I read the following story for our school’s end of year assembly. It is inspired both by fiction and non-fiction.
“Where am I even supposed to put this? I can’t hold onto it much longer!” Ivan turned around and said to Helen, “It’s okay. Just set it down right there and we’ll get someone else to take it the rest of the way.” Sophie yelled from across the room, “I don’t know why you all didn’t just listen to me in the first place.”
This was part of a conversation that took place between three rabbits who lived in a nearby hill with a large tree on the top. The name of their burrow was Stupidity Down.
Our story actually tracks four rabbits as they helped the burrow move to a new home. These rabbits were a good representation of their classmates, all with long ears and fluffy tails and a different perspective on how to get along. Their names were Helen, Robert, Ivan, and Sophie.
Helen was the most beautiful doe in all the colony, but she also wasn’t very bright. Sometimes the young bucks would fight for her attention, and one of them named Troy actually lost everything he was growing for her when he accidentally left the garden gate open and a horse trampled the lettuce. That is a whole other story.
Robert was the sneaky one of the bunch. He would ask the other rabbits what they liked, and then he would snatch away as much of it as he could and then act sad with his friends when they couldn’t find their favorite things. In class he would also copy others’ work and then take credit as if it were his own idea.
Ivan, as you can probably tell from his name, was a Russian rabbit. Ivan had a lot of ideas, and most of them weren’t actually that terrible. He was always trying to organize others to do things with him so that they could get more done more quickly, and then they would all get to have more fun. He wasn’t necessarily the smartest rabbit you’ve ever met, but all his friends knew that he cared about them.
Then there was Sophie. She never had an opinion she could keep behind her two front bunny teeth. Sophie’s older siblings had really multiplied, and she had so many nieces and nephews that she was better known in the colony as Aunti-Sophie. Sophie stuck her nose through the fence into everyone else’s business, and the only thing she was really good at was making more work for everyone, including herself.
The burrow had been getting cozier and cozier and some of the bunnies’ fur had been getting rubbed the wrong way. The Council had found a place for them to move but they only had a few months to do it. When the fall came it would be time for harvest and the days would get filled up with gathering food for the long winter months. So summer was it.
One evening the four rabbits met to talk about their plan. Ivan said, “What if we divide up the rooms and each of us can take responsibility for a part?”
Robert replied, “Sure! But could I borrow your iPad, Helen? I want to make a really good list and it would be easier to type it out.” (These were Gen Z rabbits, after all.)
Helen said, “That’s fine with me, but my parents only give me an hour a day for screen time, so I’ll have to ask, then you can use it.”
Helen got permission and handed her iPad to Robert. All four of them put their heads down and started to work on which items needed to be moved. But Robert only appeared to be working. He used Helen’s screen time to play games.
Sophie kept asking Ivan a lot of questions. “How do you decide what to bring and what to leave behind? Am I going to have to carry all of this? Why don’t we just hire moving rabbits?” No matter how Ivan answered, Sophie just argued. “Try to identify the things that you know you’ll need or that you know you really like.” But Sophie said, “If I knew that already why would I be asking you? Which, now that I think about, why am I asking you?” It turns out that there are such things as “Sophie questions,” and all the talking kept all of them from getting very much done.
Later that week it was finally moving day. Ivan had collected all their lists and, after completing Helen’s for her and fixing Sophie’s, he color coded the rooms and the boxes each rabbit was responsible for. He had also hopped through all the tunnels to find the shortest path for each of the others to follow. He clapped his paws and said, “This is going to be a great day! Just follow the signs I put up for you.”
Helen kept having a hard time. She could only carry boxes that were very light, and even then, you could tell where she’d been because of the trail of things that had fallen out. Sophie kept telling Helen what to do. “You’re doing it wrong. Put your paws underneath the edge like this.” Helen tried to think of something to say back to Sophie but just collapsed into a a sad little puddle of hare.
The only thing Sophie herself was better at than Helen was complaining. For all the instructions she gave to the other rabbits, Sophie dropped a box that broke a few bottles of her own perfume. She also put more than a few boxes in the wrong rooms, and complained later that she couldn’t find what she was looking for.
While Sophie was criticizing Helen and Ivan was trying to help, Robert was helping himself by taking things he liked from others’ rooms. He’d grab little toys, or snacks and sweets he saw, and take them to a little hole he’d made in the bank of a nearby stream.
None of the other rabbits saw him. He avoided getting run over by cars as he went back and forth across a small street, but he didn’t avoid being seen by a local farmer. The farmer laid out a trail of baby carrots and caught Robert in a net and locked him in a hutch. Be sure your sneak will find you out.
Ivan wondered where Robert had gone, but he was worn out and glad that the burrow got moved; after a good night of sleep he was ready for more work. Sophie sat alone, but she blamed it on everyone else.
You may not be a rabbit, but you do have a summer, and it will be more blessed and more of a blessing if you learn from what happened in Stupidity Down.
Hailey and Autumn, euge, bravo and well done! We praise the Lord for you, and we praise the Lord with you that He has blessed you with strength and endurance to finish this phase of your education. My graduation message to you tonight is simple. I believe it will be helpful and hopefully memorable. The message is this: you are too blessed to be stupid.
There is a categorical cornucopia of those who are dumb, fat, and happy, but I want to argue that your blessedness, your beatus, your happiness, won’t allow you to be stupid.
Stupid is a word your mom probably doesn’t want you to use. Stupid isn’t usually polite, and it’s regularly used to describe someone else’s actions/decisions that we just don’t like. But I have something more specific in mind.
I recently read a 46 year-old book titled, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by an Italian economist named Carlo Cipolla. It’s short, a little over 80 printed pages, and ought to be on everyone’s summer reading list, including those who have just finished high school. I am going to share the best of the book, but I knew the gist before I read it and lost none of the value.
Cipolla points out that humans are relational creatures. To my knowledge he didn’t claim to be a Christian, but as Christians we know that we are made in the image of one God who has revealed Himself in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This means that we were created with the capacity for work and connection, even for cooperation. For some this interaction is a painful necessity, other individuals will put up with other persons they don’t really like so they don’t have to be alone.
Think in economic terms what each person brings, what each person aims for. “From each action or inaction we derive a gain or a loss and at the same time we cause a gain or a loss to someone else.” (Cipolla, Location 202) Those benefits and losses can be plotted on a matrix.
He observes that there are always four types of persons in their interactions: 1) the Helpless, 2) Bandits, 3) the Intelligent, and 4) the Stupid.
The helpless person may contribute a minimal amount to society but is often taken advantage of. It’s not that the helpless person is ignorant per se, it’s that in his interactions he is more impoverished than enriched. The helpless are drained even when they aren’t the worst drain on others.
The bandit likewise is not a dunce, but exerts more energy in causing another’s loss in order to gain for himself. Thieves can be quite creative but they concentrate on what they can get. It’s a win-lose relationship, a bigger piece of the pie for bandit means he’s taking it from someone else’s piece.
The intelligent uses his brains for win-win. He benefits, not just parallel to, but together with, the benefit of others. The pie gets bigger for everyone. Intelligence in Cipolla’s definition is not just mental horsepower or IQ, not just quantitative reasoning on the CLT. It’s applied logic in love, a relational intelligence. Having read Proverbs we’d label it wisdom.
The fourth character in the last quadrant is the stupid, and he is the worst. Cipolla defines it in the third and “golden” basic law of stupidity: “A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.” (Location 245)
“Our daily life is mostly made up of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness, and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm.” (Location 255)
And it’s not just an individual concern.
“This [stupid] group is much more powerful than the Mafia, or the military industrial complex, or international communism—it is an unorganized, unchartered group which has no chief, no president, no by-laws and yet manages to operate in perfect unison, as if guided by an invisible hand, in such a way that the activity of each member powerfully contributes to strengthen and amplify the effectiveness of the activity of all other members.” (Location 101)
It might seem that bandits would be worse: purposefully benefitting themselves at the losses of others. But bandit types can be reasoned with to some degree, or at least we can use reason to understand their decisions. The helpless are also not helpful for a community, but their biggest problem is that they can’t stand up against the stupid.
The stupid person is committed to doing things that benefit no one. They take the perfectly good pie and throw the whole thing in the trash, probably while congratulating themselves since sugar is a drug that causes diabetes. No one wins, and there’s no logic that can move them. They will work hard to make it so that they don’t have to work hard, and that hinders others from working hard. The stupid are “the most powerful dark forces that hinder the growth of human welfare and happiness.” (Location 107)
Cipolla’s categories get close to Solomon’s characters. The helpless is as the naive or the simple. The bandits compare to the scoffers, the sinners whose feet run to evil (Proverbs 1:16). The intelligent are the wise. And the stupid is the fool. It’s more than failing grades and a low Lexile reading level, it’s resistance to knowledge that does good.
“a fool flaunts his folly” (Proverbs 13:16)
“a babbling fool will come to ruin” (Proverbs 10:8)
“the mouth of a fool brings ruin near” (Proverbs 10:14)
“doing wrong is like a joke to a fool” (Proverbs 10:23)
“Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs rather than a fool in his folly” (Proverbs 17:12).
Bertrand Russell once said (ironically): “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Solomon said it a long time ago.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15, ESV)
Cipolla asserts that the percentage of stupid = σ is a constant, and “Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.” (Location 121). No matter what group or demographic, there are always those who make decisions detrimental to themselves and others. If Cipolla is right, you can see that now, not just when you “go out into the world.”
Examples in a school context: Students who defend not doing their work and make it hard for others to do theirs, whether mouthing off with each other or blowing off their assignments. Teachers who habitually over-assign work that then we also have to grade. Or broadening the view: Politicians who mandate untested or unnecessary restrictions to the harm of everyone.
Raggant-about-to-be-alumni, you are too blessed to be stupid. The blessings God has given you are abundant and extraordinary. Your parents have blessed you, your teachers have sacrificed to do the same. You’ve read books and had conversations about things that maybe most students, most human beings, never will. These are not blessings that just happen anywhere.
Blessings include but are not limited to: learning how to partner for projects (with others who don’t care as much as you), learning how to keep reading good things when your eyes hurt, learning how to learn when the subject is difficult, learning how to sing in harmony, learning how to laugh when it’s hard, learning how to make and defend your case, learning how to change your mind.
You both have finished this part of your course and are more equipped than the majority of your peers who are hurting themselves and others by not taking advantage of the assignments in front of them. You have been blessed, and I charge you to bring blessings to others, for their joy and your own.
Hailey and Autumn, we are glad to celebrate with you as you cross the ECS finish line. Fear the Lord, be wise, get wisdom, remember that you are too blessed to be stupid.
I am one of the founders of ECS. Being a founder is interesting, because founders aren’t the past tense of finders. A founder doesn’t find something that was there, a founder lays down a foundation for something that could become. The only thing that existed about ECS eleven years ago was an idea. But look around. The wine and steak and laughter and songs and relationships are real.
This is our ninth fundraising feast, and this is the ninth time that I’ve spoken. Someday there will be another speaker (and the people rejoiced). Debatable statistics say that most people would rather drown than speak in public, but even if the task doesn’t seem fun to you, you can certainly imagine that it is a privilege. Year by year I ask Jonathan if he would like me to speak, and he keeps including me because I’m connected as a founder, a board member, a parent of raggants, a teacher, and now a grandpa to a future raggant!
But as I said, it won’t be me up here forever, and not just when I’m dead. If we fulfill our mission, it definitely won’t be. My comments so far are a personal angle on our institutional vision. I have the perspective of a founder with a purpose to make more of them, and from my perspective it’s working.
Consider how different things are than two years ago, when we didn’t even host a fundraising feast because we were all ordered to stay home. But more than that, think about how different your life, your family, your weekly schedule, your budget, your relationships, your expectations, are now compared to before you got connected to ECS. The influence isn’t only one way, and it’s not always immediately positive I suppose. But all of us are changed (and/or challenged) by one another. Every new teacher and student and family adds to the foundation.
I am one of the first founders, but we are all ongoing founders. This is our school’s mission. We aren’t interested in making graduates as much as we are interested in graduating founders. By that I don’t mean that every young man or woman has to start a brand new school or business, though some will. I mean that every young man or woman will carry and advance the foundation.
That foundation is our confession that Jesus is Lord. He cares about everything He created, and if we are to please Him and grow in likeness to Him, we must grow in our care for everything He created. The works of the Lord are the foundation, and we commend them to another generation (Psalm 145:4). So we are always abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58), reading books and translating Latin and laughing at tyrants and stacking chairs again in and for Jesus’ name.
We are doing this so that we’ll be more than a “read-only” culture. If the government keeps down its current path, we’re going to see the increase of a “can’t-read” generation, which I suppose will at least keep them from being as irritated someday when they have to buy gas. Read-only is better than unread-only. But we’re aiming for more than literacy. We’re aiming higher than knowing history. Let’s make history.
A “read-only” people have “the ability to repeat what an ancestor has handed down – but not recreate it from first principles” (Balaji). In the model of classical education that we follow at ECS, the first stage is the Grammar stage, and it necessarily includes learning about and learning to appreciate all that we’ve been given. We repeat vocabulary words and multiplication tables and parts in songs because repetition is a tool in education. But it’s not the telos of education.
Repeating isn’t enough, and neither is knowing more so that we can have more informed complaints. We live in a day, or at least in a streaming news-cycle, where resentment is triumphing over vision. Algorithms are written to engage our attention with anger. We don’t know for sure what’s happening, but we know for sure someone needs to be damned. The cultural foundations around us aren’t just deteriorating on their own, they are being actively destroyed. Did we expect anything different from a system starting with deconstruction?
We have to learn what is better, and then commit to trying to build something better. That is the part we put on repeat, not just parroting what a founder said, but what a founder did. Keep founding.
Tonight will end, but it is not the end, right? When the dishes are done and the donations counted, we have a lot more to do. We will have school on Monday, four more weeks of this school year, graduation for our seniors, and a final assembly, then we start again in the fall. It’s just a little over 16 weeks away from the first day of school. Ha!
You also have only so many weeks have left. I read a book titled Four Thousand Weeks, which is rounded for how many weeks there are in 77 years of life. What are you doing with those? What foundation are you building up (or tearing down) for your family? For your city?
“The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”
—Oliver Burkeman, Loc. 55
The point of tonight is not to raise the most money we’ve ever raised. That’s not the end of the game. The point is to give thanks and raise money for the purpose of continuing the wonder, and the work of helping others see the wonder.
I’m not so starry-eyed as to think everyone gets the wonder in the works of the Lord at the same level. Not all of our current students see what they’re being given. Do any of us? But, wow, how kind the Lord has been to us these last ten years. What fruit has come from so many late nights and caffeinated mornings. It’s totally costly, and yet what a foundation of laughter and feasting do we dance on. Even when God has said “No” to particular prayers, He has worked in ways we can easily commend to one another.
No person has worked harder than our Headmaster to find us a place to root our work. At the direction of the Board he asked a local church if we could rent their space, and we sent him back at least two more times after they said no. As it turns out, had that church, or the other alternatives we pursued said yes, we probably would not have been able to open our doors in the fall of 2020. Not only that, we wouldn’t be in the position that we are now to pursue purchasing the Reclamation Church campus.
For the first time in our history we are about to have our own property on which to build more foundation. We also have the opportunity to honor our city and protect our investment from burning down by installing a sprinkler system. This is not a distraction, this is the spoils of founding something that God has made so fruitful. A number of people have observed that the building isn’t as bright as they’d like. That’s okay, neither are we, and fixing the former is easier than the latter. The same is true for Marysville. Paint is cheap compared to the cost of bringing light to the darkness, and yet it’s exactly the foundation we’ve been working on.
We have joy in a work that we are only starting. We laugh because we can’t finish it. The work is that big, that glorious. We are doing this because an idea turned into 370 people having a feast. Imagine what it could be just ten more years from now?
Keep rejoicing in the works of the Lord and keep founding.
I gave the following address at our school’s fundraising dinner last Saturday night.
“Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.” This is either a proverb for soldiers or smack talk between them. It’s probably both and that’s probably why I like it so much. It’s wisdom, it’s snark, both of which a man can use on the battlefield. We could also use more sages and smart-alecks in the sphere of education, so tonight I want to tell the story surrounding this salty sound bite and then see if there is any application for us.
In 1 Kings 20, the King of Syria, Ben-hadad–also known as “the son of Hadad” (since Ben means “son” in Hebrew), or we might call him, “Jr.”–gathered his troops together and formed a coalition with thirty-two other provincial kings. They all marched south to take over some new territory, and Ben-Hadad and this motley military clobbered Samaria. Feeling pretty good about himself, Hadad sent messengers into the city to inform the King of Israel, Ahab, that he was next in line. Hadad told Ahab the sticker price of peace up front: “your silver and your gold are mine; your best wives and children are also mine.” That’s quite a toll.
We should remember that Ahab was not a righteous king. According to chapter 16 Ahab did more evil than any previous king of Israel (verse 30). His wife’s name was Jezebel, that one and only Jezebel who cut off the prophets of the LORD, hunted Elijah after the fire showdown, and had Naboth murdered for his vineyard. Ahab himself abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals, including setting up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal in Samaria (verse 32). “Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (verse 33). Ahab was, however, king over God’s people and that’s important later.
For now Ahab agreed to Hadad’s terms. “As you say, my lord, O King, I am yours, and all that I have.” He offered zero resistance to Jr.’s list of demands. But, as usual with spoiled tyrants, giving in didn’t appease him, and Hadad served notice that he was going to come the next day, look around, and “lay hands on whatever pleases you and take it away.” Hadad was just rubbing Ahab’s face in a puddle of mean.
That was too much for Ahab. He called an emergency session of Israel’s congress and all the officials agreed that Ahab should not give in. Ahab sent word, “All that you first demanded of your servant I will do, but this thing I cannot do.” He’s still trying to mostly capitulate, but Hadad smelled blood in the weakness.
So with his most bloviating bravado Hadad sent the message back, “The gods do so to me and more also if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.” He meant that he would pulverize Israel like such fine flour that there wouldn’t be enough for each of his soldiers to have their own personal scoop. It’s smack-talk oath style, with 33 armies worth of muscle to back it up.
I’m not sure what got into Ahab at this point. Knowing what Hadad did in Samaria and the resources at his disposal, Ahab picked up his spine and said, “Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as one who takes it off.” A Roman might have said, “Ante victoriam ne canas triumphum,” “Before victory don’t sing triumph.” An actor in an 80’s Naval aviator movie might have said, “Your mouth shouldn’t write checks that your body can’t cash.” Or, as country singer Kenny Rogers might have put it, “You never count your money while sitting at the table.”
Ahab’s confidence was about to thicken from there. A prophet told Ahab that the LORD promised to give the great multitude into his hands. Uncertain about how that could be, Ahab asked by whom? The prophet said not by soldiers but by the servants of the governors. Ahab asked who was going to fire first? The prophet said, “You.” They found 232 servants and backed them up with all the remaining men in Israel, only seven thousand.
Jr. Hadad was out having a pre-victory party with the other kings and they were drinking themselves drunk in the middle of the day. Even though Hadad escaped, the servants of Israel struck down the Syrians and Israel was delivered (for the time) just as the Lord promised. Hadad had indeed counted his chickens before they surrendered.
Does a war story like this have anything to do with a school story? On a feast night like tonight, should we be talking about a fight? And if the account does apply, at least by analogy, which side are we on? What are the unit objectives for us?
Since the Garden of Eden the seed of the dragon (or “serpent” if you prefer) and the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), whom Paul identified as Jesus (Galatians 4:4), have been in conflict. Everyone on earth wears army boots for one side or the other. Neutrality does not exist on the Internet, in courtrooms, and certainly not in class rooms. There are more than two fighting styles but there are only two fighting sides. We’re with Jesus or we’re against Him.
If we’re with Jesus then we’re against an enemy that, from the world’s perspective, doesn’t just outnumber our resources, he makes us look like baby kittens harnessed to a bobsled right after a bath. We don’t appear to be able to pull much weight and our bite is not much of a threat.
We don’t have the facilities, the subsidies, the salaries, or the rules on our side. It may be lopsided but it’s still a fight that needs fighting. What God will be recognized by the school board or on the white board? What God/god gets credit for math, history, science, line diagramming and poetry? The nameless god of the state? The great god of the mirror, man? Or the Lord Jesus Christ?
Wisdom about war absolutely has relevant wisdom for a Christian school. Issues such as supplies, costs, personnel, tactics, aims, all overlap. So can we learn from the interaction between Hadad and Ahab?
When I first thought of this proverb as applied to our almost three year-old school, I read our part in the story wrong. It may seem as if we’re the ones who are putting our armor on, the ones who need to gird our lips with non-boasting duct tape. After all, what can we do? What have we done?
But the more I read the story the more I changed my mind. We have less reason to be humbled like Hadad and more reason to be feisty like Ahab.
Like Ahab, Christians have been willing to make too many compromises when it comes to giving our kids over to a godless system. Thankfully more believers are realizing that the State has overstepped it’s proper shoe size. Barak Ben-Obama cannot bully us into giving him whatever he wants. Even Ahab wouldn’t have sent his kids to a school accredited by Ben-hadad’s education commission.
Like Ahab we initially cower when the world crows about their success. They are turning the tassels of their standardized test scores and drinking themselves drunk. They mock, threaten, and parade over Christian homeschool and private schools. But they’re the ones who don’t know what they’re doing, which is part of the reason for endlessly-new and improved teaching models, which is part of the reason they need more money. They won’t get the best laugh, let alone the last one.
Like Ahab we do not deserve deliverance. The Lord gave grace to His people and it’s only grace that does us any good, too. In the fight of education we are not perfect but we are on the side of the Lord. The Lord blesses His people even in spite of themselves at times so that we may know that the Lord is Lord.
We are also like Ahab in that the Lord often uses servants to do His fighting. The weak of the world defeat the strong, the foolish confound the wise. In fact, we are more like the unskilled servants than trained soldiers anyway.
Unlike Ahab, however, we look back at the biggest battle. Jesus said, “It is finished.” When we stand with the Lord, we stand on the winning side. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to Me.” He has taken off His armor, having defeated sin and death and risen to the fight hand of the Father. We are His messengers, and though we don’t know everything, we know that the victory is His. “Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.” I’d like to imagine that one of Ahab’s God-fearing messengers had a sparkle in his eye when he told that to Hadad. So should we.
When our students sing and we eat meat and drink wine it’s in joy because the great victory is won. Tonight the Marysville Grange is our temporary Mead Hall where we feast because Jesus lives and Grendel and his mom are dead. Grendel’s modern day cousins keep attacking, and we wisely, and feistily, call them amateurs.
We also believe that He supplies His warrior-servants with equipment and training. We’re here celebrating what the Lord has been doing at Evangel Classical School, and we believe that more of His people want to see this feisty worldview enculturated to the next generation.
On almost any 21st Century list of epics, Virgil’s Aeneid is the rented mule. You need it to carry the burden of Western Civilization through a fairly gnarly section on the world timeline, but it’s not the epic you care about. You don’t treat it like a pet, you beat it, freely, like a rented mule.
Could we have been such chronological snobs to have a festival about monumental myths that have shaped western man and left out Virgil? Not unless we also wanted to leave out Dante, who consciously patterned his Divine Comedy after Virgil and, even more significantly, turned Virgil himself into a character to guide the pilgrim Dante through the Inferno and Purgatorio. We’d also have to ignore how culture itself went west from Athens to Rome, leaving unanswered the shift from Spartans to Caesars, skimming over the world into which the Logos took on flesh, and in which, to some extent, we still live. Like it or not, we are sons of Aeneas.
We could no more ignore Virgil’s myth than we could Thomas Jefferson while staring at Mt. Rushmore.
I will admit, I didn’t like it. When we decided on the epic theme for this Fiction Festival, the one thing I knew is that I did not want to talk about the Aeneid. Bleh; boring. I offered to buckle up with a number of other options, Dante or Milton or Beowulf or perhaps even Spenser. But Providence had other purposes, and I could do no other. If Aeneas is a reluctant hero, I was at least reluctant to start my journey with him (though I am not a hero). Knowing my calling, it was my duty to love this epic in front of you so that you might appreciate it more.
Duty Is a Four Letter Word
I said it was my duty to battle my previous boredom with this book. The zeitgeist, or common cultural and moral climate, of the 21st century is to dismiss duty. We don’t think about our duties, we deny that things are our duties. We like to think we are our own people, supposedly equal and equally allowed to do whatever we want. Modern man doesn’t have anyone else to answer to but himself; if there is a God, then He is irrelevant.
This is one of the reasons why the Aeneid doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Duty to family, and duty to the (appropriate) gods, is what drives the plot of the poem. Aeneas, at least initially, doesn’t want to leave Troy (even though it’s in flames), and then he doesn’t want to leave Dido (even though she is a hot mess), and doesn’t really even seem up to making the final kill. It’s only as Aeneas realizes and remembers and takes up his responsibilities that he can establish a civilization. He is on a mission from God (in his case, Jupiter, the “Almighty Father” and “chief power of the world,” along with the Fates).
If stories are profitable to get our loyalties tied up in the right places, and they are, and if stories are good for stimulating our affections for something bigger than ourselves, and they are, then hopefully it will become obvious why the Aeneid has shaped, and might become useful again for, Christians in the tossed and troubled days of Western Civilization.
Have you read the poem? Do you know the story? Are you familiar with Virgil and his pre-Christ context?
Virgil, full name Publius Vergilius Maro, was born in 70 BC and lived until 19 BC in Italy. He was well known from two other collections of pastoral poems, the Ecologues (37 BC) and the Georgics (29 BC). He was more than a pop artist, but yet also that, like the Robertus Dylanus of his day.
Virgil lived in a politically volatile time. Caesar Augustus was taking Rome from a Republic to an Empire, and in doing so killed off some high-profile enemies. Whether or not Rome was looking for an identity, it at least was looking for some solidarity. Virgil’s story was a way to give the Romans an origin story that they could hold to, patriotically, and come to unity and peace (under Caesar’s rule).
The original #MAGA: Make Augustus Great Again. Rome had to be great, dang it. Show us why. Invent it if you need to.
Virgil worked on the Aeneid for over ten years, plodding along some days producing only two or three lines. He also wanted it burned. Legend has it that on his deathbed he pleaded with his friends to destroy it, but they didn’t, and Augustus ordered it to be published.
The poem is just under 10k lines. It is written in Latin, in dactylic hexameter, just as Homer’s epics, though Homer wrote in Greek. (For what it’s worth, a few months ago Mr. Callender and I were talking and he said that we really needed a Latin expert to talk about the Aeneid. Here I am talking about the Aeneid; I am not a Latin expert. But, I did make it through a few hours of an online course that works through the Aeneid in Latin, and…I really enjoyed it. Turns out, the original is a lot more fun and colorful. I re-read Fitzgerald in English, and, meh; it’s the recommended Omnibus version, and often recommended online. But, yeah, the Latin itself magna gloria est).
Arma virumque cano is the first line. It’s providential, and amusing, because when I (reluctantly) agreed to teach Maggie Latin when we were homeschooling, this is the second little phrase that Latin for Children Primer A has the students memorize. What I had no clue about then, is that even in these first words, Virgil is giving a shout out to Homer. The Arma, arms or weapons, look to the second six books of twelve in the Aeneid, but they also reflect the Iliad, Homer’s story of war. The virum is the man, yes, Aeneas, but also Odysseus in the Odyssey. The first six books of the Aeneid are similar sailing struggles. Even cano, I sing, connects with Homer’s song.
The main character is Aeneas. The story is called Aeneid, and not The because there is no definite article in Latin. That said, this is definitely definite; this is the Aeneid above all. Aeneas is in the Iliad, a super small role. Aeneas and Odysseus lived at the same time, and, it’s possible that they are stuck on Mediterranean seas around the same time. On the biblical timeline, this is probably just a bit before David becomes king in Israel.
Virgil writes almost a thousand years later, with the foreshadowing and prophecy making Rome’s power appear fated.
The poem sets up the hero, Aeneas, and the antagonist, which is mostly the goddess Juno (Jupiter’s wife), but it includes the Greeks and the Carthiginians and the inhabitants of Italy.
Aeneas not only admits that he is weak, he is also defeated. We find Aeneas as Troy is ransacked by the Greeks. Aeneas loses his city, his wife, and has to carry his father out of the burning wreckage to escape in ships (the subject of numerous works of art). They set sail, and Juno stirs up Aeolus to send winds against them to destroy the fleet, but Neptune doesn’t take kindly to others messing with his surf. Some ships are lost, others make port in Carthage, where Aeneas and Dido, the queen, fall in love and get married, of a sort, a relationship consummated but not covenanted.
But the gods remind Aeneas that he has to keep going; Jupiter sends a messenger. Aeneas is called, by duty, to get to Italy and plant a people who would become Rome.
Dido is humiliated and enraged and kills herself, lighting herself on fire in a big pyre. (She’s found in Dante’s second level of hell in the Inferno).
Aeneas and his men make port at another stop, and here Aeneas is shown the door to the underworld where he goes, and sees not only Dido (awkward), but also his dad (Anchises), who reiterates that Aeneas must keep going to found a great people.
By the time Aeneas comes back from the realm of the dead at the end of Book VI, he is ready for his responsibility. His ships sail up the coast to the mouth of the Tiber River, he greets the current king, Latinus, who promises his daughter to Aeneas. That makes Turnus angry, a local prince, and the second half of the poem, Books VII-XII, are all about the various battle scenes. Finally, and abruptly, Aeneas faces Turnus in single-combat, and kills him.
Number One on the Romans Times
Though Virgil didn’t even want the thing published, the Aeneid became a bestseller almost immediately. How many people in Rome could read? How many scribes were making handwritten copies? Hard to say. Even Augustus probably didn’t read the whole thing. But it resonated with the Romans.
And why wouldn’t it? This was a story about their awesomeness. It gave them an origin story for their civilization that was Jupiter’s own desire, with the blessing of most of the gods, and the inevitability of the Fates. Remus and Romulus were descendants of Aeneas, and how could the Empire not be great? They had Virgil’s 20/20 hindsight and artistic flair to help them embrace their greatness.
Like Dido, Without Dying
When it comes to shaping Western man, the Aenied didn’t stop in first century Rome. Many men have loved Aeneas.
For fun, many medievals played Sortes Vergilianae, flipping open a Virgil book to a random page, blindly pointing at a sentence, and taking that as a prophecy (e.g., Hadrian, Charles I, others). This is also known as bibliomancy, “foretelling the future by interpreting a randomly chosen passage from a book, especially the Bible” (New Oxford American Dictionary).
Augustine couldn’t stop referencing it. In his Confessions he refers to reading Virgil again and again as a young student, and early after his conversion struggled with how it benefitted him compared to eternal things. Years later, he loved to point out how wrong Virgil was in The City of God, with some 44 interactions just with the Aeneid, probably because so many people were familiar with it. Even if Augustine loved to beat it like a rented mule, he still didn’t want to kill it.
Christians throughout the medieval period had a much more sympathetic, and appreciative take on the Aeneid. Maybe it was because they could take it as a good story more than a tool of the Caesar.
Dante certainly kept Virgil in the game. Dante gave Virgil as good a place as any pre-Christian could get. Though Virgil wasn’t welcome in Paradise because he didn’t believe in Christ, he went as far as he could with the light he had. Virgil is the poetic example and the philosophical expert. Virgil had already guided Aeneas through the underworld as an author, now Virgil could be used by an author to guide some more. Virgil was legendary.
Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin regularly quoted Virgil. Translating Latin passages on sight was a standard entrance requirement at many colleges. (source)
In C. S. Lewis’ list of books that affected him the most, G. K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man was number two (after a book by George MacDonald). In The Everlasting Man Chesterton argues that Virgil’s world, as represented in the Aeneid, was the largest possible world into which the Christ would come. Chesterton wrote:
Virgil had the best news to tell as well as the best words to tell it in. His world might be sad; but it was the largest world one could live in before the coming of Christianity. (The Victorian Age in Literature (source))
the popularisation of the Trojan origin by Virgil has a vital relation to all those elements that have made men say that Virgil was almost a Christian. It is almost as if two great tools or toys of the same timber, the divine and the human, had been in the hands of Providence; and the only thing comparable to the Wooden Cross of Calvary was the Wooden Horse of Troy. (Everlasting Man, Location 2366)
It turns out, on Lewis’ top ten list, the Aeneid itself was number three. He loved it. He identified in various ways with the reluctancy of Aeneas, but knew that he had a duty to do. Lewis wrote a 180+ page introduction to Paradise Lost and included numerous reflections on the Aeneid. He even translated about a third of the poem himself, and we should wish that he had finished, because it is an attempt to get rhythm into the lines.
“Of arms and the exile I must sing, of yore / Guided by fate from Troy to the Lavinian shore.”
Lewis probably lived in one of the last generations that, as a group, sensed duty. Those who lived through, and especially those who fought during, the World Wars had more of a mind about their obligations. That said, Lewis even more was upset by the modern mindset, was consciously devoted to being an old Western man.
We have such little sense of duty, and this is mostly because we have such little sense of God.
Mrs. Bowers shared a great essay with the speakers creatively titled, “The Epic”, published in 1914. I learned a lot from reading it.
Lascelles Abercrombie (who was awarded a professorship at the University of Leeds instead of Tolkien in 1922) distinguishes between “Heroic” epic, what could also be called “Primary” or “Authentic” or even “Primitive” epic, compared to “Literary” or “Secondary” or even “Artificial” epic. Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost spends multiple chapters on this distinction (Chapter 6 – “Virgil and the Subject of Secondary Epic”).
Homer, and Beowulf and the Song of Roland, for example, are Heroic, where “vehement private individuality freely and greatly assert(ed) itself.” It’s as if the men were too great not be sung; the greatness of the story demanded poetic expression. Milton, and certainly Virgil, are intentionally, self-consciously writing. They used poetic expression to make a story great.
But Abercrombie asserts that the “gods” were not really things that men believed in, they were more cultural and verbal leftovers. “Virgil is more decorous; but can we imagine Virgil praying, or anybody praying, to the gods of the Aeneid?” The “supernatural machinery” must ride the line between fanciful and functional, but there is no actual faith required.
I couldn’t disagree with that more. Aeneas did not leave Troy or leave Dido or fight Turnus except that he was convinced that that is what the gods wanted him to do. “I sail for Italy not of my own free will” (IV.499). He was on a mission from god. The Aeneid is not just the telling of events, but the telling of “vital destiny” (Abercrombie), and destiny is determined outside of ourselves.
Almost every reader who reads any background knows that Aeneas is known for his piety. There is no piety without a god/gods to be dutiful to. We don’t get epics without deity.
sic volvere Parcas “thus the Fates will roll out” history (line 22)
Aeneas first speech: “God will grant us an end”
Jupiter told Venus that her son will found imperium sine fine, “rule without end.”
“Aeneas came as one ordained, / Brought by palpable will of the unseen” (XI.318)
In the end, Vicit iter durum pietas, “piety has conquered the hard road”
Aeneas could barely hold himself together. He complains of his inabilities for the majority of the story. He was set up to suffer, and suffer big time. It was only divine assurance, prophecy, repeated, that sent him forward.
This is why it resonates not just with Romans, but with believers in the true God, maker of heaven and earth. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility (courage and endurance) may be difficult to understand together, but no God leaves us with “man’s sovereignty” and that is an anti-epic. Scientific formulas (without a God who created science) have not made men more courages than men who had least had supernatural categories such as the Fates.
Read negatively, our protagonist is a weak and whiny little boy who ends up becoming the worst possible version of himself as an authoritarian tyrant. Read positively, our protagonist is a broken man who against all odds becomes strong and overcomes great suffering to establish a greater society. Read atheistically, there is no hero and no story and no West because there is no God.
So Virgil’s legend is legendary, and it gives us a guide, limited as it is.
“It was Virgil who taught Christian Europe the shape of history, the cost of empire, the primacy of duty, the transience of fame, the inevitability of death, the pain of letting go, and the burden of adopting new strategies.” (Louis Markos, C. S. Lewis’s List, 49)
Virgil’s poem is heavy with the weight of history, prophecy, and glory. Men want to know where they’ve come from and what they should do. They want to know how to be great. And they cannot do this unless they know their mission from God.
I heard George Grant give a workshop talk at the 2017 ACCS National Conference called “Tools for the Toolbox.” I could not find a link to it anywhere, BUT he reworked/focused his material and gave it as a plenary talk at the 2018 conference under the title “Lifelong Learning: Following in the Footsteps of Isaac Watts.”
Grant works through 10 principles in Watts’ book, On the Improvement of the Mind (which according to Grant is a follow-up to Watts’ Logic textbook, ha).
It’s a talk about learning as repentance, about remembering that we do not remember as we should, that we have not read or learned all we need to, and that we should identify areas where we’re ignorant/weak, then set goals and a schedule, and get to work growing and getting stronger.
Grant nails this flush between the 19:30 and 20:30 minute marks. He does not elaborate on it as much as I thought he did in the workshop talk, but, whatever. Rather than (only/primarily?) focus on maximizing our strengths, as most of the current productivity content counsels, it’s “healthy to take a broad estimate of everything we’re not, everything that we can’t, everything that we won’t.” That way we know what we need to work on.
This strategy is good for making progress as disciples, and it is also appropriate for the education/enculturation of every student. Teachers aren’t good teachers because they can see what a student is already good at, teachers are also trying to turn a student’s “can’t”s into “can”s. That teachers should be motivated examples of this, not just motivated enforcers of it, seems more than appropriate.
One temptation for teachers is that they expect to be treated as Teacher for all time. This isn’t to say that their students won’t move on to other classes, but that as teachers they expect to always be treated as the ones with the answers for their students.
Should a teacher know more than her students? I mean, duh, yes, but also not forever. This is one of the benefits of thinking in terms of discipling. I know that the word disciple includes the idea of learning, but built in to the idea of discipleship is that a disciple matures and makes more disciples. A student can gather up truth to understand and call the work done, a disciple understands that the work isn’t done until there’s another disciple, until there is reproduction of true understanding. When we realize that our goal is beyond us, then we come to worry less about our students needing us.
When a grammar teacher is working on helping her 10 year-old student learn math, she is also helping him learn submission. There is the lesson represented on the worksheet, and there are numerous lessons impossible to represent on a worksheet; he’s learning how to multiply and how to be a man under authority. But she should remember that she is teaching submission to one to whom she may need to later submit. Her student, for example, might grow up to be her pastor, who will hold her hand and sing hymns at her hospital bed. His ministry to her at that point won’t be because he needs answers from her.
Pastors who think of teaching as their ultimate telos have the same problem, and will find themselves the (informed) hindrance rather than help to the growth of their people. Make disciples, not dependents.
Registration closes March 18th for our upcoming Raggant Fiction Festival on Monumental Myths. A couple months ago I wrote that I’ll be Tackling Virgil, and other speakers will cover epics by Homer, Dante, and Milton.
My journey into and through fiction has been fun (not quite epic, though at the start it may have felt a little like visiting the underworld). I went so far as to say that I needed to repent from hating fiction, and there’s notes from that 2015 talk to prove it.
I appreciate this video, not just for how much thankfulness it communicates in two minutes, but for two more reasons. First, the reason to start things like schools/colleges and to do work for our kids is not mostly because we’re fearful but instead because we know that there is more. Jesus is Lord of the cosmos. He created it all, and He cares about it all. Those who are growing up in His image should also grow in their capacity to care about what Jesus cares about, and that means our non-government education efforts have more to do with what we’re running toward rather than what we’re running from. We’re not necessarily wanting to be safe, we want much more than a gun and drug free campus.
The second part I really appreciated was the testimony of starting with what you have and going from there. Call it iteration, call it persistent revision, call it growth. Don’t wait for perfect, don’t expect there won’t be problems, and also don’t panic while addressing the problems. Need to figure something out? Well, you know, try to figure it out. Isn’t that what we want our students loving to learn to do themselves? We are not handing down the final answers from on high, we are “straining forward to what lies ahead” by faith and showing the way by example of learning more ourselves.
Wilson says near the end:
“Twenty-seven years ago we took the plunge. We didn’t know then what we know now, but what we did know we decided to act on. And as you act on what you know, one of the usual results is that God in His grace gives more light. Faithfulness requires no less….” [The work is] “because we wanted something more for our children.”
I enjoy the opportunity to talk about things I love in different ways. It’s a good challenge to take up a known thing and try to see it from a different angle. This is our 11th ECS Information Night, and in all the fundamentals the information is still the same as it was at the first.
I’m adding to my challenge tonight, though, because I want to remind us about two valuable things, though one is more valuable than the other and must be prioritized as such. It is easier to pit two things against each other (even if they really shouldn’t be). It’s easier to cheer for one side and hammer, or at least nitpick, the other than it is to hold a careful tension.
Mr. Sarr regularly reminds us, parents and teachers, that ECS is not a church (here’s one example). The best school day can’t replace corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. The longer the school operates, the more obvious are the school’s limits and the more obvious the benefits a family gets from their membership in a church body.
One can’t replace the other, though there is a resemblance between both church and school. Both are institutions, organizations founded for a common purpose. And even more than similarity, in key ways a school such as ECS supports a part of the church’s mission (and I don’t just mean TEC). A church glorifies God in worship and in making disciples—that is, learners, students—who love Christ and obey His commandments and care about what He cares about. Since Christ created all things, we teach our students to love algebra, volcanoes, poems, letters and languages, and more because Christ loves those things.
As institutions, a church and a school compare because what matters most is the soul, every soul, all souls. When we rightly say that the church is not a building but the people, we can also say that a school is more than a place, it is a living community of souls.
There is a fantastic book you probably don’t need to read if you meditate on the title, The Trellis and the Vine. This analogy frames our priority.
A gardener who spends his time researching trellis, always repositioning or repainting trellis, to the neglect of the vine is a bad gardener. He may be so bad that he becomes a carpenter or a painter after the vine shrivels up from lack of attention. The point of the trellis is to serve and support the living plant, to give it space and direction to grow and climb, and, depending on what kind of plant, to enable it to produce more fruit. The living thing is the point, the priority, the purpose of the gardener’s work.
This isn’t because trellis is bad. A tomato plant not staked will fall all over itself. It won’t get the sun or water as it needs, and so the fruit may be small and spoiled as soon as it sprouts. In a school there are stakes, the right books and age-appropriate desks and Ticonderoga #2s, as well as different rules and procedures intended to give the plant a place to bloom.
But it is easy for trellis maintenance to get more attention, and it’s easier to give attention to the trellis. Things that don’t squirm, fuss, or fail take less work, and the work still looks like there’s real progress. But the soul of a school are its souls. What makes ECS special are the souls of the Board, the Headmaster, the full-time team, the part-time teachers, the volunteer helpers, the parents, and the students.
We are in an “exciting” time, in WA and at ECS. We are out of step with the State and we keep running out of space. We’ve been looking for a few years for a place we could really plant ourselves, a place where we could spread out the trellis, to have more rooms and more room to play than on pavement. At the same time, the most pressing concern is always the souls.
Souls over Sycamore (though what an amazing app of common grace that allows communication about homework between teachers and parents directly), souls over standardized tests, souls over seating arrangements, souls over musical scales, souls over swing-sets and soccer balls. Grades may help to reveal what’s happening in a given class, yes, but most of the time our teachers spend at the end of a Quarter is concerned with identifying character. Maybe we could call them “Soul cards.”
One of my favorite gifs of all time is from an Old El Paso taco commercial. The family is struggling to decide whether to have hard shell or soft shell tacos for dinner. A young girl shrugs and says, “Why not both?” and then they lift her up onto their shoulders in celebration.
Going back to the previous metaphor, good trellis makes for healthy vines. It’s both, and we pray for both. Yet we always need to keep in mind that as we commend the works of the Lord to the next generation, it’s because that generation will live forever. They are, along with us, eternal souls. This reality provides us with reason to provide them with the best we can in the here and now, while also holding somewhat loosely the seen things because they are fading away (2 Corinthians 4:18).
So as you process all the information, as you think about the future of the school as well as your investment, remember that there is no profit for a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (Matthew 16:26).