The greatest works of art aim to please the teacher. Novel works, innovative works… these are works which aim for the audience, to wow them and make them say, “Well, we have never seen anything like this before.” Such stories are interesting for exactly as long as it takes someone else to come up with something “we have never seen before,” which, in the realm of science fiction, is often only a few weeks. The greatest crowd pleasing story of the 20th century, Star Wars, was not made to please crowds but to please Joseph Campbell. The Duffer Brothers have told a story to please their teachers, too, and because they have not sought novelty or wealth or fame, but the nodding approval of the master, they have become wise.
I have spent many hours listening to people extol the importance of education, reading about how education ought to be done, not to mention being educated myself. What I’ve come to realize is that discovering a method that works is actually the easy part of education. The hard part is making the learning stick. You can spend years inculcating a student with Latin and high-brow literature, but unless you can get them to love it for themselves, it’s all whistling in a hurricane. You have to tutor their loves, as well. Ultimately, we become what we love, as Jamie Smith would say. If you love what’s worthless, you will become worthless. If you love what’s true, your whole life will be characterized by truth.
Of course, I’m not saying anything new. I do, however, have another source to support it. In his wonderful anthology of George MacDonald quotations, C. S. Lewis included the following excerpt from a sermon:
[Man] is so constituted as to understand [true things] at first more than he can love them, with the resulting advantage of having thereby the opportunity of choosing them purely because they are true: so doing he chooses to love them, and is enabled to love them in the doing, which alone can truly reveal them to him and make the loving of them possible. Then they cease to show themselves in the form of duties and appear as they more truly are, absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights. The man is a true man who chooses duty: he is a perfect man who at length never thinks of duty, who forgets the name of it.
First, choosing true and good things is purely a matter of duty. Dare I say, often a matter of conscripted duty. If you don’t choose the good and the true, you will be punished. Over time, that action of choosing the good and the true over and over becomes a genuine love. The teacher (parent, pastor) hopes that the student will develop a taste for truth and goodness. Eventually, the student puts duty to the side and pursues his loves, for his loves are “absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights.”
Is there any way to cultivate that taste? Another MacDonald quote from the same sermon puts us on the right path.
The truth of a thing, then, is the blossom of it, the thing it is made for, the topmost stone set on with rejoicing; truth in a man’s imagination is the power to recognize this truth of a thing.
According to MacDonald, the truth of a thing — a rock, an animal, an idea — is the “topmost stone,” the final cause. Its telos. Since we are bound in time, we can’t see the life of something all the way through to the end. It’s no exaggeration to say that if you knew the entire history of one thing, from its creation to its end, you would know the entire history of the universe. That knowledge (that truth) is hidden from us. But, MacDonald says, it is not completely out of our sight. We can recognize the a thing’s truth through the imagination.
This is one of art’s abilities. In life, we don’t often see all wrongs righted, all sins brought to light. We don’t always see where the small choices lead. But in a novel, movie, poem, or painting, we can and do see them through the imagination. By artistic representations of the “ends” of things, we learn to recognize their true natures. Good art creates good taste.
I have just finished reading J. C. Ryle’s fat book Holiness. Ryle’s style is a shade pompous for my taste, but he does pack a lot of richness in these pages. Here are a few quotes that leapt out at me.
A religion which costs nothing is worth nothing.
I wish to be as broad as the Bible, neither less nor more.
Dim or indistinct views of sin are the origin of most of the errors, heresies, and false doctrines of the present day.
The more real grace men have in their hearts, the deeper is their sense of sin.
On death & resurrection:
Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we shall have of sin, and the retrospect we shall take of our own countless shortcomings and defects.
Most men hope to go to heaven when they die; but few, it may be feared, take the trouble to consider whether they would enjoy heaven if they got there. Heaven is essentially a holy place; its inhabitants are all holy; its occupations are all holy. To be really happy in heaven, it is clear and plain that we must be somewhat trained and made ready for heaven while we are on earth.
Death works no change. The grave makes no alteration. Each will rise again with the same character in which he breathed his last. Where will our place be if we are strangers to holiness now?
Nothing, surely, is so likely to prepare us for that heaven where Christ’s personal presence will be all, and that glory where we shall meet Christ face to face, as to realize communion with Christ, as an actual living person here on earth. There is all the difference in the world between an idea and a person.
Of all the things that will surprise us in the resurrection morning, this I believe will surprise us most: that we did not love Christ more before we died.
Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their recurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.
~CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pp. 68-69
Everybody knows that TV is mostly false and stupid, that almost no one pays that much attention to it—and yet it’s on for over seven hours a day in the average household, and it sells innumerable products. In other words, TV manages to do its job even as it only yammers in the background, despised by those who keep it going. TV begins by offering us a beautiful hallucination of diversity, but it is finally like a drug whose high is only the conviction that its user is too cool to be addicted.
~Mark Crispin Miller, excerpted in Harper’s in 1986
To think without feeling would be thinking with a total indifference to the object of thought, which would be absurd; and to feel without thinking would be almost impossible. As most of the objects of thought are objects are also of desire or dislike, and therefore objects of choice, it follows that all important action of the intellect has a moral side.
This is from John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching, chapter six. Gregory goes on to say that all education has a moral character because the education is only possible through loving knowledge, which implies that knowledge is good.
I like the connection he makes here between feeling and thinking, but what I really like is where he goes from there. Objects of thought, he says, are objects of desire or dislike, meaning that we have an emotional or imaginative reaction to our thoughts. A man’s imagination can embrace thoughts or it can hold them at arm’s length. Therefore, says Gregory, objects of thought are objects of choice. Dwelling on something, weighing it in the mind, is a choice. And we are responsible for our choices, right or wrong.
This fact is hugely important in any discussion of imagination and, consequently, art. Movies are not simply looked at or books read. Your imagination chooses how to respond. In a saner era, people understood that the imagination (the emotions, really) could be trained to choose well. Today, we still train our imagination, of course, we just don’t always realize what we’re doing.
Most people in our culture (and others) are bombarded daily by objects that stoke their imagination: TV shows, commercials, ads, memes, tweets, pop music, headlines, photographs. In order to cope with the sheer number of these “objects of thought,” we need to recognize them as objects of desire or dislike, and recognize that our response to them is a choice that we are responsible for.
He might, perhaps, have studied more assiduously; but it may be doubted, whether such a mind as his was not more enriched by roaming at large in the fields of literature, than if it had been confined to any single spot. The analogy between body and mind is very general, and the parallel will hold as to their food, as well as any other particular. The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts, and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?
~James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson
What Boswell describes here of Johnson’s reading habits reminds me of Alan Jacobs’s praise of reading at Whim. (Lotta “ofs” in that sentence…)
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.
~Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.
~E. B. White, 1938
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.
~Edward R. Murrow, 1958
What the American people don’t know can kill them.
~Dorothy Greene Friendly, 1958
While it is true that this medium has always been in a constant state of transformation, the changes currently in process are among the most significant in its history. The very term may become less and less useful as a description, a name, for a set of interrelated communication phenomena now replacing what we have known as “television.” […] Short of massive disaster, there is no way to look at this medium and say “this is what it was; this is what it is.” “Television” has been and is always becoming.
~Horace Newcomb, 1996
In the [United] States, film is “cut,” which puts the emphasis on separation. In Australia (and in Great Britain), film is “joined,” with the emphasis on bringing together.
~ Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye