General Introduction

– We read the poem
– Happy snow—happy, happy snow!
– No listener feedback

The Great Odes of 1819
– What do they have in common?
– Experimentation with sonnets
– The lyric tradition
– Meditations on inner states
– What is an ode, anyway?

“Grecian Urn” and British Romanticism
– The production and process of art
– Gray’s elegy
– The pagan past
– Removed from direct experience of beauty
– Observation, not participation 

Keats’s Platonism
– An inverted Platonism
– Deferred love
– Suspension of bodily eros
– Art and the soul

– Literary tradition
– Finding the urn
– A wild goose chase?
– Visual and verbal arts
– The UGA Keats/Faulkner ashtray
– Art, not nature 

Truth and Beauty, Beauty and Truth
– Art for art’s sake?
– A political statement?
– Eternality and static
– A both/and?

We Sermonize
– A lesson for reading
– Attention to detail
– Mixed media

23 thoughts on “The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #98: Ode on a Grecian Urn”
  1. I’m not sure this is entirely related to your current podcast, but it is a question that, as an instructor of literature to freshman, I’ve been wondering about. How do all of you address those students who say that studying literature or learning to read poetry is a waste of their time because they “will never use it.” 
    I’m not sure what this attitude is a symptom of (anti-intellectualism or capitalism perhaps), but I’m at a loss about how to translate the value of liberal arts into words that they can understand. I’m not sure they would understand something being valuable “for its own sake,” but perhaps I’m too cynical about the motivations of the majority of my students (who, frankly, all else being equal would be content with a diploma tomorrow, than an education after four years). Most of them only see an education in economic terms. 
    Any advice you could provide would be extremely helpful.
    Mike Weaver

    1. MikeWeaver1 It won’t satisfy them, but I usually say that reading poetry allows you to see the world in a different way, to notice things you otherwise wouldn’t notice, and that it has a certain non-quantifiable value.
      The real answer, of course, is that they’re victims of our society, which sees only the pragmatic as valuable.

      1. MichialFarmer MikeWeaver1 I did come close to just calling him a fool. That might translate too.

        1. MikeWeaver1 MichialFarmer Careful–that’s the future leader of our society. He’ll rise from a middle manager at DuPont paint to, I’m sure, president of the United States.

    2. MikeWeaver1 When I’ve encountered students who take that attitude, my next move is to assert in non-ambiguous terms that I teach students as if they have souls and that their souls have a certain, not-yet-fixed nature.  Reading literature trains that soul to exist in certain ways that it would not have existed otherwise, and for those in the class who are wise enough to take the classroom as a mere starting point for a lifetime of reading difficult stories and paying attention to difficult plays, there are dimensions of human existence that only open up in the process of careful reading.  
      Now there’s always the chance that our students don’t give a crap that they have souls, but word-farmers do tend to throw their word-seeds on all sorts of soil.

      1. ngilmour MikeWeaver1 Good point. I had mentioned to this particular individual the difficulty with attaining wisdom and knowledge–that you don’t know what it looks like before you obtain it, therefore, how do you know what to look for? Not sure what that did for him, but it was worth a shot.

        1. MikeWeaver1 ngilmour I’m pretty heavily influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre, so your answer does indeed seem to travel the same direction mine tend to travel.

        2. ngilmour MikeWeaver1 I’ve actually been meaning to pick up After Virtue, but haven’t made the time yet. I was doing a paper on international law and normativity and thought his reaffirmation of virtue  ethics might solve a few issues of international relationships (a quasi-“state of nature”). But, alas, the semester came to an end, and I had to abandon the paper over to the professor for credit. At any rate, I certainly have an affinity with virtue ethics and see civic responsibility underlying what I do as a teacher. Now, if only I could get my students to see what they do in school as a contribution to civic life (I’ll even grant them the pragmatic thrust) and not just monadic wills-to-power.

        3. MikeWeaver1 ngilmour I’m actually teaching After Virtue this summer in a philosophy course at EC, so I’ve reread it recently.  It’s just as lucid now as it was a decade ago.

        4. ngilmour 
          Teaching After Virtue?  You just doubled your Cool Points.  The majority of my work as a psychologist is essentially “MacIntyre meets the positive psychology movement”.
          When I talk to my students about the value of a liberal arts education, I do it partly by describing that “pragmatic” approach to education as churning out headless corporate automata who are able only to smile and nod and do as they’re told.

        5. Charles H ngilmour 
          One can only admire your candour, Charles.
          I liked Michial’s view of the matter, which seems to me to allot a  role both more modest and more perennial to humane learning. But *this* sounds like a very extreme form of Arnoldism, going, indeed, far further than Arnold would have.
          The wish to ascribe some kind of quasi-soteriological value to culture seems to have emerged late and principally as a response to loss of faith. Further, I’m not sure how comfortably it fits with a Christian view of things. I think people in a society where Christianity was taken really seriously might wince at this.  Consider, for example, what Chaucer writes at the close of the Canterbury Tales — and, why not, the portrait of the old, poor (and presumably uneducated) woman at the beginning of the Nonnes Preestes Tale. (On 2nd thoughts, what would Langland have said? …)
          What I’m still not certain of is what, if you take this and try to marry it to Christian belief, you might end up with.  Three questions:
          1. Do you believe that a tertiary education in a humanities subject is necessary for salvation?
          2. Do you not think that referring to other people as “automata” and “headless” might be an offence against charity?
          3. If you were to meet a young man learning, say, cabinet making or plumbing would you call him an automaton to his face?  (Actually, I’ll add: how about, for example, a young woman training as a nurse?Would you say that to her? Or would gallantry, if nothing else, preclude your doing so?)

        6. Hrothgar
          It is harsh language, but I am not known for having an abundance of people skills (that’s right, I’m a grouchy reclusive pessimist who decided on a career in psychology).  Mitigating the nastiness of that is the fact that I usually use this language when talking about public debates regarding the goal of education (reading MacIntyre = thinking in teleological terms), so I contrast the “headless automaton” criticism of vocation-centric education against the “would you like fries with that?” criticism of liberal arts education.  And I have not yet called anyone an automaton to their face,
          As for training in the trades, I am all for it.  If one of my children wants to be a plumber or electrician or something when they grow up, that would be just fine with me.  In their case, I doubt that any of my children are too likely to be unthinking, since they are being raised by a psychologist and a theologian (my wife and I have interesting conversations) who make them read lots and lots of books.  In fact, a growing trend (in Canada at least) is students who do both an apprenticeship in the trades and also an undergraduate liberal arts degree.

        7. Charles H Hrothgar
          I didn’t think that you really could mean it.  Still less that you would say it to an individual.  And I’m sure you’re not grumpy, and expect you’re easier to get on with than I.
          Still, putting it in those terms draws out implications that would seem to be there.  Of course, even animals aren’t automata (though Descartes seems to have come close to asserting that they were).  But I took it that you *were* probably going as far as to assert that people’s rationality, ability to think almost at all, was dependent on their receiving a humane education at university level.  (And I thought perhaps there were some implications of a moral nature there, too.)
          But it also seems to me that if your defence is purely in terms that the humanities are not a specific type of vocational training that you abhor, you might be undermining them a little at the same time. What if the alternative were not available?  Would there then be no point in the humanities?
          Are they just a kind of disinfectant for applying to people whose interests or aptitudes lie elsewhere?  (I get the impression from the thread that in the U.S. some colleges are forcing students to attend English lectures, though no-one stated that directly. If so, maybe this is what these colleges think.)
          On the other hand, if “liberal education” is as important as you seemed to be implying, so that people in your view are hardly functioning at much of a level at all without it, you must whether you’re acknowledging it to yourself or not, and however politely you put it, be looking down on them.  Maybe that’s unavoidable if you’re right, but what if you’re not?  And, of course, this must apply to anyone who’s not run through this particular curriculum — people doing forms of vocational training that you approve of (as well as any of which you don’t), people whose schooling ceased entirely at 18, science graduates … most of our ancestors.

        8. Hrothgar Charles H I’m going to have to disagree a little with the underlying assumption here that equality is the ideal for answering questions of what makes a life more “complete,” fulfilling, or humane. Certainly there is more to life than a vocation? No? 
          Aristotle in his ethics seemed to think that working at a vocations that are “mindless” produced mindless people, and I have a hard time disagreeing with him. Granted, these occupations don’t have to be mindless (listening to a podcast on an assembly line might work nicely), but whether it is fair or not, an education allows one to develop something that those who do not have an education do not develop. 
          Also, let’s avoid the genetic fallacy right off the bat by saying that there are indeed autodidactic outliers who buck the trend. Nevertheless, if we hold general (not vocational) education as an ideal for citizenship (and there are few who don’t–otherwise, why have K-12 at all?), then we must see something valuable in education beyond the vocational. And the implication is that if one does not get a general education, then one is missing something extremely valuable.

        9. Hrothgar Charles HI think that there is an underlying assumption here that equality (or perhaps “parity” is a better word here) is the ideal for answering questions of what makes a life more “complete,” fulfilling, or humane. Certainly there is more to life than a vocation. 
          Aristotle (in his politics, I think) seemed to think that working at certain vocations in fact distorted the soul. I have a hard time disagreeing with him. Granted, some of these occupations don’t have to be mindless (listening to a podcast on an assembly line might work nicely), but whether it is fair or not, an education allows one to develop something that cannot be had anywhere else.  Those who do not have an education do not develop whatever it is that a person develops with an education. 
          Also, let’s avoid the genetic fallacy right off the bat and say that there are indeed autodidactic outliers who buck the trend. Nevertheless, if we hold general (not vocational) education as an ideal for citizenship (and there are few who don’t–otherwise, why have K-12 at all?), then we must see something valuable in education beyond the vocational. And the implication is that if one does not get a general education, then one is missing something extremely valuable.

        10. MikeWeaver1 Hrothgar Charles H On the first paragraph, Mike — it wasn’t really equality I was thinking of.  I think Raymond Williams has tried to argue that working-class culture was valuable in itself (and also not to be understood purely in terms of the in some ways admirable puritanism found in writers like Bunyan — a jab at his own teacher Leavis here?)  I guess it might be egalitarian sentiment driving that. I’d go with that up to a point, but not very far.  I’m quite prepared for culture to be difficult, inaccessible, and a minority possession.  What disturbs me a bit is the suggestion that the skills (wrong word but …) you would develop studying it would change you in such a way as to make you better at life in *other* ways — intellectually or even morally.  I don’t know how else to interpret “sweetness and light”, or the ways of thinking that descend from that.
          I don’t find much, if anything, to disagree with in your last two paragraphs.
          I hesitate to mention C. S. Lewis yet again on this board, but I find his controversy with Brother Every interesting.  I can’t remember where this is reprinted, but Lewis has some ingenious arguments to cut what he sees as the pretensions of his own subject down to size.  (Not that he doesn’t see it as of sterling value in its own terms).  I’m reading the second volume of Lewis’s letters at the moment, and I think there are some comments there that illuminate that controversy.
          It’s difficult for me.  It’s not just guilt: I’m also genuinely sceptical.  There’s an old Paul Johnson book _Intellectuals_ where he really lets rip on what some very clever and very well educated people have done.  Now Johnson *is* polemical and overstates his case, but does kind of shake you up.  Lewis, I think, doesn’t overstate but throws a few spanners in the works.  One thing he says is don’t approach a believer in Culture and ask him, “Are poets and critics capable of finer moral discrimination than the average person?” (From memory: something like that.)  Ask, “What do you think of Jones?  How about Smith?”  He says you’ll find they don’t *really* seem to believe that humane education has done much for Smith or Jones.  He says you can run right through a huge list of people like this, getting a thumbs down on every one.  What a subtle trap!
          I think I could make a good argument either way round for culture.  I’m not really sure what to think.  I feel I’ve spent many years pursuing intellectual goals: I doubt it’s improved me morally.  I find myself circling back to some religious intuitions these days after many years of agnosticism.  This is why I’m re-reading some Lewis.  I’m also finding MacDonald’s _Unspoken Sermons_ shaking reading.  He says every now and then that he’s not speaking to the intellect but to the will.  I’ve tried to persuade the guys to do an episode on MacDonald.  i think there’s a lot there with the fantasies and the novels (some pretty dire) and the religious writings.

        11. Hrothgar MikeWeaver1 Charles H I like the skeptical approach you take here, actually. I think I see it as a mistake to make culture salvific in sense the Leavis or Arnold might see it. Yet, I supposed I’ve always thought the skills acquired in literary analysis (or philosophical reflection, actually), make me better in other areas because I see them as skills that are transferable. Even biblical hermeneutics plays a central role in theology, which is just an extension of hermeneutics in general. Theology (historical/systematic/biblical) uses the tools philosophy provides (e.g. logic). We certainly have blind spots, but if rationality is what makes us distinctive (again, Aristotle), then whatever we can do to “improve” it (a teleological question), then by extension, it must make us “better” people. 
          On the soteriological question, though, I think it’s good to see where Aristotle’s ethics might be limited (since even in the Nichomachean Ethics, he can’t decide if the good life is one of contemplation or political activity). He can’t see moral improvement as being separate from intellectual improvement in that same way that the presocratics couldn’t see the soul as being separate from their materialism, since the soul was also material. To be honest, I still don’t know if Aristotle was limited, though. 
          Even christian faith is intellectual assent to certain doctrines, not primarily about moral choices. Not that moral choices don’t matter, but that we all are so messed up that God lowered the bar to intellectual recognition and submission of the will.

    3. MikeWeaver1 “studying literature or learning to read poetry is a waste of their time because they ‘will never use it.’ ”
      Give ’em Oakeshott to read:
      But, seriously, and if you’re interested in the view of someone from outside the educational field — and if not at least it might give you some amusement — why not read literature and poetry because it’s a joy?  And wouldn’t “study” — some help from someone — be good, because not everything that’s worth reading is easy to come at.
      Makes me wonder why they didn’t study something else. Why choose to study literature, if you don’t like it?

      1. Hrothgar MikeWeaver1 Actually, Hrothgar (great name, btw), there is a rather anomalous track that nearly all freshman have to take in college: Freshman Composition. Oddly, the job of teaching freshman composition has fallen to the english department (in most cases). Why they don’t allow the communications department to have a hand in it as well is nonintuitive (there is a great essay by William Riley Parker called “Where do English Departments come from?” that discusses this issue). As such, many departments have the second semester track of Composition an almost purely literature-based course (even though it’s called “composition”). A strange phenomenon indeed. So, in this case, my student was forced to take it.

        1. MikeWeaver1 Hrothgar I see.  That would presumably be something along the lines of how to write essays.  I don’t know whether any British universities do that.  I was never offered anything like that as an undergraduate.  I think they just assumed that anyone who had got through A levels could write an essay.  A dangerous assumption perhaps — and if it wasn’t then, it probably would be now.
          I sympathise.  So you’ve got conscripts, some of whom will have no interest in literature.

        2. Hrothgar MikeWeaver1 We also had a massive expansion of our universities in the middle of the 20th century because of the Montgomery G.I. Bill and open admissions policies. Many members of the military who were conscripted decided to go to college after their service duties in the various military conflicts were completed, and a sizable contingent were unprepared for the rigors of writing in college. This was our solution to attempt to prepare them for higher education (and still allow the university systems to take their money, of course–another topic altogether).

        3. MikeWeaver1 Hrothgar For a really good look at the rise and development of freshman comp, guys, James Berlin is hard to beat.  He wrote a two-volume history of rhetorical education in America that frames things in terms of student demographics, the anxieties of the higher-ups in higher education, and other such interesting historical realities.  Along with Richard Weaver and Kenneth Burke, Berlin has been one of the truly consciousness-altering figures in my career as a professor.

        4. ngilmour MikeWeaver1 Hrothgar BTW, I feel sure you three were onto something with the discussion about Romanticism and distance in the podcast.
          I’ve seen thoughts from a conservative direction suggesting that the basic movement of the dialectic is from an initial condition of unconscious unity to self-consciousness and estrangement then back to identification — but at a higher level mediated by understanding (we can’t follow the deception of the thrush into our first world). It’s then sometimes suggested that Romantics can be stuck at the second stage.  I guess there could be something in this.  The Romantic figure certainly can be adolescent — The Sorrows of Young Werther? (which I haven’t read).
          Again one thinks of Faust.  As i recall he’s fascinated by a chair in Getchen’s house, which he describes as a “chair of fathers”, which seems to be a symbol of tradition and authority.  Faust is apparently attracted by Gretchen in a complex way, not sure whether he wants what she represents or whether he wants to destroy her innocence, because he feels separated from the more unconscious life she’s a part of and can longer have it.  One might see psychological motives for both conservative and revolutionary politics here.  But perhaps that’s being fanciful.
          I did read something by Carl Schmitt in which he does discuss Romanticism and politics, but so long ago … I do recall his saying that the object of Romantic contemplation is frequently (always?) at a distance.  He says you might find a pirate romantic, but if you actually met one you’d find the pirate’s own attitude was anything but.  Schmitt said he was drawing on Kierkegaard, who he thinks understood this temperament better than anyone.

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