Category Archives: Literature

Nobility Lost (Part 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.

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.

“Christian Materialists” – Christian Imagination, Pt. 6

A third problem we modern Christians often have when it comes to using our imaginations is that we think like modern materialists. Now, “materialism” here does not refer to the common malady of seeking as many material possessions as one can. Rather, here it refers to an attitude that we unconsciously borrow from secularists—the attitude of always implicitly looking for “natural” explanations of strange events.

This problem is really a subset of the problem of rationalism discussed in another post, but it deserves its own treatment because it is even more subtle. All Christians affirm that God has acted within the natural world in the past and that He can and still does act within it according to His own plans. One does not have to be a fire-breathing charismatic televangelist to believe that God still performs miracles today. We all know stories of God answering someone’s prayer for immediate financial help, healing someone with terminal, inoperable cancer, protecting someone from serious injury in an automobile accident, and so forth.

The problem I am here calling “materialism” is not that we modern Christians do not believe in the supernatural (we do), but rather, that we import into our faith the secularist notion of an unbridgeable divide between the natural and the supernatural. What does this mean? It seems rather counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Let me briefly explain.

As has often been the case in the long history of Christian cultural endeavors, the faith begot a certain daughter and the daughter proceeded to devour the mother. Christianity is responsible for the rise of what we call “modern science,” but we live at the tail end of a long process of unbelievers taking over because we ceased being faithful to our world-embracing religion and started withdrawing into isolated enclaves of “spirituality.”

At some point in the recent past, we began to disdain the created world and to elevate a false concept of the “spiritual” – all that was not merely physical, which we then dubbed “worldly.” Alas, unbelievers, who already wanted all religion to be confined to the realm of the private, emotional, non-rational “soul” were only too happy to let us do so while they took over the realm of “facts.”

After spending a few decades drinking deeply from the same political, economic, and entertainment well as our secularist neighbors, a well polluted with assumptions about the subjectivity of truth, goodness, beauty, and religion, our own Christian imagination has suffered immensely. Without realizing it, we have in many ways made a capitulation to a kind of worldly thinking that has little to do with morality proper and everything to do with an entirely subjectivistic religion.

This is why our novels, our songs, and our movies endlessly celebrate internal, emotional, personal experiences that get mislabeled “faith,” which has nothing to do with “facts.” A materialistic concept of the world, pushed by science and its intrusion into every domain of life, has neutered the Christian imagination.

But we must tread with care at this point. We must take care not to vilify science or the amazing progresses it has made over the last few centuries. Nevertheless, we need to come to see that while science started out as a proper quest to discern the natural ways that God does things within His creation, it has for our whole mechanized mode of society become a soul-killing, mystery-banishing, all-encompassing substitute for faith.

When we ourselves focus on a kind of “spirituality” that disdains engaging “the world”, and so, disdain imaginative engagement with the world, we show that we’ve surrendered to the materialist assumption that nature and supernature don’t and can’t mix. Which is very, very weird, since on Sunday’s we cling to a Book that, literarily speaking, is chock full of an unashamed mixing of both those things!


For more on the Christian imagination, see my short books, It’s Not A Small World, After All, and Worlds Within the World: How Tolkien Can Help Christians Write Better Fiction.

Good Books Aren’t Vulgar Books – Christian Imagination, Pt. 5

In my last post, I looked at the baneful effects of rationalism on the Christian imagination. Another pernicious enemy of a healthy use of the imagination by the Christian is that we often think just like modern sentimentalists. Life is hard, but often enough we Christians want it to be all sweetness and light. Yet the Bible is not a book that is all about love stories and people who don’t offend others. Rather, it is a book full of bloody battles, deep emotional distresses, national disasters, the horrible deaths of infants and others who do not seem to deserve such fates, and, to top it all off, the horrific, bloody, agonizing torture and murder of the very Son of God!

But it seems to me that we often forget this in our mad rush to fulfill our unspoken wish that life would not be so imperfect.

Don’t we want life to be full-to-the brim with Precious Moments and paintings of quiet woodland cottages and baskets of warm, furry bunny rabbits and fields of beautiful flowers and whatever else strikes our sentimental fancies?

Don’t we want church services where we hear about a kind, loving Heavenly Father who has a special plan just for our very own lives and does not want us to endure any undue hardship? Don’t we want to proudly display our Jesus-advocacy bracelets and Christiany-bumper stickers to remind others of our own deep, personal piety?

It seems to me that we too easily forget that the Jesus all these emotive sermonettes and vulgarized, commercialized trinkets (religion sells stuff!) refer to is the Jesus who has been seated at the right hand of God the Father and is presently engaged in a war that will continue “until all His enemies are made His footstool” (Psalm 110:1; 1 Cor. 15:24-26).

Literature – good literature, not escapist, sappily pious drivel – is what we need to address these ills of ours. Fortunately, a great deal of good literature exists in the classical Christian tradition. We have only to do the easy work of getting hold of it and the hard work of reading it.


For more on the Christian imagination, see my short books, It’s Not A Small World, After All, and Worlds Within the World: How Tolkien Can Help Christians Write Better Fiction.

Making War on Reality – Christian Imagination, Pt. 3

At its root, an attack on the imagination is an attack on reality. Specifically, it is an attack on the reality that God made and into which He has put us and commanded us to live for Him. This seems an odd thing to say since we so often associate the imagination with fiction, which we (falsely) think means “that which is not true.” Since we are Christians, we think that we must shun whatever is not true. So we shun the imagination because we think it stands in opposition to Truth.

But when we reject the imagination outright, we do so at a terrible price. For instance, whenever we are not feeling deeply (and self-righteously) pious about our denunciation of myths and dragons and wizardry, we know that God gave us our imaginations as part of the original creation He said was “very good.”

Nevertheless, we frequently forget this in our zeal to appear “holy.” We forget that the human imagination is not a bad thing—God made it, after all. We pretend that the only proper way to use it is to ignore it unless we are reading or writing stories about some “spiritual” purpose such as evangelism. And, since we are dogmatically convinced that such things as myth and magic are evil and have nothing to do with “true spirituality,” we reject them wholesale. We throw out the baby with the bathwater and consider ourselves wise and pleasing to God for doing it.

Rejecting creative reconfigurations of God’s world such as are to be found amply in imaginative literature amounts to fighting against the goodness and beauty of the real world that God Himself has made. For now we will focus on understanding the nature of the world we live in and how the imagination is a major tool God has given us for functioning in that world—a tool we reject at our own peril. Intriguingly, when we devalue the human imagination, we make war on reality.


For more on the Christian imagination, see my short books, It’s Not A Small World, After All, and Worlds Within the World: How Tolkien Can Help Christians Write Better Fiction.

The Really Important Stuff (?) – Christian Imagination, Pt. 2

Crucial groundwork for a healthy Christian imagination has to begin with the recognition that, in Shakespeare’s immortal words, “There are more things in heaven and earth than our little philosophies dream of.” To put it another way, life can’t be stuffed into the nice, neat categories that inward-looking modern Christian “spirituality” so often demands it conform to.

As Evangelical Christians, we so often want nothing more than to spend all our lives in “evangelism” so that souls can be saved. We have little concern for, and often resent, mundanities like washing the dishes and “secular” employment and novel-reading, and often consider those things a distraction from the really important spiritual stuff.

We tend to act as if we think that “holiness” is what is left in the world after all the “weird” things have been removed from it, made no longer worthy of serious thought. – or at least, banished to the pages of poorly-written Christian-thriller novels that make ordinary life in the world God made a sort of thinly-veiled cover for what really matters: angels and demons invisibly fighting while believers pray fervently and sing hymns.

Too often we zealously pursue a vision of life that is, as the old saying goes, “so heavenly minded it’s no earthly good.”

Perhaps this is why for nearly a century we have let slide cultural matters outside our own narrow circles. As a general rule art, literature, poetry, and music are simply too earthy for our hyper-spiritual tastes. Unless they have an “evangelistic” purpose they are mostly “irrelevant” to our daily lives as Christians.

It’s arresting to realize that most of our culturally influential forebears in the Faith would think we’ve sacrificed the actually important things about embodied life for a mess of otherworldly, pious pottage that actually makes us powerless to fight the monsters and dragons of our age.

St. George and Una may at first seem “spiritual” in some exaggerated sense that devalues bodily life, but that’s too hasty a conclusion. Metaphor isn’t not real, nor is “spiritual” (for our type of creature, anyway) a simple antithesis to “bodily.” A healthy Christian imagination will know how to identify and apply the really important things, not merely create artificial boxes that lop of whole gigantic realms of creation in the name of not being “carnally minded.”


For more on the Christian imagination, see my short books, It’s Not A Small World, After All, and Worlds Within the World: How Tolkien Can Help Christians Write Better Fiction.

Life is A Weird Thing (If You Really Think About It) – Christian Imagination, Pt. 1

Life is an odd thing when you think about it. It is a weird amalgam of spiritual and material things that seem to depend on each other and affect each other profoundly. Whether one is a Christian or not life is a matter of basic faith commitments working themselves out into a world that is sometimes wonderfully, sometimes tiresomely physical.

Life seems a bewildering array of seeming opposites—philosophy and farming, eating and prayer, Bibles and Humanist Manifestos, faith and science, theology and music, logic and emotion. We need a robust imagination to navigate these antinomies, to help us see how in reality they are much more connected than we realize.

But as we ponder the weirdness of life and the necessity of imagination to make it through, let’s not forget that greatest of all ubiquitous phenomena—body odor. Even saints stink to high heaven sometimes.

With that whimsical thought, I begin a short series on the Christian imagination. Hope you’ll come along!


For more on the Christian imagination, see my short books, It’s Not A Small World, After All, and Worlds Within the World: How Tolkien Can Help Christians Write Better Fiction.

Literature Is Not the Enemy of Holiness

The Renaissance writer Petrarch on how piety and literature are not enemies:

Neither exhortations to virtue nor the argument of approaching death should divert us from literature; for in a good mind it excites the love of virtue and dissipates, or at least diminishes, the fear of death. To desert our studies shows want of self-confidence rather than wisdom, for letters do not hinder but aid the properly constituted mind which possesses them; they facilitate our life, they do not retard it. Just as many kinds of food which lie heavy on an enfeebled and nauseated stomach furnish excellent nourishment for one who is well but famishing, so in our studies many things which are deadly to the weak mind may prove most salutary to an acute and healthy intellect, especially if in our own use of food and learning we exercise proper discretion…

…While I know that many have become famous for piety without learning, at the same time I know of no one who has been prevented by literature from following the path of holiness. The apostle Paul was, to be sure, accused of having his head turned by study, but the world has long ago passed its verdict upon this accusation. If I may be allowed to speak for myself, it seems to me that although the path to virtue by the way of ignorance may be plain, it fosters sloth. The goal of all good people is the same, but the ways of reaching it are many and various….Hence ignorance, however devout, is by no means to be put on a plane with the enlightened devoutness of one familiar with literature.[Source: Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters, by James Harvey Robinson (citing a letter from Petrarch to Boccacio), pp. 391-394]

Getting to Know Hesiod

It’s often said that Homer and Hesiod were “the Bible” of the ancient Greeks. Between the two of them – mainly Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days – they taught the Greeks about the gods, the world, mankind, ethics, politics, and just about anything else you could name. And they did so with what amounts to a pagan version of “divine inspiration,” seen in their invocation of the Muses, the goddesses of the arts, to tell them what to write. This alone is a fascinating theme that needs development, but my purpose here is limited only to providing a quick survey of one of these works, which, as far as I can tell, does not have its proper pride of place amongst classical educators.

Hesiod’s Works and Days seems at first to be little more than a collection of agriculture-based proverbs, talking about how to live decently with respect to the land and one’s farming neighbors. Sometimes it’s humorous (don’t marry a woman who will embarass you in front of your neighbors), other times somewhat moralistic (don’t pay attention to the gossiping at the blacksmith’s shop, but just keep on walking and do your work).

But it also contains some profound early philosophy. Consider the discussion of the decline of historical ages (lines 108-198). It seems that the gods first made a Golden Age, with people whose hearts were “free from all sorrow” and who had no hard work, pain, or “miserable old age.” After they died, peacefully, the gods made a Silver Age characterized by children who remained children (“complete boobies,” as the translation has it) for a hundred years. When they grew up, they lived only a short time and had many troubles due to their foolishness. Then came an age of Bronze men, and these “were terrible and strong, and the ghastly action of Ares was theirs, and violence.” They had “an indomitable and adamantine spirit,” and “None could come near them.” This age perished at its own hands, through strife and warfare, and then came the Age of Heroes–a.k.a., the age of the Iliad and the Odyssey. After the heroes came an Iron Age, Hesiod’s own age, which he deeply wishes he was not a part of but had died before its onset. This is an age of “goods mixed with evils,” an age in which “Never by daytime will there be an end to hard work and pain, nor in the night to weariness, when the gods will send anxieties to trouble us.” The Iron age will, sadly, end in the departure of Decency and Respect from the world of men, and issue forth in an age of brute, inhuman Force.

So says Hesiod. Ovid has a similar tale in Book I of his Metamorphoses, but his equivalent to the Age of Force ends in a great flood that destroys all mankind except for one, Deucalion, and his wife. The imagery of cultural decline illustrated by a decline in metallic quality must have been familiar imagery in the Ancient world, because it’s also in the Bible, in Daniel’s account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue representing world empires (Dan. 2). The theme survived into the Middle Ages, too, for one can find men living in the terrible turmoil of the 10th century describing their age as one of iron (ferreum saeculum).

There’s much more to be said about Hesiod’s Works and Days, but hopefully this is enough to whet your appetite to find it for yourself!