Thursday, December 17, 2009

`Capable of Grasping the Totality of Existing Things'

Beside the door to the classroom where freshman composition is taught hangs a poster of Shakespeare based on the dubious Droeshout engraving, accompanied by precisely the quotation from As You Like It you would expect to find on the wall of an American high school: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.”

On the opposite wall, next to the Diversity Quilt, hangs a poster of Malcolm X with this line from a speech he made in the quatricentenary of Shakespeare’s birth: “We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition…for the right to live as free humans in this society.”

The students have read the ubiquitous To Kill a Mockingbird and are writing essays on the novel. They were instructed to select a virtue exemplified by one of the characters and, on Wednesday, draft an introduction. An effective introduction, they were told, includes “a thesis, a hook and background info.” My special education student selected justice as his “virtue” and his thesis has something to do with Iron Man, the Marvel Comics superhero. I asked the teacher about Shakespeare and she said his plays and poems are an optional part of the curriculum, though she thought some of A.P. students were reading Romeo and Juliet.

The book in my bag was an elegant hardcover edition of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, published by the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis. Their logo, the copyright page explains, is a cuneiform inscription of the earliest-known written appearance of the word “freedom” or “liberty” (amagi). It’s taken from “a clay document written about 2300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.” In his second chapter the German Catholic philosopher writes:

“Training is defined as being concerned with some one side or aspect of man, with regard to some special subject. Education concerns the whole man; an educated man is a man with a point of view from which he takes in the whole world. Education concerns the whole man, man capax universi, capable of grasping the totality of existing things.”

The poster in the chemistry/biology lab was more to my taste, aesthetically and otherwise, and might have been admired by Pieper. It covers much of a wall, ceiling to floor, and is geometrically pleasing: the Periodic Table of the Elements, which always reminds me of Primo Levi, the human urge to taxonomize, and the table’s inventor, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. In 1889, 20 years after devising the table, the great Russian chemist delivered the Faraday Lecture before the Fellows of the Chemical Society in London. At the time, no physical basis for the periodic table existed, yet his peers had enthusiastically adopted the table, and several elements predicted by Mendeleev had already been identified. In his speech we hear the voice of the sort of man described by Pieper as “capable of grasping the totality of existing things”:

“…the periodic law opened for natural philosophy a new and wide field for speculation. Kant said that there are in the world `two things which never cease to call for the admiration and reverence of man: the moral law within ourselves, and the stellar sky above us.’ But when we turn our thoughts towards the nature of the elements and the periodic law, we must add a third subject, namely, `the nature of the elementary individuals which we discover everywhere around us.’ Without them the stellar sky itself is inconceivable; and in the atoms we see at once their peculiar individualities, the infinite multiplicity of the individuals, and the submission of their seeming freedom to the general harmony of Nature.”

1 comment:

Buce said...

In lieu of "All the world's a stage..." they might try (from the same play) "Mmn have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love."