Monday, March 05, 2007

My remarks at Founders College

NB: Below are the brief remarks I made at my book-signing event at Founders College this weekend.

The Founders College website, under "Our Vision," states:

"A Founders education will spark in you a lifelong passion for knowledge and discovery....We focus on the great ideas and significant events that have shaped civilizations. Your mind will be prepared with a comprehensive knowledge and deeper understanding of these great ideas, their connections and their consequences. You will enjoy life with a much better understanding of yourself and of the world around you."
Doubtless, an admirable goal and method—and a rationally proper one, as well. Presumably a Founders student will study the sciences, politics, philosophy—and literature.

Well, how would literature help Founders to achieve that goal and fulfill that mission? What place has literature, or any of the other arts, in that program? What connection can literature have with business, history, law, science, or philosophy? Is it mere disconnected "entertainment," or does it serve a greater purpose than passing one's time or diverting one from the tasks of living?

Now, I will say at the outset, to paraphrase Ayn Rand in The Romantic Manifesto, that literature is not a didactic medium. To teach is not its purpose. Its paramount purpose is to show. Its value lies in its capacity to serve as emotional and psychological fuel.

Ayn Rand, in her essay, "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" (in The Romantic Manifesto) writes:

"When we come to normative abstractions - to the task of defining moral principles and projecting what man ought to be - the psycho-epistemological process required is still harder. The task demands years of study - and the results are almost impossible to communicate without the assistance of art. An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it; it will not convey what an ideal man would be like and how he would act; no mind can deal with so immense a sum of abstractions. When I say 'deal with,' I mean retranslate all the abstractions into the perceptual concretes for which they stand - i.e., to reconnect them to reality - and hold it all in the focus of one's conscious awareness. There is no way to integrate such a sum without projecting an actual human figure - an integrated concretization that illuminates the theory and makes it intelligible."
And the means of projecting such a human figure is in a novel, a play, or a painting, to render that philosophy or moral ideal in the perceptual concrete of such a figure, and to make that figure as memorable as one's skill allows.Rand's conclusion: "Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal." So, art is a perfect, complementary partner of philosophy.

Now, I think that any novelist, whether he writes romantic novels, or romantic realist novels, or naturalist novels, or even historic novels, explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously, strives to create a moral ideal, endeavors to recreate in his heroes or principal characters an "ought." His success in that task depends on many factors, such as his purpose, his skill, his fundamental views of reality and life. Not even a naturalist novelist can avoid selecting what he perceives as "life as it really is"; he must employ selectivity in what he chooses to represent. If he didn't employ selectivity, he wouldn't be able to write the first word. And if he were consciously consistent in his view of things, he wouldn't attempt to write a novel at all.

A romantic or romantic realist novelist, however, is one driven by a passion for values, for men and things as they ought to be.

I can tell you why I wrote Sparrowhawk and all my other novels, but will dwell only on Sparrowhawk here. I wished to dramatize, or bring to life, the caliber of the men who made the Revolution possible. It was a lifelong ambition that I realized after writing nine novels before I took the first note for Sparrowhawk. I wished to do literary justice to the time and the events as my predecessors in the genre never did. The task entailed recreating the British-American culture and politics of the time to better dramatize the men and the events, to better tell an epic story, rather than relate a history, though writing the epic required a knowledge of history. That meant, in part, applying the same principles that comprise the philosophy of education of Founders College, to communicate and dramatize the connections between the great ideas and discoveries that have always made Western Civilization possible, and sustained it, and moved it forward, and to integrate them all into a story which I believe has no parallel in the genre.

The Founders College brochure states: "We work hard to produce extraordinary thinkers - individuals who will make a real difference." The thinkers and actors of the pre-Revolutionary period were extraordinary, and made a difference. I often tell people that the American Revolution was a culmination of the English Civil War of the 1640's, a conflict fought over many of the same issues that ignited the Revolution. But, why did the British trade a Stuart monarchy and its tyranny for a Puritan regime and its tyranny, and ultimately invite the Stuarts back? Why didn't the American Revolution collapse, or follow the same course as the English Civil War?

It was a thinker who made the difference, one whose ideas the American patriots had the advantage of, but which the British did not. That was chiefly John Locke, the 17th century political philosopher, who explicated the principles of a proper government by integrating, or making the connections between, metaphysics, epistemology, and morality (but not nearly as successfully and completely as Ayn Rand would two centuries later in Atlas Shrugged). And one of the most extraordinary exponents of Locke among American patriots was another thinker, Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence is written almost solely in Lockean language.

After reviewing the course curriculum of Founders College - especially its Literature and Arts program - I am gladdened to see that it addresses every one of the points I have just mentioned. I confess that I will be envious of any student who enrolls in this institution. My own experience with college level studies was, to paraphrase English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, "poor, nasty, brutish and short." So, I had to make do without the benefit of what I believe young people will experience here at Founders College, which has been created as an antithesis of and an alternative to what passes for "higher" education today. Imbued with the knowledge and experience "based on the integration of a carefully structured core of great ideas" gained at the College, its graduates will be able to face their lives, careers and the world armed with a combination of confidence, passion, and a reverence for their own lives and accomplishments.