The Workshop of Humanity: Reading Toward Virtue

Aristotle makes a claim that some of my students find objectionable but which most educators find self-evident. Aristotle asserts in multiple places that the young are not wise and typically fail to possess the intellectual virtue of excellent practical reason, that is, prudence, or in Aristotle’s tongue, phronesis.1 This is problematic because phronesis is not an isolated virtue, but the master virtue that, like a skilled orchestra conductor or master chef, subtly directs all the moral virtues, and does so, to continue the metaphor, without sheet music or a recipe. This is because the morally prudent person, to shift the metaphor, is more like a skilled improv actor reacting in the moment than a stage actor delivering prescripted lines. Without prudence, a person cannot know in each situation how to be temperate, kind, courageous, or generous in the right way, at the right time, and toward the right persons, even if she has the right reasons. Instead, Aristotle thinks the young are excessively led by their emotions of pain and pleasure, but often feel these at the wrong things. 2  

On the other hand, Aristotle does think the young can become skilled mathematicians, not because mathematicians do not need wisdom, but because mathematics as a discipline does not require it. As a theoretical science, mathematical proficiency is acquired through abstract reason and instruction. Hence, 15-year-olds find it easier to do Euclidean geometry or determine the distance between Alpha Centauri and Wolf Star 359 than to consistently act wisely. Anyone who has ever taught, lived with, or been a 15-year-old will likely know this to be true. 

When my students protest, I point out that this insight is not unique to Aristotle. The Department of Motor Vehicles, the Red Lion Liquor Store, Budget Car Rental, and the US Constitution all appear to agree with Aristotle that the young lack sufficient prudence to be trusted with significant moral decisions. Most countries will not issue them a driver’s license until they are 18, the liquor store won’t sell them alcohol until they are 21, Budget will not rent them a car until they are 23, and the U. S. Constitution will not let them become president until they are 35. Contemporary neuroscientists and sociologists also appear to support these insights. They rightly call 16–25-year-olds “emerging adults” because their behavior-regulating prefrontal cortex and fronto-limbic regions will not be fully developed until their mid-20s and because, at least in our contemporary culture, emerging adults often delay taking on behavior-regulating and “adult-making obligations.3  

However, Aristotle, neuroscientists, and sociologists agree that physiological and sociological factors are not the sole reasons the young qua young have difficulty becoming prudent and virtuous. Other contributing factors include 1) their desire and effort to become wise; 2) the moral quality of their community; 3) the people they esteem or desire to emulate; 4), the virtuous and vicious exemplars that populate their moral imaginations; and finally, 5) their lack of sufficient experience with morally significant situations. Unlike learning mathematicsphronesis requires experience, not merely instruction, and few young people have had time to synthesize multiple experiences in order to know what subtle mixture of virtues a new situation may require ex tempore.4 Young people have also not had time to form Aristotle’s habituated “active conditions” that prepare them both to feel pleasure and pain at the right things and to act as they ought. This takes time, attentiveness, and experience. Because of this, Aristotle suggests that someone who lacks knowledge but has experience may be “more adept at action” than someone who possesses knowledge but lacks experience.5 Hence Hamlet’s gravedigger, Ivan Ilych’s Gerazim, and many a court fool are sometimes the wisest person in the scene despite their lack of knowledge, whereas youth often struggle morally in part because of their experience deficit.  

So what can be done to overcome this experience deficit? Well, one 16th century German professor of Greek language and literature has a suggestion: read Homer. And when young, read fables. And when older, read biographies. This was Philip Melanchthon, theologian and Renaissance humanist at the University of Wittenberg. He was known in his own time as “the father of most educated men” and the Praeceptor Germaniae, arguably the most influential educator of the 16th century.  

Why does he suggest reading Homer to overcome the experience deficit of the young? Well, Melanchthon accepts Aristotle’s conclusion 1) that our behavior often mirrors that of the people we associate with, because we are social creatures who naturally imitate each other’s actions and affections. Contemporary neuroscientists also speak of “mirror neurons” that cause us to “mirror,” or imitate and empathize with, the actions and emotions of others. Apparently, watching someone perform an activity, like drinking, running, or crying, can activate the same cortical regions of the brain that would be activated if we were doing the activity ourselves. Melanchthon also agrees with Aristotle 2) that virtuous active conditions are formed through habituation; 3) that we require virtuous examples to follow; and 4) that we need experience in multiple situations over time in order to discern what the wise and prudent person might do in any given circumstance. We need to have in our minds what he calls “forms and images of virtues” that can inform our decisions and judgments.6 Each of these elements are present in Melanchthon’s claim concerning the morally formative power of Homer and, by extension, other imaginative literature.  

In an introductory lecture, which probably doubled as a promotional piece for his course on Homer, Melanchthon suggests that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey possess “the most refined, the sweetest and at the same time the wisest thoughts about all things and matters that can be conceived by any human mind.”7 If Homer is excluded from the curriculum, Melanchthon warns, then “humanity, virtue, and nobility … and all that is truly good, holy and pious in the world is excluded.”8 For this reason, Homer’s epics are the very “workshop of humanity [humanitatis].9 In the following extended excerpt from that lecture, Melanchthon defends his extravagant claims and explains how he thinks Homer and, by extension, other narrative literature, aids the moral formation of attentive readers and can be particularly useful for overcoming the experience deficit that inhibits the young from developing virtuous desires and practical reason. He explains, 

[Homer] teaches many things, admonishes wisely on many, and instills in the young the most honourable and agreeable notions of modesty, respect and the other virtues. No one is a better teacher of the habits of pleasantness and humanity than he; he demonstrates and accomplishes a certain experience of life in the young, which is otherwise held in highest praise, but is attributed only to old age. … Indeed, reading Homer performs this divine service, namely to impress the prudence of the old upon the youthful mind, for they can obtain and draw from this poem, by a short-cut, as from a treasure or a spring those things which old people usually learn from long experience, and which numerous years, the variety of things and the experiences of human life teach them. For the teaching of how to live rightly and happily is not delivered less successfully there than in any writings of the philosophers. … Indeed, he envelops the most serious and holy tenets in the sweetest and most pleasant poetic images, so that noble and inquiring minds are educated with … a sense of beauty.10 

First, Homer educates through the beauty of his poetry by making certain actions and virtues attractive and other actions and vices repellant so that readers may be drawn to imitate the formeravoid the latter, and by doing so, nurture their humanitas. For instance, Homer depicts both contempt and respect for the elderly; betrayal and sacrificial care for one’s companions; the mutual love of spouses; the importance of hospitality; the goodness of a well-ordered home and kingdom; perseverance before adversity; respect for the gods; the dangers of arrogance, presumption, rage, and beauty; the appropriateness of lament; the importance of fathers and mothers; gratitude to benefactors; courageous decision-making; and, of course, grappling with death, aging, and immortality.  

Second, according to Melanchthon, Homer’s poems can “instill” virtue and impress prudence by providing short cuts to life experiences and insights that are necessary for virtue, but which are usually only available to the aged. This is accomplished when readers step out of the immediacy of their own “stories” and submit their hearts and minds to the immediacy of the narrative story and the lives of the literary characters, whose virtuous and vicious decisions they experience, as it were, from the inside, in what J. R. R. Tolkien calls “the secondary world.”11 Inside the secondary world, readers imagine themselves alongside Homer’s characters, where they acquire experiences, emotions, and both positive and negative examples of practical wisdom they would not otherwise have. While “inside” the story, the moral imaginations of readers are quickened, often activating that same part of the brain used when deliberating action and feeling emotion. Upon “returning” to the immediacy of their own lives, readers discover that they have been changed, because they have had experiences they had not had before they read. They have drawn back with them and folded into their souls, like yeast in dough, the experiences, wisdom, emotions, moral failures and successes of the characters—experiences that otherwise would have taken many years to cultivate, if at all. In doing so readers are potentially able to make more rapid progress toward ordered affections, prudent discernment, and virtuous moral character. In other words, Homer gives young readers what they have not earned.12  

However, I do not want to overstate the claims concerning the formation of prudence and virtuous affections. Moral formation does not happen simply because a person reads Homer. Nor am I implying that great literature like Homer’s is populated by flat caricatures of virtue and vice. Of course, great works of literature should be read as beautiful works of art and cherished as artifacts of our inherited cultural endowment. We do not read them simply in order to extract a moral or find an easily applicable moral principle. Nor, finally, am I suggesting that Homer’s pagan Greek world is fungible with Melanchthon’s Christian one. Greek and Christian virtues are not identical.  However, with those caveats in placeI note that Melanchthon is not a lone voice attesting to the morally formative power of literature.13  Consider the following from professor Henry Zylstra, writing within his religious context: 

There is a real sense in which [literature] enables us by vicarious experience in our life to bring to bear on being Christian, myriads of lives not our own…by universalizing ourselves in the significant experiences of others there is more of us that is Christian, that can be Christian, than there was before. … There is more of you, after reading Hardy, to be Christian with than there was before you read him, and there is also more conviction that you want to be it. … To read such a novel … is to have confronted the moral issues of men, not in the skeletons of theory or the bones of principle, but in the flesh and body of concrete experience.14  

Similarly, novelist Frederick Buechner writes,  

I think of painting and music as subcutaneous arts. … Writing on the other hand strikes me as intravenous. As you sit there only a few inches from the printed page, the words you read go directly into the bloodstream and go into it at full strength. More than the painting you see or the music you hear, the words you read become in the very act of reading them part of who you are. … If there is poison in the words, you are poisoned; if there is nourishment, you are nourished; if there is beauty, you are made a little more beautiful. … A word doesn’t merely say something, it does something. It brings something into being. It makes something happen.15  

So C. S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism 

What then is the good of occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person?…The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself…we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.16   

Lewis tried to model this through the Pevensie children of his Narnia series. They were expected to still live as kings and queens once they left the uncommon land of Narnia and returned to their common lives in the south of England. Lewis may have learned this from his master, George MacDonald, whose protagonist in Phantastes, Anodos, returns to his own land after decades in fairy land, and explains the connection between the two: 

I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land? These questions I cannot answer yet.  

To translate one’s literary experiences into one’s lived experience, that is the promise and the challenge of literature. And both Lewis and MacDonald probably learned this from Dante’s Comedy, because this is Dante’s implicit strategy for effecting moral change in his readerSpecifically, in the Purgatorio, this is the method he depicts God and the angels employing to form the virtues and reform the loves of those souls working their way up the seven-story mountain. For instance, the souls of the proudon the first cornice, spend decades and centuries meditating on historical and literary examples of both virtuous and vicious characters carved into the wall and the walkway. They meditate, for example, on the stories of Mary at the annunciation, the Emperor Trajan stopping to hear a widow plead her case, King David dancing unashamedly before the ark, as well as Lucifer being thrown down from heaven, Nimrod, Saul, Arachne, and others. Souls meditate on these stories as they walk round and round the cornice until they purge the vice of pride and adopt the virtue of humility as their own 

Melanchthon does not only suggest reading Homer, though. He also lauds the power of fables in Hesiod, Aesop, or Scripture to leave what he calls “spines in the mind” that spur especially young readers to pursue the good. “Spines in the mind” is an illuminating phrase that refers to the way literature implants inspiring and repelling models that can attune the affections in order to, like the spurs of a horse-rider, motivate a person to perform good actions and avoid bad onesMelanchthon also praises historical biographies, bioi, or “lives,” like those provided by Plutarch or the stories of saints, that can provoke readers to admire, desire, and imitate virtuous actions.17 In an encomium to Aristotle, he claims: “the comparison of the outstanding masters is of great profit for sharpening and shaping one’s prudent judgments.”18   

So Homer’sDante’s, and Plutarch’s characters, sometimes virtuous and sometimes vicious, help us as readers encounter, in Zylstra’s words, “a myriad of lives not our own.” In Lewis’ phrase, they help us see with other eyes” and “feel with other hearts.” This is not moralism, but humanism, properly understood, by which we become more humane through the stories of other humans. If Melanchthon, Zylstra, Buechner, Lewis, MacDonald, and Dante are right—and I am inclined to think they are—then the moral imagination, the morally tuned affections, and the building up of morally significant experiences are as important as cognitive moral deliberation for determining what we love, what we feel pleasure and pain about, and subsequently what we do and how we live.19  

This kind of reading is a literary application of Aristotle’s claim that living in the company of good people can be an excellent training in virtue because friends “take each other’s imprint.20 As he writes in the Poeticshumans are mimetic animals that learn through imitation. Though Aristotle is thinking of flesh and blood friends, we should extend that circle of friends to include the virtuous historical or literary characters with whom we live in our imaginative memories, literary characters who literally become flesh and blood in our brains and live through our bodies.  

My hope is that my readers will have already begun reflecting on their own experiences of reading and how significant literary figures or images have lived in their moral imaginations. Perhaps you have wondered how you might channel a particular character or historical figure in a given moment. Or maybe you have so absorbed the influence of certain characters that you are not aware of their abiding presence within you. In my own reading life, several characters have climbed out of the pages of books, taken up residence in my soul, and act like a council of wise and prudent advisors. These include Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin from The Idiot, who taught me and teaches me about humility and the wise beauty of letting oneself be taken advantage of. There is the Mexican whisky priest of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Frederick Buechner’s cantankerous saint Godric, who teach me that saints are sinners and sinner can be saints. There is George Washington Carver and Langston Hughes, both from my hometown in southern Missouri. There is Louis, the patriarch from Francois Mauriac’s Viper’s Tangle, Meg Murry from Wrinkle in Time, and Orual from Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. And Jayber CrowOdysseusDanteand Ivan Ilyich are there, tooEach reader will have his or her own circle of literary and historical counselors. If this is right, and we receive the imprint of friends, then the question each of us should consider is this: whose literary friendship should I acquire? Whose imprint does my soul need? For teachers, the question may also be: whose literary friendship do my students need? 

In conclusion, let me name this type of reading. Of course, there are many reasons to read and many types of reading. There is a type of detached academic reading that seeks for science over savor. There is reading for entertainmentemotional catharsis, aesthetic experience, cultural understandingor mere distraction. However, the kind of reading I ahere advocating here is a version of the medieval way of reading that was called tropological. 

Tropological comes from the Greek verb trepein, meaning to turn or to change, and the noun, trope, meaning turn. A tropological reading then, is a way of reading that turns into one’s soul in order to turn one’s life around, or to turn it toward moral action. Classical educators would have understood this as reading in the musical or poetic” mode. And it leads to what Melanchton calls humanitas“humanity,” and what the 12th century Hugh of St. Victor before him called pulchrum esseor “beautiful being. The point is that the reading is not complete when you reach the final page or close the book. It is not complete when you are informed, convicted, or inspired. It is certainly not complete simply because you have critically analyzed the text. Tropological reading is only complete when the reading reaches into your life and shapes the way you see yourself and other people, when it forms your moral affections and habits, when it alters what you find painful and pleasurable, and when it is embodied in your own actions.  

Again, I do not want to overstate the case. This does not happen automatically just because you read religious texts, novels, or epic poetry. If so, then we might expect biblical exegetes, English professors, and classicists to be uniquely moral people, but despite their many admirable qualities they are not. Instead, the reader must adopt, and in many cases a teacher must help a reader adopt, a certain posture of humble receptivity and docile openness to the book, its characters, and its action, and probably do so within a morally ordered framework or vision of human flourishing. That said, it is also true that some books have the power to awaken us to that morally ordered framework or vision for the first time. This can happen when we spend time with the book and its characters and give them permission to lodge inside us. Then, by ruminating or meditating on the characters over months and years, like the proud turning around Mt. Purgatory, we invite them to indwell us and thus ‘turn’ us, to help us adopt the virtues and nurture the prudence they have to offer. To gift us their experiences so that we can make them our own. Acts 15 in the Christian Scriptures records the first church council in Jerusalem explaining a particular decision by stating, “it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit.” The way of broad tropological reading that I am suggesting would enable us to say something like, “it seemed good to me and Prince Myshkin,” or “good to me and Mr. Darcy,” “good to me and Antigone,” and so forth. It may also provoke us to recognize that our actions and emotions may be the kind that not only see “good to us” but also good to Achilles, Raskolnikov, Lady Macbeth, or Paolo and Francesca, characters we would rather not resemble 

So tropological reading of literature is to read with one eye on the text, one eye on a vision of humanitas, and one eye peering into the window of our souls. And yes, three eyes. The oft-referenced “third eye is always the eye of wisdom, of foresight, of prudent judgment, the eye Aristotle thought youth could not develop. Though the image predates Aristotle, he writes in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics that we should heed the counsel of the elderly because having “an eye sharpened by experience,” they can “see rightly.”21 This is the kind of experience that literary characters and stories help us acquire as by a shortcut, allowing literature, when read tropologically, to become “the workshop of humanity.” However, fair warning, I tell my students, you might not get Budget to rent you a car because you read Homer tropologically, but you might overcome Aristotle’s experience deficit, and you might mitigate the delayed physiological development of your prefrontal cortex. You might become life-long friends with literary characters who give you more to be human with and whose virtues you find imprinted on your own soul, and you might cultivate the third eye of wisdom and the virtues necessary to love the world and nurture your flourishing humanity.  

© Retained by author and Institute for Classical Education 2020