Mortar Board Last Lecture
March 25, 1999
Let me begin by describing what I do in a typical day of research. I read books and diaries from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. The books were composed by English clerics, most though not all by Puritans. Most are published sermons and spiritual manuals designed to guide people to their salvation. The topics of sin and the devil bulk large in these books. The authors were seeking to warn people about the scope of human corruption and the threat of Satan and to proffer advice about how best to deal with these dangers. The diaries, journals, and autobiographies I read were all written by Puritans. Some were written by clergy, but many were by lay people--ordinary men and women--who took seriously the words of these clergymen and made record of their daily struggles with spiritual temptations.
The devil was omnipresent in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, an age of religious reform, religious war, and religious persecution. Indeed Satan haunted the minds of Christians in those two centuries as never before or after. The devil posed a formidable physical threat to mere mortals. As a spiritual creature, the devil could traverse the ends of the earth in a heartbeat, and he could communicate instantly with his legion of demons, who could and usually did act in unison together. The ultimate master of the black arts, Satan could raise tempests, create illusions, and assume physical forms such as animals and humans. He was also the power behind the legions of his human agents such as witches, warlords, and magicians.
But the people whose words I read were not terribly concerned about the physical damage that the devil and his minions could do. They were mostly worried about the damage he could do to their souls. The devil was to be feared most in his role as the Tempter, in his capacity to plant suggestions in our minds and to lure us to sin. Satan was thought to be a master in this role. He was able to discern our inner weaknesses and fashion his temptations accordingly, coordinating his temptations with our own internal temptations to follow the flesh and the world. The devil's masterplan was to draw victims either to "despair," so they would lose hope in their own salvation, or to " carnal security," a state wherein sinners would follow the worldly path to hell but imagine that they were good people on the pathway to heaven. The latter state, "carnal security," was thought to describe the condition of the vast majority of human beings. The devil would appear as an "angel of light," presenting sins as good things or at least as innocuous trifles, and would lure people deeper into sin gradually until the sins became habitual. Drawn to evil unwittingly and imperceptibly, the devil's victims would not know themselves to be sinners or victims of Satan's temptations.
To combat such a formidable foe, Puritan preachers insisted that Christians must have a clear understanding of the devil's mode of operation and of the precariousness of their situation. They must, above all, recognize that they are sinners, that they are wholly corrupt and unable to resist the devil without God's grace and spirit. They must also expect to be spiritually assaulted by the devil anywhere and everywhere. The preachers depicted the life of a Christian as a "warfare," a relentless battle against the "devil, world, and flesh." Although such a life brought, as they acknowledged, "anguish of mind," it also brought comfort and assurance of salvation. The experience of spiritual turmoil was a sign of election; only those with God's grace could fathom the depth of their own sin or discern the temptations of Satan. It was thought that God sanctified his children through the instrument of the devil's temptations and that God provided regenerate Christians with the grace and spirit to recognize and overcome temptations in the end. Using sound Puritan logic then, it a good thing to be acutely conscious of your sins and to experience the assaults of the devil. The reverse also followed. If you did not appreciate the enormity of your corruption, if you did not feel the temptations of the devil, you were probably suffering from "carnal security," deluded by the devil into thinking that your worldly ways were acceptable to God.
As I have been describing to you the kinds of material I read, I would imagine that a few thoughts have crossed your mind. You may have thought, "Frank Luttmer needs a good hobby." Or you may have asked yourself, "why would he study something like that." It is certainly fair to ask why I study what I do, and I'll work on that hobby. The appeal of such a topic lies precisely in its lack of appeal to the twentieth-century mind. The Puritan mentality is unattractive to us. It seems illogical. The logic of the idea--"it is good to be tempted by the devil"--eludes us. It seems twisted. The Puritan mentality seems extreme and dogmatic. The proposition that human nature is evil seems to fly in the face of common sense. The Puritan mentality even strikes us as slightly comical. I must confess that I wondered if I were going to be able to keep a straight face when I mentioned to you the dangers of "carnal security."
Historians are curious creatures. They estimate it a stroke of good fortune to find something from a distant culture that makes no sense. That which cannot be explained becomes a clue to a different way of thinking. It becomes a riddle to be solved: the more difficult, the more illogical, the more extreme, the more comical, the better. It becomes an invitation for the historian to reconstruct the original assumptions, beliefs, perceptions, and anxieties, to see through the eyes, feel from the hearts, and reason from the minds of people who lived in distant times and places. In the process, the historian recovers a piece of humanity, another way in which humans have experienced and understood their condition.
This past summer, I got to peek into the world of a seventeenth-century London artisan, a lay Puritan, Nehemiah Wallington. I read his hand-written spiritual autobiography when in Guildhall Library in London. The library is located inside the old city of London, and, as I read his words, I could not help but think that, over 350 years ago, this is the place where Nehemiah lived his life, where he worked, played, loved, and died. He was not a famous or influential man. He left no significant mark on his time. He was an ordinary person. The only reason that we know about him is because he wrote his thoughts down in notebooks, and some of these have survived.
Wallington was raised in a Puritan household, where he learned the trade of his father, a turner. As an adolescent, he suffered from a disease we would recognize as a natural and very common phenomenon among young men: sexual attraction for women. Young Nehemiah, however, interpreted his attraction as evidence of a "filthy, odious, and polluted heart" and as temptations of the devil, world, and flesh. Like many Puritans, Nehemiah was acutely conscious of his sins, not only his "lust," but also his "Lying," "Rash anger" and "dulnesse in the sarvice of God." Also like many Puritans, he experienced turmoil within his soul and doubted his own salvation. But by the time he turned eighteen years old, Nehemiah was unable to manage his anxieties. His despair grew, and he became convinced that God would not save him. He resolved to kill himself. He repeatedly tried to commit suicide. In Wallington's mind, it was the devil who was urging him to take his life. Recalling "how suttelly Sathan temted mee," Nehemiah described how he tried to poison himself, hang himself, and cut his own throat. Family members were beside themselves with worry, took every measure to protect Nehemiah from himself, and sought repeatedly to console him. But family members could not help. He remained in turmoil; as Nehemiah said one day as he broke down and cried before his father, "the Devil will not let me alone."
It is easy to imagine a modern counterpart to Nehemiah Wallington, a young man who experiences a deep sense of inadequacy and seeks remedy in suicide. It is unlikely, however, that this modern man would conceive of his problems as a struggle against the devil, world, and flesh. He would seek help from a psychotherapist and gradually learn to see his personal problems through a modern diagnostic lens, using the vocabulary of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. By the same token, we could imagine applying modern psychoanalytic theory to Nehemiah Wallington's condition. Such an approach would be a species of history known as "psycho-history." Thus it would be possible to interpret Wallington's problem as a manifestation of late adolescent identity crisis, to diagnose him as manic-depressive, and to treat his experience of being tempted by the devil as a type of projection.
To interpret Wallington's experience in light of modern counterparts or modern theory may yield some insight. But I believe that it misses the point. Wallington's world must be understood in its own terms, from the inside out. Then and now, people experience anxieties about self-worth, and they experience spiritual turmoil. Raised in a Puritan household and culture, Wallington was conditioned to interpret his sense of inadequacy as sin and to imagine that the anguish he experienced was occasioned by the devil, world, and flesh. It may be objected that the devil is not real; it is an artificial construct, an invention of the mind. But this is precisely what interests the historian. What matters is not objective reality but rather how people perceive and experience reality. No one in Wallington's world doubted that the devil was real or that Nehemiah was faithfully reporting his experiences with Satan. In the eyes of his family and friends, Wallington's problem was not that he was tempted by the devil; rather it was that he was succumbing to the temptation of despair, to the point of attempting suicide.
The Puritan vocabulary of spiritual temptation provides the clues to an entirely different mental universe, one that enabled people to make sense of and function in their world. While a modern cynic may want to hold the clergy responsible for filling the minds of youth with extreme, even deadly, images of the devil, Nehemiah Wallington turned to the message of the preachers for a cure of his problem. Puritan preachers styled themselves "physicians of the soul," the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century counterparts to psychoanalysts and psychotherapists. In books and sermons, they detailed the various types of spiritual conditions and spiritual diseases, carefully dissecting their causes, symptoms, and cures. Although manifest in unusually acute form, Nehemiah Wallington's spiritual malady, "despair," was a very common one among Puritans, receiving more attention than any other condition in Puritan spiritual treatises.
Wallington ultimately overcame his temptation to commit suicide by following the prescription of the preachers. Indeed, a crucial element in his breakthrough was in grasping the very message that I alluded to a moment ago as embodying a twisted logic: it is good to be tempted by the devil. Nehemiah came to understand that it was "the condition of all people of God" to experience the temptations of the devil, world, and flesh. He interpreted the assaults of the devil as signs of God's love and as assurances of his salvation. He understood that the temptations of the devil were the means by which God tested his children and that God gave his chosen the grace and spirit to overcome them. Wallington began his new life at age of twenty-one; he never again tried to commit suicide. He married, had a family, and worked as a turner. He died at the age of sixty. He continued to experience the devil's temptations throughout his entire life, including temptations to despair, though no longer to suicide. Following the advice of Puritan preachers, he withstood the devil's assaults, acquired "assurance" in his salvation, and ultimately gained a measure of "spiritual security."
Thus the Puritan vocabulary of spiritual temptation was functional in that it guided people psychologically and spiritually. It was also functional in another sense. It invested life with meaning and purpose. Indeed it was highly successful in knitting the lives of individuals to the cosmic plan. As Wallington came to understand himself as a member of God's elect, he was able to place his own daily struggles in the context of the heroic efforts of the godly throughout the ages. If the Puritans saw the world through the prism of the Bible, it was because they identified with the Biblical models of the righteous struggling against ungodliness and suffering temptation and persecution. Wallington and the Puritans were able to locate themselves on a larger continuum of elect people, engaged in the battle against cosmic evil that began with Adam and Eve in Eden.
Seen from the inside, then, the Puritan mentality is not illogical; there is indeed an internal coherence to it. Puritan divines articulated a vision of the world that both shaped anxieties and provided the mechanisms for coping with those anxieties. Within the context of its own parameters, it was meaningful and it worked. We may choose to see Wallington's world as an imaginary one, and we may choose to interpret his experience in light of modern theories. But in doing so we fail to see the world as others experienced it. To reconstruct a world that is radically different from our own is a way to study humanity. It is the reason that I study history. I acknowledge that there are other worthy reasons to study history: to understand the present configuration of politics, institutions, and culture for example, or to investigate the causal engine of history and the dynamic of change and continuity in society. But I study it primarily to understand what it means to be human.
The same objective informs my teaching. I want to engage you--students--in the same enterprise of understanding of humanity through historical perspectives. I structure my courses so that most class sessions focus on the interpretation of a primary text, representing a voice from another time and place. The objective of class discussions is to reconstruct that voice, to resurrect its assumptions, its logic, and its purpose, to see the world from a radically different perspective than our own. I seek to provide a wide and inclusive array of voices: ancient and modern, East and West, men and women, majority and minority, orthodox and heretical, villains and heroes. I also seek, not by way of preaching but by doing, to encourage a respect for the voices of the past. Even when we do not approve of an author's point of view--and my class reading lists often include the likes of witch-hunters, Inquisitors, Nazis, and Communists--we need to treat the author and the text with integrity as a record of the human experience.
I also believe the principal objective of the liberal arts is to understand humanity, to bring the full array of disciplinary perspectives--natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities--to the question of what it means to be human. I would be quick to add that a liberal education must also include study of non-human subjects--of species other than our own, of the inanimate world, large and small, and of formal systems. Such subjects not only provide a frame of reference for our understanding of humans but they are also important in their own right. I am biased however. I am by training and by personality a humanist. To me, the great mystery that confronts us is to make sense of the human experience.
The vision of the liberal arts centered on the study of humanity is not a new idea. The term studia humanitatis, the study of humanity, was coined in the fifteenth-century by Italian Renaissance humanists to refer to a humanities-driven liberal arts educational program. They derived the program and their understanding of the term humanitatis from Roman philosophers, especially from Cicero, who in turn, borrowed ideas freely from the Greeks. The study of humanity, then, was an educational program whose roots go back to the ancient world, to the Greek polis and the Roman Republic. It consisted of the liberal arts--defined as arts suited for free men, free in the sense of being leisured, but also free in the sense of being citizens. The educational program was intended to be a practical one for independent thinkers who would make decisions affecting others in the community and who were held accountable for the decisions they made. The objective was to cultivate wisdom and virtue, qualities that were thought to be inseparable. Both wisdom and virtue were embodied in humanitatis, a concept developed by the Stoics when the Western world's vision was shifting beyond the horizon of the polis to universal empire. Rooted in the assumption that human reason was a manifestation of the logos, or divinity, and that, as a faculty shared by all, reason united all of humanity in a brotherhood, humanitatis denoted both the human community and the moral obligation individuals have to their fellow human beings.
Ancient advocates of the liberal arts believed that certain disciplines were of crucial importance in understanding human beings and achieving moral aims. Literature, history, and moral philosophy were thought to inspire by concrete example and by precept, while rhetoric was the vehicle for translating thought into action. While stressing certain disciplines, the program of studia humanitatis always embraced the range of existing liberal arts; in the Renaissance there emerged a curricular goal of attaining scientia rerum, a "knowledge of things." The latter did not simply mean knowledge of facts. It denoted an understanding of knowing how subjects and disciplines fit together and a dexterity in bringing different sources to bear on a problem simultaneously. Ancient educators insisted that the program of formal study be supplemented by the experience of everyday life. They assumed that the objectives of studia humanitatis could only be achieved in community; virtue and wisdom were born of experience and social interaction. To achieve these objectives in community was to live life well, to be "fully human," to be, using the words of the Renaissance, a "universal man" of virtu.
I have indicated my commitment to the "study of humanity" in the sense of seeking to understand the human condition. To what extent would I support the ancient educational program of studia humanitatis? In obvious ways, the program has nothing to contribute to the modern academy. It was a program developed to serve the interest of the men of the politically elite class in the ancient and Renaissance world. From the perspective of a post-scientific revolution, democratic, pluralistic society, it is out-of-date; its membership was exclusive, its curriculum was truncated, and its range of disciplines narrow. Of course, such is to be expected for institutions that date back two millenia. But I believe that the objectives of the ancient model still challenge us, and challenge us in the area that modern academy is perhaps weakest, its moral foundations.
College catalogs may say something about the importance of values, but only rarely does this amount to anything substantial in the culture and life of college communities in an age when the academy is fragmented by specialization, adrift in moral uncertainty, scrambling for funds, and eager to project a good image. The ancient program of the liberal arts was, in spirit, non-dogmatic and non-denominational, but its moral anchor and its objectives were clear: wisdom, virtue, and humanitas. I believe that the modern academy generally and Hanover College specifically has something to learn from the ancient model.
Part of the problem is overcoming archaic language and distilling the enduring messages. We need not accept Stoic metaphysics and cosmology, for example, to believe in the equality and dignity of all human beings or to believe that we have an obligation not only to understand but also to serve humanity. We need not be deterred by the ancients' clumsy metaphysical formulations of the relationship between wisdom and virtue, how one naturally and inevitably flows into the other. The essential message about the relationship between virtue and wisdom, however, deserves to be preserved. To be a person of integrity, to be able to make decisions that are morally right, one must also be a sound judge of character and of contexts, capable of discerning honesty from deceit, authenticity from artifice, quality from mediocrity. The organic connectedness of such attributes, however expressed, suggests that to be virtuous, one must also be wise.
The ancient model provides rich material from which to frame a vision for the modern academy and for Hanover College. A vision does not consist of fuzzy high-minded words that can be reproduced in college catalogs and on glossy brochures. It is not a list of plans for buildings and programs. At heart, it is not even a list or blueprint. Rather a vision consists of a dynamic and coherent set of values, principles, and objectives: dynamic in the sense that it can be defined from multiple perspectives and applied in different contexts and coherent in the sense that it provides a foundation for community and a sense of shared purpose and direction. It defines not only our direction but also the moral fabric of our soul. The ancients knew well the importance of vision. To them, an educational program without a clear and unmistakable moral foundation was unthinkable.
The ancient model challenges us not only in how we define ourselves but also in how we behave. The ancients were clear: the end was not simply to theorize about life but to live it and live it well. In the modern academy, there are a number of competing models of community. One is the hierarchical model with decisions handed down from the top. It is paternalistic, and, in its relation with students, it functions in loco parentis; it assumes that students are children who lack the capacity to make their own decisions and to control their own lives, children who must be supervised and shown how to conduct themselves. The ancient model provides an alternative: a community that respects the humanitas in each of its members, a community that presupposes the dignity, self-worth, and moral autonomy of each individual, a community of citizens--citizens who have different roles as faculty, students, and administrators, but citizens who have rights and freedoms, who participate in democratic decision-making processes, and who accept responsibility and are accountable for their decisions.
To aspire to something meaningful and elevated, to aspire, as the ancients put it, to become fully human, we must expect to struggle. There will be resistance, not only within a community but also within our own souls. There have been many people who have said wise things about the struggle to achieve elevated goals. I tend to look for inspiration in the least likely places. I will close with the Puritans. The Puritans saw life as a struggle and saw temptation in two extremes: "security" and "despair." To update their meaning and to drop the devil, sin, and salvation from the equation, security is essentially the temptation to take the easy way out, to succumb to mediocrity and moral laziness, and to convince ourselves that the latter qualities represent excellence. The remedy against security is to say: this is wrong. To resist security, we must be able to discern the difference between quality and mediocrity and to have the courage to combat the latter. But we also must remain humble and recognize within ourselves both the potential of lapsing into self-righteousness and the temptation to take the easy way out. On the other side, to be tempted to despair is to lose hope, to accept defeat, and ultimately to give up, either by exiting or by accepting mediocrity, even while knowing full well what it is. The remedy against despair is to recognize that, if our objectives are truly worthy, struggle is inevitable because, as human beings, we are all imperfect and fallible. To resist despair we must recognize that, in struggle, there is virtue, there is community, and there is hope.
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