Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography

Duriez, Colin.  Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography: Death, Dante, and Lord Peter Wimsey. Lion Books, 2021.

Alas, she was unlucky in love. Colin Duriez praises his subject’s obvious talent, yet he does not shy away from the troubling parts of her life. Dorothy Sayers was one of the first women to get a degree from Oxford.  She then demonstrated skill in advertising and later found herself alongside Agatha Christie as one of the leading lights of detective fiction. That’s higher praise than one might realize at first.  This was the golden age of detective fiction, and Agatha Christie herself considered Sayers to be the top of the game (and one of the last moments of good English prose before the horror of postmodernism).  If one wants to model good, yet current prose style, then Dorothy Sayers is worth reading.

She had a relatively stable Christian upbringing. One questions how seriously to take her claims of teenage agnosticism.  They could be true, but that also seems to be a trope in Christian biography.  She wanted to be loved, not unlike the fundamentalist girl going to Bible college. Her first was with a Jewish agnostic, yet she broke it off when he said he didn’t believe in the institution of marriage or children.  That was a good move on her part, but it never should have gotten there.

The next love interest, Bill White, the man with whom she would be with child, is more of Sayers’ fault. It’s not simply that she had a child out of wedlock with him. She didn’t realize he was already married.  Don’t counselors say that communication is the basis of a relationship?  

She did get married to a WWI veteran. I don’t see how it was a happy marriage with his declining health and PTSD. No doubt they had some happy moments. Duriez doesn’t actually report any of them.  She was able to adopt her son and by all accounts had a good relationship with him, something not always possible when bringing a pre-teen into one’s household.

It is during Sayers’ early years that Duriez comments on her approach to knowledge.  Knowledge should be sought as an integrated unity.  This allowed Sayers to later perfect her so-called “classical model.”  (In terms of historical facts, it is no such thing.  It should be called a “Neo-Medieval” model.  There is much to commend it.  My only issue is that its practitioners act like they’ve discovered Atlantis.) Her comments on foreign languages and Latin merit repeated study.

Sayers’s most notable creation is the amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.  In many ways, Sayers created an entity she couldn’t control. The queen of detective fiction, Agatha Christie, absolutely praised the Lord Wimsey novels.  Sayers, however, had introduced a love interest into the story.  This alienated her fans.  It’s an interesting phenomenon.  On one hand, none of her later novels have the “punch” of the early Wimsey novels.  On the other hand, some later novels like Gaudy Night are technically near-perfect. I like Gaudy Night, but I don’t enjoy it.

I think the problem is that Wimsey is a force of nature (and this force is multiplied if you listen to the Ian Carmichael audio narrations).  With Wimsey comes his manservant, Bunter.  Bunter is like Wodehouse’s Jeeves.  And in some novels we meet Wimsey’s mother, the Duchess, who is an absolute delight.  By the time that Sayers introduced Harriet Vane into the world, Bunter and the Duchess, and in some respects Wimsey himself, take a back seat.  That’s a high price to pay for literary perfection.

My only criticism of the biography is that I wish Duriez had spent more time on Dante and less on Sayers’s plays. 

A Thomas Jefferson Education

Demille, Oliver. A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century.

Fear not. This book has little of Jefferson in it, in case you are bothered by his Deism, slavery, and defense of Lockean politics. One shouldn’t read this book as a manual on how to do education. I gather that other books in the series do that. The best approach might be counter-intuitive: read it as an inspiration manual.

Demille’s argument is simple: the best way to train leaders is to get them to read the classics in dialogue with a wise mentor. This skirts the debate between classical vs. private vs. public education. Demille offers a tool, not an ideology. Like many texts that lean towards the classical model, the volume is weak on math and science, but it still works quite well on the arts and humanities.

He begins with a distinction some might find artificial but upon further inspection is quite profound: you cannot “fix” education. An education is what the student gets out of the process largely based upon the student’s effort. What you can fix is teaching and externals. “Teachers teach and students educate” (Demille 12). The best education is when the student gets excited about learning and goes from there (with guidance).

He notes the three types of education: conveyor belt, professional, and leadership. It is fashionable to mock the conveyor belt approach (presentation of facts, etc). There is nothing wrong with that approach. It accomplishes precisely what it was designed to: educate poor people so they can get a job. The professional approach is fairly obvious: medicine, business, etc.

Demille’s focus is the leadership approach to education. It’s purpose is to train leaders who perpetuate freedom by knowing how to think. (A textbook teaches you want to think; a classic teaches you how to think.)

I won’t spend too much time on Demille’s method except to note a few good points. One is to “structure time, not content” (45). Is it better to make the student read 50 pages of Thomas Aquinas or spend two hours analyzing what Thomas means by essence and being? Go deeper, not wider.

There is the tough question of “What is a classic?” I’ll keep the list open-ended, but we can say a book that was formative upon the Western mind.

Can I get a Job?

Since we are now at the point where a university education does not guarantee a (good?) job, education is freed to be more formative and soul-forming. Modern America replaced leadership with job prep. While modern education gurus urge teachers to ask higher-order thinking questions, and while textbooks are happily being replaced with “modules,” the system is fundamentally the same.

Employers hire people, not degrees. (That said, don’t do anything stupid like go to Patriot Bible College. I’m also quite skeptical of a certain “Reformed” college in the Pacific Northwest). As Peter Drucker said, “The basic economic resource…is no longer capital…It is and will be knowledge” (115).

The non-uniqueness of classical education

I am not attacking classical education. I just don’t think it is all that special. Let’s do a thought experiment. What is it about reading Ovid that makes classical education superior? And don’t say Latin. You can learn that anywhere.

I am going to take a topic from the Great Books Series. I am then going to follow the references. The point that Mortimer Adler makes is that the Great Books (which are far from perfect) routinely generate questions about the great topics (e.g., justice, education, God, etc). My point is that such an independent education can do just as much or more as a Classical education.

Step one: read the section on education. It’s a summary of the Great Tradition.
Step 2: Read Adler’s Outline.
This is an analytical reference sheet. The sub topic is “The Ideal of an education man.” The following are the passages from the authors Adler mentions. Not all authors are good. These are just the ones I had nearby.
John Stuart Mill: general idea: the educated man reflects upon his own experiences in light of the tradition and customs.
Boswell on Johnson. Key point: the desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind (echoing Aristotle).

To be fair, there isn’t anything profound about these, but if you spend a week working through the references, it starts to add up. And you have a curriculum of sorts ready. This isn’t to attack Classical Greece and Rome. I just don’t see the immediate cash value of reading about incest in Ovid.

John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue

Horner, Grant.  John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue. Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2015.

A man of virtue must have discrimination of taste.  You can only get there by being trained in virtue.  Grant Horner walks us through that process by means of the lens of John Milton.

John Milton modeled his education after the Greek “schole” (Horner 13). This type of education, what Russell Kirk would call “humane letters,” implied some degree of the leisure necessary for it.  A good education won’t yield fruit immediately.  It takes time.

Milton saw education as a partial corrective to the Fall (25; see his famous line on “repair the ruins”).  He is not saying that knowing the good means one will do the good (though the Platonic truth in that line is almost always misunderstood). Rather, imitating the good (presumably, at least by immersion in it) is itself an act of transformation and becoming.

Milton urged learning foreign languages by use, not rote memorization of charts.  Yes and no.  You have to have some rudimentary knowledge before jumping into the text.  On the other hand, though, one does make better progress through reading these great texts.  The danger, though, is to avoid what my German and Latin mentor called “taco Spanish.”  That is when you give a student a computer program to learn a language and at the end all he can really say is “taco.”

Milton also assumed you would learn Italian in your spare time, since it wasn’t difficult.

At the heart of his project is a three-fold examination of virtue. We begin with the grace of faith, then we progress in virtue, and we arrive at the perfection of a thing. Virtue is the middle term between grace and perfection.

In practical terms, and in conjunction with his language program that allows the student to view the world through language, the student should be reading heroic literature.  This creates an “admiration of virtue, stirred up with high hopes living to be brave men, worthy Patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages” (Milton “Of Education”).

The Miltonic goal is to unite intellectual, physical, and spiritual teaching into one unity.

Something They Will Not Forget (Gibbs)

Gibbs, Joshua.  Something They Will Not Forget: A Handbook for Classical Teachers.  Concord, NC: CiRCE Institute, 2019.

Main idea: the practices of memorization and recitation turn information into formation.

Resist the urge to ask “practical questions” in literature and social studies. They usually aren’t practical and no one cares.  Moral questions, however, are far more interesting and almost naturally engage the student.

Let’s be honest.  Even if you are the best teacher, students usually don’t care about the content and won’t remember it.    That’s because there are different ways we “memorize facts.”  The most important way to memorize facts is by habitual use.  That puts the literature teacher in a strange position, since most of us (myself excluded) don’t carry around copies of Shakespeare so we can memorize it in our spare time.

Gibbs argues that “knowledge is knowing that certain things are, but wisdom is knowing how the souls of things rhyme with each other” (Gibbs 16).  That’s a very beautiful sentence, but doesn’t it suggest that memorization is not needed? The truth of the matter is that memorization happens best at the intersection of knowledge and wisdom.  In other words, “what is the eighth or ninth impression you have on a topic?”

When are We Going to Use This in the Real World?

No one playing sports ever asks this question.  You learn the plays in sports because you perceive them as good in themselves.  Most of the things we love are quite useless.  Strictly speaking, so is God.  God is the End, not the means to an end.  Therefore, he isn’t a “use.”

And while Gibbs doesn’t make this point explicitly, most of the “practical math” a student learns is quite useless in reality. No, Timmy, you won’t be an astronaut when you grow up.  The most “practical” class I took in high school was “business math.”  I wish I had stayed in Pre-Cal instead.

Catechism as Ritual Performance

Groups remember better than individuals (26). Strangely enough, no one studies for a test this way.  Try it: if you are a literature teacher, connect all of the books you all read this year in the form of a catechism.  

Have you ever wondered why classroom journal entries never worked?  Remember when the teacher (or maybe you did this as a teacher) made you respond to some supposedly “deep” question during the first five minutes of class?  Again, no one cares.  That is the least productive time of class because students are still in transition from the hall.

I’ll be honest.  His use of turning rote knowledge into a catechism is nothing short of amazing. That’s what bumps this book from four stars to five.

This allows students to transition from “cold” to “ready to learn.”  Recitation is the bridge. While I am not a huge fan of classical education, this highlights one of the better aims of it.  If classical education is about self-denial, then beginning with other people’s words, rather than pseudo-pious exercises in “self-actualization,” is the place to start.  To be honest, most students won’t remember those super Socratic discussions you thought you had with them.  Again, no one cares.

This makes a lot of sense.  We want students to be good in discussion, but let’s be honest: few of them know how to have a good conversation.  That’s why your Socratic circles usually aren’t very good.  Even though students talk a lot in class, they don’t know how to speak.

For example, if the question is, “What is human society?” the answer will be about a four sentence response from Edmund Burke.  If the question is “What is virtue?” then you could respond from Thomas Aquinas or Jane Eyre.  This forces the student to give more in depth answers and also integrates classic literature into his daily life.

The book ends with examples of final exams.  Two comments: they make for amazing reading.  There is only one question and it is several pages long. I was drawn into the stories they were telling.  Here’s the problem: given the nature and structure of the exam, if you give a student negative marks and his parents complain to the principal, you will almost certainly lose.  Doubly so if you are a new teacher.

Quotables

“If Wikipedia could ace your exams, then you are not teaching human beings but machines” (16).

Anything worth memorizing as a class is worth saying out loud every day for two weeks.  If it isn’t worth saying, then it isn’t worth memorizing (27).

“The work performed in a ceremony establishes the identity of the people involved because ceremony is neither for amusement nor edification; ceremony is a way of being, a way of besting the vanity of life under the sun” (28).

“As a teacher, I represent the dead” (41).

“Teachers are complicit in the cult of self-affirmation whenever they read long passages of classic literature aloud in class only to ask a room full of fourteen year olds, “So what do you think?” as though the answer truly mattered” (43).

Criticisms

I get his point that using a rubric does not escape the shadow of “subjectivity” in grading.  That’s true.  It does minimize the subjectivity, though, and the teacher is usually successful in arguing why he gave the grade he did based on the rubric.  Parents know that.  His case is even stronger if he gives out the rubric ahead of time.  I grant his point, however, that subjectivity is not the same as arbitrary.  A subjective judgment considers the worth or value of x, not necessarily its substance. 

Beauty in the Word (Caldecott)

Caldecott, Stratford.  Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education. Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2012.

Stratford Caldecott has never found a speculation too bold.  That might be a criticism of his earlier work, Beauty for Truth’s Sake.  This volume covers similar material but is more practical for the educator.  He sees Trinitarian parallels in the Trivium/Quadrivium, and this is sometimes distracting.  Nonetheless, his incisive comments on education today cannot be ignored.

Taking his cue from Dorothy Sayers, he structures the architecture of education, perhaps even of the mind, around the “parrot, pert, poet” model.  For him it is “Be, Think, Speak,” respectively Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric.  I think it is sound in its basic outline; I wouldn’t make it carry too much freight, though.

As he argues, “In order ‘to be’ we must remember the origin and end, the grammar of our existence…In discovering the Father we become thinkers” (and presumably speakers, paralleling Logos and Holy Spirit, Caldecott 15).

He has a good survey of child-based models of education.  While it is easy (and necessary) to make fun of John Dewey, there are aspects wherein a child cannot be taught the same way as an adult can.  It is good to develop memory and rhythm (e.g., song) in a child’s early stage.  This isn’t simply because songs and rhythms are good mnemonic devices.  Rather, as Anthony Esolen points out in the foreword, “We wish to form their souls by memory” (Esolen 5).  Someone might respond that this is forcing a belief-system on a child, rather than simply teaching the “how-to” of thinking.  Well, yes it is.  Esolen observes that one really can’t separate the what from the how of thinking.

He argues that a personalist approach to education, one that sees the student, not as an individual, but as embedded in a network of relationships, “starts from the premise that a human person should be educated for relationship, attention, empathy, and imagination” (Caldecott 34).

Grammar

Grammar is connected with the Greek art of remembering (36).  What is the link between language and memory? Caldecott summarizes the Platonic-Augustinian approach that our defining an essence is guided by an intuition of being (38).  What does this mean? Caldecott summarizes the argument of The Meno, which is appropriate when we talk about memory, but he never connects the two.

Good section on naming: when we name something, we try to connect the Ideas that are in God to our universe (41).  This gives man a mediatorial role in the cosmos. And if the power of naming is related to the power of seeing, then we see a seeing into the reality of essences.  The invoking of these essences is interpretation (43).

He has a very good point on banning computers in the early stages of education.  This goes back to Plato’s critique of writing.  Ignoring the irony for the moment, technological advances come at the cost of memory.  A child learning on a computer will not (usually) develop the proper memory skills.

While he promotes the study of grammar in the schools, pace the US Dept of Education, that’s not his goal.  He wants to “loosen grammar from the narrow confines of sentence construction to show that birth of language is bound up with memory and poetry” (56).  I agree to an extent. However, given that grammar is part of the primary stage, it’s hard to see how the above sentence, which is highly technical, integrates within it.  If what he means, however, is that grammar instruction should capitalize on the musical and mnemonic development of a child, well and good.

Quotes: “Grammar is the cradle of all philosophy, and in a manner of speaking, the first nurse of the whole study of letters” (John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, 37).

Criticisms

I suspect at some times Caldecott’s real goal is not education, but essays on Catholic personalism.  His take on personalism is quite interesting but is often far afield.  I agree that we should treat children as persons, not individuals.  A person is embedded in a network of relationships. I really don’t see the need for an extended meditation on 20th century ressourcement (32ff).

Like some otherwise conservative Catholics, Caldecott strangely concedes too much ground to evolution. At one point in the book he makes the very good argument that one can’t safely maintain “rights/image of God” talk without a strong doctrine of essences and natures.  Very true.  If evolution is true and we are still evolving, then I might be more of a human than you.  

Except that he wants to say evolution is true in some sense (79).  The follow up question is what is to prevent us from developing beyond humanity and treating the not as evolved as lesser beings?  It will not do to say that the train of evolution (conveniently) stops at humans.  Catholics like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin specifically argued that it doesn’t stop.  We evolve into some Omega point.

About half of the book is excellent.  I suspect, however, that the otherwise fine comments on the Trivium are actually fronts for Catholic personalism.

Beauty for Truth’s Sake (Caldecott)

Caldecott, Stratford.  On the Re-enchantment of Education. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009.

Argument: We must go back to Plato through Boethius and Augustine.  Our goal, however, is not Plato, but Pythagoras.  That last name separates this book from all others on classical education.  Caldecott’s argument, though, is straightforward.  If the universe is an ordered cosmos (implying, among other things, a harmonic structure), then we have to deal with Pythagoras.

The book borders on sheer genius.  I say that partly because I have no clue on how to classify it.  I’ve seen it promoted among classical school educators, and that certainly makes sense, but even then it isn’t clear how the book would be integrated into a day-to-day classical school classroom.

I wouldn’t even call this “classical education.”  It is simply, as he notes, “liberal arts.” The point of the quadrivium is to enable us to contemplate God and the harmonic nature of the universe.

One of our goals in education is to transmit a culture. If we let education become fragmented into disciplines, we communicate that education is simply bits and pieces that we can choose (Caldecott 17).   By contrast, the keys to meaning are always form, interiority, beauty, relationship, and purpose.

Ancient man as knowing man: The ancient man, presumably following Socrates, understood that it is the nature of man to know. This “knowledge can only be obtained through the systematic ordering of the soul” (21).

Four levels of Platonic knowledge:

Reason — Nous
Understanding
Opinion
Perception of shadows

Point: the instrument of knowledge must be a turning of the whole soul from becoming to being (22). Plato believed that the trivium is the tool to awaken us to the inner vision of the soul.

Caldecott realizes we can’t simply drop the quadrivium on students today.  Even in the middle ages, it struggled to integrate new knowledge.  Further, students would probably be better off studying medieval, rather than ancient, literature (or both). He argues that we must teach these advanced maths and sciences from a history of ideas standpoint (28).

Object of Education

It is difficult to summarize education into one single purpose.  Each angle, though, sheds light on the whole:

Socrates: The purpose of education is to love what is beautiful.  Beauty for Socrates was something objective.

Poetic Education

A child studies music and harmony at a more mature age in order to have his soul geared towards such a proportion.

Education and Number

Following Pythagoras, he suggests number is a facet of the Unity (Father) projected through Duality (mother) to create multiplicity (55).

One: Unity of being, often depicted by a circle.  When it is squared it is still itself.

Two: Duality; separation of male and female, matter and spirit. It is a line between two points.

Three: Unity and diversity are reconciled in harmony.  Depicted by a triangle within a circle.

Four: First solid number.  Represents earth or the material plane. In the four elements, earth and fire (contraction and expansion, respectively) are opposed to each other. Water and air mediate.

Five: As it is the midpoint within the Decad, it symbolizes the human.

Six: Perfect number as it is the sum and product of its divisors. Represented by a regular hexagon.

Seven: Totality. It is the sum of four (the material world) and three (the Trinity).

Golden Ratio

This is the essence of beauty and probably the key to unlocking the universe.

Phi = whole/large part = large part/small part

1.61804/1

He takes these harmonies and applies it to the Trinity.  By itself that isn’t wrong.  However, you are getting on dangerous ground when you have the Son participating in both deity and humanity.  The Son has these natures.  He does not merely participate in them.  

Fun fact: early Platonists anticipated the octave by the shape of the letter lamda.  “The musical scale was a model of the cosmos” (92).
Criticisms:

In the middle of an excellent discussion on beauty, Caldecott says in a footnote that he does not wish to deny the beauty in modern and postmodern works (32 n28).  This beggars belief.  There is no beauty in postmodern works.  It is trash.  Literally.  Some of it is pieces of garbage glued together.

Caldecott follows an amazing section on numbers with the Trinity.  He tries to tie in certain number theories with Trinity and defend, among other things, the Filioque.  I’m not saying his arguments are wrong, but they do seem out of place.

The book is written from a Roman Catholic perspective, so readers should be aware of that.

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture

Esolen, Anthony.  Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. Regnery, 2016.

Imagine if The Benedict Option were more focused and geared, not for running away, but for running towards the battle.  This is what Anthony Esolen has given us.  To borrow a line from his criticism of universities–the criticism being that there is no overarching truth in the university that unites all the disciplines–this book is united, not in a mere attack on modern education, but in a positive portrayal of the transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty.  What happens to society when we sacrifice those transcendentals?

In the ancient Greek world life was united around the polis, a small city-state that ordered society.  Early America had something similar: the township (also see de Tocqueville). 

Speaking Truth: Proper Names

The only way to “live not by lies” is to call things what they are.  This is a metaphysical claim, since it presupposes that things have natures, essences.  There is an older English word, cant, that means something along the lines of meaningless small talk.  By itself, it isn’t evil.  It only becomes evil when it reaches the political arena, where it then becomes sloganeering.  Think of inane drivel such as “equality, democracy, inclusivity, anti-colonialism.”  These are all abstract.  The only way to counter such abstract drivel is by returning to the thing-ness of things.  Things can’t be changed by lies (Esolen 26).

Architecture and Beauty

While America may not be able to boast of Gothic cathedrals, she has the simple beauty of the small township.  The buildings of a small town–the church, the school house, the city hall–reflect the life of a people.  Literally.  The structure of these buildings communicates a certain home-ness about life.  The easiest way to see it is to compare it with any building from a government bureaucracy.  As Esolen notes, “We never sense, when we are in a government office building, that we are the creators and masters of the government. We sense that we are its wards, its clients, and perhaps its victim and its food” (63).

In this same chapter–and largely for the same reason–Esolen proposes a renewal of school life. The form of the school should follow, not function, but essence (56).  Unpacking that is difficult, but worth it.  We must begin with grammar.  No one will do this today.  It is almost forbidden to teach in secondary school, never mind that grammar is literally the architecture of language and mind. Grammar gives you the keys to study–well, everything.

Esolen then attacks foreign language study.  Everyone knows that the conversational method to learning a foreign language is best.  But is it?  True, if you are stuck in Paris you will probably pick up French better than by memorizing a grammar book.  But does this really work in the schools?  Think about it: how many people graduate high school able to read Cervantes in Spanish (or English, for that matter)?  True, they are able to ask for directions to the bathroom in Juarez.

Almost without telling us, Esolen highlights the key reason for studying the humanities.  Aristotle said that young men were not ready to study politics because they had not yet amassed any great experience of human nature (67).  That’s why we study literature, to get such knowledge.

Colleges

Here Esolen comes close to what Dreher advocated in The Benedict Option.  We’ll start by mentioning the main problem with modern universities (aside from not teaching, or even believing in, knowledge).  “You sink yourself in debt to discover that your sons and daughters have been severed from their faith, their morals, and their reason.  Whorehouses and mental wards would be much cheaper. They might well be healthier, too” (75).

So what’s the solution? To answer that question, we need to answer the following: what is the relationship between reading Chaucer and studying the stars in the heavens?  If a university can’t answer that question, then it shouldn’t exist. We’ll try.  Esolen argues that since all knowledge is one, and if we as knowing subjects participate in that knowledge, “then to have the intellectual equivalent of an urban sprawl, wherein the teacher of poetry does not converse about history with the teacher of chemistry,” then we don’t have a college.  Literally, there is no collegium. 

Here we need to acknowledge that we aren’t saying that the hard sciences shouldn’t exist.  They should. That was never in doubt.  This existential crisis is more acutely felt in the humanities, so most of the attention is there. We’ll start with pedagogy.  Forget the fads.  Focus on what Russell Kirk called “permanent things” (81). There is nothing magical about the word “classical” or the “Great Book Series.”  The reason people are drawn to them is that they understand the unity of knowledge and they represent the widest and deepest gamut of human experience.

This book will make you angry (cf., Kipling’s “When the Saxon Learned to Hate”), but it is a call to battle.

Notable Quotables

On love for country: “Unless he is taught otherwise, by some serpent of envy or by a cynical dog sniffling about the back alleys for garbage, the child will naturally love his country, just as he naturally loves his mother and father, not because they are perfect, but because they are his” (64).

Multiculturalism: “Those who talk glibly about the ‘multicultural’ are, in my experience, mainly monolingual Westerners who have lost any strong sense of what culture must be about….[They always remain] stolidly certain that the whole world is moving toward their own supposedly progressive ideals–and if not, there are always armise, dollars, and food to make damned certain it does” (68).

Sexuality: “If you got a girl pregnant, her brothers would show up at your door and congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials” (91).

Benedict Option (Dreher)

Dreher, Rod.  Benedict Option.

I see myself as a friendly critic of Rod Dreher.  I think he consistently makes good points, but I also think he is really good at riding the wave of crucial opinions, even if they happen to be correct.  It’s hard to review this book.  Do you remember that episode of “Arrested Development” where Gob gets hired as a consultant to a rival company?  He was supposed to supply good ideas for the company. Having no clue what he was doing, he got his brother Michael to give him ideas.  Michael gave him around thirty ideas.  Gob presented them all at once.  That’s kind of how this book is.  I am going to focus primarily on his views of “intentional communities” and “education.”

He begins by noting that Big Business will side with the sexual revolution over conservative morality every single time. We’ll come back to this point, as it ties in with his criticisms of the GOP.  What Dreher doesn’t realize is that the types of people who have always pointed this out were populists and nationalists. They also voted for Trump.

This next part of the book approaches dangerous waters.  This happens whenever someone attempts a genealogical explanation of the current ills.  In other words, the problem with x today can be traced back to y’s influence over 600 years ago.  Whatever good points he might make, this is almost impossible to prove.  For Dreher, as for Radical Orthodoxy and Brad Gregory, the problem is nominalism.   I agree that nominalism is a problem.  But to trace the loss of realism as creating the Renaissance, Reformation, and all the way to the sexual revolution today is impossible to prove. So far, Dreher’s book is an updated version of Francis Schaeffer, and parts of it are quite good.

Is the Benedict Option saying we should live in intentional communities where we won’t be persecuted?  Not exactly, though Dreher makes clear that he doesn’t rule it out.  On one hand, he notes that you don’t have to move to the hinterlands to “Be the Benedict Option.”  Local communities need skilled workers in jobs that are rewarding, if difficult, and don’t force one to violate his convictions.  On the other hand, one suspects Dreher wants more than that.  He rightly points out that Christians who live in communities that are close to the local church are more close-knit communities that can help one another in trouble.  Very true.

I am very wary of intentional communities.  It just seems like post-evangelicals are LARPing. The potential for abuse is high. By saying that I am not saying that makes intentional communities wrong.  I am simply pointing out a built-in weakness.  According to theory, proper church government models and civil government models have built-in checks to accountability (at least they did before the 2020 election).  Intentional communities are vague on that point, though some usually subscribe to a vague, if sometimes legalistic, church covenant.

Dreher is certainly aware of that.  In 2015 he wrote a fine article criticizing and calling attention to the sexual abuse scandals in Moscow, ID.  He noted that he had once considered Moscow a viable example of a Benedict Option community.  Moscow, ID is indeed a clear example, but for darker reasons.

All of that, regardless of the pros and cons of such a position, is meant to carry water for something else:  Christian education.  I think this is the most controversial, albeit interesting, part of the book.  Like many conservatives, Dreher calls attention to the failing public schools, both morally and academically.  Nothing new there.  What about private schools?  Dreher is just as hard on them.  Private schools do not provide a specifically Christian education and are more often country clubs for rich people’s kids.  The morals might not be as bad as public schooling, but they are getting there.  

Well, what about specifically Christian education?  That’s still not good enough for Dreher.  He points out–with some justification–that Christian education is simply the standard subjects with “Jesus on top.” He has a point there.  How do you “Christianly” teach the Pythagorean theorem?  You can say you are “doing it for the glory of God,” but the formula didn’t change.

Well, what about homeschooling?  He likes the idea.  The problem, though, and this is a legitimate point, is that homeschooling isn’t for every student, it requires a certain level of discipline from the parent, and it requires both a two parent household and the ability to live on a single income.

Therefore, the only possible alternative left is the classical education model.  There is a lot I like about the classical model, yet I don’t share the “it will save Western Civilization” mindset.  Classical models begin–some, anyway–with the proper mindset to education.  We shouldn’t ask of an education, “What can I do with it?”  Rather, we should be aware of the inevitable question, “What will this education do to me?”  Further, I like how in the humanities the classical model is better able to integrate Jesus and the Western tradition.  Classical models correctly see education as transmitting virtue and wisdom.

In terms of history, writing, and literature the classical model is superb, far excelling the others.  However, I have seen from personal experience, from a noted classical school, that when students get into some public and charter schools they are years behind in math.  Granted, this probably depends more on student and teacher.  I just see classical models as stronger on the humanities that STEM.

And that raises another issue: several key advantages of the classical model can be accomplished on one’s own.  With a good library you can read the exact same classics.  Bloom’s or Cambridge Companions can provide scholarly interaction with these sources.  You can learn Latin on your own with youtube helps.  Wheelock’s and many Catholic sources have great Latin helps.  You don’t need a specific school for that.  

That raises another point.  As is the case with seminary professors and Hebrew, how many of the students continue to read and translate Latin?  Unless they continue it, what was the point?  Sure, it gives them better verbal skills on tests and an entry into the Romance languages.  But even in those languages, do they continue?

I like much about the classical model.  I just have my reserves.  I think its strengths often can be found elsewhere.

I understand how this book is popular.  Dreher is a very good writer and he put his finger on numerous key problems.  I think part of my frustration with the book is that he comes across as sloganeering and doesn’t always develop and analyze his own points.  For example, he correctly notes that many Christian schools (and worldview talk in general) simply do the curriculum but say “It’s Jesus’s Curriculum,” which actually does nothing to change the pedagogy.  That said, he doesn’t always explain how the Benedict Option integrates math and science in a Jesus-worldview without doing the same thing.  

Elsewhere, he makes many good points about the coming crisis that Christians will have to face, and how we might have to seek employment in ways that require us to work with our hands.  To be honest, I like Dreher’s vision a lot more than the standard gentrification models of The Gospel Coalition.  If read with a very critical eye, this book will get one thinking about possible future models of Christian existence.

Herodotus: The Histories

The Histories

Herodotus writes with more narrative power than most novels.  He has more insight into the human condition than all psychology departments.  If hubris is what happens to arrogant kings in Herodotus’s account, then King Croseus is the hero of this story.  He humbles himself when he is beaten and as a result is a wise counselor to the Persian kings. Most kings, however, aren’t like Croseus.

The story isn’t straightforward.  He begins with the claim that he will give the background to the Persian war.  He does. He also gives the background to everything else. Remember how in the Iliad when Homer would introduce some random dude, spend ten pages giving his backstory, only to have him killed off on the next page?  Herodotus does the same thing.

There is a method to the madness, though.  It’s quite brilliant. All of his random sidebars add up in the very end to present a coherent narrative.  Further, there is a movement in his narrative which highlights liberty over despotism, which is the argument the Greeks used to unite themselves against Xerxes.

The ultimate showdown, first at Marathon, then at Thermopylae, and finally at Salamis, isn’t quite the “all of a sudden” event that the film 300 suggested.  Much of Asia Minor was long understood to be Persian territory.  Also, many Greek cities were quite friendly with Persia and no one saw a contradiction   The tension, urged on by dreams and omens, developed over decades.

The climax of the story is Athens, not Sparta (which makes sense, given that Herodotus wrote this in the early stages of the Peloponnesian Wars).  This compromises his neutrality, though it does make for good reading.

“Here I am forced to declare an opinion which will be displeasing to most, but I will not refrain from saying what seems to me to be true. Had the Athenians been panic-struck by the threatened peril and left their own country, or had they not indeed left it but remained and surrendered themselves to Xerxes, none would have attempted to withstand the king by sea….As it is, to say that the Athenians were the saviors of Hellas is to hit the truth. It was the Athenians who held the balance; whichever side they joined was sure to prevail. choosing that Greece should preserve her freedom, the Athenians roused to battle the other Greek states which had not yet gone over to the Persians and, after the gods, were responsible for driving the king off. Nor were they moved to desert Hellas by the threatening oracles which came from Delphi and sorely dismayed them, but they stood firm and had the courage to meet the invader of their country” (VII:139).

Book I: Greece and Persia before the War

Book I has all of the elements of dark comedy and poignant tragedy.  It isn’t a straightforward tale, though. He begins by explaining the background to the war with Persia, but it looks like he is getting sidetracked.

Book II: Egypt

Did Egypt copy Greece or did Greece copy Egypt?  Herodotus argues that Greece took much of its religious terminology from Egypt (116).  Nevertheless, while there is overlap, there are also differences. Egypt didn’t have quite the overt phallic symbolism that Greek rituals had (115), though it had obscenities of its own sort.

The Egyptians also were the first to put forth the idea of the immortality of the soul (145).

Analysis

Custom is stronger than any Nomos and rulers disregard that at their own peril. Herodotus notes:

“For if it were proposed to all nations to choose which seemed best of all customs, each, after examination, would place its own first; so well is each convinced that its own are by far the best.  It is not therefore to be supposed that anyone, except a madman, would turn such things to ridicule. I will give this one proof among many from which it may be inferred that all men hold this belief about their customs. When Darius was king, he summoned the Greeks who were with him and asked them for what price they would eat their fathers’ dead bodies. They answered that there was no price for which they would do it.  Then Darius summoned those Indians who are called Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them (the Greeks being present and understanding through interpreters what was said) what would make them willing to burn their fathers at death. The Indians cried aloud, that he should not speak of so horrid an act. So firmly rooted are these beliefs; and it is, I think, rightly said in Pindar’s poem that custom is lord of all” (III:38).  

While Herodotus doesn’t draw the explicit point, a point which I think Thucydides will later draw, this is why global government is always doomed to fail.

What role do humans play in history?  Herodotus is very clear that God (more on that later) and Nemesis respond to human Hubris. The “gods” (whatever that word means) also punish excess in vengeance (IV:205).

Herodotus ends with wisdom from Cyrus, who was urged to become lord over Europe:

“It is only reasonable that a ruling people should act in this way, for when will we have a better opportunity than now, when we are lords of so many men and of all Asia?”  Cyrus heard them, and found nothing to marvel at in their design; “Go ahead and do this,” he said; “but if you do so, be prepared no longer to be rulers but rather subjects. Soft lands breed soft men; wondrous fruits of the earth and valiant warriors grow not from the same soil.”  The Persians now realized that Cyrus reasoned better than they, and they departed, choosing rather to be rulers on a barren mountain side than dwelling in tilled valleys to be slaves to others” (IX:122).