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.

Creativity in STEM and Bill McLean

I am blessed to have received a classical liberal arts education. I was homeschooled through high school, and then graduated with a Bachelor’s in liberal arts from the Great Books program of Thomas Aquinas College. After that I found myself at a bit of a loss. My education did what it promised: it ignited wonder, vivified my imagination, and engaged my heart and emotions while at the same time developing my calculating mind. But, though I liked the philosophy I’d studied, I didn’t think that I was capable of doing it for the rest of my life while staying attached to reality. Moreover, I didn’t really like the idea of relying on the charity of others for my livelihood, as I would likely have to do at least indirectly in becoming a professor and taking a job at any school whose existence rests on the beneficence of its donors. Not that there’s anything the slightest bit wrong with doing so; we need great teachers, which is why successfully wealthy people are willing to donate to the institutions that foster them! But we need the donors too, and part of me wanted the challenge of seeing if I could be a provider in that way.

So academia was out. But then, how was I to bring the goods of my education into the rest of my life? This talk of joy and wonder and imagination sounds great, in theory, but the modern world is hard, scientific, competitive, complex, and process driven. Did a traditional education in the ways of wonder and imagination really prepare me as a young graduate to thrive in the 21st century world?

In hindsight, this question of how to integrate what’s wonderful with what’s practicable has been one of the central themes of the 33 years I’ve lived thus far. The liberal arts tradition of education might itself be to blame here. The “liberal arts” are often defined sharply in opposition to “servile arts” as those that befit free men versus the tasks given to slaves. Was I choosing mental servitude for the sake of material thriving? This left me wondering: could I pursue the so-called servile arts in a way that exercised my wonder and imagination, in a way which led towards freedom?

To express my dilemma more generally, does the student trained in the ways of wonder and imagination have the wherewithal to bountifully provide food, shelter, and security for himself, his family, and his countrymen, to be as free physically as he is intellectually? Ideally, should we not only be able to be free both practically and intellectually, but able to do so in a well-integrated way, without having to painfully wait it out through a boring workday while hoping for a precious little time afterwards with which to dwell on things which actually feel worth freely pursuing?

I decided to pursue a so-called STEM career, having some hope that it would not only allow me to support a family and be in a position to be generous, but also would involve interesting work. I had always liked math and science and airplanes, so I decided on aerospace engineering, this time starting with a second bachelor’s at a state school.

File:China lake.jpgUnfortunately, many of the things which I’d loved most about science and engineering up to that point were significantly lacking in the engineering schooling I experienced, things like exercising imaginative creativity, or the joy of seeing the incarnation of abstract theories in real physical devices. Much of what I actually found seemed to be a sort of advanced box-checking exercise. I hoped that this was an anomaly, perhaps due to the field of aerospace engineering being past its prime or to my having chosen a lackluster engineering program, and kept doggedly on, ultimately getting a job as an aerospace engineer at China Lake Naval Base, the U.S. Navy’s last remaining live fire test range, whose vast expanse stretches out at the southeast base of the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains. But there too I experienced a certain deadness, an acedia whose sources I couldn’t completely pin down. There were clearly embers of what had once been a fire of inspiration at China Lake; I could sense them in the glow in an old engineer’s eyes, or the cool artifacts around the base, or here or there in the pages of a dusty book in the library. But despite the many ostensibly cool projects and the billions of dollars of annual budget on the base, the original fire was clearly long since gone, burned out in a sea of red tape and wasted time and money. I was tempted to give up on engineering altogether. However, there was one particular ember which really stood out, giving me confidence that engineering had, in fact, existed at least at one time in something like the way I had always idealized it, and in turn giving me something to continue to strive for in the engineering world.

File:2008-12 mclean ship name01.jpgThat glowing remnant from a past age was found in the collected speeches of Dr. William B. McLean. The son of a Presbyterian minister, William Burdette McLean (1914–1976) was a civilian physicist at what was then known as the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) in the desert of China Lake, California, during the early Cold War. He led the development of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, a brilliant and innovative piece of engineering, which was carried by aircraft defending the west from encroaching communism around the globe in greater numbers than any other missile before or since. After leading the Sidewinder team in the late '40s and early '50s, McLean was promoted to Technical Director at NOTS during which time he led what is remembered by those involved as a golden era of engineering and innovation on the station in the service of America's freedom, with the engineering output to prove it. In other words, he was neither a slave nor a mere dreamer; he was both a capable and inspiring leader and one of the true practical geniuses of American history.

While McLean didn't write books, he was often asked to speak, particularly after the success of the Sidewinder program, and we are fortunate enough to have the transcripts of many speeches. I found these typewritten transcripts fascinating; ultimately they renewed my belief that imagination and creativity should be an integral part of my career field.

One of the things which comes through most clearly in reading Bill McLean's speeches is the centrality of his regard for creativity.
“I believe if the United States is to be successful in either its military or economic competition, we will in the future need to learn to appreciate and to foster creative design capabilities.”

But he also saw that the typical formation of the young squelched creativity.

The number of people who start life with a high degree of creative ability and creative drive is unknown because the forces of society begin so rapidly to act to repress and restrain the curiosity and experimental operations of the young child.

He believed the central effort of the creative scientist is to see a good solution in his imagination.

The designer… needs to outline as many ways of accomplishing the design as he can imagine… Industrial laboratories are handicapped by a natural desire to improve on what exists, by military specifications that are unimaginative.

This means that managers must encourage the creative freedom of those on their teams.

As a man responsible to others for the function of managing research… I need to be in a position to understand and accept new ideas and eventually to judge the ability of people to carry out the work which they are interested in doing. In this type of judgment I would place first priority on the interest and enthusiasm which a man shows in the work which he is doing and, second, on his skill in visualizing and planning the crucial experiments which must be carried out in order to check new theories or hypotheses.

This visualization is so critical for effective and elegant design that McLean is willing to recommend a radically unconventional design methodology, namely design residing in the imagination of a single designer, along the lines of a wall mural.

It seems to me that the creation of a missile system would progress more effectively if it were recognized to have many of the same problems as the creation of a large mural painting. Many useful analogies might then result. The creation of a mural is obviously too large a job for one man and yet, at the same time, it must represent an integrated whole, rather than a collection of parts. In the case of the mural, we have adopted the practice of selecting a master artist whose responsibility is to conceive a picture in accord with the general message which is to be conveyed. He then uses his imagination, his understanding of the materials and tools available, and his knowledge of the abilities of his assistants to lay out an overall design. Committees can review his work and make suggestions, but they cannot take over his responsibility for it. Once the general concept has been sketched out, many people can begin to work using their own specific abilities to fill in the various parts of the picture. As a result, we have an integrated creation that reflects primarily the skill, ability, and experience of the master artist, but which also uses the individual skills of his assistants to a maximum.

McLean proposed that management strategy that aims to maximize imaginative creativity and enjoyment is the necessary way to both practice and preserve the freedom we so deeply treasure.

I hope that we as a Nation can choose in the management of our business and our military programs the type of management which maximizes enjoyment, participation, and the contributions of individual creativity, rather than the type of management whose goals and objectives are set from the top and which is budgeted, planned, and integrated to achieve objectives on schedule without consideration of possible creative inputs. One type of management will strengthen what we have variously called ‘The Free Competitive System,’ ‘The American Way of Life,’ or ‘Life Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ The other type of management by overinsistence on the importance of budget and schedule, comes perilously close to conditioning us to the type of organization which believes that man's highest goal is to achieve and surpass through successive five and ten year plans.

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?

Modern culture stands in awe of the pragmatic fruits of empirical science. However, many are content (as the central planners were) to extort these fruits by any means, leaving the wonder and gratitude which ought to accompany their uncovering (and which originally gave rise to scientific inquiry itself) as a relic of the past. Especially in large corporations and in government, technological development is often seen as the product of a vast machine, the result of a method, in which individual people are merely cogs; taken to its extreme, this view sees imagination, inspiration, and even freedom as no longer necessary. The classically educated liber, on the other hand, sees the wonder in the world, the necessity of a rightful ordering of technology, and the value of knowledge for its own sake as well as for its fruits, but may not always have a ready answer to the often earnestly asked question, “but what are you going to do with that education if not teach or become a priest?” After the initial shock of the encounter with this widening gulf between practicality and wonder, however, one discovers that it is not only possible but necessary that we bridge the gulf, both for the sustenance of wonder (and wonderers) and also for the fullest attainment of the pragmatic. And with the transformation offered by the Christian understanding of the redemptive power of suffering and the Cross, classical thought becomes capable of seeing the full truth, that man is called to imitate his Creator with smaller creations of his own, taking joyful hope not only in the fruits of his labors but also in loving acts of labor itself. But fully carrying this spirit of wonder filled creativity into the pragmatic world of modern technology is a difficult task, undertaken by few and done well by fewer. Those rare few who have really done so well are examples worth treasuring and learning from. Bill McLean is one such treasure.

From the President

Dear Reader,

As the new year approaches, those of us involved in the Arts of Liberty Project have much to be grateful for. January 6 will mark the first birthday of its new parent organization, the Boethius Institute for the Advancement of Liberal Education. We have had a solid first year and are ready to expand our efforts in 2024, including publishing our Introductory Geometry and Arithmetic text by Michael Augros, author of Who Designed the Designer? Dr. Augros does an excellent job re-presenting key content from all of Euclid’s Elements in a clear, accessible way for high school students and life-long learners. This volume has been downloaded for years by many around the world from the Arts of Liberty website; its new existence in a durable, easy-to-read printed volume will introduce the wonders of classic geometry to thousands more learners.

Returning the Quadrivium to its rightful place in liberal arts studies is high on the Boethius Institute priority list. Properly presented, mathematics introduces the young mind to the life of knowledge by arousing wonder through careful reasoning. As Dr. Augros writes,

Geometry is full of wonders. At every level of this science, from the most elementary to the most advanced, we are confronted with the unexpected. Often the seemingly possible turns out to be impossible, and conversely what at first seemed impossible turns out to be possible.

Our Quadrivium students at the Pascal Instituut experienced this in a recent discussion of Euclid’s treatment of incommensurable magnitudes. Said one, “It is not possible that two lines can be incommensurable! You can divide them into parts as small as you want. You must be able to find a common measure!” And yet, Euclid shows it is not so.

Classical mathematics is so formative because it occupies the sweet spot for human knowing by relying on both imagination and argumentation. For this reason among others, encouraging the development of the imagination in the young is crucial for learning ordered to knowledge, as elementary teacher Forest Barnette points out in her article “On Early Education in the Liberal Arts:”

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.

Nurturing the mathematical imagination is not only delightful in itself, but also immensely helpful in making science both practical and liberating, as aeronautics engineer Liam Collins witnesses in his article, “Dr. William McLean and Imaginative Creativity.” Albert Einstein shows us his creative imagination at work in using a magical space elevator to provide the fundamental insight for his theory of general relativity.

As Socrates and Plato experienced, classical mathematics can set ablaze the love of wisdom in a budding philosopher. We taste truth and yet cannot help but question existence. Working through the Elements was my first experience of learning indubitable truth. At the same time, doubts about the reality of points without parts and breadthless lengths were also present from the very beginning. And, as far as we can tell, regular 15-sided polygons inscribed in a circle exist nowhere in the natural world, much less inscribed dodecahedrons; probably we can't really make tangents to circles. But the delight in geometry and arithmetic does not depend upon being able to find their objects in physical reality; in some way it is enhanced because we are easily convinced that we cannot. We find them in our imagination. And yet they are true and objective -- the imagination is fed by and determined by our experience of sensible reality, as it is empowered by the intellect.

I am very grateful to announce that last month we received IRS approval of our tax-exempt status. We hope the publication of Dr. Augros’s volume will just be the beginning of our Library of Liberal Arts series. Several more volumes are ready to be edited, and we need to commission our volumes on grammar, rhetoric, and music. If you are able to make a financial contribution, we will be deeply grateful. Small gifts go a long way in a new organization like ours, and also help us to show potential major benefactors that we are serving a widely felt need.

We hope your hearts rejoice in the peace of this season. 

The Consolation of Philosophy Excerpt

This excerpt is taken from Book I of the Consolation of Philosophy (Ignatius Critical Editions Series: Goins, Scott, and Barbara H. Wyman, eds. & trans. 2012.) 

In just this way the clouds of my sorrow were dispelled. Now my eyes drank in the bright light of heaven, and I could recognize the face of the one who was healing me. When I cast my eyes upon her and fixed my gaze, I saw it was the one whose home I had visited since my youth—the Lady Philosophy, my nurse. “Why have you come down from on high to see me in the loneliness of my exile, O lady of all virtues? Do you wish to stand on trial with me and face the charges they have falsely laid against me?”
Would I desert you, my child?” she replied. “Wouldn’t I help you carry this burden of ours that has been laid upon your shoulders by those that hate me? It would not be right for Philosophy to let an innocent man walk his path alone. To think that I would be afraid to face an accusation or tremble in fear—as if such charges were new to me!
“Do you think this is the first time that wicked men have made assaults against the walls of wisdom?” she said. “Didn’t we often have to engage in battle against rash folly in the old days, before the time of my Plato? And while Plato lived, didn’t I stand beside his Socrates as he won victory by death, a death he did not deserve? And after that, the Epicurean and Stoic herds and all the rest tried to snatch his legacy, every man for himself. They grabbed me, too, as their prey while I shouted and struggled against them, and they ripped this garment of mine, which I had woven myself. As they went away with some little shreds torn from it, they thought that I had yielded myself completely to them. Since these men were seen with little bits of my clothing, they were foolishly assumed to be my friends. How many of them were destroyed by the errors of the crowd!
“But even if you don’t know about the older examples, like Anaxagoras’ flight, the poisoning of Socrates, or Zeno’s tortures, surely you could have thought about men like Seneca, Canius, or Soranus—such examples are hardly ancient or obscure. These men died simply because they were trained in my ways and had no taste for the pursuits of wicked men. So don’t be surprised if we’re tossed about by storms on the sea of life, when we ourselves have chosen to be displeasing to the wicked. Indeed, we must despise their army, even if it is a large one, since no general directs it. Instead, it rushes about, carried here and there by a flood of error. If this army should set itself into ranks and attack us fiercely, we have a leader who will draw us into her fortress, while our enemies spend their time searching for their little bags of plunder. Yet we, untouched by their mad confusion, look down and laugh as they grab at every worthless thing they can find. Their cunning folly cannot climb the walls that keep us safe.

The virtuous man,
calm in his orderly life,
stares Fortune in the face
and drives proud Fate beneath his feet.
He holds high his unconquerable head!
Nothing shall move that man—
not the madness and menace of the sea
disturbing the tide,
nor Vesuvius’ broken furnace
hurling rock,
nor the bolts of heaven’s fire
striking towers.
Why do miserable men wonder
at raging tyrants
with no true strength?

Machiavelli’s Idealism

“...Machiavelli exaggerates his praise of [Cesare] Borgia, whose actions, by those very same standards, ought to condemn him as a rather foolhardy failure”(1) – John McCormick

While serving in the Arizona legislature for the last ten years, I also taught Humane Letters at a classical school for several years where we read and held seminar discussions on The Prince. Reading and discussing this with seniors while seeing it unfold before me at the state capitol led to my abhorrence of Machiavelli and Machiavellianism. During my tenure I saw enough of Machiavellianism to last a lifetime. I was promised campaign cash and support if I “voted the right way.”(2) I regularly witnessed legislators berate members of the other party on the House Floor, yet joking and laughing with them immediately afterward  in the Member’s Lounge. On one occasion, I asked a Representative why he was so harsh towards the other legislator on the House Floor he said, “The camera was on.”

I rejected Machiavelli for many reasons. I despise his τελος – the acquiring and maintenance of power as the sine qua non concerning things of the public. Further, his view of human nature leads to misanthropy. I’m also offended by the idea that one cannot succeed in politics without perpetrating evil, since many have successfully passed good laws without resorting to the tactics he advised in his infamous work, myself included.

Yet modern man continues to idealize Niccolo Machiavelli and his ideal prince, Cesare Borgia, in spite of the fact that both were failures. The historical record along with the written work of The Prince paints a markedly different picture in reality than what’s commonly accepted about these two men. Niccolo Machiavelli, the 15th century Florentine secretary who has made no small impact on the divorce between morality and politics was himself a failure – in this life and the next. As was his ideal prince, Cesare Borgia. Thus, either Machiavelli has written ineffectual truth, or The Prince is a work of the same idealism that he notoriously criticizes.

One ought to approach Niccolo Machiavelli realistically – his life, his teaching, and his intellectual impact. Or so it seems. That is, unless one wishes to perceive reality as one wishes it to be rather than as it is. Looking past what is imagined about Niccolo’s life, his work, and his ideal prince, one notices a variance with what modern man considers him to be. Given Niccolo’s emphasis on history – real republics and principalities, one should examine the historical record to ensure one does not give unmerited justification where little is warranted.

On December 10, 1513 Niccolo wrote a well-known letter to papal ambassador Francesco Vettori. In it, he describes his exile, his failure to find a job suitable to his literary talent, and his imaginary dinners with the ancients. After lamenting his job as a day laborer and the vulgarity of the commoners, Machiavelli does what most men do not do. The author most known for realpolitik changed his clothes from a laborer into “regal and courtly garments.” It is here where he imagined ancient men – men who died thousands of years ago, who entertain him as their dinner guest. He writes that these long since dead men “receive him in affection,” where he imagines discussions with them for hours concerning the substance of what ultimately goes into The Prince – “what a princedom is, the kinds of princedoms, how one gains them, how they are kept, and why they are lost.”(3)  Niccolo writes,

I enter the courts of ancient men, where received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.(4)

Of course, within today’s classical tradition, seminar participants read the ancients and have a qualitatively different kind of dialogue with them through the annotation of texts and discussion with other presently existing seminar participants. However, no one who lives in reality imagines one is actually present at dinner with no longer sentient men where one dresses up in the wardrobes found in the courts of the ancients and converses with dead men for hours. The former occurs frequently in seminar discussion, the latter more often at state-run hospitals. Niccolo himself is lucid enough to recognize he has written something fanciful in The Prince near the conclusion of this letter where he says to Vettori, “And if you ever can find any of my fantasies pleasing, this one should not displease you...”(5) While scholars continue to speculate on Machiavelli’s motivation for writing The Prince, he himself described his text as a flight of imagination, not reality.

Further, Niccolo never lived to see the reaction to The Prince nor its intellectual and immoral impact since he wrote it in 1513 but it was published posthumously in 1532, five years after his death.(6) Machiavelli was a frustrated literary genius whom fate had dealt a harsh hand. He thus needed an outlet to not only direct his talent towards, but more basically, he desired meaningful employment that didn’t consist of laboring on the family farm. In another letter to Vettori, Niccolo writes “There is my wish that our present Medici lords will make use of me, even if they begin by making me roll a stone...”(7) That is, Niccolo wanted something more than subsistence living and conversation with the plebians whose thoughts didn’t rise to the lofty heights of the ideal world he formerly immersed himself into. While in forced exile, Niccolo writes of his poverty and such interactions as following:

I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn; there is the host, usually a butcher, a miller, two furnace tenders. With these I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach, and then these games bring on a thousand disputes and countless insults with offensive words, and usually we are fighting over a penny, and nevertheless we are heard shouting as far as San Casciano. So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing moldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.(8)

One can nearly hear lamentations from this literary talent who once rubbed shoulders with heads of state and other diplomats but has now fallen upon hard times. Yet such criticism goes well beyond Machiavelli and extends to the one historical character the author devotes more time to than any other – Cesare Borgia.(9) Like Machiavelli, he too was a failure in his life.

Cesare was born into a very promising name - Caesar in Italian, yet his life and early demise was of little importance. Niccolo gives Cesare the highest of accolades by calling him “prudent and virtuous” in addition to illustrating Cesare as the best example a prince who uses evil as necessary, conquers others through fear or fraud – the man who knew in practice how to maintain his grip on the levers of power (The Prince, VII). This is puzzling given Cesare’s continued reliance upon fortune, his dependence upon his father, and his untimely demise. Instead of having taken Machiavelli’s advice and beating Lady Fortune like a woman (The Prince, XXV), Pope Julius II forced Cesare to continue to depend upon the arms of others. At no time after his father’s death was Cesare self-sufficient as any successes he achieved solely depended upon his own father-patron. Renzo Sereno notes, “Caesar’s attempts at kingdom-building in Romagna fell very short of the most pessimistic expectations. His realm collapsed almost at once with the death of Alexander VI [Cesare’s father].”(10) Indeed, without his father to supply him with arms, he quickly fell out of power and lost everything. In contrasting Cesare with Agathocles, John McCormack notes that “Agathocles retained his principality much more successfully and with greater longevity than did the duke [Cesare], whose kingdom evaporated with his father’s death.”(11) When Alexander VI died of syphilis or poisoning, Pope Julius had Cesare arrested and deprived him of his arms and territories.(12) Thus, Cesare’s dependence upon his father became glaringly evident and one wonders why Niccolo continues to praise him in such a manner. Instead of depending upon his own military prowess as Machiavelli advises, Cesare died at the young age of thirty-two in poverty, with scurvy, and a significant case of syphilis that forced him to wear a mask due to the disfigurement it caused. Indeed, the men who killed him had no idea whom they had just killed. They stripped him of his clothes and left his naked body to lie in the dirt.(13) In summary, Machiavelli’s ideal prince was jailed, tortured, and died in poverty with a disease riddled body in a foreign country while in forced exile having been rejected by the Pope, Florence, and France. One would be hard pressed to find a better illustration of such a massive failure.

Neither Machiavelli himself, Cesare Borgia, nor any other mortal were able to live up to the embodiment of Machiavellian virtu. Yet the classical tradition does have a real life example of a successful and moral politician in reality, someone whom the American Founders held dear – Marcus Tullius Cicero. So it is of no small surprise that Machiavelli seeks to tear down Ciceronian ideas of just war, keeping faith, and natural law. So why is the classical tradition so willing to privilege such a man and replace Cicero for an idealized fantasy from the fanciful imagination of a failed secretary and his failure of a prince?

(1) The Enduring Ambiguity of Machiavellian Virtue, John McCormick (2014)
(2)  For this to be proven illegal in a court of law, the Arizona Statute governing bribery means the legislator must be promised a specific dollar amount for a specific vote – A.R.S. 13-2602
(3) Letter to Franceso Vettori, Dec. 10, 1513
(4) Ibid
(5) Ibid
(7)  Machiavelli’s “Prince”, Political Science or Political Satire? Garrett Mattingly Revisited
(8)  Letter to Franceso Vettori, Dec. 10, 1513
(9)  In case there was any doubt as to Machiavelli’s illustration of Cesare Borgia as the ideal prince of The Prince, he writes: "Thus if I summed up all the actions of the duke [Cesare Borgia], I would not know how to reproach him; on the contrary, it seems to me he should be put forward, as I have done, to be imitated by all those who have risen to empire through fortune and by the arms of others. For with his great spirit and high intention, he could not have conducted himself otherwise and the only things in the way of his plans were the brevity of Alexander's life and his own sickness. So whoever judges it in his new principality to secure himself against enemies, to gain friends to himself, to conquer either by force or by fraud, to make himself loved and feared by the people, and followed and revered by the soldiers, to eliminate those who can or might offend you, to renew old orders through new modes, to be severe and pleasant, magnanimous and liberal, to eliminate an unfaithful military, to create a new one, to maintain friendships with kings and princes so that they must either benefit you with favor or be hesitant to offend you - can find no fresher examples than the examples of that man" (The Prince, VII).
(10)  A falsification by Machiavelli, Renaissance News (1959), Renzo Sereno
(11)  The Enduring Ambiguity of Machiavellian Virtue, John McCormick (2014), Social Research journal, p 141
(12)  Niccolo’s Smile, a biography of Machiavelli, Maurizio, Viroli (2001), p 75
(13)  The Life of Cesare Borgia, Rafael Sabatini, p 449