Posts Tagged ‘Way of Reason’

Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Way of Reason and Living Books

Dear Reader,

I have been reading Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes and find these two very intriguing quotes:

“You can hire logic, in the shape of a lawyer, to prove anything that you want to prove. You can buy treatises to show that Napoleon never lived, and that no battle of Bunker-hill was ever fought. The great minds are those with a wide span, which couple truths, related to, but far removed from, each other . . . Some of the sharpest men in argument are notoriously unsound in judgment. I should not trust the counsel of a smart debater, any more than that of a good chess-player.”

(Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, p.11)

“We can make a book alive for us just in proportion to its resemblance in essence or in form to our own experience.” (p.35)

In the first quote, we see echoes of what Charlotte Mason calls “the Way of Reason.” The best arguer, Holmes tells us, is not necessarily your best source of truth. Conspiracy theories, it seems, are not a 20th century invention. One may produce seemingly rock-solid evidence and arguments that, as Holmes says, Napoleon and Bunker-hill never were or, as some in our day would claim, that Elvis lives and men never walked on the moon, but arguments, even ones that seem solid and convincing at the time, do not make truth. Reason can be contorted to support any position.

Notice as well that in the midst of this first quote that Holmes also speaks of what Charlotte calls “the Science of Relations.” Great minds, he says, have a wide body of knowledge – Charlotte said to “set their feet in a wide room” – and are able to make connections between seemingly diverse ideas.

The second quote above speaks of living books. We often speak as if a book is living or not, and indeed some books seem to be almost universally living books for whoever reads them while others are quite the opposite. At times, we may find books in the middle; perhaps you, like I, have found to your disappointment that your child despises a book you adore. Books may be living for one person and not another. But Holmes adds a new thought: it is our own experience which may make a book alive for us. Do you think Charlotte would agree? It certainly seems to make sense though I think we may also have books come alive for us which have no relation to our own experience, perhaps even because they are so new and different.

What do you think?


The Way of Reason in the Book of Judges

Dear Reader,

Are you familiar with this refrain from the Book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25)? I am embarrassed to say that though I have known for years, decades even, that this is the guiding principle of the book, that I have misunderstood its import.

When I read these words, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” I thought only of people doing what they liked, following their own way. I thought these people were selfish and undisciplined, that they had no guiding principle, no concern for absolute truth, no awareness of the law of God.

But I missed a key word in the middle of the sentence: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Do you see that? They did not just do what they felt like (though no doubt they did feel like it). They did not follow whims and passions without consideration. They used their reason. They did not say “I don’t care what is right, but I will do as I feel.” But they found what was right — at least to their own thinking – and did that thing.

Their problem was not that they indulged in the wrong or did not care whether what they did was wrong or right. They did care. They took pains to find what was “right.” The problem was that they relied upon “their own eyes.” They used their reason but they came to wrong conclusions because they had no guiding principle outside themselves. Their reason failed them.

This is what Charlotte Mason tells us about what she calls the Way of Reason — that it is a tool and cannot be our master. It can, and has, been used to justify any ends so we must be careful of our beginnings. We cannot rely upon our own eyes but must begin with something firm and true, something outside ourselves:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov. 14:12; ESV)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5)

For “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7a)