Subjects matter

Subjects matter

The Seven Liberal Arts

Conference by Fr. Herve de la Tour given in February 2002


"The Catholic School is a novitiate in Christian living." We want to form men who will think and act as Catholics. In the present crisis our schools should be like monasteries within which Catholic culture must be preserved in a world where modern barbarism seeks to destroy truth, goodness and beauty in the souls of our children.

The SSPX must be the custodian of these treasures of Catholic wisdom and pass them on to the next generations. How are we to fulfill this mission of education?

Everyone notices that modern students, even in our schools:

  • cannot define adequately a term, make the proper distinctions, or present an argument in a satisfactory manner
  • have difficulty making connections between the different subjects that are being taught (no integration)
  • seem to quickly forget what they have learnt and have little interest in learning more

These defects are partially caused by too much emphasis placed on the absorption of factual information (being measured by tests/grades) instead of the training of the intellect on how to think. The famous essay of Dorothy Sayers on the “Tools of Learning" explains this point very well. In other words, the classroom is viewed as a conference room where the teacher is reading a textbook to the students. The medieval classroom was viewed as a workshop where the students were apprentices learning to craft a work of the mind (e.g. composition in English). These tools, once acquired, enabled one to tackle any subject later on.

The medieval syllabus (inherited from ancient Greece) was before all else centered on the seven liberal arts. Let us read two of the most important texts of St. Thomas Aquinas on this subject: "The liberal arts are divided into the trivium and quadrivium, since by these, as by certain paths [or viae], the lively mind enters in to the secrets of philosophy." And this also agrees with Aristotle who says that the method of science should be sought before the sciences. And the commentator [Averroes] states in the same place that logic, which teaches the method of all the sciences, should be learned by one before all the sciences. To this pertains the trivium.

He also says that mathematics is able to be known by boys, but not physics, which requires experience. From which one is given to understand that first logic, then mathematics, should be learned. To this (latter) pertains the quadrivium. And thus by these, as though by certain paths, the mind is prepared for the other physical disciplines." In Boet de Trinitate, q. 5, a. 1, ad 3

The fitting order of learning will therefore be as follow: First boys should be instructed in logical matters, since logic teaches the method of the whole philosophy. Secondly, however, they should be instructed in mathematics, which neither requires experience, nor transcends the imagination. Thirdly, they should be instructed in natural things, which, even though they do not exceed sense and imagination, nevertheless require experience. Fourthly, in moral matter, which require experience and a mind free from its passions, as is stated in Book I. Fifthly, however, in sapiential and divine things, which transcend the imagination and require a strong intellect. In X Libros Ethicorum, VI, 1. 7, no. 1211

A liberal art is a habitus, i.e., a quality enabling a faculty, e.g., the intellect, to act with promptitude, skill, ease and pleasure. It is the perfection of this faculty, like a “second nature." It is an act because it does not only include knowledge, but also a certain product such as syllogism (logic) or a melody (music). It is called liberal science since the product is a work of the mind, an act of man in the respect in which he is free.

St. Augustine wrote a treatise on the liberal arts as he waited for his baptism in Milan. (See the connection between the natural and the supernatural order – they are distinct, not separated). He points out that the way these tools are fashioned in the minds of students is through the spoken word of the teacher. We must be convinced that the goal of the liberal arts is not primarily to fit some one for the world (career-job) but to enable him to have access to true wisdom. In other words, their purpose is to make the students better persons.

The end of a Catholic school is Catholic intellectual life. Too often we act as if the end was only to preserve the Faith of our children. There is a confusion between intermediate and ultimate ends. We call upon the ultimate end of all Catholic life, the salvation of souls, and attempt to make this do duty as the immediate and specific object of education. We forget that the end of education as such is distinct from the end of apostolic (missionary) activity. To confuse the ultimate end of education with its immediate end introduces a disorder into the Catholic scheme of education. This is serious.

Let us ask ourselves a few questions: What kind of graduates do our schools actually produce? What do they not produce? What should they produce? In other words what do we want them to produce? These are major questions because they are questions about ends. Remember the axiom “finis est prima in intentione." In the practical order, the end is to the means what the principle is to the conclusion in the speculative order. If we are wrong on the end of our schools, we are wrong big time. It seems that because we do not have the correct vision, we often are not even attaining the end we had in view, namely the preservation of the Faith. How many of our students are able to keep a strong living faith after they leave school? Can they reply to objections from non-Catholic friends in college? Do they have missionary zeal to spread the Faith? How many teachers have we produced among our graduates? Maybe when we honestly reflect on these questions, we have to acknowledge that too often we have not formed Catholic minds but only Catholic feelings.

This is why it is important to consider the seven liberal arts as part of our curriculum.


Poetics includes grammar and literature. Literature is imaginative (not persuasive such as a sermon or speech) when its purpose is to delight us by telling a story (poem, novel, play, epic, essay, etc…). Its purpose is recreational, but superior to games or sports. A poem stirs up our soul and then brings it to rest by lifting up our mind and emotions above the strains and frustrations of everyday life. It is not an escape from life, but rather a vision of the goal ahead which encourages us and inspires us to live more perfectly.

The plot is the soul of the story. The characters are also important. A beautiful book must lead us to appreciate some truth about life which is expressed in this work of art. This is why the books we study are important (we are trying to compile a literature curriculum with four books per year for each grade). The power of a story to arouse the emotions and then bring them to rest is called catharsis (purification). Through philosophy we can have the vision of the goal but it comes late in life, through poetry we can already have a similar experience when we are young.

Our English curriculum must include grammar, spelling, composition and especially appreciation of good literature. We need to develop comprehension skills. The teacher needs to read out loud and talk about the books they are studying and make the students talk to make sure they understand. This is fundamental! If this requires more than the five standard periods a week to do the job thoroughly, then let our curriculum make room for more English periods and suppress some science. Let us avoid cluttering the mind of our students with meaningless lists of facts. To be able to read and write well is the first tool of knowledge. We need to give our students this first liberal art. We need to work hard towards this goal. (In Jesuit schools, students were from ages 10 to 15 in the humanities class, from age 16 to 18 in the mathematics and philosophy classes). Let us be clear: The man who has not mastered his native tongue cannot claim to be an educated man.


It is the art of correct thinking. The students must know the basic rules of logic. They should be able, when reading a text, to disengage the essential from the accidental, to see what the author is trying to prove. They should also learn how to draw conclusions from principles and refute false reasoning. We must restore the disputatio in our schools. We have sports tournaments. Why not intellectual jousting? This exercise was a common feature of Jesuit schools. It is excellent to sharpen the mind. This quote from the famous Ratio studiorum will make it clear:

The concertatio, which is usually conducted by the questions of the master or the corrections of rivals or by the rivals questioning each other in turn, must be held in high esteem and used whenever time permits so that honorable rivalry, which is a great incentive to studies, may be fostered. Some may be sent individually or in groups from each side especially the officers; or one may attack several; let a private seek a private, let an officer seek an officer; or even let a private attack an officer, and, if he conquers, let him secure his honor or some other award or sign of victory as the dignity of the class and the custom of the place demand.


It is the art of persuasion. It is a very practical art, which appeals to emotions, like poetics, unlike dialectics. What is the difference between poetics and rhetoric? The poet is concerned with telling a good story which excites our emotions and then brings us to rest in the enjoyment of beauty. It leads us to appreciate what is noble in human life. (Poetry is also one of the fine arts, unlike rhetoric).

The rhetorician is concerned with convincing the audience to act. They will put into practice what he has urged them to do. (This is what a football coach does when he gives a pep talk to his players at half time, especially when the team is losing) Religious sermons, political speeches, advertising, talks, etc… all this is the domain of rhetoric. Ancient education was giving a lot of time to oral expression. We have to restore this in our schools.


Arithmetic is the science of numbers (concrete quantity). Mathematics is a valuable tool since it is a good exercise in logical thinking. Young boys can gain proficiency in algebra, which, in the Thomistic order of learning, comes before physical science. Math has a greater degree of certitude and clearness than some other sciences. For this reason it is enjoyable to the mind.

But we have to be careful. Modern math is turning into a formal system where problems can be solved automatically, almost without thinking. Of course we need a method of calculating. This is an instrument of the science of maths whose business is not the working of problems but the demonstration of truths. Algebraic problems can be solved by a computer, but the computer cannot see why the results are true. Only the human intellect can see this.

So when we are teaching math, we must make sure our students seek to understand why an answer is true. This means that they must trace it back to axioms and postulates. Only then do they have scientific knowledge. If they cannot base a conclusion on principles known to be true, it is not real science but mechanical skill, in the manner of an automatic reflex. Some of our teachers seem to have found problems with the Saxon textbooks which do not concentrate on one concept per chapter but aim at “programming" the student without understanding the principles. Maybe some alternatives can be found.


Geometry is the science of magnitudes (discrete quantity). When Plato opened his school, the famous “Academy", he engraved over its portal the famous inscription: "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here." It is Euclid who brought geometry to the level of a science. In his “elements", concepts are carefully built up in a logical way so that we can see the proper reasons for the conclusions.

Euclid is moving in a synthetic order from the simpler problems to the more complex. He begins with the simplest truths (definitions) and works in the direction of more and more complicated theorems. On the other hand, many of his proofs are analytical. They begin with the conclusion and work back to the principle on which it is based. The student then practices syllogistic reasoning (e.g., reductio and absurdum).

A geometry book based on Elements of Euclid is more difficult than other textbooks, because it requires more thinking, but it is better for the formation of the mind.


It is applied maths. When a stretched string vibrates, the shorter the part is, the more rapid is the vibration and the higher the tone it emits. The scale is therefore composed of mathematical proportions. Aristotle includes music in a liberal education. He advocated learning to play an instrument in youth in order to be a better judge later.

Music is also a fine art. Its purpose is to give us a contemplative recreation. When we listen to a flute concerto of Haydn, it makes us enjoy the beautiful. There is a sense of wonder. (Plato says that education ends in wisdom, but starts in wonder.) The vocation of the Catholic student is the contemplation of the truth. It requires effort, so we need rest. The work of fine art recreates us (we experience pleasure when looking at a painting by Fra Angelico) but it is, so to speak, a continuation of contemplation. It elevates the soul. We need to teach our parents to have good music in the home.


It is another branch of applied maths. St. Thomas says that it is a prerequisite to metaphysics. It is the last of the seven liberal arts and is also a natural science. It seems that the quadrivium has a “transitional" status. In other words, the study of mathematics (whether pure or applied) begins as the study of a practical art and ends as a speculative science. Astronomy is a good way to have the students apply their knowledge of geometry to physical reality (the movement of celestial bodies). The observation of stars and planets with a telescope is also a great way to awaken wonder in their minds and leads them to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.


Pius XII said (September 5, 1957): "A liberal arts education remains unequalled for the exercise and development of the most valuable qualities of the mind: penetration of thought, broadmindedness, fineness of analysis, gifts of expression." Not all of our students will be able to reach this level. Maybe not even all our teachers. But we have to work with those who are able to. Let us bear in mind this: To learn six subjects per year without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh. To have learnt and remembered the art of learning (especially through the trivium) makes the approach to every subject an open door.

Let us conclude with a quote from Sir Richard Livingstone about classical education which, mainly through great literature, brings the mind into contact with beauty, truth and goodness:

The first principle is that certain subjects must be studied so thoroughly that the pupil gets some idea of what knowledge is. That lesson cannot be learnt by studying a large number of things; it demands time and concentration. The second principle is that these subjects should bring the pupil face to face with something great. Nothing not all the knowledge in the world educates like a vision of greatness, and nothing can take its place.

Christian Education
Tool Subjects
The Liberal Arts
Principal Subjects
The Sciences
(in which scientific logic is best exercised)
Natural Sciences (physics)
Social Science (ethics)
Resorving intellectual difficulties
Removing emotional difficulties
Sacred Theology
Arithmetic (the science of numbers)
Geometry {the science of magnitude)
by demonstrating:
Scientific logic
by investigating:
Dialectical logic
by persuading:
by recreating:
Poetics (with Grammar of all languages)
NB. History, strictly speaking, is neither an art nor a science. However, it is ‘reductive’ to a social science as part of its preparation See Vincent Smith, The School Examined, p. 203-206.

The Liberal Arts: Part I — Forgotten pathways to wisdom — by dr. Peter Chojnowski

One has not much difficulty in understanding where learning fit into the medieval and, therefore, Catholic view of man and his journey through this temporal world, when we consider the royal portals of Chartres Cathedral, which were constructed as entrances at the western side of the church between the years 1145-1170, the beginning of the Gothic architectural period. The symbolism and meaning expressed by the images that surround the portals (there are three, right, left, and center) point to the majesty and omnipotence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Redeemer, Judge, and Creator. The primary mystery portrayed is that which is displayed on the central tympanum (i.e., the semi-circular space enclosed by a lintel and an arch over a doorway) of the central portal. Christ as King in majesty returning to judge the living and the dead, surrounded by the four beasts symbolic of the four Evangelists. It was to this culminating and eschatological doctrine of Sacred Scripture that the art (in this case, high relief sculpture) at the western entrance of most medieval cathedrals was dedicated. Since early and medieval Christian churches were normally situated towards the east (which is the place for the rising of the sun, symbol of the Resurrection), the west (the place of the setting of the sun) was dedicated to the end of man’s temporal journey, the Last Judgment, the triumphant King coming in glory. Such an end to the earthly path of man can only be believed and “seen" through the faith proclaimed by the 12 Apostles who decorate the lintel beneath this scene of apocalyptic triumph.

It is on the right tympanum, over the right portal of the western entrance, that we encounter the earthly beginnings of this Divine Master who will come in glory to judge all the scions of Adam. Above scenes portraying His Nativity and His Presentation in the Temple at Jerusalem, we find the Christ Child enthroned at the bosom of His Blessed Mother, she revealing her Divine Son as the eternal object of our faith, hope, and love. It is around such an image, an image extrapolated by the Faith, that we find a portrayal of the Seven Liberal Arts. The Liberal Arts, symbolized by men holding the instruments relevant to each unique form of intellectual “making," appear on the archivolts (i.e., one of a series of concentric moldings over the tympanum) over the right portal (see above). The clear message of such an artistic presentation is that these academic disciplines, the “paths" to philosophical understanding and theological wisdom, are part of the rational foreground of the Apostolic Faith. Such a portrayal, specifically situated as such, is a testament in stone to the abiding presupposition, which holds that the human mind, perfected by intellectual training and discipline, can be led to a fully rational appreciation of the truths of the natural and the supernatural order. The ways of learning are the gateways to what God has revealed, through the Church, to our souls and, through our senses, to our imagination. That such portals of rational awareness should be appreciated and affirmed by even the Gothic architect, indicates the longevity and, in a very real way, the permanence of these “portals" of understanding and intellectual vision.

Education, Discovery, Discipline: What’s the Difference

“Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars" (Prov. 9:1).1 The unique acclaim which the great theorists of education, which include such men as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Cardinal John Henry Newman, give to the Seven Liberal Arts is perfectly and definitively expressed in a quotation from St. Augustine’s text the De Ordine. Concerning the academic practice of the Liberal Arts, their importance, and even necessity, for a youth’s full development of his rational faculties, he states, “Although all these arts are learned, partly for practical purposes, partly for knowledge and understanding, one can encompass them with difficulty, unless he be given from earliest youth to their persevering and acute study....This is the order of learning, or there is none."2

When referring to the Liberal Arts as the classical and time-honored road of education in the Western World, we must be clear as to which form of “education" relates to and is advanced by the practice of the Liberal Arts. Of course, in this regard, we can speak of experience of the limitations of the world “educating" a young man or the reading of an exotic novel being an “education in itself." In order to “place" the liberal arts in the whole scheme of human mental development, we must make a distinction between three different forms of “education." The distinction depends upon the various ways in which the mind can be moved towards the attainment of truth and the character towards the attainment of a regularity of goodness or, in other words, virtue. The first term that St. Thomas Aquinas puts forward in this regard, in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, is that of educatio. This term, very rarely used in the writings of St. Thomas, was, however, defined in the Commentary as, "the advancement of the child to the state of specifically human excellence, that is to say, to the state of virtue." 3 Obviously, “education," in this sense, would be primarily the responsibility and work of parents and, only secondarily, of the school. Such an “education" is non-academic and occurs through the example set for the young person by the actions and behavior of adults and through the influence of his cultural environment upon the development of his habits of mind, will, passions, and body. This type of education, even though it has its most critical phase in the early and adolescent years of a child’s life, is, nevertheless, never “over," insofar as there can always be an increased habituation towards the true good by voluntary actions towards that same good. It is this type of education that “never ends" and it is this habituation in virtue, which husband and wife agree to provide their children when they enter into their marriage contract. On one occasion, when speaking about this type of “education," St. Thomas used the verb assuescere rather than the verb for “to teach" docere. By this usage, he was implying that the best that one can do is to “accustom" young people to acting virtuously so that they may develop good habits through the exercise of their own free action.4

The second form of “education" or learning is a more specific one and relates to man’s acquisition of an understanding of the nature of the world of men and of material creation. Of this form of education, St. Thomas distinguishes two types. The first type, he refers to as inventio or, translated roughly, “learning by oneself." St. Thomas states that this particular process of learning is the best, since it involves the active mind directly encountering the realities of nature and man through his own initiative and skill. Thus, a prodigy could pick up a musical instrument and begin to teach himself how to play it. It is a “learning" without “teaching." 5 This learning that is really an example of self-discovery is normally, because of the limitations and temporality of the human intellect, restricted to knowledge of very obvious or readily observable things or is the domain of genius.

The type of “education" to which the Liberal Arts relate is a type referred to by St. Thomas as disciplina. The term disciplina appears somewhat more often in the writings of St. Thomas and can be awkwardly translated as “learning by being taught." Such a process of learning, necessarily involves a teacher. It is on account of this employment of an intermediary, in this case the “ of a teacher’s words, between the natural thing or human artifact and the young mind, that this form of learning, although understood to be eminently necessary, is viewed as a less perfect form of knowing.6 It is through this process of disciplina, that a teacher teaches a student a “science" like mathematics, physics, or logic. This “science" or scientia is the intellectual ability, passed on from a teacher who has it already to a student who does not have it yet, to “demonstrate conclusions from principles." It is the ability to relate all relevant phenomena back to its proximate and ultimate causes.

Arts of Old: The History


If the Liberal Arts relate to the form of “education" in which a teacher through the instrumentality of the magisterial word teaches a pupil arts and sciences and, this, within the context of an entire ordered program of study and exercises, we can say that such a program of studies was not offered, in even a basic form, until the 5th century B.C. In this century, often called the Golden Age of Athens, we find liberal education emerge for the first time in the form in which we have become accustomed to know it.7 Prior to the formalized instruction, introduced by the Sophists (i.e., itinerate teachers who traveled the Mediterranean world instructing young men in the art of rhetoric), there existed either the craftsman’s shop with father and son or an aristocratic, highly personal kind of apprenticeship between a mentor and a young noble. Whereas the craftsman was taught the essentials of his manual trade, his mentor imbued the Homeric noble with the ideal that he must excel over all others in military valor, speech, and action and that he must seek personal glory and renown. This was the young noble’s duty in life, which must be pursued until death.8 Where this type of training was not experiential, it was literary. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey were the central texts invested with the office of forming the young mind of Greece to noble thoughts and bold deeds. To be read in Homer soon became the education of the gentleman. As the Athenian literary and dramatic corpus expanded, the poems and tragedies of Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were associated with Homer in the work of education.9


With the coming to Athens from Syracuse of such Sophists as Gorgias, the instruction of aristocratic Athenian youth became more highly formalized and primarily directed towards the achievement of excellence and cultivation in speech. Rhetoric, or the art of speaking well so as to convince, was on its way to becoming the most prominent, in the Classical world, of the three arts which came to be known as the Trivium (i.e., grammar, logic or dialectic, and rhetoric). The objective of such instruction was the formation of what the Romans referred to as the vir bonus dicendi peritus, the good man and able speaker.10


A prime example of this type of rhetorical education, was that given by a student of the most prominent Sophists of the time, Isocrates (436-338 B.C.). In the year 392 B.C., Isocrates opened his own school in Athens, which he directed for the next 50 years of his life. In his desire to produce suitable leaders in the various fields of civic endeavor, especially the political, Isocrates created his own curriculum, giving pre-eminence to the study of rhetoric, in order to cultivate the inner qualities of a young man, qualities which would reveal themselves in fine speech encouraging all to acts of virtue. In Isocrates’ program for the cultivation of expression, reason, feeling, and imagination so that a man may lead a truly civilized life, we see the essence of the program that was to attract so many students in the Greco-Roman world. Such a program of oratorical training, coupled with studies in such things as history (Isocrates was one of the first known academics to incorporate history into his curriculum of study), was set in contrast to the whole regimen of disciplines which formed the course of the seven Liberal Arts.

The program of the seven Liberal Arts, as it has come down to us from Antiquity, and which has been seen as the model for all traditional curricula since that time, was a philosopher’s curriculum.11 The intent of the liberal arts, with a literary and a mathematical, “scientific" component, was to lead the young mind to higher and higher levels of abstraction and universality, until finally, there would be the attainment of a wisdom that would understand, with increasing degrees of certainty, the connections that existed between all things and their first and most universal causes. Here we must mention a point that needs to be remembered if we are to understand the essence of a Liberal Arts education. The Liberal Arts were intended to provide the young mind with the tools and basic insights needed to engage in philosophical reasoning. The Liberal Arts and, consequently, the entire educational program we inherit from our ancestors, are meant to provoke and facilitate philosophical reasoning. It is not meant to convey “information." It is meant to provide the tools and initiate the movements of mind necessary for a reasoning concerning the relationship between what a man encounters amidst the toil of life and the ultimate reasons for and purpose of those things. This is critical. Education, as classically understood, was meant to engender a dynamic and on-going process of intellectually connecting contingent and “practical" facts, with necessary and eternal truths and causes. That was it. Everything else was “crafts." It is this engendered universality of outlook, which gave the name “liberal" to the Liberal Arts.


Even though Plato and Aristotle articulated curricula that provided for the gradual engagement of the young mind in literary, mathematical/scientific, and philosophical studies (expressed in their works the Republic and the Politics respectively and implemented in their schools the Academy and the Lyceum), it was not until the time of the Stoics, in the Hellenistic and the Roman epochs, that we find a systematic connection between the full program of the literary arts and the mathematical disciplines. What, also, emerges with the Stoics, along with this connection between what would become the Trivium and Quadrivium (i.e., between the literary and mathematic disciplines), was the ordering of all these individual studies towards the highest and most encompassing of the sciences, philosophy.12

Indicating the antiquity of the coherent program of the Liberal Arts, we find clear evidence of their existence amidst the stability, prosperity, and leisure of the ancient pagan Romanitas. The historical development of Roman education is fairly clear. Prior to the Punic Wars (264-146 BC), the mentor/apprenticeship form of education dominated, each trained in his own occupation and way of life by those who had trod the same path before them. It was only after the Punic Wars, that the Romans began to adopt the “academic" approach of the Greeks to education. Initially, conducted by Greek tutors in the Greek language, the first century BC saw the emergence of a movement to establish a “national literature" and a “national education." This period marks the beginning of the production of textbooks in Latin, meant for a secondary school education. The leaders of this “Latinization" movement were Caesar, Varro, and Cicero.13 The lines of and subject matter of this Latin curriculum are attested to in Cicero’s work De Oratore, in which he enumerates the following subjects considered in the textbooks of his time, "in music, numbers, sounds, and measures; in geometry, lines, figures, spaces, magnitudes; in astronomy, the revolution of the heavens, the rising, setting, and other motions of the stars; in grammar, the peculiar tone of pronunciation, and, finally, in this very art of oratory, invention, arrangement, memory, delivery." 14 Here we find a clear outline of what would become the Medieval Trivium and Quadrivium (i.e., Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric and Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music). Rather than trying to form a scientific mind by this regimen of studies, Cicero and Quintilian, the two main educational theorists of the Roman period, considered the Liberal Arts to be the foundation of the ideal orator’s education. The encyclios paideia (the Classical Greek term used for what we would know as the Liberal Arts or a liberal education) was understood to be, also, in a general way, the necessary preparation for all forms of higher culture, technical, scientific, as well as philosophical.15

It is with a contemporary of Cicero, Varro, that we encounter the first systematic treatment of the Liberal Arts as such. Under the name of disciplinarum libri novem, Varro compiled an encyclopedic text in which the subjects of grammar, logic (also known as “dialectic), rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music were treated, along with the additional subjects of architecture and medicine. By the 4th century A.D., the age of Constantine and later St. Augustine, the curriculum of the pagan schools in the Roman Empire had assumed the fixed character of a course in the seven Liberal Arts. Moreover, it is, precisely, during this century that members of the Church, anxious to find aids to their study of Theology, frequently resorted to the “treasures of the Egyptians" (i.e., that which was good, true, and beautiful in Classical culture), the literature, rhetoric, and dialectic cultivated now for centuries in the pagan academies.16

“Such studies are the way to the highest things, the way of reason which chooses for itself ordered steps lest it fall from the height. The steps are the various liberal arts." 17 So says the most eminent man of the age committed to making off with the "treasures of the Egyptians," St. Augustine, a man so taken with the efficacy of the Liberal Arts, that he spent his days writing seven individual treatises on each of the disciplines as he waited for baptism in the city of Milan.18 That these two, apparently, unrelated realities, an academic program and a spiritual rebirth, should be both very much present to the mind of St. Augustine at the very same moment in his life, should not be a surprise for those who understand the nature of academic and, hence, philosophical pursuit as this existed in the Classical Age. Here, the objective of a “program" of education, of the constant intellectual exchange between master and disciple, was not merely to convey information, no matter how useful or profound. Rather, it was to engender in the soul of the disciple a “perfected" way of living, so as to achieve the ultimate object of human desire, true and unadulterated happiness. Instruction on how to live the “intelligent" life was no more than instruction as to how to live the good life. Ultimately, as St. Augustine constantly reiterated, only by attaining to the goal of the supernatural life as first received in baptism, could man bring his “restless heart" to the only good which could bring to rest that which knows no end and desires not the partial.19 What is, perhaps, surprising to some is that St. Augustine said education, most particularly the seven Liberal Arts (in which he substituted the study of philosophy for the study of astronomy), is a vital part of that movement of the soul to higher levels of spirituality and understanding. What St. Augustine saw the philosophical schools that practiced the Liberal Arts providing, were the “tools" necessary to guide the seeker after wisdom to the horizon of his desired goal. As Pierre Hadot states, referring to the academic milieu of which St. Augustine was very much a part, "every school practices exercises designed to ensure spiritual progress toward the ideal state of wisdom, exercises of reason that will be, for the soul, analogous to the athletes training or to the application of a medical cure." 20

St. Augustine himself was such an educator. Besides his obvious interest in the seven Liberal Arts (The number “7" became officially and irrevocably attached to the Liberal Arts from the fourth century), his most commonly read work, the Confessions, was supposed to be received as a specific form of oral “medicine." I intentionally use the word “oral" here. What is quite often forgotten in our "turn to page 543 and do examples 1-50" textbook system, or our “read silently at your desks while I go to the teachers’ lounge to have a cigarette" literature classes, is that “texts," at least the ancient “great" texts, were meant to be read aloud and not to be read silently. This was such a commonplace in St. Augustine’s own time, that he records finding it somewhat peculiar that he should have once walked in on St. Ambrose when he was reading silently.21 Such was, obviously, outside the norm. Here we come in sight of another critical fact, necessary for understanding the nature and the function of the Liberal Arts. These studies, so advocated by St. Augustine, are “liberal," primarily because they relate to the mind. The mind is free, meaning that it is determined to no one object of experience. Because only the fullness of God’s being would “fix" and rivet the human mind, it is free to range over the field of intelligible being and cull the fruits of truth and goodness that it may. This basic ontological and epistemological fact is at the basis of the universal reach of the mind. It is, also, the ontological and epistemological cause of boredom. Old Bessie the cow does not get bored. She, quite happily, chews the same cud.

Not only are the Liberal Arts related to the free mind, they, also, are meant to be “arts," meaning that the primary purpose of them is to “produce" something, in their case, acts of the mind. The various arts may use material aids to act as instrumental causes in the production of these acts of the mind. We think here of an abacus, a compass and drawn circles, charts of the constellations of the heavens, musical notation, the syllogism, written compositions and, even, tables of verb endings. These are only tools, again, only instrumental causes, meant to produce certain acts of the mind (e.g., deduction, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, comparison, and calculation). It was precisely these acts of the mind which were known to be the preparatory stage for philosophical reasoning and argumentation. One had to first be hoisted up to the proper level in order to understand general concepts, especially the notion of “being as such," and, then, one needed to be taught how to operate at that level, how to reason about all things from the standpoint of universal being. The Liberal Arts were not an end in themselves. They were steps that allowed the mind to mount, tools that allowed it to act.

What St. Augustine clearly discerned, and what the ancient philosophers and tragedians took for granted, was that the way these “tools" were to be fashioned in the minds of the young, the way the initial acts of understanding and analysis were to be provoked, was through the oral word of the teacher. Here we must remember, especially those who are attracted to a “great books" Liberal Arts program, that, for the most part, the “great books" were not books at all. For example, the works we have of Aristotle are not the books that he actually wrote, but rather, compilations of students’ notes taken during his lectures. The present day dusty tomes of Plato’s Dialogues were meant to be acted and recited, not to sit on shelves. In English literature, we get a sense of the artificiality of the written text when in Act 3 of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, after the line "Et tu, Brute? – Then fall Caesar!" we read [Dies]. What has died when this scripting is encountered, Caesar or Shakespearean drama? The master who can fashion his words such that they are heard and lived. Such is the art of arts.


  1. The application of this passage from Proverbs was made by Cassiodorus in the 6th century in the preface to his De Artibus ac Disciplinis Liberalium Artium (Migne, P.L., LXX, col. 1149). Cf. R.A.B. Mynors, Cassiodori Senatoris Institutiones (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1937), p.89.
  2. St. Augustine, De Ordine, II, 16, 44, and II, 17, 46.
  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences, Bk. IV, dist. 26, q. I, a, I.
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Ethics, b. II, lect. 1.
  5. Ibid.
  6. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate , Q. 11, Art. 1 and 2, ad 4; also, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 117, Art. 1 and ST, III, Q. 12, Art. 3, ad 2.
  7. Paul Nash, Andreas Kazamias, Henry Perkinson, The Educated Man: Studies in the History of Educational Thought (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), p.1.
  8. Kazamias, p.3.
  9. Taken from Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University as found in The Idea of a Liberal Education: A Selection from the Works of Newman, ed. Henry Tristan (Toronto: George G. Herras & Co., 1952), p.52.
  10. For a discussion of rhetoric as a central component of the Liberal Arts in both the Classical Period and the Middle Ages, cf. Richard Mckeon, “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages," in Speculum, XVII, January, 1942, pp.1-32.
  11. William Harris Stahl, Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p.91.
  12. Nash, p.99.
  13. Paul Abelson, The Seven Liberal Arts (New York: Teachers College Columbia University, 1906), pp.4-5.
  14. Ibid., p.50, n. 46. Cf. Cicero, De Oratore, I, 2, 8 – 3, 12.
  15. Stahl, p.91.
  16. Abelson, p.7.
  17. St. Augustine, De Ordine, I, 8, 24. Cf. Abelson, p.74.
  18. Cf. St. Augustine, Retractationes I, c. 6, Migne XXXII, col.591.
  19. Kim Paffenroth and Kevin L. Hughes, eds., Augustine and Liberal Education (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2000), p.26. Cf. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed Arnold Davidson; trans. Michael Chase (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p.57.
  20. Hadot, p.27.
  21. St. Augustine, Confessions, VI, 3, 3.

The Liberal Arts: Part II — Forgotten pathways to wisdom — by dr. Peter Chojnowski

St. Thomas Aquinas and Medieval Learning

That what has come to be called the “Liberal Arts" was the standard and normative program for education throughout the early Christian Ages, reaching its apogee of influence during the High Middle Ages, cannot be doubted in light of the constant references to it recorded in countless medieval manuscripts, along with visual testimony in works of art and literature throughout these epochs of time. Inheriting the concept of the Liberal Arts from the ancient Roman academicians and theorists, Cicero and Quintilian, while inheriting the practice from the ancient philosophical academies and schools, we find references to the theory and practice of the Liberal Arts in the writings of the Christian writer Cassiodorus in the 6th century, in that of Isidore of Seville in the 7th century, and ultimately, in the writings of the early Scholastic writers and educators, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus.1 The etymological roots of the word “liberal," used in regard to education, are found in the Latin word liberalis, an adjective applied for centuries to various words regarding education: disciplinae liberales, studia liberalia, and artes liberales. 2

There were, however, two very interesting developments in the theory behind the Liberal Arts, which only emerged within the High Christian civilization of the Medieval Period. One relates to the number 7 itself and one relates to the idea of the “arts" as a form of “craft." Of course, the number 7 was a number mysterious above all others for the Fathers of the Church. It was the result of the addition of 3, which stood for the Holy Trinity and for the human soul made in the Image of the Holy Trinity, and 4, which stood for the earthly, especially the human body, on account of the ancient physics which identified 4 elements (i.e., earth, air, fire, and water) as constituting the ultimate composition of the material universe. Since man is a union of spiritual soul and physical body, referred to as a hylomorphic union by St. Thomas Aquinas, the symbolic number that stood for everything human was the number 7. Therefore, a reflection of the Divine Wisdom in the world was the fact that all things human, tending towards human perfection, were grouped in sevens. There are 7 Sacraments of the New Law by which man is saved; there are 7 Gifts of the Holy Ghost by which God moves all the Elect to salvation; there are 7 Virtues, 3 theological and 4 cardinal, by which man is perfected as a man and as a child of God; there are 7 Petitions of the Pater Noster by which man makes his needs know to his Heavenly Father; there were 7 Deadly Sins by which man fell away from the Divine Perfection; moreover, man sings the praises of God seven times a day in the Divine Office. Besides these, there were considered to be 7 mechanical arts and 7 skills which a squire needed to master before becoming a knight (i.e., riding, tilting, fencing, wrestling, running, leaping, spear-throwing).3 The Liberal Arts fit into this symbolic reading of the number. The 7 Liberal Arts, made up of 3 arts dealing with man, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and 4 arts dealing with material quantities, their shape, number, motion, and harmonies, were the way in which man ascends to a rational understanding of the Created Order through philosophical reasoning and contemplation. Such a form of reasoning, the fruit of which was a gaze into the very structure of being, was something utterly unique to man. The brutes were not capable of it. The angels do not need it.

There is another way in which the Christian Middle Ages transformed the very concept of the Liberal Arts. Here, we might say that the Scholastic doctors, most specifically St. Thomas Aquinas, took seriously what antiquity had, seemingly, avoided, specifically the idea that the “arts" were a form of work and that these arts were noble precisely because they involved work. This is an idea that the ancients, unaware that God-made-Man amongst them had given Himself first to a life of physical labor, could not perfectly reconcile themselves to, due to their general contempt for all forms of manual labor. If “labor" was somewhat disgraceful, even the intellectual kind, how can we coherently glorify as an educational ideal the “arts," no matter how “liberal" they were? In his work De opere manuali, “On Manual Work," St. Thomas states that not only is manual work not “disgraceful" and “ungentlemanly," but that it is actually “connatural" to man as such, dismissing the idea that it is simply a penalty for Original Sin. The very inner spiritual and moral constitution of man, along with his bodily form, orders him towards the performance of labor. In this regard, he states,

As is clear from the very structure of his body, man has a natural orientation to manual work. For this reason it is said in Job 5:7: "Man was born to labor and the bird was born to fly." Nature has adequately provided all the other animals with whatever they require in the way of food, weapons, and covering for the maintenance of life. Man is not thus equipped because he is gifted with intelligence wherewith to supply himself with these things. Consequently, in their place, man has hands which are adapted to fashioning all sorts of products answering to his mental conceptions.4

Thus, we find, that as in so many other things, it took the Catholic Mind to bring to light the richness of truth contained in the “discoveries" of others. Examples of this abound. We could think of the Hebrew failure to fully appreciated the statement of God to Moses that His Name was “I AM WHO AM," understood later by St. Thomas to signify God’s Nature as Ipsum Esse Subsistens, or Self-Subsistent Existence. So too, with regard to the Liberal Arts, the “labor" entailed by the term “art" is part and parcel of the learning process and, in fact, points to the actual manner in which such learning must take place. The teacher, putting forward the evocative “signs" of his words, attempts to move the pupil to perform mental operations that mirror those which occur in the professor’s own mind. It is the student himself who must perform the mental actions requisite to the objective of understanding. The teacher can provoke such actions, the student must perform them. Moreover, the goal is for the student to be so habituated to these actions, that he easily activates these mental techniques and processes in the course of his life as a thinker and as a man of practical affairs. If the Liberal Arts are the arts fit for a gentleman, as Cardinal Newman so often repeats, then we must recall that the first gentlemen were warriors of the sword. First the weapon must be fashioned at the anvil, and then the weapon must be used to draw blood. And, "cursed be he that withholdeth his sword from blood." 5

Cardinal Newman and the Learning of a Gentleman

It was always assumed and, indeed, taken to be a mark of nobility, that the “fashioning" demanded by the practice of the Liberal Arts was distinct from any type of fashioning which may characterize the servile arts (i.e., the arts which produce objects or devices used to facilitate some practical end outside of itself). The knowledge that was to be attained by the techniques and “tools" conveyed by the teacher in Liberal Arts study was to be something worth having for its own sake. Something which did not just touch man as a “professional," but something which touched the existence of man as man. The knowledge that is gained situates man intellectually within his place in the universe, the whole of the Created Order. It addresses the concerns of man as man. Thus, we find that the training in the Liberal Arts has always been directed, no matter the time period or the cultural or religious milieu in which they were conveyed, towards some occupation or knowledge content that relates to the “whole." For the ancients, the whole was either the whole of the political order or the whole of the universal order of being, understood as such by the science of philosophy. In the Medieval Period, the whole was the natural order as complimented by, and fulfilled in, the supernatural order of man as participant in the Divine Order of Grace, such as was studied in the science of theology. Such is the goal of liberal learning. To present a human “field" to the mind, in which it may dwell, to open up the whole world of created being for communion with the educated mind. As Cardinal Newman states in his Idea of a University, which includes as a main element the lecture he gave to a mere 15 students at the opening of the Catholic University of Ireland in November 1854, the liberally educated man "has the world to converse with." Indeed, as he said, "You cannot learn to converse till you have the world to converse with." 6

It is this “conversation with the world," the world of created being, which is both the goal and the most tangible product of the Liberal Arts. It is not without meaning or significance that the liberally educated man, the gentleman, “gentle" not because he could not fight but because he reserved himself for the fight against that which threatened “the whole," bore his learning in his very form that he “cut" before society. When considering the attributes of the gentleman produced by the mental cultivation achieved by the Liberal Arts, and the moral and philosophical “positioning" which this education ultimately produced, as these were delineated by Cardinal Newman, we can hardly but see the visible form of a man who fears nothing but the Living God, who embodies the truthful and honest engagement with every challenge and exigency that a man may encounter. The gentleman is “honest" in his bearing, in his speech, and in his own judgment of things. One thing such an educated man would not fear is the presumptuous claim by men of empirical science to account for the works of Nature without reference to the Fashioner and Sustainer of Nature. The man of the Liberal Arts would know the subject matter, the range, and, most importantly, the limitations of each science that is studied and, consequently, of the claims made by the men of the respective sciences. For example, the geometrician could know everything about his own discipline, which relates to the surfaces of quantifiable beings, and, yet, not have any right to speak to the questions that arise from the very existence of quantifiable beings. The same can be said of the physicist and his study of the movement of material beings. What the presumptuous physicist must remember is that his study of and discoveries concerning the movement of physical beings is perfectly justified, as long as he does not begin to think it in his domain to speak about beings as such. In fact, the physicist cannot even justifiably speak about what makes a material being material. He can analyze the specifics of materiality, but he cannot present conclusions on materiality as such. That is for the philosopher, or for the physicist insofar as he knows also the principles of philosophy.

The whole purpose of the Liberal Arts was to present disciplines relating to subject matter that could not be completely and adequately accounted for without reference to a higher science, namely the science of philosophy, which depended upon the lower sciences for its intelligibility but which encompassed within its subject matter all the content discussed and analyzed in the various disciplines. Therefore, a physicist who claims to discuss the evolution of the human species or the generation of the universe would be told clearly by the truly educated man that such a discussion transcended the boundaries of his science and, in fact, any empirical science, since the events spoken of have never been observed and, most importantly, are not repeatable even if they should have happened. True science can only deal with events and phenomena that are repeatable. That is why history cannot, strictly speaking, be referred to as a “science," but only as a “discipline."

That the complete man, with respective emphasis on both the words “complete" and “man," can order all ideas that come to him, each into its own category, each with its own particular value and justification, is one of the reasons why the gentleman, produced by liberal studies, has a certain grace about him; he is fundamentally unperturbed by all that comes from man and which relates to man. The Liberal Arts have taught him to be “at ease" in the world of being, primarily, because that world has become familiar to him. If his education has been truly universal in scope, there is nothing in the world that he cannot account for. This “ease" in the world (–here I mean “the world" as the whole of the Created Order, rather than “the world" as in “the world, the flesh, and the devil–), takes on an aesthetic aspect and is reported in many historical accounts of the universally perceived goal of the classical education process, the gentleman. In all of these, what is important to see is that even the outward bearing, social discourse, and internal understanding of self was a manifestation of education’s relating of man to the world and to the Creator of both himself and the world. His education calls him to be a man, to ask and discover the answers for those questions that are of a concern to all men insofar as they are men. As Cardinal Newman states, in reference to a liberal education fostered by a study of the Liberal Arts,

It is an education which made the man; it does not make physician, surgeons, or engineers...but it makes men...and this is the education for which you especially come to the University –it is to be made men. 7

The polished product of a classical education can, also, understand what it means to relate to other men not as “clients," or “employers," or “workmates," but as men, each occupying a specific place in both the Social, Political, and Divine Orders. His honesty, for he knows what the truth is, comes from the heart, since he has not been trained to manipulate, but rather, to “present" both himself and reality as they are, as both reveal their contingent dependence on the unlimited creative power of God. As Cardinal Newman would have it:

All that goes to constitute a gentleman, the carriage, gait, address, voice; the ease, the self-possession, the courtesy, the power of conversing, the talent of not offending; the lofty principle, the delicacy of thought, the happiness of expression, the taste and propriety, the generosity and forbearance, the candor and consideration, the openness of hand, etc.

...all are characteristics of one who, through education, has penetrated the universal in all the particular exigencies of life. His books, his lectures, his papers, and even his sketches, have allowed his mind to penetrate the structure and limitations of human nature, not as lived by one man, namely himself, but as it is lived by all men. Whereas the “professional" must stoop down, both mentally and, often, physically, to a work that is “artificial," at least in the sense that he works with artifacts thought up by man, the classically educated stands erect to the full height of his human nature, the cultivation of which has been the pursuit of his academic life.


  1. Paul Abelson, The Seven Liberal Arts (New York: Teachers College Columbia University, 1906), p.9.
  2. John Dobson, Ancient Education and Its Meaning to Us (New York: Longmans, Green, 1932), p.127.
  3. Emile Male, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, trans. Dora Nussey (New York: Harper & Row, 1936), pp. 10-12. Cf. Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.1 (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913), p.762.
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibet VII, A. 17. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.95, Art.1.
  5. Jeremiah, 48:10.
  6. The Idea of a Liberal Education: A Selection from the Works of Newman, ed. Henry Tristan (Toronto: George G. Harras & Co., 1952), p.59.
  7. Tristan, p. 32.

The Importance of Language — Dr. Allen White

Introducing Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to the seminarians at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary (March 9-11, 2001), Dr. White discusses in this conference all the implications of the image (TV, cinema, computers) replacing the word (books). In its February issue The Angelus will publish some solutions to resuscitate dying language.

I arrived late last night in Minneapolis and stayed with my brother and sister-in-law and their two children, my nephew and my niece. My little niece, who is three-and-a-half, brought some books to me this morning which she wanted me to read to her. I have wonderful memories from my own childhood of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, memories of reading it to my brother, who is some years younger than I am. I thought now would be a chance to read the Pooh stories to his daughter. They had them on the shelf and I went and pulled them off and opened one of my favorites which is Piglet Meets the Hefalump. I began reading to her and realized that, though she’s a bright little girl, she could not concentrate. The book, you see, is mainly text with some very small black-and-white line art. It wasn’t that she was three-and-a-half. The problem was that the very simple but artfully-rendered pen-and-ink illustrations of Ernest Shepard were not engaging enough for her eyes, so that it wasn’t possible for her to listen to what was being said. I finally realized it was pointless to continue and I stopped. Then she asked her Mother if she could put in a Disney video. It was a little sing-a-long thing and I thought, "This is standard; this is what happens." The first song on the Disney video was a Winnie the Pooh song. Now, there is a world of difference between the Disney Winnie the Pooh and the A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh. I view it as a tragedy that Disney bought the rights to all the Milne books. The original Walt Disney is long gone; the vultures who now own Disney Enterprises got the rights to the Milne books to use their characters. They re-drew them. If you want a sense of what’s happened to children’s literature, look at the beautiful Shepard drawings and then look what Disney has now done to the Pooh characters: sappy, sentimentalized, over-drawn. It is awful, as are the stories. Sure enough, the video was something about caring and sharing and that sort of thing. It had absolutely nothing to do with any of the original stories, and nothing that rose to the artistic excellence of Piglet Meets the Hefalump, which is a perfectly ordered, structured, and charming story for little children.

Word and Image

This example illustrates the ongoing disaster happening in language and in narrative and its replacement by image and visceral incident. I am going to cover two areas: The difference between word and image; and the other between narrative and thrill. It is important that you understand I will be grounding this lecture in how I view the language I am going to be using. I am a teacher of English. This means that words matter to me, that I love words, that for these reasons I entered my profession. In teaching Shakespeare, I’ve been fortunate to deal with the greatest writer the English language has every known, a master of language who used it with precision, beauty, depth, and genuine spiritual insight. Once I became a Catholic and became more aware of what language is and how it can be used, I was attracted to the opening of the Gospel of John. I think the first chapter of his Gospel may be my very favorite passage in all of Scripture. One of the joys of assisting at the Tridentine Mass is that I get to have it there as part of the liturgy every Sunday:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him: and without Him was made nothing that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:1-4).

I’m just going to turn that around a bit and reverse the definition and say: What Scripture teaches us is that the light of men is the life of the Word. It’s an upper-case “W" obviously; it’s a reference to our Lord, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. But, there is a sense that language is an extraordinary gift of God. When we talk about words — with a small-case “w “ — we should always in some sense have in our minds that eternal perfect Word, the Son of God made Incarnate, who brought salvation to us.

Now, I want to contrast this with an Old Testament passage. I’m in Exodus, chapter 20. I’m setting this in opposition to John:

Thou shall not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters of the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them:...(Ex. 20:4,5a).

If the Word came to us and brought salvation, we have a strict warning to avoid graven images and to especially avoid the propensity to worship those graven images. We know how the Israelites began worshipping the graven image of the golden calf. Here we have an example of how easy it is to fall into all that. Now, we say and think: "We’re not capable of doing that: we would not do anything like that." On the contrary, we are aware that we live in a world that does worship wealth, that places the material above the spiritual, and we must acknowledge that. But I claim there is something even more insidious going on — that the moving image, the image captured on the screen, can also in one sense be viewed as a graven image, and we live in a world that is coming to worship it. This graven image is finally demonic and destructive and we have been ordered not to worship it.

In saying this I have to make a public confession. I must retract what I said some years ago. I made the statement that the television set itself is an instrument, simply a technological creation, and is not in itself morally wrong. It is the uses to which it is put, and that it can on occasion have a good use. Well, I’m taking 99.99% of that back! I suspect it is increased age and experience, but I’m here to say, "Throw it out!" Better yet, take it out and shoot it! That way, no one else can pick it up and carry it off. The reason I am saying this is because I am beginning to understand the insidious nature of it. I am a man who was raised on movies and TV; they shaped much of who I am. I am now seeing the new uses to which they are being put. There are major changes occurring and the images that are flashed on the screen are doing work that is positively destructive in a profound way, touching the spiritual nature of man in a way that I can only call demonic. I am increasingly troubled by it.

The Gift of Language

I’m making a claim that language is an extraordinary gift of God. It is part of what makes us fully human. In fact, Aristotle says man is a rational animal and that what sets him apart, what raises him above the animals, is that he has the ability to reason, and it is very clear that he cannot reason without language. Language is necessary in order for man to be a rational creature, and only to man has it been given. Some claim that porpoises and gorillas talk. It is only a sign of how far this has gone when I have to defend the proposition that language is unique to man. For years propaganda has come down that the porpoises are squeaking to each other, that the gorillas are talking to each other, and the chimpanzees can push the right button and get their banana. What we know is that language is special, and it is one of the things that defines man. Beyond being a manifestation of his power to reason, language is there so that we can pray, that we can communicate. We can write beautiful things which appeal to reason, such as poetry, etc. But, perhaps first and most importantly, I defer to St. Paul who tells us that faith itself comes by hearing.

If faith comes by hearing then we need language to tell each other the great truths of that Faith. There is no other way in which the Faith can be communicated or understood, and even in the case of infused knowledge we still are in need of language in order to comprehend it. As Catholics, we especially understand its power, its importance, the glorious use to which language is put, every time we benefit from the sacraments of the Church. The form of every sacrament depends upon language. Most obviously, those words said by the priest in the person of Christ at the altar, "This Is My Body," do something stupendous, and we know the words are necessary to effect that sacrament. As a sinner I am very grateful for the words that my confessor can say to me at the end of my confession. They free me from my sins. Words are necessary to do that.

It is not by accident that with the shift in sacraments in the Novus Ordo Church has come a messing with the language. The fact is that these things matter, words are hugely important, and as Catholics we know that. Those words are part of those sacraments, those sacraments come to us from Christ, the Word Incarnate. These things are connected.

What happens to a world that begins to lose language? That is what is happening out there! Language is deteriorating, vocabularies are shrinking, people are less and less able to express themselves linguistically or have a pool of words to draw on to describe what they think and feel. As a result, in its place, they are often compelled instead to wordless action because they are blocked in their very nature. I suspect it has something to do with why there is an increased level of violence in the world. With words no longer available to us, we act physically because that’s what we know and what we’ve seen.

In any case, what language remains is collapsing into obscenity. It is everywhere in public now. The sense that certain words are inappropriate has been lost. One reason for that is that the young — sadly, pathetically — are becoming repositories for filthy language without even knowing that the limited vocabulary they are carrying around with them is inappropriate. I do not think that this is accidental. I think that this is part of the reductive nature of this sick world in which we’re living where words are being taken away.

Language Is Mysterious

Many of you know of the Catholic novelist Walker Percy. He wrote some very interesting novels. Percy had another side, he was very interested in linguistic theory as well. He promoted an American philosopher named Charles Peirce (as in “purse") who developed a theory of language and launched a study called semiotics, a theory of signs and symbols and the way they are used connecting to language.

Peirce claimed that if you look at the way in which we know things in the world and respond to them, almost everything is what he called diadic. By that he simply meant “two-ness," that is, one thing leads to a second thing.

For example, you can see how A leads to B, cause leads to effect, action leads to response. What we know of the world of nature is learned that way. For instance, why were the Dutch elm trees dying in the Midwest back in the 60’s? Scientists found it was a little beetle that had gotten inside the tree and was killing it. The reason the tree was dying? — The beetle was killing the tree. You can see it with children. You say to the child, “Don’t touch the hot stove. If you do, you will burn yourself." Of course, the child immediately walks over to the stove and puts his hand on the stove. (That’s fallen human nature, even in the little ones.) The hand is withdrawn, an instantaneous response. Action — Response, Cause — Effect; that’s how things work in the world of nature.

Peirce believed there was something very mysterious that happened with human beings when they talked to each other. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in nature. He claimed that language is triadic, that it doesn’t work A to B. In fact, it can’t work A to B: it works A to B by means of C. Let me explain.

I have decided that I want you to go to the store and buy one of those little round yellow citrus fruits that make your lips pucker when you bite into it. I could do anything on earth to try to convey that to you: I could hold my hands a certain way, I could pucker my lips, I could try to look yellow. But ultimately I am going to fail. There is no earthly way I can make you understand that I want you to go to the store and buy a little round yellow citrus fruit. That is, there is no earthly way I can make you understand I want you to go from A to B. I cannot get there without this particular jump when I take these strange sounds “l"–"e"–"m"–"o"-"n" — put them together and say, “lemon." At that point, having put those squiggles in that order and assigned those sounds to it, you can reply, "Oh, you want me to buy a lemon. Sure!" Suddenly we have understanding, back and forth. But it’s only possible via that third element, that is, the sign, the symbol.

Remember the round little yellow citrus fruit? Let’s do this to it: I have taken the same series of five squiggles and arranged them in backward fashion; tell me what that is Absolutely nothing! — a “nomel." Tell me why those five squiggles in backward order mean nothing, and the five squiggles in this order are perfectly comprehensible to you. — It is due to an agreed-upon understanding that is dependent on mutual knowledge, so that when I say “lemon" you know what I mean. You’re able to understand this. If I apply a new supposition and say “used car," it takes on an entirely new meaning. If I did, suddenly “lemon" is no longer this little round yellow citrus fruit but a junky machine I used to drive! How did we get from one meaning to the other meaning? — It’s absolutely mysterious. Pierce says this needs to be studied because this is unique to man. The porpoises cannot do it! They cannot say, "Hey Joe, I think there’s a tuna net over there. You probably don’t want to swim over there. You’re going to get hauled in the boat and end up in a Starkist can!" They are incapable of doing that. But we can. And we can do it on a number of different levels, whether it be, “If you’re going to the store, may you please pick up a lemon?" or, "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, thou art more lovely and more temperate," or, "This is My Body." Suddenly, language becomes that which defines us in all sorts of mysterious ways. It is not accidental in this age which is losing its humanness that we are losing our ability to use words.

In one of his essays, Walker Percy examines this by speaking of the young American, Helen Keller, who was born blind, deaf, and dumb, and whose story all of you know. He says that until the moment the language breakthrough came, she was an animal, and we know this of children who are raised either outside of human influence, or in that unfortunate circumstance where they cannot hear language and get to know it. They cannot take in that world of symbols and signs, that extraordinary moment when the child says its first word sitting on daddy’s lap and suddenly Bowser walks by and the child says “Dog." Daddy is so pleased, "Jimmy said his first word!" At that moment something mysterious has happened. The child has made the connection that those sounds connect with that animal, and if I say that to Daddy he’s going to know what I mean. It has to do with the mystery of language and its three-ness.

Young Helen Keller couldn’t make that connection. She was an animal; the family couldn’t control her. They brought in a teacher, Annie Sullivan, to try to do something with her. Annie Sullivan began trying to teach the little girl through language, that is, the printing of letters in her hand, so that whatever they did, she would press Helen Keller to make the connection. Pick up a book, and Annie Sullivan would spell “b-o-o-k" in the little girl’s hand. If they were going down the stairs she would put her hand on the wood and say “s-t-a-i-r" — Nothing. We are at the table, pick up a fork, put it in her hand, “f-o-r-k" — Nothing. This went on for months, but she never stopped. One day they went out to pump water. They picked up the pail — "p-a-i-l." They reached down; they felt the pump — "p-u-m-p." It is a routine now, but still nothing. Annie pumped and put Helen’s hands under the water and spelled “w-a-t-e-r." Suddenly the little girl felt the water, grabbed her teacher’s hand, and repeated, “w-a-t-e-r." The connection had been made. Suddenly the whole world opened up to her. She became human because suddenly she was able to know, identify, and use the signs in order to gain knowledge of what was around her. We might say she became human by acquiring language.

The Consequences of Becoming Dumb

Since everything we do is dependent on this, there is a serious problem when language breaks down, whether it is the ability to say "Please go to the store and buy me a lemon," compose beautiful poems, speak to someone, preach to someone, or discuss ideas with someone else. How do you spread the Faith when language has been destroyed or emptied of meaning? When things began to be written down, Plato puts in the mouth of Socrates a sense of uneasiness that this was not necessarily a good thing. There would be less oral discussion and, no longer needing to remember, memory would begin to fail. I see it in my students. We have gone from the time when the bards would walk around Greece reciting the entire Iliad — look at the Iliad sometime and imagine trying to memorize it! — to the point now where memory is so short almost nothing can be retained. There’s a wonderful line near the end of Brideshead Revisited where Lord Marchmain is talking about the time when the house was taken apart and moved up the hill, the time when the old farmers had long memories. It is a deliberate moment in the book. It is an earlier time when things were remembered. And what was remembered first and foremost were important events. For example, Shakespeare has Henry V’s saying before the Battle of Agincourt, "Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot, but he’ll remember with advantage the deeds he did this day." The Battle of Agincourt would not be forgotten. That our Lord walked in the world and taught will not be forgotten. These things will be passed on; these things will be remembered. It is language, however, that is the vehicle of that remembering.

Guttenberg ushered in the age of the printing press and suddenly books became more easily available. But did the common good of the population improve? I heard when I was growing up that old Protestant diatribe that "Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible." It’s utter nonsense, of course, but we all share a false sense that the easy availability of books is a guarantee of an educated public. During the Middle Ages — the time of Aquinas and of Dante, that time many judge to be the peak of civilization — books weren’t readily available. Only few people had books. There wasn’t a Bible in every home, yet we commonly believe this era to be the Age of Faith. What was needed to be known was known. It was communicated. It was received. The Catholic Church in her wisdom was able to provide what was necessary.

Printing comes, books are distributed, and look what happens! Within 500 years nobody cares to read or, if they do, they read junk. When the barriers of the old Soviet Union fell, great works that were long forbidden to be read there became readily available again. But nobody would read them. The sheer availability of books does not guarantee an increase in knowledge in any way.

Electricity makes its advent into the world. Now, words can travel in the air. We are told to think of the great wonders radio will accomplish, bringing words to everyone who can hear. Words are available to every home coast-to-coast, but this only means a further devolution of language. Curiously, the more available words become, the less attention we pay to them. The more we take them for granted, the greater is the risk that we will lose them or have them taken away from us.

Soon enough, in comes photography and moving pictures. This is the image asserting itself over the word. Up to that point there was painting, sculpture, and stained glass. These in fact are images, too, but they were illustrative of the pre-existing traditions of story-telling to aid hearers with the additional sense of sight. There is a big difference between contemplating a medieval painting of a Madonna and Child and what the image has become today.

Now we’re in a world in which communication is less and less conducted via language. Over the past few decades, a growing share of our knowledge comes via the image, not the word. We now know by movies, TV, and computers. Screens with flashing images invite us to point and click, leading us to travel to more images. Where is the logic of consistently substituting an image for the word?

I live close enough to work so that I can walk between by office and my home. One year, I noticed the “walk" and “don’t walk" signs were gone. When I wasn’t supposed to walk there was this flashing palm in my face. When I was supposed to walk there was this flashing, bizarre figure frozen in mid-stride. A literate populace can read a sign! There used to be words but now there are pictures on all the traffic signs. It reinforces the fact that language doesn’t matter: what matters is the picture, the image, and this is damaging us in a profound way.

I confess I grew up on movies and still am attached to some, but the movie genre is weird! I also love the theater. Anyone who has done theater knows that its excitement is the interaction between live actors and a live audience. No two performances are ever the same because there is this energy between the performers and those who are watching the performance. Not in the movies. You could take The Wizard of Oz and have it played to a theater full of five-year-olds who are loving it and squealing, cheering, and laughing, or an empty theater with nobody in it other than the people picking up the empty popcorn and washing the floor, and it doesn’t matter. There is no change in the performance because there is no real life. Beyond that, it is the freakish fact that we’re looking at images captured in 1939, arranged and clipped together to amuse us. There is something weird going on. The weirdness is to be looking at images on a screen that are not really alive but appear to be so. More weird still is that I’m viewing an image of dead people who appear to be living before me. We know about the raising of images. Read I Kings (ch. 28) where King Saul visits the witch of Endor to have the image of dead Samuel raised before him. In the Book of Acts (ch. 8), Simon Magus, the magician who thought the miracles of the Apostles to be magic and sought to buy this power, in later years is legendary in Rome for raising up images. Scripture declares the divining of images to be evil. Where we find people raising images, or seeming to raise the dead, they are judged to be acting against God’s law. Yet, for decades we have amused ourselves by the images raised in movies.

There is a similar phenomenon in still photography. We have captured the images of people and display them in our home. Many of them are now long dead, yet we hear ourselves say, "Oh, that’s Aunt Sophie. Gee, she was wonderful! We had such fun that day, and look at that hat she was wearing. Wasn’t it great?" But nobody’s remembering to pray for her, because it’s as if she is still with us for having been captured on film when she was alive. It’s quite strange.

A Rival to the Godhead

If the movies and TV, through flickering images, mimic a kind of “raising the dead," they are sporting an omnipotence that rivals our Lord’s. Only those allowed to do so by God may raise the dead and the film media claim a kind of omnipotence.

Television is omnipresent; it’s everywhere. Try to find a restaurant, a place to have a shot and a beer without 14 screens surrounding you — CNN, ESPN, CNBC, MSNBC — with the volume up so loud that you couldn’t talk if you wanted to. So everybody just sits and stares at those screens which are everywhere — airports, bars, restaurants, every home, even classrooms.

Then, of course, comes the omniscience of the computer. All knowledge is now at our fingertips.

Combine these attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience and we have made for ourselves a false god. These images are a false god, and we worship it. We love our movies, we couldn’t be without our television, and we behave as though our computer can tell us everything.

Last spring, I was covering Shakespeare’s sonnets in an English honors class. I got a paper from a bright kid saying Shakespeare wrote Sonnet No. 27 to “Marguerite." I’ve studied Shakespeare for 35 years and had never heard this. Then it dawned on me to try something. I sat at the computer and typed in “Shakespeare’s Sonnets." Up came a list of the persons to whom Shakespeare wrote every sonnet. Sure enough, "No. 27: Marguerite of Valois." I said to myself, "What is this?" and clicked back to "Introduction to Shakespeare." I clicked back again, "Shakespeare: The Man, the Playwright." Another click and I found it was a Sir Francis Bacon website put together by some lunatic claiming that Sir Francis Bacon wrote all the works of Shakespeare. Ludicrous! — Sir Francis Bacon lived in France before the sonnets were written and knew Marguerite of Valois and so it is obvious that he wrote Sonnet No. 27 to her. Go figure!? For all that, it is an impressively attractive website, for sure, but it’s purpose is to deconstruct. The poor student clicked on it and up came its lies. The computer is a medium for lies that we honor as truth because we are habituated to think, "It’s right there on the screen; it can’t be wrong; the computer knows everything." We can find everything on the Internet, yes, except the ability to rationally distinguish truth from a lie. That we cannot find on the Internet. In order to have and preserve the ability to reason, we must thoroughly know language. Those born and bred on the Internet suffer a lack of reasoning power and gradually become incapable of distinguishing.

When we follow the Word, we are led to the Ultimate Reality of absolute Truth. Contrarily, however, the image too easily falsely represents reality, deceiving us that it gives us absolute reality while it only captures an image of a reality which is not real. The image itself — especially the screen image — does not endure. It cannot last. The image changes as quickly as time destroys the very object being represented. The reality on the screen is totally unreal; it is not reality. On the contrary, the words of the Sacrament are real. A Shakespeare sonnet represents a reality of beauty, of a higher beauty that can lead one to the Ultimate Reality. When we ask of someone, “Please go to the store and buy me a lemon," we convey actual and true information to someone and create a bond with another human being in the most simple, practical, and day-to-day way. But those very bonds are being broken when the oral and written traditions vanish.

A Good Story Is Good For Us

Let me make a comparison. The word is to the image as the story is to visceral thrill or excitement. Let me explain.

We know that our Lord, the Word, came to us, and when He did He did not give us more commandments. They were there, of course, and they tell us what to do and not do. But when the Word taught us He taught in parables. When questions were asked, when He wanted to convey information, He taught in stories. And these stories fill the Gospels. They are profound and brilliant and by them we can in the here-and-now know what the Word taught. Our Lord knew that those parables would be handed down because men had memories and language mattered. Our Lord explained significant events using stories, intending them to be remembered and passed on. Would the Creator teach us by this means and fail to create in us a proclivity to listen to stories? It’s the reason why my little niece climbed up on my lap today and said, "Read me a story." It’s built in. It’s there in children. Deep down, it’s still there in all of us. We have a little free time, we want a story, "Tell me a good story"; "Let’s go see a story"; “Maybe (if a can read) I’ll read a book." But it’s becoming more and more a “maybe."

Why do we like stories? — Because they’re ordered; they’re easy to remember. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he defines tragedy as the imitation of an action which is complete in itself and has a beginning, a middle, and an end. My students laugh, “I could have written that," and I say, "No you couldn’t," because it is a profound idea. A story is the shaping of experience that lets us know there is movement in time from an initial starting point, through a development, to a place where it stops. Every story is a pilgrimage, just as every human life is a pilgrimage — coming from somewhere, moving somewhere, ending somewhere. A good story, properly shaped, will be ordered; it will be shaped along those lines, which is not an easy thing. Story is to literature what melody is to music and what line is to painting. It is that which defines the work of art, and it is the reason why plot is the most essential thing in literature. It is like carpentry. You’ve got to take the materials and assemble them piece by piece until your project is completed. On account of its complexity, it takes thought, discipline, art, shaping, craft, and wordsmithing to write a good story. We respond to a good story, which means it will be well told, makes sense, and of course, approach a truth.

But now, even narrative is being destroyed. Narrative is versatile. It can be as simple as Jack and the Beanstalk, "Once upon a time, there was a boy named Jack and his mother told him to take the cow to town and sell it," or it can be as complex as a Dostoyevsky.

At the insistence of some of my students, I watched the movie Gladiator. It wasn’t just that I loathed it, that I was bored to distraction, because I’d figured out the entire plot 20 minutes into the thing and there was another two hours to go. It was that it dawned on me how movies are made. For years I had been joking, “All you do in a successful modern movie is blow something up, then throw two people in a bedroom, then blow something up, kill somebody, go back into a bedroom, then stage a car chase at the end where everything blows up." But as I watched Gladiator, I became aware of why this is so. The reason is made plain by the fact that modern society has come to use digital clocks rather than analog timepieces. We have been habituated to looking at individual points in time disconnected from the flow and sweep of the big picture. On an analog clock face, you will see the big hand going round, the small hand going around, and the second hand going around which turns the minute hand. There is the sense of flow. The analog clock is an illustration of good narrative because it shows time as movement from someplace to somewhere. A digital readout displays isolated moments of time that don’t connect — 8:21am, 8:22am, 9:04am. It is, if you will, the fast-food experience — Hungry, Eat, Big Mac, Buy, Swallow — as opposed to, "It’s dinnertime, David. We’ll have the soup I made from scratch with last night’s chicken. And we’ll have salad if you wash out that Romaine from the garden. I bought the thickest roast from the Jones brothers — wait until you see it! — and I’ve baked the last of this year’s potatoes....Remember how difficult the crop was? Then, I’ve got your favorite for desert, including the brandy. And, while we’re eating tonight, I have this great question that came up today when I was over at the Jones Farm." But feeding ourselves is now an animal activity like a seal barking for fish. Movies are now working in the same way: I go in, I sit down, I want a thrill. If something hasn’t blown up in the first ten minutes, I’m out of there. That is why a movie like Gladiator opens with this gigantic war scene. I didn’t know who was fighting whom, why, what had gone on, but they were slicing and dicing. Blood was squirting and I was asking myself, "Who are these people? Do I know any of these people? Do I care about these people? Is there a reason for all this?" In the background was some deep-voiced mumbo-jumbo. But the overall experience had no substantive relation to history; it had no relation to art; it had no relation to humanity. The only relation was between an image on a screen producing a visceral thrill in the one watching. What I’m getting is excitement, a blood-rush if you will. The movie maker is thinking, "We’ve got to keep the audience excited, so every ten minutes we’ve got to have an explosion, or impurity, a car chase, a murder,...something to keep them excited." Decades of this pattern have resulted in my students’ failure to respond to narrative.

In order to have a narrative you’ve got to have a proper exposition at the beginning of the book. You have to set up characters, places, time, background; we have a history, certain threads need to come together so they can be woven into a tapestry. My students have no patience for this. They can’t remember from one chapter to the next. The great books are closed to them because their ability to respond has been taken away from them. A colleague of mine who teaches Victorian literature said to me, "I went in to teach David Copperfield, but they can’t read it. I read Copperfield in ninth grade. I wasn’t particularly bright, but it changed my life." My friend meant they couldn’t remember who the characters were or lock on to a sequence of events. They say, "Nobody’s blown up. Nothing’s happening. This is boring." Of course, the vocabulary of the great books is now beyond them, too.

That ability to respond to a carefully crafted story is dead. They can only respond viscerally. They have been made Pavlov’s dogs. Ring a bell, they’ll salivate. Lop off a head, they’ll get excited: "Oh, it’s a great movie. I loved it!" Simultaneously, there is no way a parable can touch them. The vehicle of a parable is language, not images. And, at the most profound level, if there was ever a great narrative, a hugely Important Story, it’s the one that begins before the beginning, progresses through centuries, and as we know will have a definitive end on earth (though continue for eternity). The works of God form the greatest story ever told, but it is lengthy narrative and they cannot grasp it, nor do they want to grasp it.

I can no longer go to the movies. I cannot follow what is going on. That world is as closed to me as my world of Shakespeare and Dickens and the Scriptures is closed to them.


Those things that they know — like Gladiator and The Matrix — will not be much use for teaching them what you need to tell them, what they need to hear. Faith comes by hearing, but they are going to have trouble understanding, because they are not used to serious language. The problem the soldier of Christ is facing has increased a hundred-fold. We are facing a very formidable task. I wish I could offer a quick and easy solution, but I can’t.

However, God will not abandon His people, and you must establish a prayer life. You must hold to what is true. You need to be prepared to be reviled, discounted, and attacked when you say those movies stink, to get rid of the TV, and that the computer is loaded with filth and lies. Try to engage the simplicity of our Lord’s parables which are tiny, simple narratives. Repeat the same buzz-phrases until they stick inside young skulls. Most importantly, trust in our Lady who loves all her children and will be there for them. We know she is going to crush the serpent’s head. It will end this world of images that he has set up that holds us all enthralled. In the meantime, you must win the mental universe of as many souls as possible. You need all of God’s strength, all of your seminary training, a devout life, a recognition of what has happened in the world and who is prince over it, absolute faith in God, a willingness to suffer and die for the truth, and total devotion to the Blessed Mother whose Immaculate Heart will triumph.

Why catholics should read literature — by Dr. Allen White

This article was originally published in the October 1996 issue of The Angelus

Let me begin with a few words about the nature of art. By the word “art," I am not referring just to paintings or sculpture, but to “art" in the larger context of those things which are created — literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture. They all get classified under the larger category which we also refer to as “art."

Art has always existed as a manifestation of the human spirit. The cave paintings found on underground walls in southern France take us back to prehistoric times and show us that even man at his most primitive sought to represent the world around him. The urge to create art is a defining element of man’s nature.

Art is what artists make and craft with a high level of inspiration. If they make and create with real inspiration and to the height of their powers, then they are creating that which can transcend time and space and speak to all people in every age.

Now literature is unique, for each form of art possesses its own characteristics and has its own special function. Literature is language that tells a story or presents ideas, reflections or emotions in memorable language. A great story or a great poem is a made object; it must be crafted; at its greatest it can become art. Poetry is as old as mankind and the desire to tell stories and to hear them seems to be another innate defining element of human nature.

Our very faith is a magnificent story. There is a reason why it is often referred to as The Greatest Story Ever Told. It has a definite beginning, a long series of related actions and incidents and a definitive end that resolves the action and offers a final comprehensive completeness. Our Faith is not a series of maxims or rules or sayings or aphorisms; it is at the core a story that progresses from "In the beginning..." through “And the Word was made flesh..." to "And I saw a New Heaven and a New Earth..." Our Faith is a narrative of actual events, either lived through in the past or happening in the present or promised for the future.

Our Lord Himself, when He was with us on the earth, showed to us the importance of stories and storytelling. He did not come and give us a set of syllogisms or a list of logical assertions to teach us our faith; He came and taught us through parables. In the 13th chapter of Matthew, the disciples themselves become puzzled as to Our Lord’s method of teaching. Having just heard the parable of the sower and the seed, the disciples ask Christ why He speaks in parables:

And his disciples came and said to him: Why speakest thou to them in parables? Who answered and said to them: Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; but to them it is not given. For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that hath not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath. Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And the prophecy of Isaias is fulfilled in them, who saith: By hearing you shall hear and not understand: and seeing you shall see and shall not perceive. For the heart of this people is grown gross, and with their ears they have been dull of hearing, and their eyes they have shut: lest at any time they should understand with their heart and be converted; and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear (Mt. 13:10-16).

Our Lord makes clear that the parable is a special gift to those who possess understanding. The mass of men are lazy and fallen and detached — they cannot even use the channels for understanding given them by God. The parable is a way of lifting up understanding, of forcing us to see and hear and perceive. The parable is given us for our greater understanding, but it demands a fullness of participation on our part. Without our active involvement and our active participation, the parable, like some of the seed, will fall on rock and never grow to its full purpose.

This leads us to the question then of what the story or literature should do for us. What is its purpose? Our Lord, of course, has already provided the most important purpose, one might be so bold as to say the intended Divine Purpose — to open our eyes and to open our ears and to open our hearts. But how is this accomplished?

From the time of the classical authors through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and up to and including one of my favorite modern authors, Evelyn Waugh, writers have given two basic reasons for the creation of literature. Literature has two basic functions: literature should educate us and literature should delight us.

Literature exists on one level to teach us things, to tell us things which we do not know. Great literature educates us according to the original meaning of “education" — to lead. It shows us sights which are new to us and introduces us to people we have never met before. Great literature explains the world to us in ways we have never know before.

What kinds of knowledge can literature give us? Literature can take us places where we could not ourselves venture or show us worlds which have vanished, but that are worth remembering. There is invaluable knowledge to be gained by reading Homer and experiencing the Trojan War in The Iliad; by reading Melville and voyaging on a whaling vessel in Moby Dick; by reading Cervantes and journeying down the dusty roads of Spain with Don Quixote. Our horizons are expanded and we learn.

There are other kinds of knowledge we gain; however, other than simply experiential knowledge. It is possible to gain moral knowledge through the reading of literature. Our understanding of the nature of good and evil, our awareness of how these forces appear and work in the actual world can be expanded for us by great literature. We can gain necessary knowledge without having to go through the often painful experiences or turmoil of difficult life situations. To experience the temptations and sufferings of Anna Karenina or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter; to witness the malignant machinations of Iago in Othello; to fight to moral awareness with Huckleberry Finn cannot help but generate and refine the moral sensibility that is a part of our nature.

At the highest level, literature can lead us to profound spiritual awareness. In such superb works the truth of experience and the lived reality of goodness and the incomparable beauty of divine vision and highest expression are unparalleled. For this reason we return over and over again to Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Dickens’ Great Expectations. In our own time, such works can still be discovered — Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories or Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In these works we enter worlds we do not know and gain lessons we could not otherwise gain and all expressed with a beauty of form that reflects the eternal.

This knowledge is not just acquired, however. We could be given the details of whaling life in a pamphlet or be taught that adultery is a sin or be told that there is a hell, a purgatory and a heaven. We would still have the knowledge. What literature does is to vitalize that knowledge. By actively participating in the knowledge as in a living fact by way of action and human beings, the knowledge becomes real and alive. We thus retain it and comprehend it in a higher and deeper sense than we could if we received that same knowledge from a pamphlet, a list or a set of rules. We are creatures of flesh and blood living in a real world and we learn and know most effectively in the same manner as we live.

This vitalized knowledge is the source of true wisdom. A human being who is a walking encyclopedia may possess endless strings of facts but that person may be totally lacking in wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge made vital and realized; literature allows us to turn knowledge into the vitalized reality of wisdom.

To read literature is thus to live more keenly and richly. It is to acquire a rich interior life. It is to live more lives than our own narrow and confined life. Literature allows us to grow and to deepen and to widen. The man who has filled himself with the best of books is a larger man, larger in knowledge, fuller of compassion, deeper in spirit.

The second reason for reading literature is to experience delight. This is a purpose as important as the first of gaining knowledge. We are delighted by good stories and this desire for that delight is in us from our earliest years. Anyone who has spent any time at all around young children will acknowledge this fact. From the moment children can put words together, they repeatedly demand the delight of the story. "Tell me a story, Daddy" and "Read me a story, Mommy" are not just diversions to delay the bedtime hour. Children need to hear stories and, curiously, they also teach us that the old stories are the best stories. Children particularly love to hear stories that are familiar to them, those stories which they have heard before. It is an innate desire for things traditional, for that which has been repeated over and over again, for that which has been handed down. The story that is repeated or visited again and again sinks ever more deeply into our awareness and can be comprehended ever more fully.

This joy in the good story well told offers respite from the hardships and labors of life. Even St. Thomas Aquinas says that the soul needs rest just as the body does. The entertaining delights of literature provide one of the best and most appropriate ways for the soul to rest. Great literature can provide nourishment for the soul as food provides nourishment for the body. If we choose only that which is sweet and instantly pleasing, however, the soul will rot just as the teeth will rot if they only chew on a constant diet of cotton candy. To gnaw on a good, protein-rich piece of beefsteak is to receive real nourishment and good exercise for the jaws; in just such a way, to wrestle with a strong, solid work of literature is to receive substance for the soul and a healthy work-out for the mind. A good work-out can also be a source of genuine delight. One can be refreshed even as one wrestles; reading good literature is an active work requiring strength which provides delight.

Finally, great literature teaches the very valuable art of self-expression. By reading those works that express the best that has been thought presented by masters of language, we ourselves gain mastery over both thought and language. We do not live in a time where language is honored; language is in fact under assault all around us. We live in an age that reveres visual images and spends its time in front of screens. The age encourages us to be passive and to be inarticulate. Literature introduces us to the huge range of possibilities of expression and style that language offers to us. This ability to use language is another fact of human nature that defines us and separates us from the animals. It is in us as a given, but it must be learned and nurtured. We need help in mastering our language skills, our skills of self-expression. Those great masters of the past are our best guides.

This leads to one final point, perhaps a warning. The great writers, those geniuses of the past who have created the greatest stories or set down the most beautiful reflections are a disparate lot. God has not distributed His gifts just to a handful of individuals who have believed exactly what we believe with its fullness of truth. The question is often raised by traditional Catholics in reference to a given writer, "Is he a Catholic?" If the answer is "No," there then seems to be a reluctance to enter the works of that author. To adopt this attitude is to deny ourselves the riches of God’s creation. The duty of a great writer is to tell the truth about the world in which the writer finds himself and to do it with beauty. There can be little doubt that the greatest of all writers were those writers who possessed the fullness of truth and the greatest appreciation for beauty, in other words, those great Catholic writers. We cannot find a higher roll of great geniuses than that roll of Catholic writers: Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes and Shakespeare. Even in our own time that roll can include such giant figures as Chesterton, Tolkien, O’Connor, Waugh and Walker Percy. But we would be missing a great deal of additional truth and insight and beauty if we confined our reading only to those writers. God has given the gift of expression and the ability to see the truth to many others who were not Catholic and those writers have done great work. It would be absurd and finally self-defeating to ignore Homer or Sophocles or Plato or Virgil or Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Alfred, Lord Tennyson or Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn because they were "not Catholic." God in His Wisdom gave these writers talent and inspired them to tell great truths. They have done so and we can gain much from reading their works to discover which pieces of the truth they were privileged to know and how they came to express that knowledge. Aquinas openly acknowledged his debt to Aristotle; Dante chose Virgil as his first guide; dare we presume to be “higher" or “purer" than such great Catholic souls? A pagan writer who serves up tough truth is more important than a Catholic writer who gives us cotton candy.

Great literature is made and crafted by great artists who seek to instruct us and to delight us. In absorbing what they offer, we grow in wisdom, live more fully and deeply and gain greater power of self-expression. God has provided for us a great banquet of stories and poems served up by dozens and dozens of unique chefs. Sit; feed; enjoy.

The Role of Catholic Literature in the Catholic School — Br. George Schuster

Catholic Literature — Embroidery? Or Woof to the Warp of the Catholic Curriculum

There exists an attitude that considers a Catholic book at best an expendable appendage on the curriculum, having nothing at all to do with the formation of Christians, but only with the formation of book clubs that drink tea and nibble crumpets periodically in questionable honor of Newman or Gerard Manly Hopkins.

As we see it, Catholic literature is not an extra-curricular, an anti-curricular, a fad, a frill — embroidery.

  • It is not a barnacle on the hull of the curriculum but a dynamo in the engine room.
  • It is not an occasional in the English syllabus but an integral.
  • It is not supplemental, but fundamental.
  • It is not an occasion for tiddly-wink projects and games during Book Week, but an occasion of grace.

It is essential, indispensable, inalienable, irreplaceable — correlating subject, woof to the warp of the curriculum. If religion is the vivifying soul of the school, Catholic literature can well be the integrating factor of it.

The Vision of the Whole: We See Nothing if Not Everything

If Catholic literature is misunderstood, ignored, and honored only on holydays of literary obligation during Catholic Press Month and Book Week, it is because the Catholic book is regarded as a thing apart from the growth and nourishment of Christians, that is, apart from Catholic education.

To understand and appreciate the integral significance of Catholic literature, we must possess a solid grasp of its relation to the whole plan of Catholic education that aims to form a student to the vision and image of God.

Before we ask what is the nature and purpose of Catholic literature, let us recall the total purpose of Catholic education. For nothing means anything except in the perspective of everything. To study anything (Catholic literature in this case) apart from the whole of everything is to learn nothing. It may be said, in fact, that we know nothing if everything. Unless we know what Catholic education is supposed to do, we cannot know what Catholic literature is supposed to and we cannot make a book do it.

The Catholic School is the School of Perfection

The world is split between Jesus and Jupiter this day, and Christ is weeping softly and alone over a perpetual Jerusalem because His Kingdom is not come. There is but one urgency: to restore all things in Him.

The tragedies of the world are reducible to one: the failure of individual Christians to be Christian. The solution to the tragedies is ours: in the measureless immensities of the classrooms to form luminous, radiant total Christians.

The platform of the Catholic school is eternity; its perspective, the summit of Calvary; its philosophy, "Be ye perfect!" not lukewarm. It is the school of perfection. It may not aspire to anything less.

To be a saint is to be another Christ. The Catholic school aims to propel the student Christ-ward, to form him Christ-wise, to give him the heart of Christ, the will of Christ, the mind of Christ; Christ’s pity, Christ’s love, Christ’s mentality. That is, to lead him to see all things Christ-wise. When Christ looked upon the world, upon anything, upon everything, He saw his Heavenly Father in Whom all things exist, Who is the unity of all reality.

The Christian must constantly struggle to prove this proposition: that the invisible is more important than the visible, the spirit is more than the flesh, the unseen reality is more than the visible symbol, that the material exists only that the spiritual may express itself in its terms.

The whole purpose of education is to lift, to exalt, to spiritualize. If it does not spiritualize. If it does not spiritualize, it vulgarizes, it materializes. And the current synonym for “materialistic" is “secularistic."

Education is Growth in Spiritual Wisdom

Education, then, is growth in spiritual vision. Should we ask the student when he comes to us, "What wilt thou?" as Christ asked the blind man, his proper answer should be, “That I may SEE." And our response to him: "We shall teach you to SEE — God. That SEEing Him, you may know Him, that knowing Him, you may love Him; loving Him you will serve Him and be happy abundantly."

The cultivation of this mentality that sees all things with the eyes of Christ is the proper function of Catholic education. It is putting on the mind of Our Lord. The development of the spiritual vision (and holiness is postulated on this constant perception of God — essential to living in union with Him) is the aim of the Catholic school and at least one key to writing the explicit directives for each subject in the curriculum.

This is education for wholeness, for happiness. When the student grows in spiritual perception, he advances to the end of man — the Beatific Vision. He approaches happiness only when he approaches its source which is God. Happiness is seeing God in heaven. It is seeing God on earth. It is the life that Christ came to give us more and more abundantly.

The Beatific Vision is supreme happiness, total fulfillment. The Vision of God on earth more and more vividly is the steady conditioning of a Christian for heaven, his destination. And death should be a "change in range and nothing strange," the occasion for the soul’s skimming from one plane of vision to another.

If our education is not this conditioning the student to see, know and love God each instant, then we and our students are missing, of course, the whole grandeur, the challenge, and happiness of Christian living.

The Role of Catholic Literature in this School of Perfection

The role of Catholic literature in this school of spiritual vision is distinctive, at times decisive with the grace of God.

Other subjects by their nature, approach the will of man essentially through the intellect; by its nature, the approach of literature to the will is through the heart of man. What other subjects teach abstractly, literature brings to life on the dramatic plane. What is dogma in them is drama in literature, literature being to abstraction what the Parable of the Good Samaritan is to “charity." Literature speaks in terms of persons, people. Principles may leave one cold, but persons move. Even the erudite must see principle actualized to understand it fully.

Literature, then, is concrete, warm, palpitating. It is the “hypostatic union of intellect and emotion." It touches the heart directly, impels the will, exalts to action. On the dramatic plane it focuses, insists, compels.

Again, it is a matter of “vision." Let us put it this way:

  • truth is compelling when real-ized
  • it is best real-ized when seen
  • it is seen when it is em-bodied, in-carnated, act-ualized
  • Catholic literature at its best in-carnates truth on the dramatic plane —
  • that men may see it!

By projecting the truths to live by into characters, action, and life-situations, Catholic literature can make truth dynamic and galvanize to live and immolation.

Men repeatedly turned their indifferent backs upon the abstract Word in the Old Testament, but the Word Incarnate of the New Testament they followed.

Is not this the ultimate function of literature — the incarnation of truth for the inspiration of man? For countless saints, a book was the admitted occasion for the impulsion of their will across the tragic gap between knowing and doing. We cannot exaggerate this potential in literature. If parables and story are unimportant, would Christ have told so many?

When the world was Christendom, the hand that gave the saint his wreath gave the poet his laurel.

Catholic Literature Educates: to Spiritual Perception, to Impulsion form Knowing to Doing, to Integrity

It is said that "outside the sacraments and the liturgy the greatest help for the full blossoming of Christian life, lies in the Catholic classics."

Let us put it this way:

  • Christ is compelling. He is God.
    He is the ultimate Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Incarnate
    • saints are compelling.
    • They are "other Christs."
    • They are truth exemplified on the physical plane.
  • Catholic literature is compelling.
    It is truth embodied on the dramatic plane.
  • Catholic literature at its best depicts:

    Man made to the Image of God:
       Indwelt by the Trinity, dedicated to the triune activity of:
    • working with the Father,
    • sacrificing with the Son,
    • praying with the Holy Ghost;
    • Continuing Christ knowing, Christ loving, Christ redeeming;   
    • Restoring all things in Christ.

Man whose greatest dignity is his potentiality for grace,

  • whose greatest activity is corresponding with grace.

Man in relation to God in the Sacraments and the temple of his being,

  • in the Mystical Body of Christ,
  • in the universe.
  • Catholic literature at its best educates:
    • to spiritual perception,
    • to impulsion from knowing to doing,
    • to integrity,
    • to BE.

Let us Have Done with Conformity

It is staggering to count our graduates who read fluff, mush and mediocrity, living from one comic book to the next, from soap opera to horse-racing, from carbuncle fiction to barroom-bedroom literature. For them the end of reading is escape, day-dreaming, drugging the spirit and chloroforming the Temple of the Holy Ghost. And the influence is supposed to be sacerdotal!

But have they ever been taught that the end of reading is living — the life of grace? Was not the literature they studied a literature of conquest of others, not conquest of self; a philanthropy, not charity; self-indulgence, not asceticism — a literature of Apollo, not a blood-stained Christ? Who can say that the classics they studied were insistent with, or even cognizant of, the fundamental realities that are the marrow of the saints’ bones and the throb of their hearts?

It has been a pity for a long time.

Let us stop reducing our literary birthright to pottage. It is time that we have done with conformity, with postponements, with appeasement, with asseveration. We have been confirming too long. Let us reform. Let us not fit in, but make over; not follow, but lead. Where the old program belongs to mediocrity, let mediocrity have it. The urgent need today is for Christian initiative in the making the new world. Let us begin.

This is the Day of Our Visitation

This is the day of our visitation. We fight the war of Christ universally when we fight it locally. It is given to us to fight the war of the world in the classroom. Let us entertain no thought of futility. We are not fiddling while the Vatican burns. We are not apart from the battle, but in the thick of it.

Yes, if John was a voice crying in the wilderness, we may be crickets in chaos, but a cricket must crick the glory of God. When 300,000 of us and our millions of students all crick together, we shall have fierce thunder upon the earth.

Let nuns be Teresas and Catherines of Siena. Let them be Hildas in the Abbeys of Whitby teaching thousands of Caedmons to sing the glory of God.

Let monks be Dominic. Let them be Francis, teaching the larks of Umbria to sing the praises of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us restore the reign of God’s grace on earth and then, in Augustine’s words, "There will be but one Christ, loving Himself."

This is the day of our visitation. There is one urgency — holiness; there is one anxiety — to restore all things in Christ. And it must be done without delay.

Catholic Books and the War of the World

By the clock of history it is the eleventh hour. More precisely, it is five minutes to striking. The minute-hand and the hour-hand are twitching to snip the thread held by a patient God. Black clouds are rolling in from the seven seas of God’s anger and man’s sinfulness.

Rulers of the world are reaching frantic fingers for safety pins to pin together a brave new geography. They assemble at a round table, switch off the light shining from the Crib, and work in the dark. And they wonder why their round table fails to find the Holy Grail.

Today is a war of minds. Christ hangs above us all, blue and bleeding. The earth quakes and splits in two, a long crack runs out deep and wide from the foot of the Cross.

"Lord, remember me," says the thief on the one side. On His left, a thief blasphemes. The world hears love from the one speaker, blasphemy from the other.

Which way will the world go? The mob stirs, a man mounts a stump under the blaspheming thief and speaks hate. The mob listens, moves toward the speaker, applauds, simmers undecidedly but in expectation of blood and riches.

Today is a war of minds. The masses will follow the casuist to crucify Christ or the articulate Christian to glorify Him. Men will accept the perspective of the Crib and Calvary if there are Catholic minds to explain it. The moment and all men in it are trembling with destiny.

Let us bring the dynamic potential of Catholic literature to bear for the formation of undeviating Christians — not cabbages, but kings who will mount the stump under the Good Thief and tell the love-hungry world what happened on Easter morning.

Catholic literature is a lever of grace. Upon the fulcrum of the Holy Sepulchre it can help magnificently to move the world.