Category Archives: teaching

The Spirit of Monarchy and the Spirit of Republic

Comp class yesterday was quite fun.  We started out digging into the text of the Declaration of Independence, a document that, for good reasons and bad, has become a sort of canonical document in America, good for quoting and waving as a talisman but not often good for reading.  My students immediately picked up on all of the John Locke and Montesquieu in the document; what they didn’t immediately see was that the document was not addressed to the English government at all but rather to the rest of the world.  The declaration part of the Declaration is a note to the nations that diplomatic relations should from this point forward happen directly with the government of America, not through the Crown.  Setting things in that frame helped, I think, make some more sense of the list of complaints.

We also spent a bit of time on Tom Paine, whose railing at the concept of hereditary monarchy in Common Sense is always fun to read.  If the royal family started out as the toughest gangster on the block, he writes, why in the world should anyone pay that institution any respect at all?  No grand philosophy going, but as people say facilely about certain public figures, his rhetoric is so powerful!

The bulk of the class, though, we spend talking about Montesquieu monumental On the Spirit of the Laws.  Most folks know it as the “separation of powers” document, and indeed it does prescribe that the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the government should not fall into the same human being’s hands.  But the real wonder of the document has to do with the spirit part–Montesquieu develops a full ethical theory of government after the manner of Plato’s forms of the city, and his insights bring together the best of Locke’s Commonwealth theory and the best sort of Platonic psychology to form a new theory of democracy.  

In a despotism, Montesquieu holds, the chief virtue of the population is fear: what angers the despot is deadly for the people, who have no protection from the laws, so the people who fare best are the ones who stay down.  In a monarchy, where laws buttress the state, honor is the premium, or rightful respect for the rightful king.  Here the people know their place (under the king) but nonetheless rightly expect a certain fixed order beyond the leader’s will.  In a republic or democracy, on the other hand (Montesquieu does not distinguish between the two), the people must be possessed of manhood, or somebodiness.  (I made that word up, though I’m sure I’m not the first.)  Because in a democracy every person is the highest authority (because everyone is an equal authority), education in that system must move towards a self-respect rather than respect of a king-who-is-not-one’s-self, and the fruit of that self-respect should be active participation in the community.

We finished off with one of the Federalist papers, in which Madison, writing as Publius, sets forth regional representatives as the cure for the mob rule to which pure democracy is prone.  I told my students that, although regional representation is simply the way things are for us, Madison and the Constitutional Convention really were sharp on that, given that their chief models for genuinely non-monarchical government were Rome, where the patrician families controlled the state, and Athens, where the population was only a few thousand.  I’m not sure that I communicated that as well as I should have, but such is life.


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Conjuring with the Bible and Listening to Devils

The most interesting line of questioning from today’s lit survey class was one for which I had not prepared adequately.  (I recognize that such is the finitude of humanity, but I still often wish to have such days back.)  As we discussed the opening scenes of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a couple students noted what I hoped they would note, namely that the materials with which Faustus conjures the minor demon Mephistophilis include the name of God in various forms, the New Testament, the Psalms, and other Christian texts.  I explained to them (as I had prepared to do) the implications of a belief (common enough in a world of limited literacy) that texts for them were something like lumps of plutonium for us–potentially useful but ultimately very dangerous, especially in the hands of hubristic mad-scientist types like Faustus.

bibleandcandleSo far, so good.

Then one bright student asked how the Bible, which is inherently good, could be used for the sake of damnable purposes like conjuring devils.  That brought on an opportunity for me to do my normal riff on positive and privative (or Manichean and Augustinian, if you prefer) theories of evil and their implications for ethics.  For those who have not done much historical theology/philosophy (and who don’t read this blog, as this is one of my favorite riffs), positive theories of evil hold that good and evil are matched and warring forces in the universe, and the fate of things hinges upon the good rather than evil winning the war.  The best response to evil in this model is to journey forth and defeat it.  Privative theories, on the other hand, hold that all being is, because God-given, good, and that evil names not a substance in its own right but some perversion of genuinely good being.  Therefore evil cannot ultimately “win” because every evil is after some kind of good, only in a perverse manner.  So good beings can resist those seeking bad means to the perverse good but must beware the possibility that one’s self becomes the evil that one sought to destroy.

At any rate, the possibility of conjuring with the name of God depends, I think, on an intuitive if not theorized theory of privative evil: the purpose of the Mosaic commandment against using the name in vain, I told them, was not to limit people’s vocabularies when they missed with hammers but to forbid cursing and conjuring by using the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name for God in Hebrew.  I started off down the right path, but about midway through I started reversing terms, forgetting vocabulary, and doing the sorts of things that one does when one hasn’t prepared.  Ah, well.

We also had a good discussion about some of the naievete of people who try to do criticism of Marlowe, attributing to Marlowe ideas from Mephistophilis’s speeches without considering  the realities that a character in a play, not the playwright, speaks them, and further that said character is by definition a deceiving spirit whose aim at the moment is to get Faustus’s soul to Hell.  So who could be more likely to tell Faustus that Hell is really no different than earth, that one carries one’s own Heaven or Hell inside one’s soul?  Who more likely to tell Faustus, after he signs the contract, that he’s no longer able to repent?

And here’s the one that I’m still wrestling with: What if Mephistophilis was lying about the reason he came when Faustus called?  Mephisto, in his first long speech, tells Faustus that the doctor’s magical spells really have no sway over a demonic spirit, that devils come running not from compulsion but for the opportunity to take a soul to Hell when they hear a mortal cursing the Godhead. So far as the devil tells Faustus, the spells have no power over his will.  But a few scenes later (scene ten in the Revels edition, which uses the B-text), Mephistophilis, summoned by Dick and Robin (Ralph and Robin in the A-text, Beavis and Butthead in my estimation), complains to the audience that he’s been summoned by two idiots and laments the life of a devil.  Now in their case, they seem too stupid for genuine blasphemy, and they do not as far as I can tell from their garbled Latin curse the Trinity.  So Mephisto, in that scene at least, is very much under the sway of the magic, even when wielded by two buffoons.

Now I acknowledge that such a reading might be taking a comic relief scene too seriously, but given all of the obvious interlacing between the grave and grand Faustus scenes and the clown scenes, I have to wonder whether that bit of comic relief gives away the grandest joke of all in the play, one that a devil with no cards to play pulls on the gullible doctor of magic who falls for his bluff.

I’ll have to think some more on this, but that possibility does impress me as something plausible in the logic of the drama.

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Arm’s Length or All In?

I didn’t give my best lesson ever yesterday in comp, but it wasn’t bad either.

Our main texts for the day were excerpts from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and my initial plan was to use the question of children’s education to point up the radical differences between the two.  Whereas Locke paints civil society as an agreement among consenting adults to protect each other’s private property rights, Rousseau has a more radical vision, one in which all of each citizen’s power comes to be part of the polis and the polis only succeeds insofar as its actions mirror the General Will, Rousseau’s name for those actions that confer true benefit on all rather than benefitting some at others’ expense.

However, I mentioned the children thing with Locke (noting that Locke does not spend much time at all thinking past the formation of a polis into the perpetuation fo the same) and then forgot it entirely with Rousseau (who actually does talk about education as a means of advancing beyond the “State of Nature” and achieving a genuinely human Moral Freedom).

I’ll blame this, like my Lear omissions the hour before, on this cold (which I’m still fighting).  I suppose that’s the best means I have for believing that I can and will do better tomorrow.

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My Tragic Lesson Plan

I’m looking at my notes for today’s lesson on the final two acts of King Lear in English Literature Survey course, and I believe that if I made a list of the six most interesting bits I wanted to get to, I’d have missed five of them.  I know we were there for seventy-five minutes, but I really can’t remember what ate up that much time.

What we did have was an interesting discussion on tragedy as a dramatic genre.  I first went over the Aristotelian formulation and told them to put that on the shelf–more than likely Bill the Bard didn’t have access to it.  Then we talked, starting with Greek tragedy and working our way through Roman and into the Renaissance revenge tragedy, about Nietzshce’s theory (I forgot to mention Nietzsche, which I will do next time, but I did use his categories) that tragedy as a genre pulls the elements of Dionysian song, which internalizes and surrenders to chaos, into conflict with Apollonian statuary, which hold chaos at a distance for the sake of walling it off.  In our class this took the shape of a discussion on justice and whether the Stoic, Machiavellian, Augustinian, and commercial could ever work together.  Now that I think of it, that discussion ranged over most of the class, so perhaps I can forgive myself for the five good bits I lost.

Thursday we start with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (remember, we’re moving backwards in time), so I should have plenty of opportunity to dig into the Nietzschean theories then.

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On Putting One’s Eyes Out

I’m once again in debt to Fran Teague, my wonderful dissertation director, for a bit of pedagogical gold.  When we took on King Lear in her graduate Shakespeare class in 2005, she introduced the history-of-theater question of how one could stage Cornwall’s and Regan’s brutal act of putting Gloucester’s eyes out on a thrust stage.  After all, no matter what object one hid behind, someone would be able to see what’s actually going on.  Our class, as I remember, pretty much gave up on verisimilitude and conceded the impossibility of anything but a stylized gouge.  (The next spring, UGA’s theater department, putting on Lear, went for a stylized pantomime.)  She set before us a simple and elegant solution: since Gloucester is tied to a chair, the actors playing Cornwall and Regan could simply tip him back, apply the stage-blood, and tip him forward again when time came for Gloucester to speak his lines.  So, as you might have anticipated, I picked two burly boys (I had the class pretend that one was in fact a cross-dressing Jacobean actor, even though both had pronounced facial hair), sat in a chair, and for the last five minutes of today’s class (whose reading ended with the end of act three, where Gloucester loses his eyes) they figured out how to put my eyes out for the audience’s delight.  The gentlemen tipped me back without a hitch (I told ’em I’d flunk ’em if they dropped me), and the class went out with a good visual.

Thank you, Dr. Teague.

In comp class we spent the bulk of our time dealing with agents and actions and making sure they actually appear in each clause’s subject and verb, so I won’t have a teaching post tomorrow.  I suppose I’ll have to think of something to write between now and then.

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Playing the Atheist

Yesterday’s class landed me in a strange place but one that, for the moment, I’m alright with.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I don’t go out of my way to announce that I’m a Christian but also don’t duck the question when students ask.  (I do, after all, often make reference to the text of biblical books when I teach literature and philosophy, so the question is a natural one.)  I’ve taught three semesters, as readers here no doubt know, of a special section of freshman comp based on the Hebrew Bible in translation.

But yesterday we were tackling an essay by David Hume on miracles, and my students didn’t quite grasp the power of his argument, so stepping inside the role of Hume as so often I’ve stepped inside the role of Plato, I parsed his dense prose not as a step towards refuting it but in the process of becoming a Hume for my students to fight. So I broke down the following sentence for them:

…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior. (The Portable Enlightenment Reader 110)

To break that down, since a given miracle is by definition not reproducible (Princess Bride aside), therefore only available to the bulk of humanity by means of somebody’s account of that miracle, the credibility of that miracle depends upon the credibility of the reporter.  So given the incredible character of a miracle, only a supremely authoritative witness, one effectively invulnerable to deceit and incapable of deceiving, could relate a miracle believably.  But to say that a given person believes in such things as the dead rising from the grave is to call that person credulous at the outset.  Therefore no account of a miracle can be authoritative, and thus no reasonable person ought to believe a miracle.

One good man in the back row took me on, and I respect that, but I quickly reiterated and solidified Hume’s position using his vocabulary, and once again the class was in what I called (at the end of the class) Hume’s headlock. As I dismissed the class to go watch Obama’s inauguration on television, I could tell that the air was still somewhat heavy in the room.

I hope that the experience leads some of my evangelical students (I’m sure they’re in there–this is UGA, after all) to talk with some educated Christians about Hume’s argument rather than give up on the whole project.  I’d hate to have that on my conscience.  But all the same, as I’ve said in conversation if not here, I’d rather have these students encounter ideas like Hume’s in the safety of my classroom, where the conversation ends and allows for reflection and help-seeking, than some day in conversation with a coworker or some other context in which a genuinely aggressive atheist is pushing the ideas.  That might ultimately be a cop-out on my part, but I do think that, among the ways that my students could encounter Hume, mine is at least not the worst.


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Hard to Blame Anyone in Lear

I realized while planning today’s lesson that, until some of the characters just go devilish on the audience, I have a hard time blaming anyone in King Lear for what comes to pass.  On one hand, Regan and Goneril don’t speak up when the old man insists on keeping a 100-man private army after ceding the throne.  On the other, with half of Britain to run, I can’t blame either daughter for objecting to Lear’s 100 knights causing trouble in the palace.  And while it’s rotten for the daughters to turn the old man out in the storm, they do note immediately afterwards that they would have been happy to house Lear, just not his soldiers.

Now I realize that as acts three and four move along, the play’s traditional baddies move from merely frustrated to openly nasty, but I’m talking about the opening acts here.

I gave good mini-lectures today on the history of the English Bible (because there are so many echoes of Paul in King Lear) and on the changing character of the term “natural” (because a firstborn’s privilege is, in the eyes of Edmund, supernatural and thus nonsense) as we went along, and this class has been wonderful about coming prepared and talking in class.  I suppose Jess Walker was right about this (even if she remains wrong about Merchant of Venice): sophomore English and journalism majors make for a fun conversation.

Look for a post on the Enlightenment and religion tomorrow.


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