Monday, February 16, 2009


"Enthusiasm is an emotion of the ethical part of the soul."

I read this yesterday in Poetic Knowledge, which I was bringing to Liam at college upon his request. The quote is from Aristotle. It seems that according to James Taylor (author of the book, and not the singer in case you wanted to know): to the ancients, a large part of the goal for education was to foster the student's delight in what is good.

Here is the whole quote:

But music is pursued, not only as an alleviation of past toil, but also as providing recreation. And who can say whether, having this use, it may not also have a nobler one? In addition to this common pleasure, felt and shared in by all (for the pleasure given by music is natural, and therefore adapted to all ages and characters), may it not have also some influence over the character and the soul?

.... beyond question they inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an emotion of the ethical part of the soul. Besides, when men hear imitations, even apart from the rhythms and tunes themselves, their feelings move in sympathy. Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions.
I'm not so much concerned with music itself here so much as how music is one example of the more general point he is making.... that more than anything else we are concerned to acquire the power of forming right judgments and taking delight in good things.

Also from Poetic Knowledge, a quote from Plato:

But to love rightly is to love what is orderly and beautiful in and educated and disciplined way. ... for the object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.

At the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Plato's position is summarized this way:

What kind of concept of happiness is contained in this ‘inspired’ view of human life and strife? As was pointed out earlier, the happy life is not here conceived of as a life subordinate to the well-being of the community. But it is not a lonely life spent in the pursuit of truth and one's own good either.

The message of the two dialogues is two-pronged.

(1) On the one hand, there is no permanent attainment of happiness as a stable state of completeness in this life. In the ups and downs of life (and the afterlife) humans are in constant need of beauty — in the sense of completion and self-completion. Man is neither a god nor wise, he is at best a god-lover and a philosopher...... To know is not to have; and to have once is not to have always... it (is) quite clear that humans stand in an eternal need to replenish what they constantly lose because they are mortal and changeable creatures.

(2) On the other hand, the eternal pursuit of the good and the beautiful is not a lonely enterprise. As especially the Phaedrus makes clear, love for a beautiful human being is an incentive to search for a higher form of life, as a sacred joint journey of two friends in communion (255a-256e).

Where am I going with this? It seems that possibly it goes back to what I said a few posts ago.... that when I refuse to love what is good, I miss out on the chance of joy. If as the ancients said, education is a matter of not just knowing about, but somehow participating in the Good, True and Beautiful through understanding and imitation, then I probably have the task of continuing to educate myself even as I educate my children. "Purify the source", as Mauriac said, and this seems to relate in this case to "The mother's heart is the child's schoolroom." If I want to grow in virtue, I need to continue to grow in virtue. A truism, but something that is possible to neglect. As Plato said, "To know is not to have; and to have once is not to have always." Heraclitus says that we never step in the same river twice.

Another quote, long, from CS Lewis's Abolition of Man. Note that he is talking about the very same thing as James Taylor is talking about, a tradition that goes back to ancient times:

Let us suppose for a moment that the harder virtues could really be theoretically justified with no appeal to objective value. It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that 'a gentleman does not cheat', than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the 'spirited element'.20 The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity,21 of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

This also seems to relate a bit to St Therese's mention that she flew by way of Love, while by Fear she crawled reluctantly.

I think I've been well-meaningly but futilely trying to reason through virtuous principles into action rather than simply contemplating the good and following it, with reason as a bolster and scaffold. Hard to explain the difference. The will is a rational appetite; it's informed by reason but not necessarily, in itself, moved by it. My Christian faith teaches me that there is nothing in faith and the moral life that is contrary to reason ... ever, ever. At the same time it teaches me that discursive reason is not sufficient (and this is something that can be demonstrated quite simply without any reference at all to Christian special revelation; discursive reason itself can reason out the limitations of discursive reason).

Perhaps this helps me with something that has bothered me for a long time.... Charlotte Mason's ideas on the Way of the Reason. Or perhaps it doesn't help! I'll have to think about that some more.

Katie at CM, Children and Lots of Grace has been blogging about Poetic Knowledge. It's not an easy book, but it's a good one.

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