I‘m going to try and hit some of Hodges’ main points according to category rather than the order in which they appeared. (We’ll see how that works out.) In the meantime, it bears mentioning that among the books quoted, we find old favorites like C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (which Si and I just began reading together two nights ago), as well as Theodore Dalrymple‘s essay What We Have to Lose (a fascinating read, also linked in Assigned Reading).
What is Meant by “Fine Arts”
I went into this assuming the talk concerned painting, drawing, dance, theater, and music. It does, but he also included literature. Hodges references the greatest of literary works, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, various plays by Shakespeare, and Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad.
Hodges repeats himself a number of time. He says:
The fine arts are the repository of the accumulated wisdom of past generations.
Fine arts train the soul to love the right thing and despise the things that are not so good.
The fine arts pass on civilization.
That last statement is, in context, pointing to the fine arts as a restraining force, keeping back barbarism. If you read Theodore Dalrymple’s essay, you will see a bit of what he means.
These statements have a number of implications. For instance, this allows people from the past to reach into the present and teach us what they learned. Also, it allows those of us who receive this wisdom from the past to then pass it on to future generations. Likewise, this means that teachers are given the work of passing on wisdom.
Instead of trying to figure out how you can entertain your students, look to preserve the heritage.
We are not just giving our students something, but giving them something that they themselves are expected to pass on. The goal is keeping civilization alive.
This reminded me of R.C. Sproul, Jr.’s book When you Rise Up. The most important lesson I learned from that book is that we are not just to teach our children, but we are also to teach them to teach their own children in the future. When Sproul mentions through Deuteronomy 6, he rightly points out that the goal was not to have a single generation teach their children, but for each generation to do the appointed work of passing the heritage down to their children. This was profound to me; I had never thought about it like that before.
Hodges is saying something similar. We are not just filling up little vessels with beautiful, good, true thoughts. We are actually keeping the stream flowing from the past into the future. We do not want little dams, but rather children who will grow up to spill over into the generation which comes after them.
Civilization v. Barbarism
This entire talk pivoted on this contrast between civilization and barbarism. Hodges says that we take civilization for granted, that we fail to realize that it is not natural–in the sense that we create it and maintain it through deliberate effort. He tells us that every generation has to make the choice between the two, and that a people can become barbaric in a single generation (an example being WWII era Germany). Because we are no longer great students of history, we do not remember that there was a time when there were no universities. We do not remember that it was quite recent that there were no hospitals.
I adored Hodges’ use of Homer’s Cyclops character to depict barbarism. The Cyclops, having only one eye, has no depth perception. He drinks goat’s milk, while Odysseus drinks wine–the idea here being that goat’s milk is the ancient version of fast food (being instantly available via goat), but wine takes time, skill, and all sorts of patience. When he eats, the Cyclops reveals that he is indiscriminate. He doesn’t distinguish between flesh and bone, but swallows all in one bite. He doesn’t cook his food, while civilization involves cooking food, treating food correctly, using a knife and fork, etc. The Cyclops is stupid and doesn’t understand language, so Odysseus can play all sorts of tricks on him. When Odysseus blinds the Cyclops, he uses a ship’s mast, which is the symbol of the sophisticated Greek culture.
Two things that Hodges said about this ancient poem stuck out to me. The first is that it was not great because it told the Greeks what they wanted to hear. It was great because it made Greeks out of its hearers–it served as a civilizing cultural force. The second is that our culture is more like the Cyclops than it is the Greeks.
We are the barbarians, and our desire for instant, simplistic gratification betrays this truth.
Challenges to the Great Works of our Culture
The past couple generations have seen specific, targeted rejection of the Great Works. People complain that Western culture is oppressive and bigoted and needs to go. It’s out of date, and we’ve moved on. Etcetera.
Hodges counters all of this with the assertion that the great thing about Western civilization has been that throughout the generations there have been people who have been able to get outside of their own day and speak to it in a critical way, and that critique is just and useful in every generation, up and down the chronology. I was thinking here of how the Bible is like that. Even though we all recognize that, for instance, Paul’s epistles were written to certain churches at a specific time, we also recognize that they speak to us today. Paul’s epistles transcend their time.
Though the Bible is superior in every way and towers above the Great Books, this doesn’t make the Great Books any less great, for they, too, are transcendent. (Read Ivanhoe and you will see that it speaks to us right here and now. Sigh. I love Ivanhoe.)
The Great Books are useful for the generations that follow. They question the assumptions of their own day, which is what makes them instructive. And then Hodges says:
Nobody who really knows the characters Portia or Desdemona would assume that Shakespeare hated women. These are great women–noble and glorious. If you’ve read Richard III and Macbeth, you know Shakespeare didn’t have any idealistic love for aristocrats…He isn’t of his own time. He saw the human condition and he gave dignity and critique where needed. He was beyond his years in wisdom.
Hodges tells us that the great authors are not time-bound–their greatness is that they transcended their time. The ones that are time-bound are the ones left on the cutting room floor. Likewise, there are pieces of music written by great composers that are not great works, and they don’t transcend their day.
What Are the Fine Arts For?
I already mentioned that Hodges says the fine arts are a repository of wisdom that are to be passed down through the generations. But this is a questions we must ask of our students as well. Hodges reminds us that we are often frustrated with students. They don’t want Dante and Homer, they want Twilight and its trashy relatives. When we suggest a better way, teenagers often rear up in rebellion.
Well, because our culture, Hodges tells us, is Romantic. This doesn’t mean we have warm, fuzzy feelings. It means we are descendents of the philosophical movement of the early 1800s called Romanticism. Romanticism assumed that the highest good, the best thing about man, is that we feel. This made for a very emotional culture.
Most of our students have yet to realize what it is that the arts are giving them. If Johnny believes that the purpose of the arts is momentary distraction from an otherwise difficult day, if the only thing he is supposed to get from them is momentary diversion, then why not poorly written, easily accessible works? The classics are hard. The only reason to read them is if the arts are more than entertainment. If the point of the arts is, in the words of Hodges, to give us a deep appreciation of the human condition, the truth of who we are and where we came from, and ask important questions, it becomes obvious that only the classics are actually art.
So in order to cultivate the tastes of our students, to get them to move in the right direction, yes, we require them to read more challenging works, but we also explain to them what art is for.
Hodges’ friend is quoted as saying,
Reading Thomas Hardy won’t save your soul…but after reading Thomas Hardy,…there’ll be more of a soul there to save.
Bigger. More human. More of what you were mean to be.
Remember that the theme of the entire conference was liberty. So somehow each speaker needs to tie into that theme, and Hodges was no exception. I loved this:
A surefire way to be a slave is to reject the hierarchy of authority.
He reminds us of the Garden. This is exactly what our first parents did. In throwing off God’s authority, they became slaves to sin and death.
When a student or child looks at their teacher or parent and says, “Who are you to tell me to read this book? Listen to this music?” and so on and so forth, we need to realize that this is the same mindset the devil encouraged in Adam and Eve. It is the desire to be god, to be their own authority.
We all have a time in our lives when we think that hierarchy is bad. We don’t like someone–anyone–being over us. We didn’t like answering to God in the Garden. We don’t like to have anything over us including husbands, parents, bosses, policemen, or…a literary canon.
But we need hierarchy and we were designed by God for hierarchy.
We take hierarchy, and we place it in the lives of our students, and they learn that it will lead them out of their adolescence and into adulthood. The literary canon becomes a rite of passage: Come, and let me show you what adults think about.
The barbarian hates humility. He hates form (an example is the throwing off of the form of marriage–he wants pleasure without the necessary and appropriate form–he wants to tear away the veil). True humanity is respecting the veil.
We learn what it means to be human by respecting the forms. Here was a most important point:
The man of culture respects forms even before he knows why they are there because he knows that forms lead you to something profound. He submits to the form until he sees why, rather than the barbarian way, which is to say when I don’t see why we do it that way, I want to get rid of it until you can prove to me that it was worthwhile.
How many times have we made light with forms? I know I have. It has been only recently that I have realized the value of some of them and attempted to once again become respectful of them..
The goal is to get the barbarism out of our students. The end of barbarism is death. The fine arts refine our sensibilities. They bring about civility. They teach us wisdom. They order our affections, helping us learn to love that which is worth loving, and hate that which is worthless.
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