A Magazine from the CiRCE Institute

Features

Permanence & Progress: How to See the Past As an Icon & Not As a Golden Calf

If you are reading these words, you already have a great devotion to the past. After all, this is a publication devoted to supporting the concept of classical education, which focuses heavily on the way young people should absorb the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual heritage of human civilization. The classical education movement emerged in part because of the perception that many mainstream institutions had jettisoned too much of that heritage (and some of its best pedagogical principles). That act of detaching from the past was largely guided by the progressivist notion that the current generation is more advanced and enlightened than those who have come before us.

Before we get any further I want to assure you that I agree with those perceptions. Moreover, I believe that the basic thrust behind the classical education movement is sound and praiseworthy. While we did not homeschool (our kids went to parochial schools and largely to either prep schools or Catholic high schools), our family life centered on common prayer and reading aloud from the classics. My eldest is a proud graduate of the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Now that my bona fides have been established, I want to make an argument that might be a little more controversial, but which is based on the ancient Aristotelian idea of the “Golden Mean,” as I hope to show.

In short, my contention is that there is a danger when those who criticize progressivism fall into the opposite error. Peter Kreeft once described progressivism as “chronological snobbery” because it looked down its nose at the past, but he admitted that such snobbery can work both ways. It is possible to disdain the present, too.

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The Illuminating Light: How Turning to the Monastics Can Help Our Schools Create & Preserve Culture

Most of you know that we have inherited a very rich educational tradition from those who preceded us. We know that in one sense, education is the transmission of culture—the transmission of the soul of society from one generation to another, as G. K. Chesterton put it. But many readers may not be aware that an important part of our educational culture comes to us through the monastic tradition. How important? In fact, if we remove monastic education from the wider western culture, we must also remove our universities and hospitals; we must remove much of the classical liberal arts curriculum, we must remove Aristotle himself, and Cicero, and much of what we have of Vergil and Horace.

In some ways, monastic culture is western culture. The monasteries and monastery schools gave rise to our universities and copied and transmitted not just the Scriptures and Christian authors (like Augustine and Basil), but also the great pagan writers who wrote much that is true and good. They developed and extended the agricultural arts and advanced astronomy (Halley of “Halley’s Comet” was a monk); they were at the forefront of many inventions and developments in architecture (witness cathedrals) and medicine. Western monasteries were not just arks preserving a past culture, they were husbandmen creating culture. Much of what we call “Christendom” we owe to the work of monks.

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Ecce Homo: The Classical Refrain of The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel endures its fair share of criticism from Christian parents and classical teachers. It is the poster child for twentieth-century debauchery and godlessness—a reputation it has earned. But a close reading of the novel reveals Fitzgerald working in a literary tradition that goes all the way back to ancient Rome. His masterpiece aims at some of the most cherished literary goals of the classical world while drawing power from a much more contemporary setting.

The Great Gatsby takes place on two Long Island peninsulas called West Egg and East Egg, home to the super rich of 1920’s New York. These upscale neighborhoods are separated from the city by a huge garbage dump called the “valley of ashes,” where the less fortunate of the story’s characters dwell.  Over their barren land presides the ghostly image of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, an ophthalmologist whose bespectacled eyes gaze sightlessly out from a huge billboard in the center of the waste.  Eckleburg himself is gone, having given up his practice long ago, but his image remains to mock the residents with an empty promise of vision.

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Why Mystery Stories Are the Cure for What Ails Us

It is impossible for us to fully grasp the cataclysmic cultural shift that was created by World War I. Each of us has lived and moved and had our being shaped by the world that emerged from that rubble. The War to End All Wars did not succeed in ending war, but it did herald the final blow to the unparalleled optimism of the 18th and 19th centuries, destroyed the remaining vestiges of the Medieval world, and ushered in worldwide despair, angst, and nihilism.In other words, Modernity was born.

In the century leading up to that Great War, the world—especially in the West—was dominated by an intense optimism that is difficult for us to comprehend. The world was changing extraordinarily rapidly. There were advancements in medicine and food production. The Industrial Revolution had raised the standard of living for most people, and technology was booming. Prince Albert launched the Crystal Palace exhibition to showcase the world of the future via British advancements. And, emboldened by a new “rational” approach to the world, promoted by Enlightenment philosophers, political leaders redrew the map. Ignoring millennial-old ethnic, religious, and cultural ties, they created new nations and dissolved empires with the stroke of a pen—utterly confident that they were solving the problem of war.

The Great Gatsby takes place on two Long Island peninsulas called West Egg and East Egg, home to the super rich of 1920’s New York. These upscale neighborhoods are separated from the city by a huge garbage dump called the “valley of ashes,” where the less fortunate of the story’s characters dwell.  Over their barren land presides the ghostly image of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, an ophthalmologist whose bespectacled eyes gaze sightlessly out from a huge billboard in the center of the waste.  Eckleburg himself is gone, having given up his practice long ago, but his image remains to mock the residents with an empty promise of vision.

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