Liberating Arts vs. Dumb Beasts
Aslan's warning in The Last Battle
When I was a child, I painted. I thought I’d become an illustrator for my own books. During college, I put painting and drawing to the side as hobbies and focused on learning the craft of writing. Most of my classes were geared to writing or reading, and I got pretty good at it. In graduate school, I studied the art of writing and reading further, becoming more and more proficient. Meanwhile drawing and painting dwindled to a rare, neglected pastime. Now, if someone asked me to pen their portrait, I’d end up composing a cartoonish semblance. I know this to be true because I had to depict my dad for my third-grade son’s project on the biography of his grandfather. The thing is about the arts is that you have to practice them and study them to be able to use them when needed. Else you lose the ability.
I am not only talking about the need to practice the fine arts like music, painting, and poetry, but also the liberal arts, those arts of the free soul that move us towards character. If we do not study the humanities—those things that make us human—and practice these arts, we will lose them. We need to train and cultivate the practices of creativity and critical thought to become people who are virtuous and wise. Literature, language, history, maths, sciences are all methods for practicing cognitive and spiritual engagement. For millennia, these were the arts of free people. Without them, we become enslaved (though we may not even notice!), to labor without vocation, to transactional exchanges rather than relationships, to trends and headlines instead of the permanent things.
There are a hundred literary examples I could employ, but the one that haunts me is from a children’s book—C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. If you’ve read the Narnia series, you may remember the creation of that world in The Magician’s Nephew. Aslan the Lion, the god of that world and God in our world, sings Narnia into existence. When Aslan creates the animals, he stares at them until they grow larger, then he breathes on them as God breathed into Humans in Genesis, and commands: “Awake. Love. Think. Speak…. Be talking beasts.” They respond: “We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.” It sounds like a marriage ceremony in which the animals repeat the vows authorized by the priest. Through the gift of speech, Aslan grants these animals freedom. “Creatures,” he says, “I give you yourselves.” But he warns them “do not go back to” the ways of “dumb beasts… lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken and into them you can return.” (Chapter IX-X)
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