Universals and Particulars: A Tale of Two Places by Jerry L. Martin

by Jerry L. Martin,
Assistant Chairman for Programs and Policy, National Endowment for the Humanities.

The following is a version of the keynote address at PRAXIS: Exemplars of Humanities, Teaching, Learning,and Collaboration in South Carolina, A Conference of K-12 Schools, Colleges, and Universities, Lander College, Greenwood, South Carolina, February 22, 1991.

My subject for today is the age-old issue of universals and particulars.  But let me begin with a story, an account of two particular situations – a tale, as it were, of two places.

The first place is a prison in Pavia, near Milan, Italy.  The year is 525 A.D., during the twilight of the Roman Empire.  The person is Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius who, among other things, happens to have invented the problem of universals and particulars, at least in its medieval form.

Boethius was a remarkable man, a Roman of the most noble birth – among his ancestors and kinsmen he could count many consuls, two emperors, and a pope.  A child prodigy, he was given the best education of his day and became not only a scholar of classics, philosophy, and theology, but an expert in mechanics, music, and finance as well.  He followed his family tradition of public service and, serving in one office after another, rose to become first minister.

In spite of arduous public duties, Boethius set about the monumental task of translating all of Plato and all of Aristotle into Latin, for fear that his countrymen, who no longer studied Greek, were in danger of losing their intellectual inheritance.  He considered this task an aspect of his statecraft.

Boethius’ family life was equally blest.  His wife, noted for her devotion, was the daughter of a high-minded Roman aristocrat, whose finest traits she is said to have inherited.  His two sons would have made any parents proud, and Boethius had the unique honor of seeing both his sons selected consul the same year.

Then events took a different turn.  The king of Italy was at odds with the Emperor in Constantinople.  In spite of his blameless reputation, and his long and faithful service to the king, Boethius was accused of treason by his political enemies.  They secured his conviction, which the king refused to overturn.  Boethius’ former friends turned against him, his wife and family were taken from him, his lands were confiscated, and he was thrown into a dungeon near Milan.  In short, all he had won in power, wealth, and honor was stripped away.  After languishing in prison for a year, Boethius was bludgeoned to death.

What does one do in a year of seclusion, without benefit of friends or books?  We all know the old question, “If you were going to be stranded on a desert island, what book would you take?”  There is a different, perhaps more probing question, “If you were going to spend a year in seclusion, what ideas would you take?  What ideas would you have that you could take?”

Boethius took with him his faith and all the learning of the ancient world; and, during this year of seclusion, he wrote an extraordinary book, The Consolation of Philosophy, described later as “the book of most serene and kindly wisdom that the Middle Ages knew.”  It was the medieval version of a best seller for almost a thousand years.  Heavy in philosophical thought, it was written in a simple prose and poetry so readable, engaging, and sometimes moving that C.S. Lewis called him “the divine popularizer.”

The Consolation takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius, ill and in prison, and a female figure, Philosophia, who puts his bad fortune in perspective by discoursing on the nature of fortune and happiness, good and evil, fate and free will, and leading him finally to a vision of God as caelo imperitans amor – “the love that moves the sun and stars” – a vision that led Dante to place Boethius among the twelve lights in the heaven of the Sun.

Thus trapped in his prison cell, stripped of fame and fortune, torn from his family, thrown entirely on his own moral and intellectual resources “in this most constrained of particularities” Boethius managed to ponder universal questions and to give answers meaningful beyond his time.

The second place is not unlike the first.  It is a narrow jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.  The date is April 16, 1963.  The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., has been jailed for nonviolent demonstrations, for – of all things – holding a parade without a permit.  Like Boethius, he finds that those he had counted as friends have turned against him.  A group of clergymen who have previously supported civil rights issue a statement condemning the demonstrations.  Like Boethius, Dr. King is moved to reflection about fundamental things, and the result is his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

The clergymen call the demonstrations “untimely.”  Dr. King’s response is instructive.  He begins with the particular – with the fact that “Wait!” has always meant “Never” – but moves to a universal claim – “the time is always ripe to do right.”

The clergymen object to “outsiders coming in,” an objection based on claims of particularity, of locality.  First Dr. King responds with a counterclaim of particularity: “I am here because I have organizational ties here…” Next he makes a claim of a more encompassing particularity: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”  Finally, Dr. King moves to a claim of universality: “But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here… Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The ministers chastise Dr. King for breaking the law.  Dr. King defends civil disobedience as a position that reconciles respect for the law – the particular law of a particular jurisdiction – with respect for a higher law that has universal validity.  He argues that there must be a higher standard than the law of a particular time and place, since everything Hitler did was “legal,” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in 1956 was “illegal.”  He cites the example of Socrates who refused to obey unjust laws but abided by the verdict of death out of a particularist respect for the city that gave him birth and nurture.

Like Boethius, Dr. King was in circumstances that forced him to turn inward, to draw upon his acquired stock of moral ideas.  Boethius drew on the Bible and on the classical authors.  Dr. King, living at a later time, drew more widely.  Of course the Bible was his chief inspiration, but he cites as well: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Socrates, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Bunyan, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and, for good measure, T. S. Eliot’s lines from Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

The life of Boethius, the life of Dr. King, your life, and mine consist of a series of particulars: of particular events, of particular people, of particular thoughts and feelings.  But the extraordinary fact is that human beings have a capacity to rise above the confined particularities of their existence, to grasp a larger whole, to glimpse the universal.

There are those who doubt this capacity.  In the context of the debate over universals and particulars, they are called nominalists.  They believe only in particulars.  On the extreme version of this view, each particular is so unique that you cannot even ascribe qualities to it, and hence in the end you may not be able to talk about it at all.  Uniqueness has its limits.  Northrop Frye once commented about the excited parents of a newborn baby, “However much they may proclaim their baby to be unique, they are glad that it is recognizably human.”

Nominalism is a mistake that only a philosopher could make.  But there are related tendencies that trouble our culture at large and affect our schools.  One such tendency is subjectivism – the idea that each of us is trapped within his or her own particular beliefs, that there is no way to get outside one’s own mind and hence no way to access independently or objectively one’s own ideas or those of others.

College freshmen are prone to this view and are fond of saying things such as “This is true for me”, “true for her”, “true for the Aztecs,” and the like.  For the thoroughgoing subjectivist, beliefs can be based on anything or on nothing – factors such as reason, consistency, evidence, experiment are irrelevant.  As an argument, subjectivism begs the question.  It assumes that consciousness is self-contained, walled in upon itself, rather than what it is – an opening on the world, a source of information, evidence, experience, ideas.  And it assumes that people cannot use new evidence and new arguments to change and to correct their beliefs.

Subjectivism is especially troubling when it infects moral thinking, since it can be used to condone any behavior, to excuse any conduct.  Deep down, we all know that schools should in some sense teach values, provide children with ethical standards, help them know right from wrong.  Yet the subjectivist strain in our culture is so strong that discussions of moral education tend to dissolve immediately into the particularist question, “Whose values?  Whose definition of right and wrong?  Who’s going to decide?”  And then we collapse to the view that the schools should merely help children “clarify” their own values – a kind of “I’m OK, You’re OK” view of ethics, as if wanton cruelty could be made acceptable by believing in it sincerely enough.

Or the idea is advanced that, rather than teaching children the difference between right and wrong, we should present them with an array of different value systems – a moral menu – and ask them to pick and choose, perhaps to engage in “critical thinking” about each, as though you could think effectively about values without having a foundation of sound values to start with.

When we get into these discussions, we tend to forget what we all know so deeply we take it for granted: that the main way schools teach ethics is by the behavior of the teacher and the expectations placed on the students.  Students learn about right and wrong every time the teacher treats them with respect, fairness, or kindness, or demands that they study their lessons, treat each other with respect, and do not lie, cheat, or steal.  These values are not in question.

Another way schools teach ethics is by providing children with stories of the heroes and heroines, fools and villains of history, fiction, and myth – providing models for imitation or avoidance, and moral complexities and ambiguities to ponder.  This kind of teaching is not moral indoctrination, and yet it has substantive ethical content for our children.  We should not allow the spectre of subjectivism to distract us from this sort of ethical teaching.

A related form of extreme particularism is cultural relativism.  Instead of each person’s being trapped within his or her own beliefs, as the subjectivist holds, the cultural relativist believes that we are all trapped within the beliefs and values of our particular group.  Cultural relativism was popularized by certain anthropologists some years ago and has been revived in a new and more obscure vocabulary by some literary theorists.  The group is usually defined as a whole culture – the Welsh or the Laplanders, for example – but it is sometimes seen as larger (such as the whole of Western Civilization) or smaller (such as a teenage gang).  The relevant group can also be seen as one’s class, race, or gender.

Cultural relativism appeals to people for, you might say, the best of motives.  They value tolerance and they find traits in other cultures they admire.  And they think that tolerance and cultural appreciation can only be based on relativism.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Cultural relativism implies that we are all locked within the beliefs and values of our own culture.  If this were true, we would be incapable either of criticizing the values of our own culture or of appreciating the virtues of other cultures.  Hence, to be meaningful at all, tolerance must itself be seen as a transcultural value, an injunction that everyone everywhere should respect the cultures of others.

When the British were in India, they were appalled at the custom of throwing widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.  When the locals explained, “But this is our custom,” the British are said to have replied, “Executing people who burn widows is our custom.”  In fact, we are not limited to countering custom with custom.  Human beings are not trapped within their own cultures; we have the capacity to learn from other cultures, and to engage in thoughtful discussion about the relative merits of different customs in light of certain fundamental human needs.

I have been pressing claims of universality against the extremes of particularity.  But it is possible to go too far in the other direction, to lose sight of the particularity of things, and to lose them in the universal, as with those philosophers who believe that the multiplicity of particulars is an illusion and the true reality is One with a capital “O,” or with those social thinkers who see individuals as mere organs and limbs of the organic state.  The solution surely lies somewhere in the middle, in a view of the world that does justice to both the particularity and the universal aspects of things.

In field hearings the National Endowment for the Humanities held two years ago, we heard from Bobby Weaver.  Bobby now works for the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.  He was testifying about the importance of NEH Projects where he lived before in the town of Canyon, Texas, up in the panhandle.  “I live in a little bitty world,” he said.  “We are not always aware of our connections to a larger world.”  As Bobby talked, it became clear that we all live in little bitty worlds, the worlds of our immediate family, friends, neighbors, coworkers.  This is not something to be regretted.  The primal bonds of family and friendship meet people’s most pressing daily needs, both material and spiritual.  They are the source of the most intimate aspects of one’s identity, including the identities of family, religion, ethnicity, and place.  They are what Edmund Burke called “the small platoons of society” out of which grow the larger affections which tie us to the nation.

It is important that we appreciate these particularities.  Ethical values, while grounded on universal traits of human nature and reason, are always preserved in a particular culture, transmitted through a particular condition, embodied in a particular set of mores, customs, and institutions.  The affections, rituals, symbols, morals, of a family, neighborhood, church, or ethnic group express in very particular ways fundamental human relationships, values, and goals.  They provide concrete studies and images for dealing with danger and fear, love and rejection, triumph and failure.  They provide particular interpretations of the stages of life – myths of childhood, rites of passage, epics of adulthood, meditations of age, consolations of death – all preserved in traditions, oral and written, handed down from one generation to the next.

The examples of Boethius and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplify this more balanced view.  Each is very much a person of his time and place.  Each is an active man engaged in the most important events of his particular age, a mover and maker of history.  Each works out of a tradition in some ways quite particular (the Roman aristocracy, the black church) but in other ways are broad, comprehending the major thinkers of civilization up to that time.  Each also finds it necessary to stand somewhat outside and even against his time and place to gain a larger and more valid perspective.

Boethius and King were able to think above and beyond the narrow confines of their circumstances because they drew on a store of images and ideas inherited from those who had gone before.  We sometimes forget how fragile this inheritance is, how easily it can be lost.  We almost come to think it passed on automatically, as if it were a part of our genetic endowment.  But it is not.  Biologically, we are still cavemen, unaware of the wheel, ignorant of the secrets of fire.  Without our language, our inherited knowledge, our institutions, our ethical codes, we are nothing.  And yet all these must be passed on if we are to survive.

There’s a place in his Reflections on the Revolution in France in which Burke agrees to speak of society as a “contract” but only if it is defined in an encompassing way.  “Society is indeed a contract,” he writes, “but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco…It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.  As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”  It is that ongoing contract between one generation and the next that we honor when we preserve the natural environment, when we husband the nation’s wealth and develop its resources for the future, when we pass on its democratic liberties intact and when we preserve and transmit our moral, intellectual, and cultural heritage.

In American Memory, NEH Chairman Lynne V. Cheney’s first report on the schools, she quotes Eudora Welty’s description of one of her characters, a school teacher, named Miss Julia Mortimer, who understood what teaching was all about: “She didn’t ever doubt but that all worth preserving is going to be preserved and all we had to do was keep it going – right from where we are, one teacher on down to the next.”

The Miss Julia Mortimers of this world will keep it going, if we let them.  But we are going to have to permit them a better education than they have been permitted in the past.  We have been wasting their time with hours and hours of courses in methods and educational theory, courses that teachers themselves often find useless and even intellectually demeaning.  We need to let teachers study the subjects they teach.  We now have a system in which those who are going to teach history, for example, take fewer history courses than those who are not.  Teachers should major in the subjects they are going to teach.

Our current teacher certification requirements function largely as a barrier to entry into the teaching profession.  We are now keeping qualified adults out of the classroom simply because they do not have the required hours of education courses.  We need to expand alternative certification programs that make it possible for talented men and women who have mastered their subjects to become teachers.

If we are to transmit all that is worth preserving, we need to overcome the fixation on skills. There is a body of knowledge to be transmitted, content as well as skills and, ideally, content in connection with skills, and skills in connection with content.  When we teach students to read, we should give them something worth reading.  When we teach them to think, we should give them ideas worth thinking about .  When we test them, we should test them on what they know, not merely on skills carefully abstracted from what they have studied.  We should test them on history, science, and literature, not just on synonyms, antonyms, and analogies.

And we must never let our schools become mere centers for vocational training.  Vocational preparation does have its place.  There are few things in life as important, to soul, as well as to body, as the ability to support oneself, but life is more than a job, and human beings are more than employees.  As citizens, as parents, and as individuals responsible for shaping their own destinies, young people will need the resources of insight and imagination gained only from a study of the humanities.  Otherwise, they will become, in Aldous Huxley’s harrowing image, mere “betas,” a class of individuals bred solely to do society’s labor, trapped within their own particularity.

For sometimes it is not circumstances that trap us so much as the prisons of our own minds.  There was nothing ennobling, or even of note, about Boethius’ dungeon or Dr. King’s narrow jail cell.  But in each case, the thoughts were larger than a single place or time or person.  Drawing on the wisdom of those who had gone before, Boethius and King rose above their circumstances, and their thoughts touched the universality of our being.  We owe it to them to remember, we owe it to ourselves not to forget, we owe it to our children to make sure they learn the ancient wisdom, the ways of a people who love justice, and the deeds of those who thought and fought on their behalf.  Together we shall not forget.

First published in Humanities in the South: Newsletter of the Southern Humanities Council, Spring 1991 issue.