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By Mr. Brian Dragoo
Thomas Aquinas College
Opening Lecture
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series
August 24, 2018


1 Introductory Remarks

Brian DragooI am profoundly grateful to Dr. Goyette for inviting me, really entrusting me, to give this opening lecture. This is my first lecture in the St. Vincent de Paul Lecture Series at the College, a saint to whom I have always felt a special devotion because his feast day happens to fall on my birthday. I consider it a great honor to be to be added to the list of those who have given this lecture before me, a list of my own distinguished teachers, colleagues, and friends, all of whom have my deepest respect as scholars and as Christians.

As our experienced students know, these lectures until very recently were given in St. Joseph’s Commons. Our maintenance crew had to wait until everyone was done with dinner, kick the stragglers out of the dining room, break down the cafeteria setup, and re-configure the chairs into lecture seating before the lecture could begin. And of course, that building has no temperature control, so in the late summer and early fall the room was extremely uncomfortable in the evenings. The dining room, with its vaulted ceilings had very poor acoustics. Now sadly, with the comfortable chairs, temperate climate, and excellent sound system in this auditorium, I can’t appeal to your own discomfort or the poor acoustics as an excuse for your not understanding what I have to say tonight. You’ll be able to hear every word, and be very comfortable the entire time, so my only real hope is that your comfort will be able to get you some good sleep over the next hour or so.

You know, now that I’ve got you all here as a captive audience, I’m tempted to just chuck this lecture out the window, and use our time together to talk about some really important things, like how, because of its internal structure, baseball is clearly the best team sport, certainly better than any of the redundant multiplicity of end-t-end goal-scoring sports. Or maybe I should give a talk about how singing slowly in Mass is in fact a mortal sin; I’m sure Fr. David would be very happy to hear your confession. But maybe talking about those things instead would upset the Dean, so I’ll just stick with what I have.

In working out a topic for tonight’s lecture, I went over the things I felt most confident about, and so I certainly considered giving a talk on something mathematical, which is where I feel most at home. I remembered, however, some advice given by Judge Leon Holmes, who has lectured here many times, and he always said that in choosing a topic, he thought it best to select one about which we could have a civilized and dispassionate discussion — which he always said, around here, eliminated geometry right away. So instead of mathematics I chose to think deeply about a subject that has long troubled me, and that is literature.

I was relatively late in coming to appreciate literature. I didn’t read Tolkien until I was probably in my 30s; and I suppose I should admit while I’m here in the public confessional that I still haven’t finished all seven books of the Narnia series. My kids have read them, so at least I’m not a terrible father on that count. I didn’t understand the Iliad at all the first time I read it in my mid-20s, but I have gradually since then come to see more clearly its immense importance. I did take to the Odyssey somewhat naturally, because I found its story much more accessible, which I suppose was an early sign of hope for me. But then the Greek tragedies all seemed the same to me at first pass, and I really didn’t see the point of them very clearly right away. But at least with these books, unlike much of the modern literature I was made to read in high school, I could sense that they really were great and profound books, and I knew that the problem with understanding them was in me, not in the books. I knew that with some effort, and with great teachers, I had hope of making progress. And so today I have made progress, and have come to love deeply the works of literature that we read in this program, all the way from Homer to Flannery O’Connor.


2 Preamble

The opening lecture has traditionally been on the topic of Catholic liberal education, which gives us an opportunity to focus broadly upon what we do here at this college. I conceived and wrote what I have to say tonight principally with the freshmen in mind; I thought they might have the most to gain from this sort of reflection. But the rest of you all should definitely stick around, because I think all of us can benefit from returning to the beginnings of things from time to time, and I’m confident that there will be something here for all of us to think about. The freshman courses, the ones that address some of the fundamental principles of this education, are some the most enjoyable classes for the tutors to teach, and the ones they fight over getting to teach each year.

As Dr. Goyette mentioned, these lectures are meant to supplement our classroom discussions.1 A lecture, in its ideal, is the presentation an ordered, coherent, and focused argument, presented without interruption from the mind of someone who understands the subject in question, and who has a graspable thesis, and presents a case in support of it. Now, because, as I said, I am lecturing outside my own area of expertise, this lecture will probably deviate somewhat from that ideal in this respect: I am not here to profess to you something that I grasp with complete certitude. This lecture, rather, has been an occasion for me to reflect deeply on something that is really just at the edge of my own understanding, and I hope to have you help me think it through. My thesis tonight will be much more of a proposal than a position;2 perhaps more of a proposition than an imposition. I offer my thoughts to you tonight in this spirit, and I look forward to working with you further in the discussion afterwards to achieve further clarification.

Mr. DeLuca told me a story about what he believes was the very first comment in the very first seminar ever at this college. At the start of the school year in September 1971, a student in the opening seminar on the Iliad offered right at the beginning of class that he had been speaking with one of the College’s chaplains about Homer. His comment was, “Father told me this is a great book. I think it’s a sick book.” My gut response to a student who says something like this is to feel very sorry for him. It implies that he has just entrusted his education to a school which, in his own judgment, has decided to have him waste his time reading distasteful books. Now if this happens to be your first reaction to reading Homer, I’d like to suggest that you can make a small adjustment in your approach. You can make the decision to trust that your teachers, who, along with centuries of tradition, suggest that reading Homer is precisely the place to begin a liberal education, or at least the literary part of that education. I hope that my remarks tonight might make it easier for you to make that small adjustment.

The very best thing you can do is to trust that you are being given the best books, or something not very far away from the best books, and fight the temptation occupy your mind always with the question, “Why are we reading this book?” It certainly doesn’t have a place in the classroom discussions, which discussions at least tentatively presume that we are reading what we ought to be reading. But you will certainly at times naturally wonder what is great about this book or that book during your time here. After all, everyone, due to individual constitution and upbringing and education, will exhibit a variety of intellectual temperaments.3


3 Introduction

What I have to say tonight is meant to address everyone in some way, but perhaps it will most forcefully address those whose intellectual temperament, or their reason for coming to this college, inclines them to want most of all to read the books in this program that touch most directly on the Catholic faith: The Bible first and foremost, then the biblical exegetes and commentators, those wise doctors of the Church who work out the biblical mysteries in sacred theology: St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. John Damascene, St. Thomas Aquinas. This is a noble orientation to have as a Catholic student, as it recognizes the place of sacred theology as queen of the sciences, that is, that theology is a knowledge that is of the highest things, and it is that to which all other sciences or branches of knowledge are in some way ordered. However, it can become unclear to such students how it is that books outside the study of theology bear on or are ordered to the understanding of God. In fact, some might find that some books appear to be directly opposed to theological studies. I came across a concrete expression of this sentiment some years ago when a very intelligent and pious student asked during the first semester of his freshman year, “We are a Catholic college, right? So why do we spend so much time reading and discussing books about the pagan gods?”

This struck me then, and continues to strike me now, as a profound question with practical and theoretical implications. Practically, in some sense, the freshmen are facing this question right now as they read through the Iliad. And they will continue to read, and hopefully enjoy, stories involving the Greeks and their gods for most of this year, and it will continue on into the beginning of next year with the Romans. Usually nowadays we count these books, the Iliad and the Odyssey, along with the Greek tragedies and comedies, not as theology or even mythology but as literature, which we sometimes call by the more ancient name of “poetry.”4 By nature, most of us tend to take a real delight in these books, but I think that some of us wonder whether we should.


3.1 Framing of the Question

This has been a somewhat long introduction to the real topic of this talk. I hope tonight to begin to provide some kind of answer to my student’s question, and those questions related to it: “Why do we Christians care so much about the books of Greek and Roman literature that we read here, ones that present a bizarre, some might be tempted to say blasphemous, picture of divine beings?” The subtitle of my talk presents this same question rhetorically in the very famous words of Tertullian: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Of course Tertullian asked this question in the context of Greek philosophy, but the question is just as apt in the context of literature: How can Greek literature co-exist alongside theological studies in the education of a Christian? He is not alone among the Church fathers in raising this question. St. Augustine, after all, goes so far as to suggest that the pagan gods are not merely neutral fictions, but that they are in fact demons in disguise. “The gods of the nations are idols,” says the Psalm.5

I was asked a few times this week about the main title of this talk, so I’ll explain briefly. In the Summa Theologiae, our patron and teacher St. Thomas Aquinas presents five arguments for the existence of God, usually called the “quinque viae,” or “the five ways.” The seniors know that the five ways are found in an article very near the beginning of the first volume of St. Thomas’ master work. The title of that article is “Whether God Exists,” and in Latin the title is “An Deus Sit.” So in the title of my talk I am asking the same question, but oh-so-cleverly replacing the word Deus, God, with the name Zeus, off by only one letter.6

So, why am I interested in whether Zeus exists? Well, I think it bears, at least rhetorically, on the question that we’re investigating. After all, my student’s question was, “Why do Christian students read books about Greek gods?” In Catholic education we aim at understanding, that is understanding the truth, and we do so through reading books, and we propose to read many important books that feature the pagan gods prominently in and around the main narrative. So it must be that somehow we think that reading these books ultimately serves our knowing the truth about something or other. My student’s question must have been motivated by something like this: How can reading books about beings that seem not to exist at all lead us to truth about reality? Or even worse, what about beings that purport to be the best beings, that is, gods, but hardly even seem to be good at all, much less the best? So I use the name Zeus in the title to signify not only Zeus himself, but the entire pagan pantheon.7 Ok, but why should this even be a question for a Catholic, really? We hold by faith that there is only one God, and we use reason to argue to that same conclusion when we study the preambula fidei of St. Thomas. It seems to follow that the gods of the pagans don’t exist, or if the beings named exist in some way, they cannot be gods.

We should see right away that the reason we ultimately give to account for this will have to be even more general than the reasons we would have to give for reading only about the so-called “gods.” It might be that these gods are the only supposedly fictional beings whose presence in literature causes offense to the pious sensibilities of some readers. But perhaps conscientious readers of literature should also take issue with Homer’s harpies, Shakespeare’s fairies, Swift’s Yahoos, Tolkien’s Ents and Orcs, and Marvel’s superheroes? How could reading about fictional races and monsters give us insight into the truth about reality? And why stop there? Even the stories told about men in literature are fictional; the men we read about don’t exist at all. In fact, all of literature is just one big lie, isn’t it?

It seems that whatever we say to answer the question about reading the pagan gods will ultimately also have to answer to the question, “Why do we study literature at all?” That is, how can mere stories, fictions, that which did not happen, ever hope to give us insight into truth about what does happen in reality? The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney gives our question a little bit of focus: “It is precisely this masquerade of fictions and ironies and fantastic scenarios that can draw us out and bring us close to ourselves. The paradox of the arts is that they are all made up and yet allow us to get at truths about who and what we are or might be.” Heaney doesn’t give a reason for his confidence in the ability of the arts to reach truths; in fact by calling it a “paradox” he might be implying that he doesn’t think a reason can be given.

Another 20th century literary critic, Northrop Frye, whose works I use liberally in this talk, puts it this way: “The kind of problem we have to tackle [is that] what we meet in literature is neither real nor unreal.” I think that almost anyone who has experience with literature knows that what Seamus Heaney and Northrop Frye say is right, that is, that to call something “fiction” is not the same as to say simply that it is “not true.” Our task, then, is to see if there is an account for how this can be.


4 Response to the Question

So, up to now all we have done is to frame the question; the rest of this lecture is an attempt to work out an answer. I propose to make the case, in line with the claim of the Blue Book, the founding document of this College, how it is that “the greatest works of literature … present or imply profoundly important views of human life and of reality as a whole.” In fact I might put my case a bit stronger: I hope to show that there is indeed a way in which we can say that the stories told by the poets, including those about the pagan gods, are real.

I should be up front in saying that some of what I have to say tonight are things I’ve thought out on my own; but much of what moves me is what others more thoughtful than myself have said before me. I have drawn upon ancient, medieval, and contemporary poets and critics, as well as upon what I have learned here from my benevolent and wise teachers and colleagues here at the College.8

Thus far what we have done is to have broadened our question to something very, very general. We have moved from my student’s original question, “Why should Christians read books about Greek gods?” to something more like “Is literature true?” or even better, “What kind of thing is literature?” If we can think about an answer to this broader question in the right way, we should be then able to respond to the original, more narrow question as well. Now, expressed like this, we have what sounds like a very simple question, “What is literature?” But of course, the simplest questions often are at the same time the hardest to answer and the most important to ask. Volumes and volumes have been written on this subject. And it is therefore obviously not a question that can be answered to anyone’s satisfaction in an hour. I can only hope to provide the most basic sketch of a possible answer.


4.1 Plato and Aristotle

For the beginning of an answer, we can look to what our masters have to say on the subject of literature. Right away, however, it seems that we have a problem: two of our principal teachers, Plato and Aristotle, appear to disagree with one another about the nature and function of literature. I say “it seems” because it is not always obvious that what is said in Platonic dialogues is representative of Plato’s own position. The dialogues are like little “philosophical dramas,” where Plato puts words into the mouths of varied characters, who range from the foolish to the wise. If he ever does speak with his own voice, he most likely does so through the mouth of his own teacher, Socrates, or perhaps through another wise man like Timaeus or a prophetess like Diotima. The extant works of Aristotle, on the other hand, are all treatises as opposed to dialogues, and so we can usually be confident in taking what he says at face value.

If we ignore for now the trouble with interpreting Plato, and take at least the clearest statements of Socrates about literature at face value, Plato and Aristotle still do appear to have some disagreement about literature, and its relation to truth. Socrates makes various cases for the harmfulness of literature throughout the Platonic corpus, but does so in probably the most sustained way in Book X of the Republic, where the most important arguments are probably reducible to two. First, Socrates contends that literature imitates things which themselves are imitations of the things that truly exist. I suppose he means that what truly exist are the Forms or Ideas, and what we see and experience in this life, what we think of as real, are only imitations or copies of these Forms. Literature, then, since it imitates what we experience here, is not only removed, but doubly removed from what is most real or true, and to that degree it lacks truth in itself. Plato also has Socrates argue that literature has a moral distance from truth as well, since it “fosters and waters [our passions] when they ought to be dried up, and sets them up as rulers in us when they ought to be ruled so that we may become better and happier instead of worse and more wretched.” So Socrates seems to think that reading literature makes men morally worse and not better.9

There is a great deal of support through the centuries, especially in medieval Christendom, for Socrates’ case against literature. Conrad of Hirsau, a 12th  century German Benedictine monk wrote that a poet was a fictor,10 a Latin word related to our word “fiction.” Fictor could just mean “maker” or “deviser,” but Conrad goes on to indicate that he means by this word something more insidious, like a liar:11 He says that the poet “either speaks falsehood instead of truth, or mingles the true with the false." Further, he says that in poetic fables words often do not have any significative force, but are “sonum tantummodo vocis,” merely the sound of the voice. Giovanni Boccaccio, the early Renaissance poet and sort of proto-critic, collected many such arguments from his contemporaries and predecessors, and presented them in a 15 volume tome entitled, The Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles. I’d like to read what Boccaccio puts forth as the core of the charge against poetry, because it really is wonderfully put:

[The opponents of poetry] say poetry is absolutely of no account, and the making of poetry a useless and absurd craft; that poets are tale-mongers, or, in lower terms, liars; that they live in the country among the woods and mountains because they lack manners and polish. They say, besides, that their poems are false, obscure, lewd, and replete with absurd and silly tales of pagan gods, and that they make Jove, who was, in point of fact, an obscene and adulterous man, now the father of gods, now king of heaven, now fire, or air, or man, or bull, or eagle, or similar irrelevant things; in like manner poets exalt to fame Juno and infinite others under various names. Again and again they cry out that poets are seducers of the mind, prompters of crime, and, to make their foul charge, fouler, if possible, they say they are philosophers’ apes, that it is a heinous crime to read or possess the books of poets; and then, without making any distinction, they prop themselves up, as they say, with Plato’s authority to the effect that poets ought to be turned out-of-doors — nay, out of town, and that the Muses, their mumming mistresses, as Boethius says, being sweet with deadly sweetness, are detestable, and should be driven out with them and utterly rejected.12

Put this way, this is quite an indictment of literature as a whole, and some medieval Christians took this point of view very seriously. Boccaccio, however, was a great defender of literature, and eventually in this same book, he works out a point-by-point defense against these arguments over the course of several chapters. But before presenting some of what Boccaccio has to say on behalf of literature, I would first like to reason out a bit more about what kind of thing literature is.

Turning now to Aristotle: he does agree with Plato about one thing at least; Aristotle places literature within the realm of imitation right from the beginning of his treatise on poetry, the Poetics.13 In this work, Aristotle lays out what is really the canonical argument for why we delight in poetry, and how it is that its effects on us are, or at least can be, beneficial. Aristotle has much to teach us in this treatise, but I will focus on what I think is the most relevant text to our investigation today:

“The poet’s function14 is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse — you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.15 Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do — which is the aim of poetry.”16

This is a hard passage to understand, and it is hard for more than one reason. The first problem is that Aristotle seems here to say something that is difficult to square with his definition of poetry earlier in the treatise. How can poetry or literature be both an imitation, on the one hand, and a description of “the kind of thing that might be” on the other hand? Imitation is a copying, what Greeks called a mimesis, and generally when we say that someone imitates or copies something, we mean that they take something previously seen or experienced, and reproduce it, or some aspect of it, in some way. But a description of what might be or is likely to be does not seem to be imitative in this way, because something that does not yet exist cannot be copied. In other words, what exactly is it that literature is imitating, and how does it do so? That is the first problem. The second problem is that it is not easy to see what he might mean by saying that poetry is more “philosophic and of graver import than history.” For example, is it obvious to say that Jane Austen’s Emma is more philosophical or of graver import than, say, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War? What would it mean to say that it was? And how universal is this claim?17

It seems to me there are two keys in what Aristotle says that, taken together, can help us understand what he means. The first key is that he says about literature that “its statements are of the nature. . . of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” In his logical works, what Aristotle normally means by “universals” are words (or concepts) that can be said of or applied to many; opposed to “universals” are “singulars,” which apply only to one. Anything that history has to say is only able to be said of one man, Alcibiades, or one city, Athens, or one event, the Sicilian Expedition. What literature has to say, even though it seems at first about one man, Oedipus, or one city, Thebes, etc., Aristotle claims is, in fact, said about “such or such a kind of man” (of which there might be many) or “such or such a kind of city” (of which again, there might be many).

But just a moment: in logic we learn that a “universal” comes from somewhere, that is, it is something that has been drawn from many individuals previously sensed or experienced. What I mean is that reason forms “universal” concepts of things of which a man has experienced many individuals. So, a man comes across an animal for the first time, say a platypus, and doesn’t know what to think about it. Then he sees another animal (this second animal happens also to be a platypus though the man doesn’t grasp right away that they are the same kind of thing because he does not know what one is), but he does notice that the second one has some similarity to the first, though perhaps it is larger. Then he sees yet another similar animal (again, another platypus), maybe this one is darker colored than the other two, but it is same enough in other ways to identify things that are the same among them all. Eventually he gains enough experience with these individual platypuses that he is able to abstract, that is, to draw out, from the individuals, what is common to them. This thing that the intellect has abstracted is now the object of the man’s understanding, and any time he comes across another platypus, he can identify it as “one of those” and call it by the name “platypus” because he has gathered something about what all these platypuses have in common from having experienced many of them.

Is this the same kind of thing that is going on when Aristotle says that poetry is “universal” as well? Well, the second key to what he says here might be helpful in deciding this. As applied to literature, he says: “By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do.” I suppose this means that Sophocles conceives the character of Oedipus, for example, in such a way that he says and does the sorts of things that a man like Oedipus, perhaps even many men like Oedipus would be likely to do. Ok, so thus far, Aristotle’s meaning of “universal” in poetry seems to bear the notion of “applicable to many,” just like it does in logic. But there is this difference: As we just saw in logic, the universal, which is predicable or applicable to many, is drawn from the experiences of many individuals in the past (like the platypuses), and only then becomes predicable or applicable to many similar instances to be encountered in the future.

This raises the very important question, one that will occupy almost the entire remaining part of this lecture: What is the source of the poet’s “universal”? Where does it come from? Does the poet draw upon something, from which to abstract the poetic universal, just as the intellect, when it comes to know a universal in logic abstracts it from individuals sensed or experienced? It seems at first that the poet might be able to do just this, that is, in order to represent a certain kind of man or city or event in a story, he might draw upon his own particular experiences, and abstract something common from them to make his own “universals.” I’m sure that this is indeed part of the process of coming to the so-called “poetic universal.” But there are some problems with this. First, if what Seamus Heaney said was right, the insights available to the readers of literature are deeply profound; they are about “who and what we are, and who we might be.” Such insights, and especially insights about divine things, would seem to be greater than any one man could possibly be able to abstract and understand in one lifetime out of his own individual experiences in the world. So, it seems that we must we look elsewhere to fill out our account of poetic insight.


4.2 Poetic Insight

4.2.1 Divine Inspiration

This question about poetic insight in general is an age-old question, and there have been many attempts to answer it. Cicero, for example, said that, “While other arts are matters of science and formula and technique, poetry depends solely upon an inborn faculty, is evoked by a purely mental activity, and is infused with a strange supernal inspiration.” Part of the received form in epic poetry is to invoke at the outset the aid of the Muses, the goddesses of poetic inspiration. We see this in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Milton’s Paradise Lost, all works that aim at the epic form. So the poets themselves seem to corroborate Cicero’s account, i.e., that they view their poetic insights as not their own, but coming from a sort of divine inspiration. Plato says in the Ion, “Not by art do they utter these things, but by divine influence.” I find this to be compelling; the most evidently creative people I have ever known or read about often find it difficult to account for what arises in them; they only know that something stirs them from within and must find expression in their art. C.S. Lewis says it this way: “In the author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. . . it invariably begins with mental pictures. It is a thing inside him pawing to get out … It’s like being in love.”18 Boccaccio thinks that the number of men who are truly poets is very small indeed.

The rest of us who are not artists are not really in a position to judge the claim about divine inspiration from our own experience. But I think we do generally recognize that artists of all sorts, poets, painters, sculptors, composers, and all the rest are special geniuses who have been given a vision, perhaps only a terribly muddy vision, but a real interior look into the great mysteries. We don’t have any real idea what these artists are up to; how could we? Most of the time they don’t either.19 Take composers as an example: What are they really up to? What do they see that makes them direct the orchestra to make those combinations of sounds? Sure, we can analyze music on the principles of pitch and rhythm, harmony and melody, and give some sort of rational account of the sounds themselves. But no amount of music theory or analysis can ever ultimately account for the genius or intent behind great music. All great artists are sort of like mystics in this way; it has for some reason been given to them to mediate between the knowable world, that is, what we grasp by experience and come to know by science (on the one hand) and what Hegel calls “The Absolute,” on the other hand: the mysterious ground of all being, the great beyond to which we through our reason don’t seem to have any access at all, which appears to us at first as something like Chaos itself. True artists and mystics alike seem to have some passage to what is unknown but not unknowable, and they mediate access for the rest of us.20


4.2.2 Poets Read One Another

Another way to account for poetic insight might be this: that poets supplement their own personal experience of life with experience gained from what they themselves have read in other great poets. This makes more plausible the vast scale of what poets seem to be able to access. I mean that if one great poet or author, say Homer, is able by some means to gain insight into universal truths and express them poetically, another poet might parlay the insights gained through his encounters reading Homer, and re-express them with his own creative additions and interpretations. And if poets do this, and have been doing this, over the course of the thousands of years of human storytelling, then there could in fact be a vast amount of material from which they might be able to abstract poetic universals.

I think this is part of what some critics mean when they say that a drama is acted out in a particular epic cosmos, for example, that Homer provides the cosmos the Greek tragedians while Dante provides the cosmos for the action of Shakespeare’s plays.21 Poets are seldom the sole creative mind behind their works; the same stories are told and retold. Shakespeare’s genius, for example, is often not the genius of invention, but the genius of expression. In many, if not most, of his plays he re-crafts stories taken from medieval tradition, or from other dramatists, both contemporary and classical.22


4.2.3 Literary Archetypes

There is yet another, though related, possibility for the source of the poetic universal. Literary critics have spent a great deal of effort identifying common themes, plots, and characters in poetic works. Samuel Johnson intended to write a book,23 in order “to shew how small a quantity of real fiction there is in the world; and that the same images, with very little variation have served all the authours who have ever written.” Goethe, following this line of thinking, wrote that the Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi “maintained that there can be but 36 dramatic situations.” The French writer Georges Polti worked out these 36 in his book called (not surprisingly) 36 Dramatic Situations. An English critic named Christopher Booker wrote a book about 15 years ago called The Seven Basic Plots, where he argues for even more common elements that allow him to reduce Polti’s number from 36 to 7.

About 50 years earlier, another English critic and poet named Robert Graves wrote a poem, the first lines of which are: “There is one story and one story only / That will prove worth your telling …” This same author, Graves, later writing as a critic, put together a book called, The White Goddess, where he presents an extended (and very difficult) argument that all true poetry is ultimately rooted in episodes surrounding the ancient cult-ritual of a white goddess and her son. Finally, Northrop Frye in commenting on Graves’ book, said that the even more fundamental story underlying all of literature, as far as he can tell, is the “story of loss and regaining of identity.” I’ll have more to say on what Frye means by this later.

Along this general line of thinking, that is, that poetic insight is able to be analyzed or reduced into a small number of sources, we can add the thought of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In an essay called, “On the Psychology of the Unconscious,” (which the seniors will read in March), Jung wrote:

There are in every individual, besides [his] personal memories, the great “primordial” images … the inherited possibilities of human imagination as it was from time immemorial. The fact of this inheritance explains the truly amazing phenomenon that certain motifs from myths and legends repeat themselves the world over in incidental forms … I have called these images or motifs “archetypes.”

Jung goes on to explain that these archetypes exist in a part of the human psyche called “the collective unconscious,” which he claimed is commonly accessible to all men.

Now, Jung, in proposing his theory of archetypes,24 is trying to account for something that he encounters in his practice as a psychoanalyst. His therapeutic approach aims at curing neuroses over the course of many sessions by uncovering his patients’ hidden thoughts and noticing patterns in their dreams. Jung’s motivation, however, is quite different from what we are doing here with literature, though there is some overlap. Our interest in archetypes in literature is not necessarily psychologically motivated in quite the way that Jung’s is. He seems to posit, as far as I can tell, and without providing any real cause or mechanism, the existence of the “collective unconscious,” the soul’s place of archetypes. He thinks that it must exist because he discovers these basic patterns over and over in the minds of his patients. I think, however, that we, in our literary analysis, can retain the rich and fruitful idea of archetypes without having to subscribe wholly to Jung’s philosophy of the human soul. While Jung notices repeated patterns in the hidden thoughts and dreams of his patients, which patterns point to the existence of psychological archetypes, so literary critics notice repeated patterns in stories and in their elements: in plots, characters, and themes, symbols, etc., that point toward literary or poetic archetypes.

What are some examples of archetypes in literature? We notice when we read ancient stories like those of Moses and Perseus, as well as when we read modern stories of Oliver Twist and even Superman, that all of our heroes manifest the archetype of the “mysterious origin.” We see the archetype of the epic journey of heroes in Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Dante as well as in Melville and Tolkien. Oedipus, Icharus, and Lear have archetypally tragic falls from grace, and so does Walter White. And these are obvious likenesses, relatively easy to identify. Looking more carefully, we see even subtler patterns in stories that seem to have nothing in common. If I tell you that I read a story with a crafty, ingenious hero who gets out of tricky situations with disguises and clever misrepresentation. There were thrilling exploits that resulted in misfortune. I saw the unexpected mixed with the commonplace. Friendship came out of catastrophe. Put in just these ways, I might have just as easily been talking about Huck Finn as the Odyssey.25

So, with enough experience of literature, we can see patterns or archetypes everywhere. This is not to say that each story does not bear its individual characteristics, or that every story is nothing more than the sum of its archetypes; it is only to recognize commonness in stories where it exists. Remember that the purpose of introducing the notion of archetypes at all here was to help in identifying possible sources of Aristotle’s poetic or literary universals.

Note that I said that I think there is some overlap between psychological and literary uses of archetypes. What I mean by this is that there are occasions when a literary archetype might account for a psychological reality. Take, for example, the archetypal story of the fall (like the Genesis story of Eden, for example), considered for a moment from a merely literary perspective. In stories like this, the likes of which there are many in ancient mythology, Jung says there is a psychological truth expressed as well: When men become self-conscious they get thrown, as it were, out of their internal paradise, their “walled garden.” They find themselves thrust suddenly into the world and into history, a place where there is pain in childbirth, where you are dominated by your spouse, where you have to toil harder than any animal for a living, and because you are aware of the future, you have to sacrifice present goods for that future, and constantly know you are going to die, and you become aware that humans don’t fit well into the natural world, that you now exist in a post-lapsarian world. These are all eternal truths about the human condition that everyone experiences upon becoming self-aware, and these are all brilliantly expressed in the stories about the fall.

And in fact, more germane to our subject, it is not too difficult a task to identify the Greek gods with interior phenomena as well, at least the principal gods involved in the Homeric and other works we read here. Of the twelve Olympians, or major deities of the Greek pantheon, there is a balance between the masculine and feminine, with six of each. The principle masculine god, of course, is Zeus, the king and father, while the principal feminine deity is Hera, goddess of motherhood and marriage. The remaining gods and goddesses preside over various aspects of natural, human, and spiritual affairs, and can signify corresponding realities. It is possible to read many episodes of their involvement in the affairs of men as moments of heightened powers of soul, especially seen as aided by divine help. So, for example, Poseidon, god of the sea, is particularly determined to prevent Odysseus from achieving his homecoming. The divinity that comes to his aid is Athena, feminine goddess of wisdom and foresight, who aids his attempts at overcoming the dark, blind, and unfeeling power of Poseidon. Under Athena’s instruction, Odysseus becomes more and more self-aware and self-controlled until he is finally prepared, by her divine assistance, to face the suitors who threaten his home.

Now, the reason I said that this account of poetic insight was related to the previous one, namely the one that recognizes that poets or authors take their material from one other, is evident: If copies of archetypal characters, plots, images, symbols etc. are found everywhere in literature, it seems likely that they come ultimately either from the same sources, from one another, or some combination of both, as well as from the poet’s own experiences, and perhaps mixed with a little divine inspiration.26 All literature has what Frye calls a “pedigree, and we can trace its descent back to the earliest times.”


4.2.4 Early Myths

The earliest structured stories usually comprise the literature that arises most proximately out of myth.27 The word “myth” comes Greek word mythos, which can sometimes just mean story or plot, but often is used to mean something like a primordial or originative story told by a culture before its civilization becomes very developed. These stories almost always involve gods and demigods, they narrate fundamental events, often intended to explain natural events or outline religious practice. Generally myth is part of the oral tradition of a culture, and only later gives rise to the earliest oral and written poetry with any kind of recognizable poetic structure.

Where do the myths themselves come from? That’s a much harder question, and maybe one to which we can give only likely answers. As Boccaccio said in the Genealogy, “If you inquire … under what sky, in what period, and by whose agency poetry first came to light, I hardly trust my ability to answer.” Frye suggests that, just a musician makes a composition out of layers and layers of repetition and pattern and variations, a poet also builds a story out of layers and patterns and repetition. And just as later authors find the same patterns or archetypes repeated the stories that they themselves have read, the earliest poets found the basis of repetition in nature itself: the rising and setting sun, the seasons, and the life and death cycles in the animal world. In one scene from his television series Catholicism, Bishop Barron was standing in the middle of the Pantheon in Rome, and he said, “The genius of paganism is reverence for the necessity of the rhythms of nature.” And so some of the most primitive myths are imitative of the repetitive patterns in nature in this way; these patterns are manifested as stories of gods and heroes who are born, have adventures, find love, experience betrayal, die, and are sometimes reborn.

Aristotle and St. Thomas allude to something like this in the first book of the Metaphysics and accompanying commentary. Quoting St. Thomas:

Among the Greeks the first who were famous for their learning were certain theological poets, so called because of the songs which they wrote about the gods … These poets dealt to some extent with the nature of things by means of certain figurative representations in myths.

Somehow, poetic insight seems ultimately to be rooted in a connection to nature. Remember that one of the charges against the poets given by Boccaccio was that “they live in the country among the woods and mountains because they lack manner and polish.” Part of his defense of the poets points out that they need freedom from the busy crowds of the town in order to craft their poems uninterrupted by the bustle of the town. On this point he quotes Horace:

At Rome, amidst its toils and cares
Think you that I can write harmonious airs? . . .
What then — at Rome? in this tumultuous town,
Toss’d by the noisy tempest up and down,
Can I, though even the willing Muse inspire,
Adapt the numbers to the sounding lyre?

And so there is a practical reason that poets might prefer the woods and the mountains to city life. But aside from this, it might be a stronger argument to say that poets need to be close to nature in order to pay attention to the natural rhythms of the world, because the natural world is an inexhaustible source for poetic insight.

Plato seems to look at this from the other side. In the Republic he has Socrates say that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” And so at the opening the Phaedrus dialogue, Phaedrus himself notes that Socrates is “the oddest of men,” never setting foot outside the city walls. Socrates’ defense is, “I am a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do.” So while the wisdom reached through philosophy is best learned from men, the wisdom reached through poetry is perhaps best achieved by listening to the rhythms of the woods and the mountains and the beasts.


5 Conclusion

5.1 Summary so Far

Let’s summarize a bit, because we’ve come quite a long way. We began by recognizing that we all suspect, and to some degree recognize, that literature has something to tell us about reality. And we want this to be the case because it deeply pleases us. But we are confused about the way in which it sets about to do so. Where philosophy speaks straightforwardly about its subject matter, literature speaks obliquely in images and figures, which do not seem directly to signify reality, and therefore might seem to some like a falsehood, especially on the most important matters of spiritual and divine realities. Aristotle accounted for this by showing how poets, though they write about particular characters taking part in particular narratives, are in fact speaking universally, that is, what they have to say is not merely about these characters and these stories, but is really about certain kinds of men and certain kinds of stories generally speaking. Poets appear to derive their profound insights from some combination of experience in their own lives, and experience with the vast wealth of archetypes available to them in the world’s literature, and from divine inspiration.

There are eternal truths about nature, man, and God that are hidden, shrouded deeply in mystery. These truths are inaccessible to most, and, like the truths held by science (episteme), they are unchangeable. But they must be mediated for the rest of us by the poets. Poets and other artists seem to have a mystical access to these truths, (again quoting Boccaccio) with something inside them “longing for utterance” in “strange and unheard-of creations of the mind,” arranging “compositions with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts … veiling truth in a fair and fitting garment of fiction.”


5.2 Christianity and Poetry

There is actually a long tradition of Christian approbation of using figures and images to communicate eternal truths. St. Augustine, for one, suggests that poetry is indeed a fitting mode in which to speak. He cites Horace and Aesop’s fictional fables about talking animals as a source of truth, as well as the manifest use of figures in the Old Testament, for example, in the Book of Judges where the trees confer with one another in choosing a king.28 Of course in the New Testament Our Lord himself taught often in parables, and the Holy Scriptures end with the fantastical and eschatological poetry of the Apocalypse.

Boccaccio goes so far as to suggest that every pagan wise man knew through his own reason that there could be only one God. Even the poets like Homer and Virgil, though they present gods as many, and as those who sometimes contend against one another, more often present Zeus as standing clearly above the rest, often giving him a knowledge and will that approach those of the true God. In Book VIII of the Iliad, Zeus is able to insist that the other gods refrain from interfering in the battle: “So much stronger am I than the gods, and stronger than mortals.” He weeps over the hardships of men, never more than over the death of his son Sarpedon, a death which he in fact willed in order to assure the glory of Achilles. In the Aeneid, Anchises prays to him: “Omnipotent Jupiter, if prayers affect you, / Look down upon us, that is all I ask.” And again when Aeneas tells his men that they have suffered hardships before, he presents the famous Dabit deus his quoque finem: “God will grant us an end to these [sufferings] as well.” And to the extent the other gods are given a place in these books, it is

in conformity with [the true] Deity because of their veneration for the particular function in each instance … Such are the pagan poets who, with all their knowledge of the Liberal Arts, poetry, and philosophy, could not know the truth of Christianity; for that light of the eternal truth which “enlightens every man [and] was coming into the world” had not yet shone forth upon the nations. Not yet had these servants gone throughout all the earth bidding every man to the supper of the Lamb. To the Israelites alone had this gift been granted of knowing the true God aright, and truly worshiping Him … And if pagan poets wrote not the whole truth concerning the true God, though they thought they did, such ignorance is an acceptable excuse.

The pagan poets saw deeply into truths about God, and managed to express these truths in the only way they knew.

Cardinal Newman, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, has this to say in agreement:

What is generally received as Christian truth, in its rudiments or in its sepa rate parts, to be found in heathen philosophies and religions [and, we might add, literature]. For instance, the doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian; the connexion of sin with the body is Gnostic …  the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honours to the dead are a polytheism. [Some have said,] “These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian:” we, on the contrary, prefer to say, “these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen.”


5.3 Egyptian Gold

So we need not be anxious about our books that contain the action, activities, and thoughts of the pagan gods, at least not in literature, which speaks a language of universal truth. Zeus does exist in a certain respect; he exists as a poetic universal, or as an element of man’s psyche as aided by the divine, or sometimes even as a participation in the true God, as written by those searching pagan poets, who did the best they could to say what they saw about the true divine Being.

Toward the end of Book II of On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine teaches us how we Christians ought to handle the pagan philosophers, and what he said seems to me to be equally applicable to the pagan poets:

[If they] have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver … in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad … [and which] the Christian … ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel.29

And so if you love the literature of the Greeks and Romans, you should not be ashamed to love the Omnipotent Father of all, whom Homer called Zeus, and whom St. Thomas called “Deus,” and whom we call God.


1 Discussions are often messy and appear to be without an obvious focus, so it’s good, from time to time, to know what it is like to learn through another mode.

2 It is interesting to note that the English words “proposal” and “position” each have in their Latin root the word pono, which is related to the meaning of the Greek word thesis, though in English these carry slight differences in their emphasis.

3 Temperaments can lean toward the mathematical: So someone might to be perfectly content with the selections of Euclid, Apollonius, Descartes, Newton, and Einstein in our mathematics sequence as books that will lead them to wisdom, but then have real doubts about having 14 seminar classes over two years devoted to the study of Kant and Hegel. Again, a temperament might lead someone to see clearly the value of reading tragedies and histories, but really wonder how studying the papers of the early chemists will make you wise.

4 This latter name more often in modern times makes us think more about sonnets or other works composed in a rhythmic pattern or verse, and therefore I’ll mostly use the name “literature” in this talk, but I will occasionally have need to call it “poetry,” and its creators “poets.” Even though what is meant by these two names isn’t precisely co-extensive, I won’t for the most part mean anything different by them.

5 Ps. 96:5

6 It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the two names Zeus and Deus are cognate, meaning that they are linguistic cousins; they both trace their origins via different paths to the same Proto-Indo-European root word *dyeu- which means “to shine.” This root is also the origin of the Latin word “dies” and Spanish “el dia” (day). Interestingly, the Latin language also has the names Iovis ( Jove) and Iuppiter ( Jupiter), the Roman names for Zeus. These are also actually related to Deus and Zeus: Jupiter breaks down as Jovis and Pater, which trace back to PIE *dyeu-*pater, where *dyeu- is the same PIE root again which is the source of all of these “God” words, and “*pater” the PIE root which is the source of the Latin word pater, Greek pater, German Vater, Darth Vader, as well as English “Father.” So we have Jupiter meaning “Deus Pater,” or “Zeus Pater,” or Father God.

7 Sometimes we use words to name more things than the literal meaning of the word names, like we do when we use the description “Victorian” in a qualitative way to describe anything prudishly conventional, not just the prudishly conventional things that relate precisely chronologically to the reign of Queen Victoria. So I take a similar liberty in giving the name “Zeus” a much broader signification.

8 I cite my sources where it seems not to get in the way of a spoken talk, but many of these ideas are sprinkled, unattributed, through this talk where citations might be footnoted for a written paper. I will certainly provide sources or suggestions for further reading to anyone interested.

9 How to understand this becomes somewhat problematic when we note that the dialogues themselves, insofar as they are considered as dramatic in character, might be literary in nature, but this is an age-old question, and not one that needs to be addressed to deal with the question at hand.

10 Dialogus super auctores

11 I have read that even the word “poet” itself in some languages means liar (though I was unable to track down an instance, so perhaps the prosecution would demand this stricken from the record). Some Victorian parents were infamous for not letting their children read novels because they were not “true.” Some synonyms for literature, “fiction, fable, and myth” each have as one of their principal meanings some unbelievable thing, or falsehood. Literature as lie is not generally a prevailing attitude nowadays, but many besides Plato have suggested the connection.

12 Genealogia, XIV.v, p. 37

13 And while is true that in the first book of the Metaphysics he cites the proverb, “Poets tell many lies,” and even in the Poetics itself he says that, “Homer has taught all poets how to tell lies skillfully,” these seem really to be outlying passages taken out of their primary context. He does not at all sustain the position that poets are liars, or literature as primarily harmful to souls as Plato has Socrates do.

14 I should reiterate that by “poetry” he means something more extensive than we do, something more like literature, and perhaps even something more extensive than that.

15 Frye puts it this way: “The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens. Not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place.” (The Educated Imagination, p 63)

16 Poetics Ch. 9

17 If we include all sorts of books and plays and films and television shows in our account of “poetry,” does that mean every work of fiction is more philosophic than every history? It doesn’t seem like every instance of something that might fall under the name of literature, say Avengers: Infinity War or an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, could be said to be of graver import than any serious history.

18 On Stories p. 45

19 It’s a common adage among professional poker players that you ought not try to figure out a bad player’s strategy, because they don’t have one. If they don’t know what they’re doing, you have no hope of knowing.

20 As Catholics, of course, we do understand that the writings of men can be divinely inspired, as we receive from the teaching Church a canon of Scripture whose authorship is both human and divine. And we come to know eventually that if we use these inspired texts as principles, we can eventually work out a theological science. But insight gained through Christian theological science is quite different in nature from the insight gained through the mystical visions of artists.

21 Mary Mumbach, p. 214

22 In our own day we have films made from novels and novels written from films; the filmmaker doesn’t simply put the story told in the book on the screen unfiltered; he re-crafts it for his purpose and his medium, introducing novelty along the way. If you tend to get upset about the Lord of the Rings movies, for example, perhaps try to recognize that Peter Jackson as a filmmaker is a storyteller in his own right; he might take his story from Tolkien, but does not intend to reproduce exactly the same story on the screen. Now The Hobbit? Those movies were just bad, and you can go right on being upset about them.

23 Source: Boswell. Johnson apparently never did write this book.

24 The word “archetype” in English means a model or pattern from which copies are made. It comes from two Greek words, arche (principle or beginning), and typos, which is related to a verb that means “to strike or beat.” Think of a typewriter. Well, maybe no one under 30 knows what a typewriter is anymore; OK, imagine (if you will) a mechanical device makes a letter appear on paper by striking the paper forcefully with a metallic model of the letter through an inked ribbon. So an archetype is something like “an original form or model for making copies of itself.” This has promise in our literary investigation when we remember that Aristotle and Plato both agreed that literature is imitation: that is, poetry (or poesis, meaning making) is a mimesis (meaning copying). So both the meaning of the word “archetype” and literature conceived as imitation involve the notion of copy-making.

25 Frye again, talking about patterns: “Usually what happens [in Roman and Greek comedies] is that a young man is in love with a courtesan; his father says nothing doing, but a clever slave fools the father, and the young man gets his girl. Change the courtesan to a chorus-girl, the slave to a butler, and the father to Aunt Agatha, and you’ve got the same plot and the same cast of characters that you find in a novel of P.G. Wodehouse.”

26 For example, Shakespeare borrows plots from Marlowe and Kyd, and he places them into a Dantean cosmos; he patterns characters after those archetypes which already exist in other stories that he has read, and he confirms these by observing the way people behave in his experience and so on.

27 By myth, I don’t mean what that word sometimes means, that is, a story that is collectively held to be true but, because it has no basis in fact, turns out to be false.

28 Contra Mendacium I.13.28

29 On Christian Doctrine II.xl.60

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