Berwyn, PA.  In the first weeks of FPR, when we authors dared commit to writing one essay a week, as if we could all be either as drunk or logorheic as Jason Peters, I published a short piece called “Reasoning about Stories.”  It came as not so much an argument as an intimation, a grasping effort to tie together thoughts whose signficance and interdependence I sensed, but which I did not fully comprehend, and its reflection culminated in the following assertion:

. . . when an idea or a discourse becomes entirely abstract-when logos so fully comes into its own being that it completely extricates itself from mythos-it loses its identity as an idea.  In a word, it ceases to be rational

Allow me to rephrase that: the idea does not become irrational, for nothing we do can erase the mythos that gave it birth.  Our discussions, or talk about ideas, become themselves irrational.  In abandoning story, we lose the ability to reason about erstwhile rational propositions.  We do lose, as the Romantics understood, the ability to know ourselves.  And we lose a sense of living in community.  But more devastating even than these great but sufferable loses, we lose the ability to live as rational animals.

During the next two years, I sifted out the implication of that claim, a project that led to several published essays and which will find its complete expression in the second section, on Truth, in my nearly completed book, The Vision of the Soul: A Conservative Defense of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Among the desiderata of that work was an essay in the debut issue of Anamnesis, “Retelling the Story of Reason.”  As an appendix to that essay, I wrote one on the cultural and intellectual consequences of disserving reason from story-telling, and Anamnesis has now published this appendix on line.  There, among other things, I propose that our age so thoroughly distrusts the power of human reason that we have hollowed out those institutions most obviously dedicated to its reverent flourishing, our schools:

Increasingly, we see students called to “social awareness,” exhorted to “effect social change” by engaging in charitable service as part of or as the total content of their course work.  We no longer tolerate a place where these activities might be acknowledged as important, but secondary, elements of a good life; an imperative to ease the material human estate blots out the possibility of an end beyond it and superior to it.  We fear to offend the “less mentally-abled” by proposing that the life of contemplation might be superior to the practical life, since it is the point of contact between the human soul and the divine.  Instead of thought, we have information sessions: course work in the humanities becomes a positivist form of history and sociology intended to excite indignation and lead to “service,” the raising of funds in a charitable campaign, or, at least, the hand-wringing of “white guilt.”

I hope this essay will help some FPR readers to enter into that place where prayer has been valid.

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. I understand you to say that reasoned discourse must be founded on some kind of meaningful purpose, ultimately as a means to self understanding. You go on to speak of the primacy of a life of contemplation to a practical life of service, but why is either necessarily superior? Are not charitable services a source of meaning and a source for self knowledge for some? In Christianity we find both traditions of clergy (service) and monastic (contemplative) traditions, neither of which is given primacy over the other. Besides, it does not have to be either or proposition — self contemplation and love for humanity go together quite nicely.

  2. Great essay btw. It’s pretty close to what I have been arguing from a pagan perspective regarding the power of mythos and story. I will, I expect, be directing more people to your essay.

    I (just now) posted a comment on structuralism on essay, suggesting where and when it was valuable, but now I want to mention two things. First, I am convinced that we humans think in patterns and narratives, and that we apply these in our lives through reliving them. This is why stories are so important and why the mythos underlies the logos. Logic is a set of tools, but the application is steered by narrative. Structuralism used properly allows us to explore the mythos and the connection between stories and thus it enriches stories by expanding their context. Used improperly it is used to kill the magic because we forget to listen.

    Secondly the way you use “rational” here caught my eye. We have been conditioned to see “rational” as the same as “logical” but the words are very distinct. I suspect you agree with me that while logical is a narrow label used to address how well-formed the logic of a given proposition is, rational requires something more, just ratios between constituents, a sort of justice or virtue.

  3. You put out a pretty big ball of string there, Professor, and I can’t do more than pull on a strand or two. First, I’d just like to caution the writer on flinging about the label logorrheic when said writer has decided to include links to 3 essays in a short, which essays contain links to and citations of even more essays and several books.
    And even if such flinging about is deserved, which I am not qualified to judge.

    This “This liberation of the abstract idea, as MacIntyre would imply, may quickly become the cause of its death-and, before the idea itself finally dies, reason itself will have ceased in its proper operation.” calls to my mind the U.S., my country, the old republic. I hear so much so often these days about the Constitution and Framers and original intent and find myself thinking of the death of the old mare in Crime and Punishment.
    I was thinking a good bit of the philosophical work occurred along side, or was roughly contemporaneous with the rise of nation states. Deracination is perhaps a prerequisite of nation building.
    Further, a nation state being an unnatural idea, any sort of reason or rational thought invested in the concept long ago decayed into absurdity. What I don’t know is if the present condition of things is a result of the separation you elucidate or if the myth itself has been shown false.

  4. It is not so much that the current era has abandoned “reason” as a goal. Instead, it has put up an Iron curtain between Reason and Soul. Reason is that stark white monument on the hill, something that must be reached upon the stairs of pragmatism and Soul, that dark temptress, is liable to suck any reason out of you, distracting you from your proud climb up the stairs to an exalted Reason.

    Picture two little red framed glass receptacles on the wall of your building in a five alarm fire. One houses “Reason”, the other “Faith”….or love or soul…whatever the case may be. As we stand in stunned confusion before both, the building continues to burn.

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