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The Misfit's Wickedness

May 24, 2019

Thanks to James Keller, HMU student, for today's post.

Borrowing from Bradbury, Great Books Chicago 2019 was titled: Something Wicked This Way Comes. Taken as a statement rather than a title, it is a somewhat comforting thought—at least initially. If the wicked thing is coming, it is something outside and not of ourselves. It is something foreign to humanity, perhaps a distortion of humanity, but not endemic to humanity. But comfort turns cold when one asks, from where does this wicked thing come? From where does wickedness itself come? How is it that otherwise good people sometimes perform horrifying acts of violence? How is it that people have at times submitted themselves to great oppression, and worse, that they have become complicit in aiding the oppression of others? Lingering in the back of the mind is dread, the fear that wickedness is not something foreign after all, but something to which any one of us might be prone under the right—or rather, wrong—circumstances. Whence wickedness?

Among the readings at Great Books Chicago 2019 was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In that short story, a murderer and thief who has adopted the name, The Misfit, explains the source of his own wickedness. The cause of his criminality is rooted in his doubts regarding the resurrecting power of Jesus. If Jesus did indeed do as he claimed to have done, The Misfit asserts, then one has no choice but to follow him, but “if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness” (71-72). He goes on to say that he wishes he could be certain whether or not Jesus raised the dead, because, if he had certain knowledge of the resurrection, he would not be like he is. But, the reader asks, why should religious doubt lead The Misfit to the mistreatment of his fellow human beings?

The search for an answer to this question involves other related questions: Why these pleasures? If one said that without a resurrection, one might as well devote himself to the pleasures of the moment, it does not follow that those must entail violence. Pleasure comes in many forms: food, sex, alcohol, art, fine conversation—perhaps about great books—sports... and so on. Why, then, does The Misfit focus on the pleasure to be derived from violence? And then, If there is no pleasure but meanness, why does he say about killing the grandmother, “It’s no real pleasure in life”? (73). By studying these questions, we may understand how The Misfit’s religious doubt is the root of his wickedness.

The limited pleasures of The Misfit grow out of a unique form of despair. For some, moral despair is induced by the belief that one is unable to improve, due to a natural badness or weakness of character. Because they find it unthinkable that they could morally improve themselves, they no longer make the attempt. This is just who I am. But this is not the source of despair in The Misfit. In his case, he cannot fathom why he ought to be punished. He relates the story of being imprisoned, despite being unable to remember the original crime. He is told that he killed his father, but he does not believe this to be true, claiming that his father died of the flu some time ago (69). An ambivalence marks his speech regarding his punishment. On the one hand, he suggests that he was rightly punished: “They had the papers on me” (69). But on the other, he expresses mistrust in the system that punished him, saying that no one ever showed him those papers and that from now on, he makes sure to keep a copy of all papers, with signatures: “Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see they do match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right” (71). Indeed, he calls himself “The Misfit,” not because he feels no sense of belonging, but because he knows of no crime he committed that merited the punishment he received (71). Moreover, he expresses indignation that punishment is dispensed arbitrarily, with one being “punished a heap,” while another is not “punished at all” (71).

The fact that The Misfit is punished for an unknown crime is the motivation for his malevolent behavior—a case of “Let the crime fit the punishment.” His is a despair that grows out of his perception that the world is fundamentally unjust. If one is going to be punished, despite having never performed a crime—at least that he can remember—then he might as well be a criminal. He might as well do something worth punishing. His criminality is a twisted attempt to restore justice to the world by making himself worthy of his punishment.

But, if The Misfit’s criminality is an expression of his despair, then it can bring him no joy. This is one reason killing the grandmother and her family brings no pleasure. It is true that he sees something good in her before killing her, and this seems to produce a sorrow in him over killing her. He seems regretful when he says: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (73). But the statement, “It’s no real pleasure in life” is broader than the regret of the single action. He expresses the lack of pleasure in the violence altogether, which supports the notion that his violence is an expression of his despair.

The Misfit’s despair and his complaint against the system can be read as a complaint against the doctrine of original sin. If one is born into the world worthy of punishment for the crimes of his forebears, crimes of which one has no memory, one response to that might be to be worthy of the promised punishment. The Misfit likens his punishment to that of Jesus, with the only exception being that “they” had no papers on Jesus (71). Both punishments appear to him to be unjust. Yet, in theory, Jesus was able to ultimately overcome death, i.e. reverse his punishment, while The Misfit cannot do so himself, except through belief in Jesus’ power to raise the dead. Through belief in the resurrection, The Misfit would be able to escape the punishment of death which he inherited. But, because he lacks certainty, he is left with the notion that he will be punished for crimes unknown to him, to a degree he cannot imagine having merited.

For The Misfit, then, the root of his wickedness is his religious doubt, the uncertainty that he merits death as a punishment and the uncertainty that he can be delivered from that death by Jesus. The belief that he will be punished, whether he is wicked or not, inspires him to pursue the pleasure to be found in violence. But, being motivated by despair, that violence cannot be an object of enjoyment, only an expression of rage against his perception that the world is unjust.

It will be obvious to the reader that the source of The Misfit’s wickedness is not the source of all human wickedness. The other readings at Great Books Chicago furnished other—perhaps “answers” is too strong a word—avenues for considering the origin of wickedness. They furnished us with good material for discussion. And, if it is a troubling notion that humans are capable of so much evil, some comfort is found in discussing the matter with others, looking together for the roots of wickedness within ourselves that they may be uprooted and never bear fruit.

I wish to express my gratitude to the organizers, speakers, discussion leaders, and fellow readers of Great Books Chicago 2019 and to Harrison Middleton University.

Work Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Vital Ideas: Crime. Ed. Theresa Starkey. Great Books Foundation. 2011, pp. 53-73.

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Great Books Chicago 2019

May 17, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Great Books Chicago is a weekend of book discussions held in Chicago. We meet at the Great Books Foundation and break off into separate rooms for discussions. We also attend events as a larger group. This year’s theme was Something Wicked This Way Comes which opened the door for a discussion of crime. We began with Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Misfit,” which is an exceptionally well-crafted story. (Check back next week for more on this story specifically.) We also discussed “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson.

What I love about these events – book discussions hosted around the world – is the great variety of people who attend. People with different occupations, experiences, and specialties always bring such interesting insights to the table. I welcome opinions that differ from mine because it allow me to learn more about humanity and the world. I genuinely believe that discussions like this humanize the world – permit us to glimpse something other than ourselves and our perspective. Moreover, when a larger group like this does find common ground in a text, it makes the likelihood of common ground on tough issues more approachable.

Rather than offer a summary of our discussions from my perspective, I thought it would be more interesting to use a few of E.O. Wilson’s words which underscore another reason that I treasure Great Books Chicago: the focus on interdisciplinary conversation. He writes:

“Studying the relation between science and the humanities should be at the heart of liberal education everywhere, for students of science and the humanities alike. That’s not going to be easy to achieve, of course. Among the fiefdoms of academia and punditry there exists a great variation in acceptable ideology and procedure. Western intellectual life is ruled by hard-core specialists. At Harvard University, for example, where I taught for four decades, the dominant criterion in the selection of new faculty was preeminence or the promise of preeminence in a specialty….

“The early stages of creative thought, the ones that do count, do not arise from jigsaw puzzles of specialization. The most successful scientist thinks like a poet – wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical – and works like a bookkeeper. It is the latter role that the world sees. When writing a report for a technical journal or speaking at a conference of fellow specialists, the scientist avoids metaphor. He is careful never to be accused of rhetoric or poetry. A very few loaded words may be used, if kept to the introductory paragraphs and the discussion following the presentation of data, and if added to clarify the meaning of a technical concept, but they are never used for the primary purpose of stirring emotion. The language of the author must at all times be restrained and obedient to logic based on demonstrable fact.

“The exact opposite is the case in poetry and the other creative arts. There metaphor is everything. The creative writer, composer, or visual artist conveys, often obliquely by abstraction or deliberate distortion, his own perceptions and the feelings he hopes to evoke – about something, about anything, real or imagined. He seeks to bring forth in an original way some truth or other about the human experience. He tries to pass what he creates directly along the channel of human experience, from his mind to your mind. His work is judged by the power and beauty of its metaphors. He obeys a dictum ascribed to Picasso: art is the lie that shows us the truth.” (40-42)

I quote all of that text not to say that E.O. Wilson’s book is perfect, but his point resonates with me. Increasing specialization and increasing separation will, most likely, lead to more separation. There is a key factor missing in much of our education – the idea of integration. I like that Wilson devotes a chunk of his book to the ways in which humanities may inform other disciplines. And vice versa. I do think that it is important to continue these conversations and to broaden our worldview as much as possible.

I greatly appreciate this joint effort between Harrison Middleton University and Great Books Foundation for hosting such a fantastic event! And again, check back for next week’s blog which continues with a discussion of wickedness.

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Why I Read The Great Books

January 5, 2018

Thanks to HMU student, Dave Seng, for today’s post.

"So, let great authors have their due, as time, which is the author of authors, be not deprived of his due, which is further and further to discover truth." – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning

I began my educational journey as a liberal arts student in the late 1990s, about the time when postmodern critical theory was winding down and scholars were trying to figure out whom won the battles of the “canon” and whom lost the “theory wars.” I remember it well. Leaving this intellectual climate behind, I decided to investigate the nature of the so-called “canon” and the Great Books associated with it, to determine for myself where such a curriculum is useful and why it is considered controversial. (I realize that many Great Books programs exist and not all adhere to the same list, so when I use the term Great Books, I am referring to the collection edited and published by the Encyclopedia Britannica.) With this background in mind, I intentionally reflect on my journey through critical theory as an undergraduate to exploring what I have discovered about the Great Books as a university professor.

When I consider my formative undergraduate years at a private liberal arts college, steeped in postmodern rhetoric, I discover an amazing thing about the Great Books. Those involved in the theory wars, or those bent on advocating their particular critical position often held to schools of thought founded by the Great Authors of the Western intellectual tradition. Those most critical of the Great Books claim that the canon is intolerant, exclusive, and written by “dead white males.” Interestingly, these same theorists usually uphold schools of thought founded by Hegel (historicism), Nietzsche (perspectivism), Kierkegaard (existential subjectivism), Marx (Marxism), or Freud (analytic egoism)—Great Authors, all. Try as one might, it is not an easy thing to discard the inherent value of the Great Books. The reason for this is simple. One must accept the foundational truth claims of the Western intellectual tradition in order to criticize it. Furthermore, the Great Books speak to timeless concerns of human importance that transcend the “isms” and academic fashions of the day. Rather, they seek to enlighten us as to what it means to be rational and thoughtful individuals in the pursuit of truth. These significant insights have helped me make some important applications in my own teaching career.

First, however, we see that foundational and essential truths about reality and logic cannot be denied. Even the most committed existentialist or postmodernist accepts the law of non-contradiction when asserting the subjectivity of truth or that all reality is historically and culturally determined. Important values such as rationalism, liberalism, and constitutional government with a strong emphasis on individual freedom, provides the cultural foundation from which postmodernism is built. These ideas began with the Greeks and are still with us today. Have you asked yourself, “what is the nature of justice”? So did Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides—they and others in the Great Books investigate this very question deeply and significantly. In a sense, postmodernism, itself, is part of what is known as the “Great Conversation.”

The Great Conversation, a term coined by Robert Hutchins and explicated by Mortimer Adler, recognizes inquiry, discussion, informed rational debate, pursuit of truth, and free exchange of ideas. As enduring values, this conversation began with Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle, and continues today. Postmodern critical theory owes its very existence to the Western tradition because inquiry and informed debate are foundational values. Questioning a canon is a tradition unto itself, and is also found in the Great Conversation. The Great Conversation is simply the discussion that began with the Greeks and continues today through philosophers, historians, poets, and scientists who seek to help us understand what it means to exist as finite human beings in the pursuit of truth and the nature of reality. These ultimate concerns are still thoughtfully, rationally, and critically examined by many in our own time.

Plato’s Socrates often confronts skeptics regarding truth and the nature of reality. Hume, Hobbes, and Descartes, just to name a few, often criticized the scholastic tradition that preceded them. In this sense, postmodernism is just emphasizing one side of the Great Conversation (although one of postmodernism’s discontinuities is that very few in the Western intellectual tradition gave up on the idea of truth). There are very few genuinely new ideas in contemporary culture, and when I read the Great Books, I am often reminded that not only are there rarely new ideas, I further discover that these Great Authors can provide a framework and way of thinking about current ideas in ways that can be beneficial.

In addition, since critical theory itself is influenced by Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Freud, and even Heidegger, postmodernism ironically demonstrates the enduring values of the Western tradition. While postmodern critical theory has lost its standing in the pantheon of academic fads (many just accept postmodern premises as true and move on), it is important to maintain the critical spirit of inquiry that the Great Books teach us. We must ask ourselves, “what if Descartes, Marx, or Freud were wrong”? And what insights could we gain from such discussion and investigation? One thing I have learned from teaching college students is that they are more than willing to challenge what they think is received authority. Something magical happens when one learns how to rationally, logically, and critically engage Great Ideas and discover enduring truths.

Another thing I learned while reading the Great Books is that every curriculum and field of study holds to a particular canon. One claim against the Great Books is that it is elitist and selective. In truth, however, all fields of human thought have a set of selected, received texts. Consider any course at any university, anywhere. At the class level, every professor identifies a selected book list from which his or her students will learn. Let us take an example from outside the humanities. In computer science, one could hardly be considered competent or knowledgeable in the field without knowing about Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Konrad Zuse, or Grace Hopper. Of course, others can and should be named, but the point is that it is not elitist to draw on the most foundational thinkers in any field. The Great Conversation is simply the development and transmission of the Western heritage's core values and knowledge - even if the foundational knowledge is sometimes tacit as Hayek, Popper, and Polanyi are apt to remind us. Every field by its very nature has to be selective.

Moving beyond critical theory, I discovered that the Great Books speak profoundly even in fields in which they may not be apparent. When I became a professor at a large research university, I began to see how my Great Books training served as a deep well from which I could draw, even though I do not teach courses immediately associated with the liberal arts. Upon a deeper examination, however, the economics of information course which I teach relates to ideas of Marx, Smith, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Keynes, and Weber, and involves timeless truths regarding the nature of wealth, government, and democracy. While it must be admitted that our own culture and technology have changed dramatically since these authors wrote, the enduring truths of which they speak - social cooperation, voluntary exchange, and the nature of supply and demand - persist and remain extremely relevant today. The principles of how value is determined in economics are true whether one is discussing the nature of free markets, digital information goods, or Bitcoin. In my Open Source Culture and History of Hacking class, we not only examine the foundational figures of the field, but explore timeless questions about the nature of reason, rationality, and consciousness as we explore what it means to be rational, intentional beings in an age of artificial intelligence (AI). Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, and Descartes still have important things to say about the nature of rational beings that directly relate to AI research issues today. And many of the Great Books have insightful things to say about the effects of technology on society. In all honesty, I have never had a student complain about one of these great authors; in most cases they are fascinated and excited that they can apply the information they have learned in a general education or philosophy course to what they are learning in one of my classes. Far from being irrelevant, these great texts have wonderful things to say about the nature of our lives in the Twenty-First Century. Even today, the Great Books provoke interesting and challenging ideas.

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Why the Syntopicon?

December 18, 2015

In the Preface to Genius, literary critic and professor Harold Bloom asserts the existence of and need for a discussion of genius. In the book, Bloom describes one hundred different voices in which he finds an element of genius, of creation. He writes, “Talent cannot originate, genius must.” These authors are considered geniuses because they created something where nothing existed before. Vergil, for example, ordered the Roman world, which adhered to the ideas presented in the Aeneid for centuries (and it still informs our worldview). Shakespeare used bits of foundational texts and contexts (like the Bible) to weave an actual, physical, present character of humanity in a way that no one before (or since) has. These are creators.

Bloom believes that these authors live for us because they have created something unmatched, something that pulls at us in an important and vital way. He writes, “We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces.... It is worth knowing that our word 'character' still possesses as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word's likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or mark of the stylus's incisions. Our modern word 'character' also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.” Bloom readily admits that these are not the world's only geniuses. And in organizing them into a list, he has created a sort of literary canon. Harold Bloom is a man who thinks seriously about serious literature and therefore, his list is not to be taken lightly. These types of lists often offer insight into the authors that deserve a long-standing place among human tradition. The importance and relevance of this type of list cannot be overstated.

Every human functions within a context. This context enables us to navigate a world of endless possibilities and create meaning from it. It is very difficult for the mind to create meaning from chaos. Present within chaos are strands of importance and strands of distraction. In the Preface, Bloom explains that he chose these literary giants because they have important, meaningful messages that discuss the path of humanity. They deserve our time and study. He writes, “The study of mediocrity, whatever its origins, breeds mediocrity. Thomas Mann, descendant of furniture manufacturers, prophesied that his Joseph-tetralogy would last because it was well-made. We do not accept tables and chairs whose legs fall off, no matter who carpentered them, but we urge the young to study mediocre writings, with no legs to sustain them.” In other words, some literature may benefit us more than others and it is an important, valid discussion to ensure that we are discussing the important texts.

Everyone would probably agree with this statement, yet it is difficult to get everyone to agree on any exact list. Of course, literature serves many purposes. There are light books, enjoyable reads, difficult texts, terminology-laded texts and varieties of genres from science-fiction to romance. Everything may serve a purpose and may fit a specific moment. However, if we are talking about the path of human intelligence, then there are works that require more thought and understanding and, for this reason, deserve more of our time.

Harrison MIddleton University chose to study The Great Books, another example of a canon, because it incorporates so many ideas across so many genres. These canons are simply attempts by serious men and women to maintain a list of what is important to human history. Dissent is understandable: so many legitimate voices arguing for so many legitimate pieces of literature. As with Bloom's Genius, the Syntopicon's Introduction tells us that 102 ideas is just about as much as can logically be held together and distributed, but should not be considered a sum total of all ideas. It is possible that both Bloom and Mortimer Adler had similar ideas when creating their canons (many of which overlap): that their scholarship might lead to more enlightened scholarship in decades and centuries to come. Of course, this is always the hope.

At Harrison Middleton University, we pursue the Great Books and great ideas because we too want to understand major arguments. We delve deeply into texts, we discuss these texts and we gain immeasurable results. Adler's 102 ideas form a foundation from which we leap, enabled by many voices, both ancient and new. We embrace conversation and study with purpose and energy.

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