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“On Fairy-stories”

J. R. R. Tolkien

1938

(The realm of Faërie is no frivolity, but a place of profound enchantment, offering glimpses into deep mysteries and addressing fundamental human desires.)

Crop of The Gardens of the Merking’s Palace, by J. R. R. Tolkien (1927), an illustration for Roverandom. (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

“Lies, though breathed through silver”. It was September 1931. Little could J. R. R. Tolkien have guessed that this insult of myth, from the mouth of his hard-headed friend C. S. Lewis, would spur him to a rebuttal that would blossom into the most sustained and thoughtful argument for the value of fiction in the history of literature. And, while we’re at it, little could Lewis have guessed that Tollers’ argument, as they walked in a park behind Magdalen College, Oxford, would plant a mustard seed that would eventually transform Lewis into a myth-maker himself, not to mention the most celebrated writer on God (that myth of all myths) in the twentieth century. What was that argument? What path could possibly carry a wayfarer from the valley where myths are childish propaganda, to the hilltop where they are powerful elicitors of fleeting joy and hint at truths beyond our comprehension?

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Arnold’s early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

Crop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in the Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).

“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.

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“On Taste”

Edmund Burke

1759

(What does it really mean for an opinion to be “a matter of taste”?)

An art museum visitor observing a Jackson Pollock painting; from the blog Art Now and Then, by Jim Lane.

When we say “it’s just a matter of taste”, a bold and negative message lies behind the word “just”.  Whether intended or not, the word creates a whiff of denigration.  We discredit the thing we’re describing, reducing it such that it does not require much attention or respect.  It’s a surefire conversation-ender.  We are in effect saying that the question of whether the food is good, the music inspiring, or the sight beautiful, is not really worthy of discussion.  We are also espousing a momentous philosophical position: that the matter at hand is subjective, in the sense that two individuals considering it may come to contradictory conclusions about it and neither could possibly be justified in criticizing the other.  Probably not very many of us, when we make such a statement, are actually prepared to defend our implicit position, or the accompanying subliminal evaluation.  More likely, we are simply incorporating into our daily language certain assumptions about the world, about truth, about goodness and beauty and love and appreciation and worthiness.  Sometimes we can use quippy phrases because they come easily, whether or not we realize that we are taking a side on something.  In time a fallacious circle is likely to complete itself: someday when we actually consider the matter, we will find ourselves thinking our assumption very likely to be true, simply because our manner of thinking has been shaped by our (and our community’s) manner of speaking.  If we are trained long enough to talk as if something is so, we will tend to think it is so unless we examine our ideas deliberately.

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Apology of Socrates

(Απολογια  Σωκρατους)

Plato

4th century BC

(An innocent man delivers an inspiring speech to the court before he is executed.)

Jacques Louis David’s neoclassical masterpiece The Death of Socrates (1787), which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Socrates is a bit of a mystery, if you insist on being a real evidentiary hardliner.  He wrote nothing himself, so we have to rely on others’ characterizations of him.  Xenophon paints him as the conventional wise man of the day.  Aristophanes deems his philosophizing empty and ridiculous.  Plato’s conception, the fullest and most detailed, is of a man worthy of admiration, even awe, both for his intellect and his noble spirit.  Plato’s Socrates seeks truth despite fashion or convention; he is imaginative, reverent, humble, perceptive, eloquent, and sharp as a razor.  I’ll go with Plato, not just because his picture is most complimentary, but because Xenophon’s is simplistic (in fact it suggests that Xenophon—with all due respect—knew Socrates only casually, but wished to write as though he knew him well); and Aristophanes did nothing more than exploit a famous name, attaching it to a caricature for effect.  In fact there were many philosophers in Athens who were very much like those “Sophists” Aristophanes pillories in his play The Clouds.  Socrates was the most famous philosopher around at the time, and he certainly would have associated and debated with the general run of them.  His was probably a household name, to be thrown about as representative of the lot of lounging jabberers even though– to one who actually listened to him– he towered above the rest.

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A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold

1948

(An ecologist contemplates and celebrates the land, and recommends an expansion of our moral world.)

Aldo Leopold in Mexico, 1938.  Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Archives at the University of Wisconsin.

In today’s courses on ecology, forestry, conservation, environmental philosophy or land use, three personalities are routinely introduced as the fathers of modern concern for nature, the three who first and most strongly urged us to enlarge our conception of what in this world is a proper object of moral consideration: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.  Contemporary American (and to some extent world) culture has been impacted by A Sand County Almanac, as by Thoreau’s Walden, to such an extent that we cannot yet begin to assess it. Nevertheless, I would argue that we as a culture have still not attended to the two main lessons A Sand County Almanac would teach us.

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