Inklings of Things Unseen: Philosophical Essays on Literature
There are, I believe, two major reasons—one external and one internal—why the number of humanities majors is sinking in colleges and universities across the country. The former has to do with economic forces outside the control of the departments of English, history, and philosophy, and even of academia itself. Job anxiety and rising costs have made students, and even more their parents, shy away from the liberal arts.
Such marketplace factors, however, are themselves products of the even stronger external forces of scientism, (philosophical) materialism, and utilitarianism. Increasingly since the Enlightenment, the West has driven a wedge between objective facts and subjective values, privileging the former over the latter and relegating the latter to a private sphere. Studying works of literature and philosophy can be entertaining, and may even teach us a few critical thinking skills, but one does not go to such books for truth or even for advice on how to survive and thrive in the “real” world.
Were these the only forces beleaguered humanities departments and English professors like myself had to fight, the situation would not be so dire. After all, we are the caretakers of the Great Books, of what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and known in the world.” Give us the chance to invite students into the Great Conversation that has been going on since the Five Books of Moses and the two epics of Homer, and we can win back the hearts and minds of students.
Unfortunately, humanities departments have been prevented from doing this by a half century of increasingly aggressive modern and postmodern theorists from within our ranks who have robbed our disciplines of their timeless, cross-cultural power and relevance. From Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytical critics to deconstruction and the death of the author, to queer studies and grievance studies, to critical race theory, the Great Books have been subjected to wave after wave of resentment, reductivism, and political appropriation. Three generations of professors have built their careers on treating the Great Books, not as living fountains overflowing with wisdom, but as junkyards filled with scrap metal which they can use to shore up their ideologies.
Thankfully, defenders of the Great Books and of the tradition in general have arisen from many different quarters over the years, from Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom to Jacques Barzun and Roger Scruton to Russell Kirk and Mortimer Adler to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien to Wendell Berry and Jordan Peterson. But there are many other lesser-known writers who are fighting the good fight in humanities departments across the country.
One of those brave professor-critics has taught philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney for thirty years, patiently but passionately introducing his students to Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. His name is David Rozema, and his new book mounts a defense of those geniuses of the past from whom so many of our once great humanities departments are no longer willing to learn.
How does Rozema define these geniuses? They are those who “create works that deepen our understanding of ourselves, the world, and others; that mold, purify, and refine our passions and attitudes; that repair and strengthen the bond between heart and mind, body and soul, physic and metaphysic” (vii). One would think that all professors who teach in the humanities would feel the same way about these geniuses and their work, but such, sadly, is not the case.
Rozema, like me, attended graduate school in the 1980s, where he discovered, as I did, that “the predominant modus operandi among ‘researchers’ in the humanities (specifically in philosophy and literature) was to find fault in the works of past authors—most of whom were dead and so could not defend themselves—in order to (at least partially) dismiss them. This process was euphemistically called ‘critical analysis’” (ix).
It is precisely that “critical” spirit that has squelched, and continues to squelch, the redemptive, transformative voices of the Great Books that these geniuses bequeathed to the world. Rozema sets himself the vital task of defending and rehabilitating those voices, focusing his attention on Plato, Dostoevsky, Wittgenstein, Solzhenitsyn, and Lewis.
Rozema succeeds so well in his defense because he is aware of both sets of dangers to the humanities and how they overlap. Using as his interlocutors Lewis (The Abolition of Man), Dickens (Hard Times), and Berry (“Two Minds” and Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community), Rozema draws a distinction between the rational mind, which is concerned only with empirical facts and scientific analysis, and the sympathetic mind, which he links to imagination, virtue, and community.
When the former overwhelms the latter, when the quantitative is allowed to swallow up the qualitative, the result is the commodification of education. In educational institutions that give way to what Rozema calls “commodious” thinking, that means “larger classes, lots of adjuncts and teaching assistants, distance learning, online courses, extensive use of multi-media and standardized textbooks and curricula” (20). When taken to its extreme, this form of education “entails the elimination of the virtues of generosity, respect, gift-giving, and treating persons as ends in themselves.” Worse yet, it “teaches students that persons, too, are mere tools to be used and managed for profit” (21).
When, however, the sympathetic mind, with its vision of education as community, is allowed its say, then “Knowledge-as-information will be subservient to knowledge-as- practice; good character will be even more important than accurate information; power will be governed by practical love. What gets taught, and how it gets taught, will be determined and shaped by the idea that an education—like friendship, citizenship, or marriage—cannot be bought or sold, only given and received” (27).
The vision here is a high one, but it cannot survive ideology-driven professors who “teach literature as if it were a branch of sociology or political science” (30). To “save literature from the dustbin of mere taste,” bemoans Rozema, “the strategy [of such ideologues] seems to be to reduce literature to an object—an artifact or an instrument—so that it can be approached in a more scientific manner” (37).
At this point, many of my fellow evangelicals will be tempted to argue that the best way to preserve literature is to fight for an extreme form of literalism, where there is a one- to-one correspondence between words and what they signify. Alas, those who seek “literal” meanings in literature, whether fictional or biblical, too often desire themselves to use the work for a utilitarian purpose—whether that purpose be practical or political, consumerist or ideological. Rozema urges us instead to experience the mythic power of literature, both sacred and secular, to transform.
After quoting two numinous passages from Lewis’s science-fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet, Rozema asks what “use” such a fantastical story can have for its reader: “Clearly it is not meant to inform, or to persuade, or merely to entertain. Neither is it some call to action nor a cry of passion. It is not presented as an opinion or a theory. But it does have the power to humble us, to inspire awe, to shape our attitude towards what transcends us, and to cause our spirits to long for our consummation in what is inexpressibly greater than us. That is the meaning of the myth” (97).
Rozema devotes many of his chapters to restoring that sense of awe and longing to our literary encounters with Plato, Lewis, Solzhenitsyn, Wittgenstein, and many others, but I would like to conclude by highlighting one more of his theoretical insights.
Rozema quotes often from Dostoevsky, not just because of the power of his fiction, but because Rozema considers him to be “the first prophet to speak out against the dehumanizing effect of the scientific study of Man. In the midst of the fashionable fervor for the materialist theories of Mill, Darwin, and Marx, Dostoyevsky raises a lone voice of skepticism and warning against the utopian dreams of the scientific socialists” (210).
According to Rozema, it was these scientific socialists who bequeathed to their academic heirs an “‘outside-in’ approach to man”: one that attempts “to discover the natural laws and forces that cause human behavior.” These causes, Rozema continues, “are supposed to be ‘natural’; ‘scientifically viable’ causes—which is as much as to say that reason, choice, and even passion do not ultimately count.” (222).
The ancient writers who bequeathed to us a more divine and humanistic legacy knew better. They believed that our human condition “included the abilities to reason, to be consciously passionate, and to choose. The possibility they had in mind was a life—in fact, a way of life—characterized by well-reasoned, compassionate choices” (350).
If literature and philosophy professors across the nation returned to this at once en-nobled and humble vision of man, if they began again to invite students into a dialogue that truly engaged their reason, their passion, and their will, then I suppose our decaying humanities buildings could not hold the students who would be fighting to enter in.