The “cold pastoral” of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” came from a naughty boy. I would argue that it came out of the naughty boy precisely because he was a boy, a boy who liked to trick and amuse his sister, like many a boy. His head was filled with potent sounds and images. These delighted him constantly and made the fertile stuff from which his better-known poetry was born. Let us not forget that Keats came from a particular kind of family and particular kind of education and particular culture. Let us tremble at every loss or diminishment of that world which assumed such families, education, and culture would be wide-spread.
Culture Wars without Culture?
Our own disorders spring from so much neglect of the real soil of culture: the widely shared canon of good literature and the widely affirmed understanding that there must be goodness in literature, and that such literature should be read aloud within families and by each and every person who dares call himself civilized—before, during, and after their formal education. Goodness is the soil of greatness.
I do not mean by goodness in literature and good literature that all characters should be plaster statues without depth or real complexity. No, I mean literature which elicits a clear understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful, because what is light is seen nearby to what is dark. Enchantment will not work in an imbalanced world of goody-goody mannequins. The enchantment offered by good literature works because those reading or listening to a tale already know first-hand that life is complex. We need go no further than Squirrel Nutkin to understand how this very real balance is achieved even in a children’s literature. Nutkin is, at once, morally flawed and attractive. No one who encounters Squirrel Nutkin—even one of five years—can fail to miss his conceit, fail to anticipate his demise, or fail to recognize his own fallenness in the impertinent will-to-power of Nutkin.
I will go so far as to say that a reader who has not had his experience nurtured and refined by the likes of Squirrel Nutkin is unlikely to comprehend Thucydides, St. Augustine, or Nietzsche.
Do the Great Books Sustain Wonder and Lead to Morality?
Over the last century, “great books” programs and colleges have fought a valiant battle to keep up the high standard of what it means to be human and civilized. Sadly, most of the progenitors of these programs neglected or gave little time to thinking about the supporting culture—especially as it touched upon family life and social customs. Worse still, some of the “great books” proponents thought that by rubbing up against Milton’s Areopagita, or joining in a seminar discussion of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, leaders would be born who would create, leaven, and sustain a good society. Somehow the idea has held steady for decades that an almost sacred encounter with great literature between the ages of 17 and 22 could transcend a hollow and malnourished family life, where little song was heard and none sung.
Yet the great books demand a supporting culture—both before and after and throughout.
Would we place our trust in a man who was well-versed in Nichomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but who could not complete a line of nursery rhyme, who had never slept under the stars with Jim Hawkins, never wanted to rescue the likes of Princess Flavia, never shrunk in horror at the witches of Macbeth, never wept at the death of a bull dog named Jack or sorrowed over the sins of Kristen Lavransdatter? The one thing a liberal arts or great books education will not do is create a moral imagination where there is none. Yet somehow many educators believe that reading advanced works and chatting about them will lead to a good society. It may lead to a well-read society, but that need not be a good one or a happy one.