Friday, November 7

Wounded Knee Exploits

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, both the Franklin Classical School Cross Country Team and the Wounded Knee Running Team will brave the brisk temperatures and the achy knees to participate in the Franklin Run though History 5K. With a course winding through the historic battlefield between Winstead Hill and Carter House, the run will provide the teams with an opportunity to highlight our fundraising efforts for the Classical School of the Medes. Pray for us as we tell the story of this amazing opportunity--and as we limp toward the finish line in the cold weather!

CSM Broadcast

The local Nashville CBS affiliate has produced a wonderful half-hour special on the relationship between Franklin Classical School, Servant Group International, and the Classical School of the Medes. It can be seen five times over the weekend on Channel 5 and on Cable Channel 50. I am currently negotiating with the station to secure DVD copies of the program so that supporters outside the Middle Tennessee viewing area can have an opportunity to see it as well. Pray that the broadcast will raise awareness and create wider support for our efforts to rebuild Iraq one child at a time.

Yet Another Forgotten Classic

According to Hilaire Belloc, “Every man ought to read Rasselas, and every wise man will read it a half a dozen times in his life. Indeed, a man would do well to read it once a year at least, for never was wisdom better put, or more enduringly.” Though generally not included in the canon of the "Great books," it should be. Belloc is right, Rasselas is an enduring masterpiece that should be read again and again and again.

Samuel Johnson, the author of Rasselas, was one of the most important English writers of the eighteenth century. He ranks right up with William Shakespeare and G.K. Chesterton as among the most quoted prose stylists in the English language. Indeed, it has long been traditional to refer to the second half of the eighteenth century as the "Age of Johnson."

Interestingly though, he is usually remembered not so much as a writer but as a conversationalist and as a personality--mostly due to the brilliant account of his life written by his friend, companion, and ne’er-do-well, James Boswell, in 1791. For a long time, thanks largely to a glowing critical review by Thomas Macaulay in 1831, Boswell’s biography actually eclipsed Johnson’s own writings. In fact, many of the most memorable lines in the quotation dictionaries and anthologies come not from his works but from his biographer’s recollection of his conversation. Boswell was able to put Johnson in that very small literary club--whose members include authors like Socrates, Wilde, and Proust--whose most famous works were written by someone else.

Born in Litchfield in 1709, the son of a failed bookseller, Johnson struggled throughout his early life against the ravages of poverty. Though he demonstrated a precocious mind and a prodigious literary talent, he was unable to complete his education at Oxford, and instead began his lifelong labors as a hack freelance writer in London for a series of newspapers, magazines, journals, and book publishers. From the books in his father’s shop he had found comfort and instruction, preparing him for his role as the century’s greatest man of letters. He had received an excellent introduction to classical literature at the Lichfield and Stourbridge Grammar Schools. The combination of his education and his privation enabled him to become phenomenally prolific and adept at virtually every genre--from criticism, translation, poetry, and biography to sermons, parliamentary reports, political polemics, and dramatic stage plays. Though his work was recognized as brilliant, he was never quite able to climb out of the miry penury that seemed to bog him down throughout most of his life.

At last, when he was nearly fifty, he received a commission to produce a dictionary. Over the course of the next seven years, he single-handedly took on the great task of comprehensively documenting English usage--which when completed, set the standard for etymology forever afterward. The work was indeed, stunning. Each word in the dictoionary was not only carefully and succinctly defined, but illustrated from the classics, popular contemporary culture, or the vast body of poetic literature.

Eventually, the dictionary would earn Dr. Johnson a royal allowance which enabled him to pay off the bill collectors and to live with a modicum of ease. But while he undertook the task, he was only barely able to keep the wolf from the door. It was during this difficult transitional season of his life that he wrote Rasselas--and when he first met James Boswell, a noble Scottish sluggard, reprobate, and spendthrift who had already spent half a lifetime squandering his father’s considerable estate on the pleasures of the flesh. Johnson was a pious, thoughtful, bookish, and venerable elder statesman. They made for quite a pair.

As a scholar, but as an impoverished scholar, Johnson always depended on public libraries for his reading. He was never able to accumulate a working library of his own when he was young, and by the time he was old, he was too set in his ways to begin new habits of study.

Fortunately for him--and for literary posterity--London then had the greatest public library in the world. It was then known as the King’s Library--though soon after, it would become a part of the British Museum and form the heart of the great British Library.

The Museum had been founded about the time Johnson arrived in London. At the time it had only three departments. From the Department of Natural and Artificial Productions developed in due course all the antiquities departments of the British Museum. The Department of the Sciences eventually became the Natural History Museum. At first, both of these remained rather meager in resources until well into the nineteenth century. But the Department of Manuscripts and of Printed Books--contained in the King’s Library collections--were the most important parts of the original British Museum, and they grew eventually into the greatest library in Britain--perhaps in all the world.

The foundation collection of the library was that of Sir Hans Sloane. This comprised about 40,000 volumes of rare classical works covering the whole range of human achievement. To it was added the Royal collection, begun in the time of Henry VII and inherited by George II from his predecessors on the throne.

It was modeled on the ancient library of Alexandria. Numbered among the seven wonders of the ancient world, that library achieved an almost mythic stature in the study of classics from the time of the early Renaissance. The apocryphal burning of the Library during Julius Caesar's occupation of the city was often described as the greatest calamity of the ancient world, wherein the most complete collection of all Greek and Near Eastern literature was lost in one great conflagration. In reality, the library and its community of scholars not only flourished during the Hellenistic era of the Ptolemies, but continued to survive throughout the period of the Roman and Byzantine empires. It was not until the capitulation of the Christians of North Africa to the terrible Moslem Ji’had at the end of the eighth century that the library was destroyed. The great aspiration of King George III was to somehow recover that legendary Alexandrian glory.

By the time Johnson began using the library regularly, the inlaid interleaved copies of the vast catalogue extended to twenty-three volumes. He was thus able to read the greatest books of all time. He imbibed deeply from Aristophanes, Aristotle, Bunyan,, Caxton, Cervantes, Chaucer, Cicero, Dante, Dryden, Homer, Horatius Flaccus, Luther, Milton, Ptolemaeus, and Shakespeare as well as from the more contemporaneous Addison, Collins, Hughes, Pope, Parnell, Prior, Savage, and Watts.

By the time he had begun compiling his dictionary, Johnson was nearly incapacitated with gout, corpulence, and arthritis. By all accounts he was built for the stationary rather than the mobile anyway--overweight and slovenly, asthmatic and awkward. First impressions of him always surprised people. He was big-boned, six feet tall, stout, and stooped. Over a crop of wiry, frizzy hair he wore varying, ill-fitting wigs in unfetching shades of gray. His short-sightedness led to his reading so close to lamps and candles that the wigs frequently bore scorch marks. Today such a man might be held far afield of the priceless books contained in the British Library. But in his own time, he had a remarkable degree of access.

His astonishing acquaintance with the whole range of classical letters is evident in both his dictionary and his prose works. It is what makes his work so compelling, even to this day. But such bibliophilia would have been altogether impossible were it not for the blessing of the public library where he read and studied and worked.

Perhaps the greatest influence of that wide ranging experience in the library though, may be seen in his remarkable morality tale, Rasselas. It was written in 1759, before the success of his dictionary wrenched him out of dire poverty. He dashed it out during the evenings of a single week in order to raise the necessary funds to pay for his mother’s funeral. In some ways, it was a book that could have only been composed under the duress or grief and privation. But, its message had also been developing throughout his long experience of reading, writing, and researching. Indeed, it served as a kind of summation of all that he had come to stand for as a thinker, critic, and esteemed member of the Tory literati.

The central thesis of the story is simply that happiness in this poor fallen world may not be found in our circumstances--and thus it was a stern rebuke to the brazen materialism of modernity. The tale begins in the bosom of a paradise. From there it wanders through a vast landscape of privilege and prosperity. The characters discover that having everything, being protected from every worldly woe, and blithely enjoying all the things that most men can only yearn for is hardly a prescription for contentment.

The story of Rasselas has been described by some critics as “a string of apophthegms in vacuo.” In other words, it has been accused of being little more than a loosely structured narrative contrived to showcase a series of observations about human nature--where the characters are stiff symbols, plot lines are mere excuses for the sundry discourses, and long philosophical discussions are imposed upon the dialog with little concern for literary integrity. In some respects, this observation may be true--but it hardly detracts from the brilliance of the work. Johnson was quite cognizant of the structural purposes of the work. It was never intended to be a romance or a thriller. It is a novel of ideas.

Rasselas is filled with all the epistemological, eschatological, and belletristic speculations one might expect from a man who spent every waking moment in the company of the great classics of Western Christendom pondering the etymology of words and the difficulties of life in the modern world. The work is erudite, provocative, wide-ranging, and deeply satisfying. It simultaneously affords readers a perspective of the roots of antiquity while critiquing the impulse to modernity--and all from a distinctly Christian worldview. It realizes in a single narrative quest the essential questions of both the Western philosophical tradition and the English literary tradition.

At the same time, it is a great story. It is a page-turning read. That is quite a feat.

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