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On Being Moved | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 16, 2008

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The Anglo-Welsh poet and artist, David Jones (1895-1974), spoke on the BBC Welsh Home Services on the 29th of October, 1954. His talk, entitled an "Autobiographical Talk," was reprinted in his Epoch and Artist. This book was given to me for Christmas. Just recently I began to look at it.

The following passage in Jones' autobiographical lecture particularly struck me: "The artist, no matter what sort or what his medium, must be moved by the nature of whatever art he practises. Otherwise he cannot move us by the images he wishes to call up, discover, show forth and re-present under the appearance of this or that material, through the workings of this or that art." An artist's capacity to move us presupposes that within his own soul something not simply himself has previously moved him.

Our lives are filled with our activities, our doing of things. We usually define ourselves by what we do. We are doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. Such a listing of our occupations indicates that we have the capacity to act in the world, to make changes both in ourselves (the virtues and vices) and in our surroundings, in our polities or in our gardens. We evidently exist in the world, in some sense, to change it, as if it needs further attention. The world bears signs of incompleteness without us. We are the rational creatures. We know what is not ourselves. Man is also homo faber, the carpenter, the maker.

Yet, I have entitled this essay not "On Moving Something," but rather "On Being Moved." Jones' observation implies that, at the origin of the habit of art, is something that happens to us before we do anything artistic. To put it briefly: Before we can move, we must first be moved.

In the Phaedrus, we find an amusing scene in which Socrates is finally lured out of Athens to walk barefoot along a stream called the Ilisus. Socrates says to Phaedrus: "Forgive me, my friend, I am devoted to learning; landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me—only people in the city can do that. But you, I think, have found a potion to charm me into leaving... You can lead me all over Attica or anywhere else you like simply by waving in front of me the leaves of a book containing a speech." A book can be a "potion" or a "charm." We should know this.

Whether landscapes and trees can teach us anything depends, no doubt, on what we think to be their origins. If we think they originate in chaos, chaos is what they have to teach us. People in conversation in cities can evidently teach us something. Even their writing may also entice us, as it did Socrates, though the meaning of writing, as he says in the same dialogue, is often difficult to pin down.

The art of writing is one step removed from the landscapes and trees, as it is from the conversations with people in the city. Leo Strauss once wrote a book called, Persecution and the Art of Writing. Here, Strauss wrote:
The works of the great writers of the past are very beautiful even from without. And yet their visible beauty is sheer ugliness, compared with the beauty of those hidden treasures which disclose themselves only after very long, never easy, but always pleasant work. This always difficult but always pleasant work is, I believe, what the philosophers had in mind when they recommended education.
Reading is a very difficult, though pleasant work. Its beauty is not always clear at first reading. This education, Strauss thought, consisted in the ability to "reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license."

An "order" which is not "oppression" indicates a reason according to which we can agree to act. And "freedom" without license means that we do not do merely what we will but what is right to do, something that we can and ought to know.

But to return to David Jones' comment, we are beings who are first "moved." This means, no doubt, that we are not self-sufficient beings. And that may be the best thing about us. It means that we are open to what is not ourselves.

The artist, to move us, has first himself to be moved. The beauty of a reading or a landscape or a stream is not always "clear" at first reading or sight. The pleasure of knowing is often only realized after much work, much reflection. It is almost as if, in the depths of things, a connection is found with what is itself. In the very fact that we can be moved, we find a hint of the everlastingness to which we somehow belong by virtue of what we are.

[This column originally appeared in the The Hoya, Georgetown University, March 14, 2008. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.]

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

Putting Things In Order | Father James V. Schall, S.J., on Eighty Years of Living, Thinking, and Believing
Why Do We Exist? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Virtue of Art and the Virtue of Religion | John Saward
Modern Art: Friend or Foe? | Joseph Pearce
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Why Are There So Many Ugly Churches? | An interview with Moyra Doorly, author of No Place For God
A Great Building Disaster | Excerpt from No Place For God | Moyra Doorly
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
The Quintessential--And Last--Modern Poet | Fr. George William Rutler

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

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