From Measure for Measure
Yet show some pity.
I show it most of all when I show justice;
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismiss’d offence would after gall;
And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;
Your brother dies to-morrow; be content.
So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffer’s. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant…
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured…
In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Isabella pleas for her brother’s life. He has gotten his fiancé pregnant which is a capital offense. He is to die, although this law has never before been enforced.
She beseeches Angelo, who stands in for the absent Duke. It is he who now ministers the law with unheard of zeal. The play is one of the most tremendous portrayals of hypocrisy, cruelty, but also mercy.
Isabella says that if men were to thunder as God, as Jove here, heaven would be full of thunder, nothing but thunder. That is, there would be no lightening, no light, only the terror and condemnation of judgment.
She also says that merciful heaven would rather strike the oak, one hardened and mature in sin, than the soft myrtle, one yet open to repentance. We on the other hand, she claims, often lack this mercy and display only the grossest faculty of judgement. We act, in our short lives, most certain of what we are most ignorant.
How can this be? When we stand upon the law, do we not stand upon that which we know best? I will try to show what it might mean to know as we ought, to read as we ought, and how conversely, even in our knowledge we remain at times damnably ignorant.
As an aside, Angelo not only succumbs to the same temptation as Isabella’s brother; he sinks far deeper. What happens to him is something more terrible than justice. But for this you must read the play.
As a parent, as a teacher, as a human being, I affirm Isabella’s condemnation. How often I thunder, do I set the law to work and condemn what I least understand…what in fact, I should understand well, for human failing is writ in me, just as much as any human grandeur or dignity.
I think I know much, while knowing little of mercy. But without mercy, we do not know the truth, not as we ought. Let’s look to a different text, John 1:17:
For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The text does not read the “Law was given through Moses; but grace came through Jesus.” It teaches “grace and truth” came through him. Can John be right? Didn’t the truth come through the law? Not as the author of this Gospel understands it.
The law all by itself, apart from the personhood of God, apart from mercy, is not true for us in the ultimate sense.
Now for this to be correct, we must take the law in a very particular sense, a sense not alien to Bible, but not precisely that of Psalm 1 or Psalm 19. We must understand Law as apart from faith.
But this narrow sense is precisely that in which I regularly do take the law! How often do I find myself under its spell, under the illusion that it holds the answers to all my problems?
I am interested today in precisely this kind of inadequate, impersonal reading, and what it means to read rightly. I am interested in a recovery of personhood, and suggest that what we do here at this college plays a small part in its of recovery.
This is of paramount importance because to know man truly is to know God, and to know God to know ourselves. Man and God are inseparably linked. so, if we do not pursue what is fully human, if we remain satisfied with what is less than personal, we remain satisfied with a God who is less than God. If we read the world and ourselves impersonally, so shall we read God.
What does it mean to read impersonally? I do so whenever I think I merely need to construct the right set of consequences or boundaries for myself or my children.
I do so when I say, if I only eat less, or eat these things…if only I go to sleep at such an hour… if only I could apply the law a little bit better in my life, all would be well. Would it?
When I reflect, I have to admit that I know why eyes glaze over in such moments, why I myself despair. I know, in part, why I lose my children when I wish to call them forth most of all. It’s because we grow weary of thunder which gives no light. Our heart is not moved first and foremost by knowing the right thing to do.
I am trying to argue that an education happens neither with books, or rules, or individuals alone, but in a world, and should be an education unto a world, unto the vastness of being made in the image of God. We all need this kind of education, an education in reading.
We all read in a broken and insufficient ways. I regularly forget the person and remember only the process or the to do list. I am all too ready to reduce story to answers, and relations to rules. Now, to some extent, we must do this for the sake of the practical life, but it is disaster to wholly replace the personal with the practical.
A Liberal Arts college is not precisely the solution to this problem; God is, but it can serve as an adjunct to faith and learning. New College Franklin forms a conscious part of the learning community and does so in a privileged position, one which is nearly impossible for the parent to inhabit. We don’t have to tell your son or daughter, day in and day out to clean up their room, eat right, go to bed, sit still. We get to read with them, learn with them, challenge and correct them from a different vantage, in a different role.
But imagine for a moment that when students came here, each day we took out the Bible and read the ten commandments. We would then ask them if they understood their charge, and point out where they might improve. If this sounds like a good idea, this is perhaps not the best college for you.
The law alone can be a cudgel, or like a flat piece of paper, but what it describes and the world in which it is to take on flesh is three-dimensional. It is this world which the Liberal Arts seeks to recollect, or rather the Liberal Arts seek to recover the human being to this world. Therefore, it is to this world which our studies are directed. It is to and for this world that our Savior came. We might even say that he himself is this world and that in him are all things. This is in part why he is the true Teacher.
To read is to interpret, to experience, even to believe. In reading together here, we remember how inadequate our vision is. To read what we do, as we do is to realize that though we gain greater insight, there is no point at which we become complete. We are never closed off in knowledge because we are all creatures open to the infinite, creatures open to love.
I must read and reread my relations, my Bible, my God, none of which I can ultimately and fully grasp; I must hear the word again, today, for the bread of yesterday is rotten. Yet, I often wish my past readings could prevail; I want the virtues of yesterday to suffice. My children are 8 and 10. Already many of the insights and tools of a few months past are insufficient. In fact, my reading has never been sufficient. But when we seek to read in a certain spirit, God grants that we are occasionally more than the voice of thunder, that now and again we might give light. What a pleasure to make the world just a bit more readable for those around us. This is our goal here, for both faculty and students.
It is in this sense, in the vastness of reading, in the vastness of the human person, that the law is insufficient. The law is but the first step over a threshold, one which extends into a house so great, so lovely, so mysterious, we cannot fathom. And it is not even the first step, for the first and every step is taken through faith. Yet the law remains of consequence, beauty, and even use, but it must do so in a special way.
Christians have often recognized three uses of the law:
The first use, to instruct, teaches the calling of man: what we are commanded.
The second use, to condemn, builds upon the first. In knowing what is commanded, we perceive our failure and need of God.
But now what of the third use? Does not a return to law after its condemnation simply make a cycle of failure and repentance? It depends how we understand this return, on how we understand repentance.
Imagine a wife who asks her husband: Why do you do these things for me? He responds, there is a law I must obey, and I will be diligent in it.
But now imagine another husband who answers: I do so because I love you. I turn to the law in order to learn how to love well. This man’s obedience is of a wholly new character, and despite its own repeated failures, such an obedience cannot and shall not remain fruitless.
The first man makes his aim the law. The second makes his aim his wife. The first is impersonal; the second what it is to be human, to love and pour ourselves out in obedience to God and for those we are commanded to love.
It is our lot to continually forget which is the true aim—the law or the spouse, the person or the behavior. It is God’s pleasure to remind us again and again of our freedom. It is his gift to pour out his love into our hearts.
What does this have to do with the Liberal Arts or reading? It has something to do with the way that the Liberal Arts are understood as liberal, as free and freeing.
These studies have for centuries been understood as an aid to knowing the freedom to which we are called, freeing us from the littleness of our own minds.
As a Liberal Arts student, one does not primarily study the world or man as a fact of biology, art, economics, or any single field of knowledge. Rather one studies man and the world in their unity. This is essential. Consider, the doctor who as a doctor, does not know what a man is except in terms of certain physical facts. The condition of medical science today makes clear that to be a doctor is even to know this anymore. It is not the doctor as doctor who knows what it is to be human. This is not her fault. It is not the doctor’s job to know man as man, it is the man’s job. Doctor, lawyer, husband, wife, regardless, only the man can come to know what it is to be human. It is therefore not first and foremost in light of a particular career or science that we study here.
The Liberal Arts seek to remind us Who and what we made for. We can only remember this as men and as women.
This is how we learn to read the Bible, this is how we learn to love.
In our reading is the continual rediscovery of divine mercy, of a truth more terrible but also wiser than we once knew. In it, we find we are free to discover a new sort of virtue, a new law.
There is something of this in Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, though perhaps it verges on sentimentality. In this scene, Dr. Gibbs guides his son into a discovery.
The boy has been shirking his duty, disregarding his mother. While his father felt disappointment, anger, it is not these things which shape the conversation.
The father relies on a higher reading; he never forgets himself as father or confuses fatherhood with mere judgement. Only as a father can he recall the son to himself.
In this spirit, he reminds his son that the world is bigger than upcoming baseball games or the girl he is courting.
Implicit in this interaction is a gift—a mercy. The Father reckons love unto his boy, not just his own love for the boy, but the son’s love for his mother.
Only grace and truth have this power. Do we have such faith, faith that our children truly are made in the image of Love? Do we have the courage to reckon this unto them, to read them in this way?
Only grace and truth have the power to reckon unto us the love we are made for, the power to recall not only the person to the law, but to recall the person.
From Thorton Wilder’s Our Town:
GIBBS: Oh, George, can you come down a minute?
GEORGE: Yes, Pa. He descends the ladder.
GIBBS: Make yourself comfortable, George; I’ll only keep you a minute. George, how old are you?
GEORGE: I? I’m sixteen, almost seventeen.
GIBBS: What do you want to do after school’s over?
GEORGE: Why, you know, Pa. I want to be a farmer on Uncle Luke’s farm.
GIBBS: You’ll be willing, will you, to get up early and milk and feed the stock . . . and you’ll be able to hoe and hay all day?
GEORGE: Sure, I will. What are you . . . what do you mean, Pa?
GIBBS: Well, George, while I was in my office today I heard a funny sound . . . and what do you think it was? It was your mother chopping wood. There you see your mother getting up early; cooking meals all day long; washing and ironing; and still she has to go out in the back yard and chop wood. I suppose she just got tired of asking you. She just gave up and decided it was easier to do it herself. And you eat her meals, and put on the clothes she keeps nice for you, and you run off and play baseball, like she’s some hired girl we keep around the house but that we don’t like very much…. Well, I knew all I had to do was call your attention to it. Here’s a handkerchief, son. George, I’ve decided to raise your spending money twenty-five cents a week. Not, of course, for chopping wood for your mother, because that’s a present you give her, but because you’re getting older and I imagine there are lots of things you must find to do with it
GEORGE: Thanks, Pa.
* * * *
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul…
The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes…
the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold (excerpted from Psalm 19).
We are free in this new law, in the new commandment because we have a Father who remembers us and remembers for us, who recalls us to the truth about himself, but also to the truth about ourselves. Do the Liberal Arts have something of this power hidden in them?
I do not wish to oversell New College Franklin. What I am speaking of is the small part we play in this journey. We are so far from being sufficient to this task, that we are actually free from such a burden. This is why we can occasionally laugh here. Are they free to laugh at other colleges? I don’t know. Often it doesn’t seem so. Here, we openly acknowledge that we are not a factory of success. Perhaps other colleges are. Perhaps they do manufacture success. We have left off with factory work to pursue something far more exciting. We pursue what we can in no way manufacture, the gift of God. In doing so, we learn to read, and find that what God has written is well worth reading and reading well.