The Art of Being Human: What ‘Old Books’ can tell us (and warn us) about living in the 21st century, by Michael S Rose; Angelico Press, December 2022
AFTER reading this book, I felt envious. At my convent boarding school in the 1960s we were never challenged to think beyond the narrow confines and syllabus of the exam boards. Michael Rose, an American headmaster, wrote it as a result of conducting seminars at three Catholic high schools in the States. His students had to annotate, analyse and discuss selected books conveying ‘great ideas’ of literature, such as ‘good and evil; pleasure and pain; virtue and vice; democracy and despotism; war and peace’. They were asked: ‘What does it mean to be human?’
At a time when students are moving from childhood to young adulthood, from the certainties of home to the alternative certainties of their peer group, these fortunate pupils were being guided to grapple with fundamental questions. As we know such questions are being answered by politicians in more or less debased ‘progressive’ fashion all the time. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
Rose found that the most fruitful seminars centred on three books: Frankenstein, Brave New World and 1984. No surprises there. They are rightfully considered classics of dystopian literature. But his pupils were fed a rich and varied diet, including short stories I did not know and which I now want to read. Dividing his book into three parts – Promethean Pursuits, Transhumanist Goals and Totalitarian Dreams – the author includes writings by Robert Louis Stevenson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jonathan Swift, C S Lewis and Ray Bradbury among others.
Every text the students studied is shown to be ‘relatable and relevant to their lives’. Frankenstein (1818) points towards those who seek today to alter the human person ‘through the use of genetic engineering, human cloning, IVF’ and other techniques. Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher (1884) raises questions of medical ethics and our regard for the dignity of the human body. Fettes, a medical student, is gradually drawn into the ‘horrible reality’ of how corpses are obtained for medical dissection. Morally weak, he comes to realise ‘that he’s become a member of an elite sacrificial religion’. Stevenson would have recognised our modern age, where research companies purchase aborted babies in order to harvest their parts, a scandal that is barely denied.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) concerns a group of young people cloned for their organs as unwilling donors, just as today fertility services exploit and harvest the eggs of desperate Third World women or as the Chinese Communist Party harvests the organs from live political prisoners. This is a practice so horrible we would rather not know about it. I once listened on the World Service to a Chinese witness describing how it is done. The horror was so palpable I could not sleep. Even typing this returns the nightmare to my mind.
Huxley’s Brave New World, an ironic nod towards Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the innocent heroine exclaims at the beauty of the world she is discovering, is about ‘amusing oneself to death’ in a world where God has been banished as incompatible with universal happiness. Instead of the bread and circuses of ancient Rome, we now have ‘sex, soma, screens and sports’.
Rose observes that Huxley articulates ‘for generation after generation . . . the underlying philosophies – be it of Marxism or Freudianism or Modernism – that will in any century dehumanise us and lead us away from God and all that is truly good and beautiful, all that gives meaning to our lives and makes us authentically human’.
In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, his satiric creation of the Struldbrugs, growing ever older but trapped by immortality, reminds me that my overwhelming impression of the lockdown was a universal terror of death by a panicked population, assiduously fostered by our government at the time. Rose comments, ‘Contrary to the thinking of many, death is not the greatest human evil. It is a blessing, one that leads to the eternal afterlife, united by the Creator.’ Atheists, of course, do not share this fundamental Christian belief. I was having lunch with a lady atheist the other day. Of advanced years and black humour, she told me, ‘The future is grim. If I get dementia, shoot me.’
Then there is Orwell, one of those writers so influential and important that the description ‘Orwellian’ has become a cliché. His Politics and the English Language (1946) was studied in Rose’s seminars to make pupils aware that manipulating language alters the way we think: ‘to affect changes in thoughts and affections and to shame those who somehow prove impervious to manipulation’. What would Orwell have thought of the new definitions of ‘gender’?
Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury describes zealous firemen enacting their own frightening version of Nazi Germany’s book burning. It was made into a memorable film with Julie Christie, making me think that if it ever comes to having to memorise works of literature before they are reduced to ash, I would choose Hamlet. The alterations to Roald Dahl’s children’s books by current puritans and purists of prose writing are simply an under-the-counter version of Bradbury’s novel.
The author observes: ‘Great literature teaches us about ourselves. Dystopian literature warns us of who we might become.’ The moral of his book, which I hope his lucky students absorbed, is that those people who profess to love humanity apart from the love of Christ will end up with a ‘narrow, inwardly focused philanthropy that enables abortion, euthanasia, population control, mass vaccinations’. The book is unabashedly Christian in its outlook and partisan in its pedagogy: the task of teachers is to give moral guidance to those in their charge, in this case done skilfully through works of literature.