Author Archives: TEnloe

In Search of Nobility (5): Magnanimity

This fifth post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Let’s be honest – magnanimity is just not a widely-used word these days. Coming to English from two Latin words, magna (great) and anima (soul), the word as it used to be used – in that older and more civilized age when true nobility had real value – sometimes signified a valiant character, but more literally and appropriately “great-souled.” But what does that mean?

One source puts it this way:

The lofty character portrayed in Bk. iv of the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. The great-souled man is of a distinguished situation, worthy of great things, ‘an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, but a mean in respect of the rightness of them’, perfectly virtuous, good at conferring benefits but ashamed of receiving them, neither humble nor vain. The combination involves proper pride or magnanimity.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

To cite further from Aristotle, “Now a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much; he who claims much without deserving it is foolish, but no one of moral excellence is foolish or senseless.” As always true in ethics, the Virtue comes in the middle of two Vices – which in this case are the Vice of Excess called Vanity and the Vice of Defect called False Humility.

Viewed this way, the aspect of Nobility called Magnanimity has to do with a person being worthy. But worthy of what? Again, Aristotle:

‘Worthy’ is a term of relation: it denotes having a claim to goods external to oneself. Now the greatest external good we should assume to be the thing which we offer as a tribute to the gods, and which is most coveted by men of high station, and is the prize awarded for the noblest deeds; and such a thing is honor, for honor is clearly the greatest of external goods. Therefore the great-souled man is he who has the right disposition in relation to honors and disgraces.

Nicomachean Ethics IV

Cicero writes that the magnanimous spirit is

generally seen in two things. One lies in disdain for things external, in the conviction that a man should admire, should choose, should pursue nothing except what is honorable and seemly, and should yield to no man, nor to agitation of the spirit, nor to fortune. The second thing is that you should, in the spirit I have described, do deeds which are great, certainly, but above all beneficial, and you should vigorously undertake difficult and laborious tasks which endanger both life itself and much that concerns life.

On Duties I.66

But what of those equal-and-opposite Vices, Vanity and False Humility, against which the magnanimous aspect of Nobility must always strive? Aristotle makes it clear that “honor is the prize of virtue, and the tribute that we pay to the good” and also that “greatness of soul is impossible without moral nobility” (Ethics IV).

That which our sources call magnanimity, “greatness of soul,” is manifestly not a vain or haughty desire for the accolades of others. Again, Cicero:

A true and wise greatness of spirit judges that deeds and not glory [the public accolades of others forming the basis of one’s self-estimation] are the basis of the honorableness that nature most seeks. It prefers not to seem pre-eminent but to be so: he who is carried by the foolishness of the ignorant mob should not be counted a great man”

On Duties I.65

But at the same time as greatness of soul is not vanity, it is also not false humility. For, going back to an earlier citation above, the quality of magnanimity belongs to the person who claims much because he deserves much, and, to repeat something else just recently cited, this deserving exists solely on the grounds of moral goodness. The Vice of Deficiency here, False Humility, consists in such a high degree of self-abnegation that one fails even to accept honors earned, not gratuitously or speciously offered.

This aspect of Nobility, then, magnanimity or “greatness of soul,” accomplishes, like the other aspects our definition from Webster’s 1828 mentions, the grasping, seizing, and catching of the very difficult middle ground between the sort of ungodly pride that forgets one’s place and leads to a fall and a quite different kind of pride (here = loftiness of soul) that disdains merly external praises and rewards because all it cares about is the honor which naturally attaches to a relentless quest for moral excellence.

In Search of Nobility (4): Generosity

This fourth post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Etymologically, generous is related to the Latin verb meaning “to give, beget,” and the Latin noun meaning “race, class, kind.” At one time, it was simply assumed culturally that a noble person would be a more-than-average giving person: this was just part of what it meant to be born “noble.” (Ironic, then, that today’s “noble” class – where “noble,” in that characteristically Modern cynical mode, is just a stand in for “the rich and famous,” are increasingly viewed with suspicion as greedy hoarders and manipulators, via their fantastic wealth, of the supposedly “democratic” political system.)

To again refer to Aristotle’s idea of the virtuous mean, an actually generous person would be the one who can size up a given situation and “give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time.”  Far from being some squishy-minded, possibly guilt-induced unmoderated giving, the actually generous person recognizes real needs and ensures he won’t have little to give in those circumstances because he’s already given too much in inappropriate ways.

As Aristotle puts it in Book IV of his Ethics: “In crediting people with [Generosity] their resources must be taken into account; for the [generousness] of a gift does not depend on its amount, but on the disposition of the giver, and a [generous] disposition gives according to its substance.”

Moreover, an actually generous person does not give to be noticed, to receive accolades for their philanthropy, for he does not expect anything in return for his generosity. This is most of the point: he already has far more than he himself needs, so what better, more humane way to dispose of the rest than to give to others who have real needs?

Thus does that elevation of soul Webster referenced make it possible for the noble person to rise above mere sensory reports of “needs,” determine what are and aren’t  real needs, and give appropriately to alleviate those. He “catches, seizes, holds onto” an accurate understanding of need and what he himself can properly do about it.

One may see from the careful unpacking of the terms above that nobility’s face of generosity may actually require significant adjustments of attitude and perception for those committed to various “hardline” dichotomous political perspectives.

The well-off person who give out of a sense of guilt over his excessively lavish lifestyle or out of a desire (however suppressed) to be seen giving is in no wise noble. Rather, such a person may be exhibiting “the “Vice of Excess,” specifically that of Prodigality, which consists in wasting one’s resources on ignoble pursuits, and in the process ruining one’s own soul. This is only one reason why our great Western tradition is packed full of warnings against immoderate acquisition of money and goods: such vicious activity has brought down not only vast numbers of individuals, but also whole cultures.

On the other hand, neither is the well-off person who grotesquely fantasize that his prosperity is due to his having pulled himself up by his own bootstraps – so get your lazy hands off my stuff and go get a job! – in any wise noble. Rather, such a person may be exhibiting the “Vice of Deficiency,” specifically that of Meanness, which is “fall[ing] short in giving and go[ing] to excess in getting.” Priding himself on his fantastic “work ethic,” this sort of person may, paradoxically, fall short of true nobility exactly to the degree that he is proud of his own achievements and exceedingly jealous to ensure that others do not manage to “steal” one red cent from him.

In short, the aspect of Nobility that we call generosity is, like the rest of nobility, not an easy thing to seek or find, nor, having found it, will it necessarily be easy to keep.

In Search of Nobility (3): Bravery

This third post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Having noted that the verb “comprehend” here doesn’t only mean “understand,” but something more along the lines of “to completely lay hold of, to grasp, snatch, seize, catch,” we will look at the first quality that Webster says nobility comprehends:

The classical philosopher of ethics par excellence is, of course, Aristotle, to whom, outside of the Bible, we ought to direct inquiries about virtuous qualities. Aristotle presents the idea that virtue is always a mean between extremes. The extreme on one side involves a deficiency or defect in the virtuous quality sought, while the extreme on the other side involves an excess of the virtuous quality sought. What does Aristotle tell us about bravery, the first thing that Webster says the noble elevation of soul comprehends?

For one thing, bravery is not the absence of fear. Rather, bravery is the ability to deal with fear appropriately rather than being mastered by it.

Aristotle has it that a brave man should fear the loss of his good reputation. On the other hand, not fearing poverty while one wastes his wealth is not brave at all, but just stupid. Likewise, there’s not a hint of bravery in resisting pleasurable temptations (since the prospect of pleasure doesn’t produce fear), but there is a great deal of bravery in withstanding painful circumstances to the point of achieving the final goal of Virtue. Specifically, bravery must be understood as being oriented toward justice, for as the Roman philosopher-orator Cicero put it:

“…if the loftiness of spirit that reveals itself amid danger and toil is empty of justice, if it fights not for the common safety but for its own advantages, it is a vice. It is not merely unvirtuous; it is rather a savagery which repels all civilized feelings. Therefore the Stoics define courage well when they call it the virtue which fights on behalf of fairness. For that reason, no one has won praise who has pursued the glory of courage by treachery and cunning; for nothing can be honorable from which justice is absent.”

On Duties, (I.63)

A bit later he continues:

A brave and great spirit is in general seen in two things. One lies in disdain for things external, in the conviction that a man should admire, should choose, should pursue nothing except what is honorable and seemly, and should yield to no man, nor to agitation of the spirit, nor to fortune. The second thing is that you should in the spirit I have described, do deeds which are great, certainly, but above all beneficial, and you should vigorously undertake difficult and laborious tasks which endanger both life itself and much that concerns life.

On Duties, I.66

This said, nevertheless, like Aristotle before him, Cicero holds that nobility of soul steers a middle course between recklessness and cowardice:

We must never purposely avoid danger so as to appear cowardly and fearful, yet we must avoid exposing ourselves pointlessly to risk. Nothing can be stupider than that. When confronting danger, therefore, we should copy the doctor, whose custom it is to treat mild illnesses mildly, though he is forced to apply riskier, double-edged, remedies to more serious illnesses.

On Duties, I,82

What we should take away from all of this is that the noble soul is the one that is able to grasp, seize, catch, and hold onto boldness in the face of fear where that boldness has a correct motivation, a correct manner of application, and a correct final goal.

A tall order, indeed – which is why nobility requires elevation of soul. Those who remain stuck in the immediacy of the senses can’t rise above the deliverances of those senses to attain that which is higher and more meaningful: in this case, bravery.

In Search of Nobility (2): “That Elevation of Soul Which Comprehends…”

In the introductory post I noted that nobility in our times tends to be simply identified with concepts of social hierarchy expressed in terms of titles and possessions and cultural influence. Nobility, indeed, gets represented time and again to us as inherently arbitrary and tending toward abusiveness. I concluded the post with the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary definition of nobility, which interestingly proceeds differently from modern definitions by placing the social hierarchy view in subordination to a much older and more universal definition. Namely, nobility is:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

I’d like to focus throughout the next few posts on the phrase “elevation of soul, which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnanimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.” This is a packed definition, and one that, as far as I can tell surveying the cultural wasteland in which the very idea of nobility has become a base swear word, if not a simply incomprehensible word, needs to be fleshed out.

“That Elevation of Soul…”

The classical tradition, Christian no less than pagan, holds that the human being consists of body and soul, and that soul, that which animates body, possesses a priority at least of dignity. Though Christian faith does not debase the body or life in the physical world, it nevertheless teaches that the body and life in the physical world are not to be our primary concerns. In this context, to speak of nobility as a quality involving elevation of soul conveys profound meaning.

For what exactly is the soul to be elevated above? Above, says the tradition, the temporary and changing appearances of things, which collectively try to seize control of our faculty of judgment with the immediate, seemingly undeniable perceptions of sense experience. “Looks can be deceiving,” says Lady Wisdom – but she always has to contend with Lady Sensuality’s contrary maxim “Seeing is believing.” Knowledge does begin in our sensory experiences, which is precisely why we can get so easily mired in the dictates of our senses, finding it difficult to discriminate and evaluate and prudentially interpolate.

Yet such an ability to transcend the immediate deliverances of the senses is, according to Webster, the quintessential definition of nobility.

“…Which Comprehends…”

Nobility consists of an elevation of soul “which comprehends…” – but what does that key term, “comprehend,” mean? Probably the most common connotation is “understand,” which would mean that nobility is an elevation of soul that understands or has a mental grasp of the following five predicates of the definition. While this is not false, it’s too mundane in this time in which we all routinely confuse possessing information with being formed by wisdom.

So if we push further back, consulting etymology, we find that the word “comprehend” reaches us from the Latin com + prehendere, which together mean ” to completely lay hold of, to grasp, snatch, seize, catch.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Nobility, far from having anything whatsoever to do with the generally vain frippery of titles and status, attaches to a soul that has raised itself up to higher things – and grasped, snatched, seized, and caught them. It’s the same word used in Livy in a story describing how the assassins of the king of Rome were arrested by the guards, stopped in their tracks and held for examination and application of judgment.

All that certainly changes one’s mental picture of nobility, doesn’t it?

Next up, Webster’s list of qualities that nobility “comprehends.”

The Liberating Knowledge of Letters (Literature)

Here’s a snippet from a letter about the educated man, written ca. 1160 A.D.:

…it is the knowlege of letters [literature] that leads one forth from the common ignorance of human beings and from the stolid torpor that characterizes the dull-witted, and renders to its pupil glorious liberty. And so the pagans rightly called the art of letters a liberal art, because this art liberates the one who studies it from the common lot of human beings enslaved to confusion; the one who obtains a mastery of letters is no longer oppressed and overwhelmed by the fetters of lethargy which bind the unlearned. 

– Philip of Harvengt, abbot of Bonne Esperance, to Henry, Count of Champagne (As translated by Robert Ziomkowski in Readings in Medieval Political Theory 1100-1400 [Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993], pg. 65.)

In Search of Nobility (1)

From time to time as a teacher of classical literature, I’ve tried to get students to engage with the idea of nobility as it appears in most of the Greek and Roman texts we read. Almost without exception I have found that the word nobility means very little to the modern student – almost as if I was asking them to say something really meaningful about the word humbug or jabberwock or razzamatazz.

Almost without exception I have found that upon asking students reading classical literature to describe the idea of nobility, they cannot come up with anything other than standard, modern dictionary definitions that call up vague, connotatively displeasing notions of snobbish “upper class” people who more often than not prey upon the lowly ordinary people and so must, from time to time, be subjected to revolutions that show them just how fundamentally useless aristocracy really is.

This spectacularly limited horizon regarding the word nobility recently prompted me to do some quick dictionary work of my own, which produced a very interesting result that I now share with you.

First up was the online Merriam-Webster’s, which told me this:

1: the quality or state of being noble in character, quality, or rank

2: the body of persons forming the noble class in a country or state ARISTOCRACY

Next I tried that amazing, little-questioned go-to source for this debased age that confuses rapid access of information with possession of wisdom, Wikipedia, which has this to say:

Nobility is a social class normally ranked immediately below royalty and found in some societies that have a formal aristocracy. Nobility has often been an estate of the realm that possessed more acknowledged privilege and higher social status than most other classes in society. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles or may be largely honorary (e.g., precedence), and vary by country and era. Membership in the nobility, including rights and responsibilities, is typically hereditary.

Finally I turned to Dictionary.com, which offers this:

1. the noble class or the body of nobles in a country.

2. (in Britain) the peerage.

3. the state or quality of being noble.

4. nobleness of mind, character, or spirit;

5. exalted moral excellence.grandeur or magnificence.

6. noble birth or rank.

Lastly I tried Collins Dictionary online, which produced this very similar result:

 SINGULAR NOUN [with singular or plural verb]

The nobility of a society are all the people who have titles and belong to a high social class.Synonyms: aristocracy, lords, elite, nobles   More Synonyms of nobility

2. UNCOUNTABLE NOUN

A person’s nobility is their noble character and behaviour. [formal]

What these searches confirmed was what I knew from experience with students: the definition of nobility has, by the vapid reductionisms of “Social Studies” classes, the caricatures of popular media, and the “just the facts” denotations of popular dictionaries been just about wholly restricted to a mere designator of an arbitrary social class, meaningful only in societies that believe in such intolerant notions as a really-existing hierarchy of goods, the necessity of good people providing examples for others to imitate, and an actually definable thing called human nature which is capable of aspiring to excellence or sinking down below the level of base animalism.

Yet, since I began with the Merriam-Webster dictionary, watch what I found when I turned to the once-upon-a-time much-cited 1828 Webster’s:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

2. Antiquity of family; descent from noble ancestors; distinction by blood, usually joined with riches.

3. The qualities which constitute distinction of rank in civil society, according to the customs or laws of the country; that eminence or dignity which a man derives from birth or title conferred, and which places him in an order above common men. In Great Britain, nobility is extended to five ranks, those of duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron.

4. The persons collectively who enjoy rank above commoners; the peerage; as the English nobility; French, German, Russian nobility

What do you notice as you look over the entries I’ve reproduced here? What I immediately noticed was that the newer dictionaries prioritize the merely functional class-designator, which is driven solely by artificial badges like titles and privilege while the older definition (1828) priorities a set of high-minded – that is elevated – qualities of character. While this definition does appear in several of the other sources I cited, it is lower than the merely social, class-designator one.

You know, the only one that I’ve said most of my students have any familiarity with as they try to read ancient literature chock-full of high-minded ideals that seem, pretty literally, like unintelligible gibberish to the modern, merely functionality-oriented mind.

Needless to say, I find this phenomenon – the debasement of the definition of nobility quite alarming. In this short series I’ll try to recover some bits and pieces of the older, more humane definition of nobility, in the hopes that you will find it useful in your own thinking about matters of the human condition, the problems that ail our society, and what may possibly be done to work on restoring the real excellence of motivations and deeds that has been grievously lost in our time.

Clay-Footed Heroes

If your homeschooled children are much like mine, they’ve been imbued from an early age with a passion for reading. They’ll read anything you let them read – and smile and ask for more. And, oh, the things they learn and remember from good books, things that make you and I as parents only wish we’d had that kind of education growing up!

But if your a homeschooling parent much like me, you realize that a passion for reading is not enough, for the object of the passion must be, as just noted, good books. Not just any books. Good books. Books, say, about great men and women (and sometimes children, too) of the past. Books that feed the child’s soul with images of the True, Good, and Beautiful. Images they can store up in their memory, revisit, learn from, and, hopefully, as God gives the increase, imitate in their own lives.

My children devour books, and we do our best to make sure those books are good for the reasons just stated. But every so often, on a trip to the library, a book slips in that we, regrettably, haven’t vetted sufficiently and so the precise contents of which we don’t find out about until the children bring us questions because something they read confused them.

My children recently encountered such a book which quite suddenly turned from what seemed to be an inspiring story of black nurse in the Crimean War into a simplistic, emotion-laden tirade against one of the greates heroines of the time, Florence Nightingale.

The book in question is Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, by Susan Goldman Rubin. It tells the story of Mary Jane Grant, a mixed-race girl from Jamaica. From the start of the book (showcased by our library during Black History Month), much is made of Mary’s skin color and how proud she was of it and how from her early teens she encountered nasty people who judged her because of it. (You can see where this is going already).

Mary’s major interest beginning as a child was practicing medicine, a love she got from her mother, who trained her in such arts as she possessed. At 31, she married an Englishman, Edwin Seacole, who unfortunately died of sickness despite all her nursing of him in 1844. A series of events led to her becoming widely recognized in Jamaica as very knowledgeable in the healing arts. Yet all was not sweetness and light. Bravely battling bigotry all the way (it’s mentioned six times in 8 pages), she plied her healing arts in various places, at last ending up in Crimea in 1855, determined to set up her own convalescent home for soldiers dying more from disease than bullets.

It is while relating this process that the book begins its not-so-subtle attack on Florence Nightingale, noting that although she, a white woman, had little trouble getting into the War as a lead nurse, no one in authority wanted a “yellow woman” to do the same. Upon arriving in Constantinople, she met Nightingale, who, as the book has it, was extremely rude to Seacole and refused her services because of her skin color and certain medical practices she had (giving sickly soldiers swigs of sherry or wine-lemonade) which Nightingale said made Seacole a “woman of bad character.”

Nightingale, we are told (on a page picturing a compassionate looking woman-of-color confronting a prim, sour-faced white woman) flatly refused even to allow the exhausted Seacole a bed among the other nurses, since such “associations” were “absolutely out of the question” (a purported quote from a letter of Nightingale’s). Later on, Seacole was successfully treating many diseased men in Balaclava when Nightingale, recently arrived there, herself fell ill with a form of typhus. As the book has it, Nightinglae “was revolted by the idea” of allowing a woman-of-color to treat her illness with “quack” Creole medicines.

This is the final image of Florence Nightingale that we receive from Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield. Although at the outset of the account of the War, the book does mention that Nightingale is justly famous for pressing for greater sanitation in the sick wards, the overall effect given is that she was in reality just another nasty, privileged-and-prejudiced White Woman looking down on a member of an “inferior race” despite the latter’s clear competence in the medical arts.

What to say about this, especially since Florence Nightingale is often held up as a great heroine of reforming battlefield medical practices? I’m no expert on the Crimean War or Nightingale herself, and I’ve learned that Nightingale’s collected works, including numerous letters from which a more accurate picture of her person and work might be built, run to 16 volumes. A small bit of Googling (not recommended as a substitute for actual serious research, and I don’t represent my Googling here as counting for that) turns up that there’s been a fairly learned controversy for some years now over the Nightingale-Seacole rivalry. (National Geographic, for instance, isn’t quite as glowing in its account of Seacole’s medical prowess and motivations – but as I haven’t researched the topic, I can’t say myself.)

What concerns me – and I think what should concern you, homeschool parents, as well – is how this apparently very complex situation from the past is now being marketed to young children as a political weapon aimed at destroying someone justly famed as a heroine merely because she (might have) had some views on certain issues now considered sacrosanct by a palpably self-righteous segment of our degraded society. Here are some take away points in need of further consideration, then:

(1) There’s a subtle irony in a book like Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield attempting to destroy a major example of a strong woman making her own way in a male-dominated world. For Mary Seacole does this by orienting attention to skin color rather than merits, and so tries to use one strong woman to destroy another. In other words, the great cause of Women’s Rights, which otherwise needs all the heroines it can get, is in a book like this being summarily fed to the great cause of Racial Justice – and apparently the incongruity is not supposed to be noticed. Why ought it to be this way? Why not simply supplement acquainting children with the greatness of Florence Nightingale with also acquainting them with the greatness of Mary Seacole? Leave self-righteous, virtue-signalling, destructively cynical political crusades out of it entirely, thereby enriching the childrens’ store of images of greatness to imitate in their own lives.

(2) Should someone attempting to tear down a hero / heroine’s legacy need to demonstrate a thorough competence in all the relevant sources before being taken seriously? Consider that as noted earlier, there are sixteeen volumes of letters and other materials extant from Florence Nightingale. From what I have found, these are very expensive volumes (upwards of $90 each), and some run to over 1,000 pages. The book I’ve been referencing, Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, cites a few choice, seemingly damning phrases from Nightingale in reference to Seacole, but aren’t we entitled to ask for more context? Of course, it’s a children’s book, not a scholarly tome – but that’s all the reason to be eminently careful in the selection of material so as to not damage young minds and hearts. If all one read was this book, one would get a very negative picture of Florence Nightingale. But I wonder what’s in those sixteen volumes of original material of hers. What qualifications might we find about her views on race? How can we be sure this very obviously politically-motivated book, showcased during Black History Month, is accurately representing Nightingale’s views?

(3) And yes, what of selection? Owing to the overwhelmingly vast amount of historical material available on all manner of issues nowadays, every historian must select what to include, what to leave out, what questions to organize an account around, what directions to pursue an inquiry, and so on. It follows from this that no historical account will ever be “just the facts,” but will always be a relatively-accurate reconstruction of the materials used. It may be that other books on Nightingale have not emphasized racial issues in play during her era, and so we should acknowledge that they existed and be honest if we find them operating in a hero or heroine. But the answer to a selectivity that never tells children about a great person’s Flaw In Area X ought not to be a simple mirror-image selectivity that seeks to just destroy the great person, period, and inculcate in a child a dark cynicism that the world always has been only about prejudicial power relationships. Stories should feed the soul, not rot it.

(4) And from a Christian point of view consider this: the Bible, at least, is one book about ancient heroes that never scruples to tell us directly about the great flaws of the men and women it holds up as examples of faith. Whether Noah’s drunkenness or Abraham’s mistreatment of Hagar and Ishmael or Moses’ cowardice and anger or David’s adultery and subsequent indirect-murdering of the woman’s lawful spouse or Solomon’s massive idolatry or Peter’s reckless impetuosity, the Bible doesn’t present us with Ideal Heroes so that later we can be all shocked and become cynical when someone says, “But did you know that this ‘great hero’ was guilty of ____?” The upshot for my topic here is that even were we to discover that Florence Nightingale harbored views we now call racist and did treat a competent nurse in a rude and prejudiced way, we should just say, “Oh, so now we have direct evidence that she’s like all our heroes: a sinner in need of grace.”

In short, what I think a children’s book like Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield wants to do – encourage children to broaden their acquaintance with the world, get a larger, more holistic picture of the wonderful diversity of virtuous human examples they can imitate, is quite laudable and ought to be done more. Add new heroes to the stock of old heroes, and there’s so much more to celebrate! But there’s just no need for a vast project of cynical revisionist history that is only going to issue in a sort of reverse-bigotry against Whites, and really just hollow out kids’ souls by teaching them instead that all the older heroes were just Bad People Who Arbitrarily Got Power and Shamefully Oppressed Others.

Heroes are special people who do extraordinary things. But whoever said they aren’t humans just like the rest of us? Why should we be so astonished to find out that they, too, had feet of clay?

Who Says Political Philosophy Isn’t Practical?

Sometimes it may seem like getting too deep into the philosophical end of the classics just isn’t “practical,” since so much of it seems airy-fairy, high-falutin’, divorced from “the real world” of everyday experience. But then you read things like this, from Plato and you suddenly realize that even the philosophical material in the classics is very practical because it is rooted in the real world of every day experience:

“When offices are filled competitively, the winners take over the affairs of state so completely that they totally deny the losers and the losers’ descendants any share of power. Each side passes its time in a narrow scrutiny of the other, apprehensive lest someone with memories of past injustices should gain some office and lead a revolution. Of course, our position is that this kind of arrangement is very far from being a genuine political system; we maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws, and when they favor particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens but party-men; and people who say those laws have a claim to be obeyed are wasting their breath….Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.”

Laws 715a-d

To be sure, questions arise from these thoughts, particularly regarding what the phrase “for the good of the whole state” means. (Won’t that be precisely one of the things that even “party men” claim lies at the root of their sectarian programs?) And does the passage really enjoin that any citizen, upon deciding that some laws promulgated by the government are “bogus laws” made by “party men” and therefore no one who doesn’t wish to has to obey them?

Still, these are very provocative words, and again they illustrate that even the more philosophical parts of the classics really ought to be carefullly studied right along with all the other supposedly “more practical” parts.

Rumor, Swiftest of All Evils in the World

Say what one will about mythology; there are times when it is an incredibly deep store of verifiable human knowledge drawn from experience and made more powerful through allegorization.

Take Virgil’s remark in Book IV of the Aeneid that as soon as Aeneas and Dido have, according to Juno, been married, immediately “Rumor flies through Libya’s great cities. Rumor, swiftest of all the evils in the world.”

Who is this Rumor? What happens if we pay attention to the mythology and not just assume we know what it’s saying because we know the English word?

As it turns out upon close inspection of Titan genealogies (how many of us ever really bother to look at those things, let alone learn the Titans as well as we know the Olympians?), Rumor is the cousin of the god Apollo, famously known as the god of Truth via prophecy. Apollo’s true words are frequently misunderstood, which is precisely why they cause so many problems. By contrast, Rumor’s words are very easily understood, which is precisely why they cause so many problems. Ironically, both sets of words, the true and the false, operate on already existing desires within the hearers. 

Herotodus tells us how Croesus of Lydia wants to destroy the Persians. He asks Apollo’s Oracle if he should attack and if he’ll win. The Oracle tells him cryptically, “If you attack you will destroy a great empire.”  Exceedingly happy at his divinely-given fortune, Croesus attacks, but is himself defeated by the Persians. Angry at the Oracle for supposedly lying to him, he confronts it, reminding it that it told him he would win. To which the Oracle calmly replies, “You didn’t pay attention to the words I actually said. I told you that if you attacked you would destroy a great empire. You are the one who failed to ask which empire you would destroy.”

Thus does the god of Truth subvert human plans because human folly hears only what it wants to hear.

Likewise, Apollo’s cousin Rumor flies forth proclaiming to all of Africa that Aeneas and Dido have contracted a marriage which is now blinding both of them to their respective royal duties, and so threatening everyone with disorder. Virgil’s phraseology here is interesting: “…terrorizing the great cities, clinging as fast to her twisted lies as she clings to words of truth. Now Rumor is in her glory, filling Africa’s ears withtale on tale of intrigue, bruiting her song of facts and falsehoods mingled.”

The result of her mixed song, her spreading of reports to every itching ear, is that a petty African lord, Iarbas, who was already angry at Dido for spurning him, and so is easy game for Rumor, who “stokes his heart with hearsay, piling fuel on his fire,” finds himself”driven wild, set ablaze by the bitter rumor.” Iarbas then denounces Jupiter for allowing all of this to happen, asserting that Jupiter’s own temples are merely “hollow show,” which prompts Jupiter to compel Aeneas to leave Dido in order to pursue his destiny. Distraught Dido subsequently commits suicide, cursing all of Aeneas’ future descendants to eternal war with Carthage.

Thus does the goddess of twisted words subvert human plans because human folly hears only what it wants to hear.

The allegorized-mythological connection between truth and rumor points to surely one of the most profound human experiences. Words matter. Accurate reporting of words matters perhaps more. And in this light it is all the more interesting that Rumor is usually the Latin word “fama,” which also has the connotations of reputation and fame. Apparently the line between truth and lies can very, very thin.

It leaves the thoughtful person uncomfortably aware both of the necessity of moderating his speech and properly interpreting that of others. Human folly knows no bounds – there is no reason why even someone with “the correct worldview” in his head couldn’t easily fail to use words well or fall prey to the distortive power of Rumor while blindly believing he is only listening to the very voice of Truth Itself.

It also leaves the thoughtful person wondering whether reputations and fame are inevitably some sort of odd mixture of truth and lies – and so what that might mean for our epistemic and moral duty when we encounter fabulous reports reports, pro or con, concerning important people and events. I doubt there is anywhere that Rumor flies faster than on this great and powerful technological terror that we call the Internet.

Ontology 101

Ontology is “the study of being,” or, “the study of existence.” Things that exist share the quality of “existing,” and ontology studies what it means to say that a thing “exists.” The term “ontology” comes from the Greek words ontos (being) and logos (the study of). Ontology answers questions like these:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is a “something” in the first place?
  • What kinds of “somethings” exist?
  • How can we organize, or classify, the kinds of “somethings” into groups so we can better understand them?
  • What happens to a “something” when it experiences a change? How much can you take away from or change “something” before it becomes “something else”?

A being is just a thing that exists. You are a being, I am a being, cars are beings, houses are beings, tables and chairs and pencils and footballs are beings, and so forth. Anything that exists is a being. Some beings exist outside of your mind (such as other people). Other beings exist only in your mind (such as unicorns and other products of your imagination).

What about God? God exists, right? Doesn’t that mean that God is a being? Actually, Christians think of God as being in a different class than all the things mentioned above. God is not a being. Rather, He is Being. What does that mean? To answer that question, we first need to discuss a few more terms that are used in ontology.

  • Immanent BeingTo say that a being is “immanent” means that that being exists inside the world. Immanent means “inside of.”
  • Transcendent BeingTo say that a being is “transcendent” means that that being exists outside of the world. Transcendent means “outside of.”
  • Finite BeingA finite being is a being that has limitations, such as size, weight, color, abilities, lifespan, and so forth. Another term for finite being is contingent being, which means a being that was made to exist by something else.
  • Infinite BeingAn infinite being is a being that has no limitations.

What does all of this mean? Why is it important? What relation does it have to how we as Christians think about God?

A great many books outside of the Bible that you read as part of literature classes were written by pagans. (A pagan is someone who believes in many gods rather than just one God.) In pagan religions, the gods and goddesses are beings who exist inside the world. They are immanent beings, not transcendent beings. The only real difference between the gods and human beings in pagan religions are that the gods are a lot more powerful than the human beings. Otherwise, like human beings, they are limited, finite beings.

The God of Christianity is very different from all pagan gods. The God of Christianity is infinite, not finite. Unlike the pagan gods, our God is both transcendent and immanent. Because He made the world, He exists outside the world (Genesis 1; Psalm 90:2; Ephesians 1:4). Yet He also exists inside the world (Psalm 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23-24).

What these things mean is that the Christian God is not just a being. He is not like all the other things that we call beings. He is not like you and me and houses and cars and tables and chairs and pencils and footballs. Nor is he like beings of your imagination, like unicorns. And He is utterly unlike all the beings that pagans called “gods.”

According to classical Christian thinkers, God is not just a being. Rather, God is Being. All other things that exist exist imperfectly and with limitations. God exists, but unlike all other things that exist He exists perfectly and without any limitations. All other things that exist have being, but God is Being. This means that all other beings are dependent on God. In classical Christian literature, particularly philosophical works, there is a whole class of arguments for the existence of God known as ontological arguments because they focus on this issue of being.

In Genesis 1, the Bible tells us that “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” By itself, this verse does not prove that nothing existed before God created the world. But when we add to it John 1:3, we find that “Through Him [Jesus Christ] all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”

The Apostle Paul writes, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Hebrews 11:3 tells us that “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” God made everything out of nothing (see the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in Chapter 20). Thus, everything that exists is dependent (or contingent) upon him.

Ontology is a very important part of any worldview. What a worldview says about ontology affects what it says about all kinds of other issues, including how human beings know things and what is the destiny of all things. Some worldviews do not emphasize it much, but at the bottom of any claim that they make about the world is some kind of ontological assumption.