deep magic

Wendell Berry, that romantic, controversial, novel distiller of very old truths, set my mental cogs a-turning today. In Life Is a Miracle he offered a definition of a "classic": a work whose themes resonate with a sort of eternal freshness from age to age, one whose meaning does not grow old with the volume itself.
This definition has significant merit to it and especially recalls the task those in the Academy engage and pursue. Berry rightly (and in harmony with a multitude of prior essayists) condemns the mindless, obsessive demand for originality in current scholarly work, with the ever persistent cry for new discoveries in an arena whose proper field is truth, not novelty. Such a warning of course does not preclude man's perennial desire to know, identified by Aristotle as a basic human characteristic. However, it does illuminate a difference between those who view colleges or universities as institutions for data transferral or instruction and those who understand education as the cultivation of those particular mental habits which make humans the beings they are.
What a world it would be if college professors understood their vocation; that is to say, actually stood under their discipline and looked up in awe at the knowledge handed down to them, willing to be mastered by that truth so that they could actually lead their students out of the multitudinous caves of ignorance. As it is, the modern research university is dominated by those who prefer to stand in arrogance atop their discipline, looking down upon it as so much material to be dissected, mastered, and handed to their unfortunate pupils as discrete, unappealing bundles of information which neither enlarge their souls nor order their loves.
I believe there once was an ideal of liberal learning largely held by most civilizations which knew that there were things that it behooved a free person to know. After hearing Crassus expostulate on the need for an orator to be well educated and thus combine learning with eloquence, his interlocutor bursts out "But you have led me straight to the heart of the Academy!" In a flash of rhetorical brilliance, Cicero makes clear the goals of education: both to find the truth and express it well. Thus is De Oratore a classic, making apparent as it does the eternal verity of human education and the role of the Academy. We must "sing a new song to the Lord," releasing anew the intelligibility of the created world with our own particular song--a unique expression using an ancient medium, freshly communicating the permanent things.
If we accept that to be is to be intelligible, then in truth there are things to be discovered and known. But the hysteria for unique discovery has unleashed a tendency to focus on newness to the fatal exclusion of an entire inheritance of knowledge and wisdom that civilization has accumulated across the centuries. Knowledge is to adequate one's intellect to reality, not to divorce man's individuality from the integrated created order.


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