers extended from their closed fists, emulating the evolutionary disadvantages of a T-Rex’s short arms and few, non-opposable digits.

Liberal arts education for preliterate learners must be marked by fostering the natural eagerness and delight of children while buttressing that posture against the empty cynicism of modern education.

It is a disservice to our children to strengthen them by building walls and obstacles against the rest of the world. Instead, we must foster a love of schola that is strong within itself by nurturing, to borrow Tolkien’s poetry, deep roots that are not reached by the frost. This creates a difficulty, addressed by the next mark of liberal arts early education.

Third: patient. 

File:First spring sprouts of Narcissus 02.jpgDeep roots are formed in secret, sometimes without measurable changes above the soil. One cannot measure wonder nor grade the gradual integration of numeracy, literacy, and reasoning into the bedrock of a child’s mind. This lack of qualitative measurement is a difficulty when assuring parents of the value of a slow and steady approach in these critical years. Parents–particularly young ones–almost unconsciously measure their children’s progress against the perceived progress of the offspring of their peers. While young students of more popular pedagogy may be able to spout off math facts or identify words memorized by sight, young liberal arts students may not necessarily display such superficial knowledge at the outset.

One student in particular comes to mind, who could barely associate letters with their sounds through kindergarten and most of first grade while her peers steadily progressed beyond her. Barring seasons of discouragement, she was engaged by the pedagogy. She paid attention, let herself be enamored by wonder at the content, but displayed little or no measurable growth. Discussions about retention were in progress. Suddenly, two weeks before the end of the academic year, she successfully sounded out a two-syllable spelling word in front of the class. Given another, she nailed it. And another. And one even more complex. Just in the nick of time, she had her breakthrough. Her determined mind had finally – and seemingly all at once – synthesized and integrated two years of patient, steady work and burst forth, shining with pride.

We as educators know the wait is well worth it, but will the parents? Will they fear the early years wasted if not immediately able to impress with shallow appearances? Will they maintain hope in the time that the seed is drinking, germinating and diving deep into darkness before it pushes through the soil to stretch in the sun? The inexperienced gardener may believe the sowing in vain and scoop up the kernels from their rich soil for fear they will never bear fruit. Therefore, without patience, the liberal arts model is unsustainable for early education. Schools will wither and die from dropping enrollment if impatient parents quickly transplant their children to shallow germination plates for sake of meeting arbitrary expectations set by trending pedagogy.

Whether metrics such as grades are appropriate at this age is a topic beyond the purview of this summary. What is clear is this: any method used to gauge the learning of preliterate students finds its proper place secondary to the pursuit of wonder and establishment of a deep love of learning Truth.

Beyond the practical need to adapt curriculum and the reality that young learners deserve freedom, it makes sense to establish the foundations of human learning from the outset of each student’s academic adventure, rather than to try and patch in human pedagogy later.

Again, these waters are somewhat uncharted, so I’ll leave it to those wiser and more experienced than myself to more fully plot them out. But consider this the official call to action.

May we indiscriminately echo the invitation given by Truth Himself to all the children: come to me.