COURSES AND TEACHING
The Human Person
In the last century, entire populations were murdered to “make room” for the transformation of human nature into the (Democratic, Communist, Marxist, Capitalist, etc.) Super-Human. In our day, philosophers often scoff at the very idea of there being such a thing as human nature to destroy, much less transcend, while many persons look with a mixture of hunger and horror toward a time when technological advancements will “change” human nature and human life—perhaps even rendering human beings superfluous in a world of which they only yesterday thought themselves masters. It has been said a crisis in humanism, i.e. an insufficient understanding of the human person, underlies these manifold political and historical tragedies of the twentieth century, and that it lies at the heart of our own uncertainties and anxieties about ourselves as students, persons, and creatures. In this course we will attempt to engage the major questions confronting us in the twenty-first century by examining fundamental aspects, from birth through death, of the human experience and considering how to pursue the good in the dramatic unfolding of human life. Like Everyman in the medieval morality play, we shall ask and try to answer, “Who am I?,” “What should my life contain?,” “What should its form be?” and “Where should it lead me?”
Epiphanies of Beauty
The Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that central to many works of art is a moment of recognition, when a protagonist moves from a state of ignorance to knowing something that radically changes his view of things. The work of art can both depict and elicit such moments of recognition. In his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” Pope John Paul II, himself a poet and avant-garde playwright, called the modern world into a deeper engagement with literary art on its own terms, according to its own “specific dictates.” This critical endeavor, he argued, would realize new moments of recognition—“epiphanies of beauty”—that would shed light on the human condition and mystery of creation. John Paul II’s call to artistic encounter animates this Humanities sophomore writing and literature seminar, which explores major formal, aesthetic, social, and ethical questions involved in the interpretation of literature. The course addresses these questions through primary texts from Western Europe and North America in the modern period, i.e., the late-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century.
The Art of Verse
The medieval poet, Dante Alighieri, referred to his craft—the writing of verses—simply as “grammar.” Samuel Johnson, in the eighteenth century, included prosody as one of the four elements of grammar one must know if one were to be literate. As if commemorating a decline from the ages of Dante and Johnson, the contemporary poet Brad Leithauser has claimed that “metrical illiteracy is, for the poet, functional illiteracy.” This is a course designed to give you the tools and knowledge of literacy in Johnson’s venerable sense. We will study, and seek to write, beautiful poems that demonstrate the powers of the reflective imagination, certainly, but also the discipline and competence of well-wrought, measured, language. In this course, you will be introduced to the elements of prosody, and will try your hand at composing poems in different meters, stanzaic forms, and genres. We shall read exemplary poems in different forms from the English language tradition; consider the theoretical, cultural, and historical implications of versification; and become familiar with the conventions of verse craft. Such readings will help you to become comfortable with the art of composition in rhyme and meter, so that the focus of the course may fall more productively on the writing of original poems, and on learning to perform poems with vitality and skill.
The Poetry of Meditation
Philosophical, Theological, and Practical Approaches to the Lyric Poem
For more than five centuries, the lyric poem has served as a means of representing the life of the mind as it grapples with the difficulties of body and soul, love and truth, God and Being. By providing conventions and forms, it has also served poets and readers alike as a vehicle for disciplined meditation on these things. As such, it is a capacious form for the cultivation of the intellect, spirit, and aesthetic sense. In this course, we will take philosophical, theological, and practical approaches to lyric poetry, studying brilliant poems alongside major philosophical and spiritual texts. We will write our own poems, and learn and recite those of past masters so that every student can enter into a deeper, more reflective intellectual and artistic life. We will read the works of Donne, Herbert, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Stevens, Winters, Pinkerton, and Hart alongside works of philosophical-theology, contemplative aids, and literary theory.
The Return to the Real
The modern age, including our own present moment, is characterized by a tendency of exclusion in the name of “being realistic.” By means of such varied epithets as “superstition,” “primitive,” “epiphenomena,” “psychological,” and “subjective,” we purge the depths of human experience until the nature and meaning of the world begins to appear, to say the least, “impoverished.” If we sometimes resist these trends by, for instance, celebrating the imaginative, the irrational, or the “private,” we also often indulge and further them, when it is to our particular advantage. In the early Twentieth Century, however, some of its most distinguished thinkers mounted a true resistance, arguing that the great weakness of modern “realism” was that it was not nearly realistic enough. In excluding the traditional transcendental properties of Being—unity, truth, goodness, and beauty—the modern age has not come to a more accurate, but a radically distorted, sense of the world and our place within it. In this course, we shall study the works of poet-critic T.S. Eliot and neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain in order to explore the grounds of reality in hopes of recovering a sense of its true depths. We shall follow these two authors in the search for Unity, or Order, in reality; for the Beautiful, in art and poetry, as a way of knowing as much as of “feeling” and in terms of the human person’s capacity to make and discover meaning in things; for the Good in terms of human identity as a political, intellectual, and religious person; and for the True, the foundations of the intelligibility of things in metaphysics and mysticism. These two most wide-ranging and perceptive intellects of the last century will thus guide us in a return to the Real.