Having given hundreds of writing assignments over the last decade, I can safely say the best student work comes in response to narrow, rigid essay prompts with extensive, nit-picky submission guidelines. The worst sort of student work comes in response to slatternly requests like, “Create a response to The Divine Comedy. It could be an essay, a short story, or an art project. A good response will be personal and involve somewhere between 4 and 8 hours of work.”
By my count, I published my 500th article for CiRCE last week and I thought it a fitting occasion to look back on what I have learned since beginning this column. As a longer reflection on the first five hundred articles, I will be giving a lecture entitled “Intellectual Honesty in an Age of Flattery” through my website GibbsClassical.com on January 21. The lecture will largely concern Nikolai Gogol’s “The Portrait” and what the story means for anyone involved in intellectual work, from painters and poets to teachers and critics.
Student: Can we talk about what happened in the capital yesterday?
Student: Mr. Gibbs, these are historic times. I think we would all benefit from discussing what is happening to our country.
Gibbs: How would we all benefit from it?
Student: We could think through everything on a deeper level.
Gibbs: And what tools would we use to think through what is happening?
Student: Scripture, common sense, and the tools you’ve given us through our study of classic literature.
The beginning of the year is an appropriate time to mull over the state of things, like the state of your own soul, your finances, and your desires, but also the state of the enterprises and institutions to which you have committed your life. During the first week of January, what I really want is a bleak, soul-crushing news story that will help me leverage renewed fervor for my church, my family, my school, and my career.
This year, I torched my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. It was the best decision I have made in years—although you’ve probably already met a few other people who have quit social media and they have said the same thing.
Prior to the Enlightenment, there was no such thing as “society.” There may have been a society of butchers in New York or a society of Methodists in London, but a society was always a particular group of people who shared a common identity. A society was a knowable and definite body of people.
In the lately released Oxford Handbook of Christmas, a certain theme quickly emerges insofar as Christmas traditions are concerned: the origins of most Christmas traditions are a little obscure. Many Christmas traditions can be traced to a certain century and a certain country, but not to a particular person or event.
The latest episode of Proverbial is devoted to a saying from The Divine Comedy that the modern Christian finds particularly knotty (and naughty, perhaps):
“Fame, without which man’s life wastes out of mind,
Leaving on earth no more memorial than foam in water,
Or smoke upon the wind.”
If you have read this column with any sort of regularity over the last several years, you have indirectly benefitted from the work of Harold Budd, who passed away on December 8th at the age of 84. Harold Budd is one of perhaps just three musicians who I listen to while writing. He was my regular companion while drafting essays on pedagogy, tradition, and classic literature.
Tom: I got to Fillmore High. Where do you go?
Harry: I go to Trinity Covenant, but I’m not one of those private school kids.
Tom: Which ones?
Harry: I’m not one of those private school kids who thinks he’s better than everyone else.
Tom: Is that what most of the kids at your school are like?
Harry: Yeah. Most private school kids are like that.
Tom: So, you’re claiming that you are better than most of the kids who go to your school?
Harry: I mean, I’m not like them.
Tom: Not like them in a good way or a bad way?