Thursday, July 08, 2021

Educating the Passions

Over the July 4th weekend, columnist David Brooks wrote about the importance of storytelling:

America Has a Great Story to Tell

Skipping past the explicitly political content, I was particularly impressed by the discussion of "propositional" (intellectual) knowledge versus "emotional and moral knowledge." Brooks quotes 18th-century philosopher David Hume: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” My first reaction, as many readers' might be, was, "Huh?" But Brooks goes on to explain:

"Once you realize that people are primarily desiring creatures, not rational creatures, you realize that one of the great projects of schooling and culture is to educate the passions. It is to help people learn to feel the proper kind of outrage at injustice, the proper form of reverence before sacrifice, the proper swelling of civic pride, the proper affection for our fellows. This knowledge is conveyed not through facts but through emotional experiences — stories." I would add, by the way, that poems and songs perform the same function. Think of "America the Beautiful" or "This Land Is Your Land," to name only two examples.

The importance of educating the passions (i.e., emotions) forms one of the core messages of C. S. Lewis's THE ABOLITION OF MAN (1943). He adopts from Plato the metaphor of the human personality being composed of three parts, the head (reason), the chest (spirit, in the sense of emotions), and the abdomen (basic appetites). Reason should rule the whole person, including appetites and desires; however, it does so, not directly, but through the "chest." One of the chapters in THE ABOLITION OF MAN, in fact, is titled "Men Without Chests." The "proper" attitudes alluded to by Brooks develop not through intellectual study, important as that is, but by osmosis, so to speak, permeating a child's world-view before he or she has any idea what's happening. And that happens through implicit assumptions that may never be explicitly stated. For instance, in Lewis's book he analyzes passages from a pair of English textbooks for pupils at British elementary schools (as we'd call them). Both of them convey the underlying, taken-for-granted idea that there are no such things as objective values. The authors of the texts may not have even consciously realized that's what they were doing. Lewis covers similar ground in his PREFACE TO PARADISE LOST, where he refutes the disdain of one of his contemporaries for "stock responses." The attitudes and emotions dismissed by some critics as "stock responses," Lewis maintains, are not innate and automatic. They have to be deliberately shaped through years of growth. Good preconceptions as well as bad have "got to be carefully taught" (to quote the song from SOUTH PACIFIC).

As writers, we should be heartened to recognize the vital importance of stories in that process.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment