Of Idle Tales and Stupefying Joy


Resurrection Icon

Virgil Nemoianu claims that “‘Christian humanism’ is rooted primarily in the Gospels of Luke and John.” Nowhere is this more evident than the 24th chapter of Luke. In this remarkable chapter, Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty, Jesus appears to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, he has a meal with his disciples, and he ascends into Heaven—all in 53 verses. Yet, in spite of these tremendously important events, dare we say, the most important events of Jesus’ life, we are given little detail. The reader may be struck by the lack of specifics concerning these events, and we can only speculate as to why Luke did not take more space to explain just what happened in these last crucial days of Jesus after the crucifixion.

That Luke does not take the space to provide more detail may be an indication of the disciples own state of mind at the time. That is, Luke presents, in a quite literary fashion, the puzzlement of the events from the point of view of the disciples. None of them had expected the resurrection and they struggled to understand just what was happening. Their confusion is evident from the very beginning. When the women find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, “they were perplexed about this.” (Luke 24:4) When the women tell the disciples and others about this, they disbelieved the women. There is no blind credulity here that is often attributed to religious believers. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”(Luke 24:11) So convinced were they that the women’s story was an “idle tale” that only Peter went to investigate. He finds the tomb empty as the women had described and went away “marveling” because he still did not understand what was going on. Much like Joseph seeking to leave Mary when he learned she was pregnant, the disciples displayed the kind of common sense and healthy skepticism that critics of religious believers tout as incompatible with religious belief. Yet here it is present in the most devout of Jesus’ followers.

Even when Jesus appears directly to the disciples, they still do not understand. In fact, they think he is a spirit, a vision from beyond the grave. It is this encounter, along with Jesus breaking of the bread with the two he met on the road, that reveals the deep mystery of the Incarnation. For just what kind of being are they encountering? He appears and disappears at a blink, yet he has a physical body and eats and drinks. He is their beloved Lord, back from the grave and standing before them in the flesh. “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38-39) At this, Luke says, they “disbelieved for joy.” (Luke 24:40) It is too much for the disciples to take, it is too good to be true, and so they doubt. Again, this is a reasonable, human response to the situation. The joy is beyond their comprehension, it simply cannot be. And so Jesus takes the time to eat with them, showing them that he is not some disembodied spirit, and to explain to them all that had happened as “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45) On their (and our) own, we are not able to understand. It takes the work of God to overcome our limitations and doubts.

The notion of Jesus’ resurrection and resurrected body is as stupefying to us as it was to the disciples. With the hope and joy in the final resurrection we are given a glimpse here of eternity, but the nature of this resurrection and resurrected body are still a mystery. Just what sort of body did Jesus have, and just what sort of body will we receive? Paul explores these notions at great length in I Corinthians 15. Resurrection means something more than mere resuscitation, a notion that was not foreign to Jewish beliefs. With resurrection we are given a new body, one at the same time continuous with the present body, and yet transformed and recreated. Heaven is not a place of disembodied life, but a life fully embodied and transformed. Such passages as these ought to go far in dispelling the notions of Gnosticism. To be human is to be embodied.

These are no “idle tales,”—they represent the full hope and joy of the Christian. The joy that is beyond both our deserving and our comprehension. Luke shows us the commonality between us and the disciples, and the reasonableness which ought to typify us. The Christian is not called to blind credulity, nor to pessimistic skepticism. For the former who lead them astray, the later would keep them from the truth. And the truth is in the promise of the resurrection, the promise of the fulfillment of human nature. There is no escapist philosophy here, but a philosophy of joy and hope grounded in truth.

Why Wouldn’t You Want to Know?

I can hardly emphasize enough that, ultimately, each must discover in his own soul this longing to know. Nothing can replace it. This longing to know constitutes the very heart of what we are as rational beings, distinct in the universe precisely because we ourselves can know. In the last analysis, we have to wake up to knowledge. We cannot do that…till we reach a certain level of maturity or self-discipline. An experienced teacher can almost tell, by the light in his eyes, the day a student first wakes up and begins to want to know. No one can really find a substitute for his own personal attraction to the truth itself. If this desire is not there, no one can give it to us from outside ourselves. And if it is not there, it is undoubtedly because we have not ordered ourselves or put our interests aside long enough to wonder about things.

James V. Schall, The Life of the Mind, 9-10


Stretched Out Towards Knowing: Human Wonder and Knowledge

The wonder in a child’s eyes as they encounter the world for the first time is as exhilarating as it is unmistakable. It is the exuberance, delight, and astonishment of a young mind dazzled by creation. The dazzled young mind does not remain dazzled though, it is drawn out to know that which dazzles it. The child asks “why” incessantly, struggling to know this world in which he lives, this world which dazzles him so. This experience reveals something profound about human nature and the process of education.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliAt the center of the child’s experience is wonder. Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as “a kind of desire for knowledge, a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or power of understanding” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 32, A. 8). As we see the fireworks, we might wonder as to how the pyro-technician is able to produce explosions of different colors, shapes, or sizes. When we hear a strange sound at night, we might wonder what kind of goblin is roaming our house. As we reflect on ourselves, we might wonder why we exist at all! This experience of wonder reveals an essentially human characteristic, for of all creatures, humans alone wonder. These feelings of wonder are an essentially human phenomenon. As Philip Melanchthon muses, “Who is so hard-hearted…that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alternations…and desire to know the traces…of their motions?” (Orations on Philosophy and Education, 106)

As Thomas’ definition suggests, humans can wonder, because they can know. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (980a22). This translation hides an interesting dimension to Aristotle’s claim. For the word here translated as “desire” is the word ὀρέγω (orego), which does not simply mean “desire” but “stretch out, extend” and in this context could be rendered: “All men by nature are stretched out towards knowing.” Humans are stretched out but also must stretch themselves out to live in according with this nature. As Aristotle says, humans “must, so far as we can…strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (Nicomachean Ethics, 177b33-34). The mind is, as James V. Schall says, capax omnium—capable of knowing all things (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 15). It is in human nature to be pulled towards and to strain towards truth, for only truth can be known. Both Plato and Aristotle cite wonder as the cause of or the beginning of all philosophy (wisdom): “This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” (Theaetetus, 155D) “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, 982b12-13).

At this point, we are still missing an important part of wonder. The Latin word for wonder, admirare, comes into English as “admire” or “admiration.” Yet, wonder is not admiration, for admiration suggests a distanced response to something worthy of respect. Wonder, on the other hand, involves the wonderer. The wonderer is not a distance observer, but a participator with those wonders. As involved in the process, the wonderer experiences a great pleasure. This pleasure is not simply that of amusement (far from it!), but a hope that that which causes awe in us due to our ignorance can come to be known. Again, says Thomas, “wonder is a cause of pleasure in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge one desires to have. … Wonder gives pleasure … in so far as it includes the desire of learning the cause, and in so far as the wonderer learns something new.” Wonder, therefore, is intimately linked with hope. For, if there is no hope that the wonderer will come to know the object of his wonder, the only result is despair. Consequently, any belief system which denies that knowledge is possible, or that truth is attainable by the human mind, must be a system of despair; and must chastise the child that wonders.

If this desire to wonder and to know is innate in human nature, why then do many people stop wondering as they grow? A full treatment of the decline in our wonder is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to suggest one possibility. As we grow, we sin, and as we sin, we violate our very nature. The effects of this will vary as individuals vary, but one of the effects is often the diminished desire for our very nature to develop. We lose what G.K. Chesterton calls, “the eternal appetite of infancy” (Orthodoxy, 58) The world becomes a wearisome and tiresome place, because we are wearied and tired of ourselves. We are born, as Wordsworth puts, “trailing clouds of glory … [and] Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But as we grow up, we grow old and can no longer see Heaven around us.

The question now becomes, what is to be done? How are we to recover this eternal infancy? How are we to grow up, without growing old? The answer must partly come from education. Education of the kind that does not dull the mind into submission, but which liberates it from opinion and ignorance, and feeds it on truth, goodness, and beauty. Then, and only then, is the mind freed to continue wondering, knowing, and delighting in the process as it matures. Furthermore, as the mind matures, it’s capacity to wonder also matures and so too does the delight in knowing. In short, we become more human, more of what we are, more of what we were intended to be.

Why Study History? Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge

Note: This is the fourth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

From the threefold description of history from my previous post, the main use of history in education is in the knowledge of the past and narrations of history. That is, the means by which historians research and investigate the events of the past will not be a role in education inasmuch as this is a specialized task and so will not be a part of general education. However, this may play a role in that the historian must use reason, logic, and the rules of evidence, and these are certainly a part of the critical thinking education of the liberal arts.

MemoryThe first function of history is to provide the foundations of thought. Thinking itself does not seem possible without there being something to think about. Early in the developmental process of the student’s mind, history provides the most natural and simple content for the thoughts of the student. In fact Hugh of St. Victor goes so far as to say that history is “the foundation of all knowledge, the first to be laid out in memory” (Hugh of St. Victor, “The Three Best Memory Aids for Learning History”). Hugh argues this because of the progressive nature of education, learning first that which is most immediate to the student, what is most simple, and that on which the more complex truths depend. Explains Hugh,

First you learn history and diligently commit to memory the truth of the deeds that have been performed, reviewing from beginning to end what has been done, when it has been done, where it has been done, and by whom it has been done. For these are the four things which are especially to be sought for in history—the person, the business done, the time, and the place. (The Didascalicon, 135-136)

According to Hugh, to skip history and move to other philosophical or theological truths, or simply to train a student to perform some task, is like trying to read without first learning the alphabet. And of these people Hugh says, “knowledge of these fellows is like that of an ass. Don’t imitate persons of this kind” (Ibid). Hugh’s exhortation is based on his view that history serves to root the young student in what they can simply comprehend in order that the more complex may be developed. For example, studying the life of George Washington first, may enable the students to go on the reason about valor, courage, and war.

History provides the simplest content of thought: names, dates, events, all of which the young student can easily store in memory and then use as the content of later thought. It may not even be of immediate use to the student. No doubt, people often complain, “what is the use of studying history? I’m never going to use this!” Yet, Hugh points out that there are different kinds of utility when it comes to historical knowledge. “Some things are to be known for their own sakes, but others, although for their own sakes they do not seem worthy of our labor, nevertheless, because without them the former class of things cannot be known with complete clarity, must by no means be carelessly skipped” (Ibid).

Up next: The second function of history in education

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”

Why Study History? Part IIb: The Definition of “History”

Note: This is the third post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous post I offered a definition of “education.” I must next set forth just what is meant by “history.” Once these two definitions are in place we will be able to explore their relationship.

How then shall we define “history?” According to historian John Lukacs, “no definition will do.” Instead, Lukacs offers a description of history: Says Lukacs, “History is the memory of mankind” (John Lukacs, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History). Understood thusly, “history” is a kind of memory, the memory of things and persons past. In this sense, history is both active and passive. Active in the sense of the “study of things past” and passive in the sense that the contents of thought are memories: we cannot think apart from “things remembered.”

Yet, in spite of the discouragement of defining history from Lukacs, a general definition is necessary in order to proceed. “History” as such seems to sit between science and poetry as a discipline and practice, incorporating elements of both. The English word “history” is derived from the Greek ἱστορία (historia) and according to the Liddell and Scott Greek-English lexicon denotes “knowledge or information obtained by inquiry.” It is in this way that history relates to science. Both science and history are concerned with a kind of knowledge that comes only after research, and both attempt to prove or justify their claims. Hence, Aristotle titled his study of animals, The History of Animals. It is not the past events of animals or tales of animals in the line of Aesop, but rather a study or inquiry of what he discovered about animals as the result of his research.

urlIn our time we might entitle Aristotle’s work as a “study” or “science” of animals, but this similarity between history and science is quite informative for the definition of “history.” First, history is not necessarily concerned with natural, universal laws of the physical world, but the particular events of the past. That is, it is the knowledge of what happened in the past. In this way, we can also speak of certain natural sciences as also being a “history.” Geology might constitute both the natural laws of rocks and planets, and the history of those particular rocks on Earth that explain its current state. In fact, some scientists have argued that a study of the history of a particular science is the best way of studying that field itself. “In the twentieth century some of our best physicists have suggested that the clearest explanation of the new concepts of physics may be that of the history of their development…the history of chemistry is chemistry itself” (John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past, 6).

Second, history is distinguished from the natural sciences in that, as its name implies, it is concerned with telling a story. The natural sciences are presented as propositions, while history is related in narrative (or prose) form. As Hegel says,

In our language the term History unites the objective with the subjective side … It comprehends not less what has happened than the narration of what has happened. This union of the two meanings we must regard as of a higher order than mere outward accident; we must suppose historical narrations to have appeared contemporaneously with historical deeds and events. (Georg Hegel, quoted in, Mortimer J. Adler, ed. “History,” 546.)

It is in this way that history was distinguished from poetry. Though both relate to what is known, historia relates to that which is known as the result of research. Both Homer and Herodotus wrote concerning the Trojan War, yet Homer’s is poetry, while Herodotus’ is history. The difference is that Herodotus intentionally set out to investigate the claims that people like Homer have made about those events. Says Herodotus, “I made inquiry, whether the story which the Greeks tell about Troy is a fable or not” (Herodotus, quoted in, Mortimer J. Adler, ed. “History,” 547). This relationship to poetry helps explains why history was one of the Nine Muses. Clio stands next to comedy and tragedy as art forms, requiring or offering inspiration. This would seem to suggest that there is more to history than just a scientific analysis of past events. History unites the investigations of past events with the poetry and prose of narration and storytelling.

History, then, may be described in the following ways:

  1. It is the investigative process whereby the historian determines what has happened in the past.
  2. It is knowledge of those past events as determined by the research
  3. It is the narration which communicates those events to others.

While certainly more could be said about the nature and philosophy of history, this brief description will suffice for the purpose of setting history as a topic within educational curriculum.

Up next: The first function of history in education

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”

Boredom Is Inhuman

It is an interesting fact that only humans get bored, and I say that people only get bored when they fail to be human.

Boredom appears to be a kind of restlessness that occurs when one does not know what to do when there is nothing to do. By “nothing to do” I mean nothing “compulsory” (work, labor, etc.) and when no form of amusement presents itself—when I’ve done all my work, when there is nothing on television or at the theater that I care to see, and when all my friends and family are otherwise occupied. Keep this understand of “nothing to do” in mind, because by it I do not mean that there is actually “nothing to do”. Boredom occurs when I do not know what there actually is to do apart from the things mentioned above (work, amusement, etc.).

And this is what makes Boredom essentially inhuman. By “inhuman” I mean “goes against the essence of humanity.” What does it mean “to be human”? What distinguishes humanity from all other beings? No doubt this question goes well beyond what I can cover here, but let me put forth the mild assertions that what makes humans, human, is the ability to think, to reason, or to know. If that is so, then thinking well is the highest activity a person can do and that our ultimate happiness consists in an activity of the mind. What a person is saying when he/she says, “I’m bored,” is essentially, “I do not know how to be human,” or “I do not know how to think”. Because, for the person who can think and learn for themselves, there is never a time when there is “nothing to do.” As Mortimer Adler says, “[it is] the mark of the happy man…that you never find him trying to kill time” (Adler, “Labor, Leisure, and Liberal Education,” 1951).

Only humans can get bored because only human can know / think. It is when I do not know how to learn, how to become more human, more of what I am, that I get “bored”.

So, to all my students who, finding themselves out of school for the summer and without a job: exercise you mind. You have been given an amazing gift of leisure time, time to become more human, time for contemplation and reflection.

Our society enjoys more “free time” than any other society in history. It is a simple fact that prior to the industrial revolution the vast majority of humankind spent their lives in work and sleep, with no opportunity for leisure. We have been given this amazing gift to explore the universe and our own minds, both of which provide for infinite growth and possibilities. And what do we do with all this free time? We say, “we’re bored, there’s nothing to do”!?

What an absurdity! What a denial of life! What an inhuman thing to say!

The Elective System: Giving Ignorance a Voice in Education

Because man is viewed as having only an animal career and not a human destiny, interest and adjustment have taken the place of discipline and cultivation as the watchwords of educational policy. The whole aim of education changes, for adjustment lead to the cult of success, the “ideal” of getting ahead by beating your neighbor. The emphasis on the interests of the student makes him a buyer instead of a patient, and the teacher becomes a salesman rather than a doctor prescribing the cure for ignorance and incompetence. It is the student who is the master under the elective system, which was invented because of the excessive proliferation of scientific courses in the curriculum, and has been perpetuated by the perversion of educational policy which makes the young, i.e., the relatively ignorant and incompetent, choose their own road to learning, according to the fickle interests of their immaturity. Extracurricular activities originated in response to interests that were tangential to the main business of education, but in many schools they have become the curriculum, and the substantial studies have been thrown out. They are not even extracurricular. Many college curriculums offer courses A to Z without discrimination; and the university, instead of being a hierarchy of studies and a community of scholars, is a collection of specialists, together only in geographical proximity.

Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education, p. 77 (emphasis added)

The Treasury of Knowledge Is Stored in the Human Mind, Not Google

My child, knowledge is a treasury and your heart is its strongbox. As you study all of knowledge, you store up for yourselves good treasures, immortal treasures, incorruptible treasures, which never decay nor lose the beauty of their brightness. In the treasure-house of wisdom are various sorts of wealth, and many filing-places in the store-house of your heart. … The orderly arrangement is clarity of knowledge. Dispose and separate each single thing into its own place. … Confusion is the mother of ignorance and forgetfulness, but orderly arrangement illuminates the intelligence and secures memory.

~Hugh of St. Victor, “The Three Best Memory-Aids for Learning History”


What matters matter?

I am often struck by how useless some parts of our knowledge are; which otherwise we think of great importance. For example, if tomorrow I discovered that Mars was not exactly where we thought it was, but was actually a few million miles further out, what difference would that make?

Or take this a step further, what if tomorrow I found out that the sun goes around the earth and not the earth around the sun? Would it matter? As far as I can tell, not much. I wouldn’t do or not do something depending on this bit of trivia.

So, what does matter? Whether I love and am loved. Whether God is present. Whether I am accountable to someone for my actions. Whether my actions have significance beyond the immediate. Whether there is an afterlife.

These are things that matter, and I like to focus my attention on matters that matter. The rest is just idle curiosity.

I agree that Copernicus’ opinion need not be more closely examined. But this: It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.
~Blaise Pascal (Pensées, 164)

Is It Always Good to Know?

I’ve always thought that “knowledge” was an intrinsic good. That is, good, in and of itself—not for some end or purpose, not for what it can or cannot do, nor for whether it will ever be used or not.

Recently, I’ve begun to question this. Not the part of it that would allow students to say, “I’ll never use this, why do I need to know it?” No, knowledge is still good in spite of whether you will “use” it in an extrinsic sense.

My doubts relate more to the relationship of “knowledge” to the “will.” The question I have is: “Is knowledge a good when it is united to a corrupt will?” Many people often complain that if God really existed, He would make His existence manifestly known. And consequently, that by this knowledge, they would believe (have faith, be converted). This is a question which turns on the theological notion of the deus absconditus.

Not surprisingly, Christian theologians have offered different response to this challenge (what they haven’t done is ignored it—what most people who state the challenge fail ever to do is look for a possible answer).

Blaise Pascal argues that if God did not remain hidden, terrible consequence would follow (hence, He stays hidden).

God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will. Humble their pride. (Pensées, 234)

What Pascal means here is that perfect knowledge would do nothing to convert our wills. Though we would know the truth, we would not want it (or love it).

In 1945, at the Nuremburg Trials, the top Nazis defendents were given IQ tests, here are the results:

Hermann Wilhelm Goering (138)
Rudolf Hess (120)
Joachim von Ribbentrop (129)
Wilhelm Keitel (129)
Ernst Kaltenbrunner (113)
Alfred Rosenberg (127)
Hans Frank (130)
Wilhelm Frick (130)
Julius Streicher (106)
Walter Funk (124)
Hjalmar Schacht (143)
Karl Doenitz (138)
Erich Raeder (134)
Baldur von Schirach (130)
Fritz Sauckel (118)
Alfred Jodl (127)
Franz von Papen (134)
Arthur Seyss-Inquart (141)
Albert Speer (128)
Constantin von Neurath (125)
Hans Fritzsche (130)

All of them were above average in intelligence, some at levels of “genius.” Was their knowledge and intelligence a good thing? This is where the tension lives. Is it an intrinsic good to know how to kill effectively millions of people?

It seems that perfect knowledge without perfected wills only enables us to be more creative with our evil. It does not entail that we will do what we ought.

As St. Paul says,

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15)

We are divided in our very nature.

So I wonder, is it always better to know?