How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education

                A few months ago, I got a message through ResearchGate from Rhodes College English professor Scott Newstok. Professor Newstok was welcoming me to the “How to Think” author’s club. We eventually exchanged books, and I hope he has enjoyed my book, How to Think Like an Officer, even half as much as I liked his. How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education packs an immense amount of learning and allusion into a short volume, but it wears its erudition lightly. How to Think Like Shakespeare is also an important book. Professor Newstok is making an articulate, unique argument for the importance of the humanities, and for education that acknowledges and develops the humanity of the students.  Interspersed with this argument, he points out the limitations and damaging effects of remote education and constant access to digital media, citing sources and studies to make his point.

Although not especially well-educated by the standards of his day, Shakespeare’s education formed the foundation of some of the greatest works of world literature. This alone is a fairly good recommendation for the Renaissance humanist education that he received. Of course, thousands of people received an education similar to Shakespeare’s and did not go on to write great literature. Prof. Newstok isn’t making the claim that we might write like Shakespeare, however, but the somewhat more modest claim that, by understanding and to the extent possible emulating Shakespeare’s education, we might at least come to think as he did, with at least some of Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature and behavior, of our motives, aspirations, and various contrivances.

To make this goal reachable, Newstok identifies some of the key ingredients of a Shakespearean education. Some of those which he identifies and discusses, devoting a chapter to each, are attention, imitation, exercises, conversation, and “stock.” The ability to exercise attention is threatened by modern technology, but even Shakespeare wrote (in Hamlet) of “this distracted globe.” The art of focused, even rapt attention is necessary to study, to learning and empathy, and it has always had to contend with distractions and the limitations of our energy. Imitation, of worthwhile writing especially, was another important feature of a Shakespearean education. Through imitation, the student came to understand the characteristics of good or great writing. Our choice of models is important, but a person probably can’t go far wrong trying to imitate a few favored classics. Ours is an age that prizes creativity, but this cannot take place in a vacuum, nor. Creativity cannot flourish without a studied consideration of the merits of the acknowledged masters in a field, a consideration that imitation can, perhaps uniquely, enable. Writers might imitate the Bard himself, or Dickens, or Dashiell Hammett, or some combination.   

Exercises are another idea at which the modern, individualistic mind may rebel, but exercises can be more liberating than limiting. When done with words, they give us an idea of how many ways there are to say the same thing, and certainly the beginning of an idea of which is most suitable, expressive, or exact. Conversation also increases our range, introducing us to different points of view, and giving us practice in listening and questioning.  Newstok quotes John Stuart Mill as saying, “He who knows only his only side of the case, knows little of that.”

            Finally, “stock,” or “common stock” is Newstok’s deliberately archaic term for a fund of knowledge of which an individual partakes and to which she may contribute. Even in an age of readily available information, the knowledge we labor to accumulate and retain is still of value, partly because it equips us to add the common stock of knowledge available to all literate and interested persons. (As I am doing now, in my modest way, by writing about Newstok and Shakespeare, his mentor and exemplar.) One of my favorite sentences in the book is in the chapter on stock. “When rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: making an inventory of your mind’s stock of knowledge.” Our ability to invent is based on the knowledge we possess prior to the act or process of invention.

                Among other things, I think that How to Think Like Shakespeare could provide a much-needed boost to the morale of humanities teachers everywhere. Under siege for years, the humanities have lately been suffering some disheartening losses, with fewer faculty, course and major offerings, and frankly fewer interested students. Newstok’s book is in effect a counterattack, a sally from the beleaguered fortress, and it may do its part to retake some of the ground that’s been lost. We need that victory now, when too many have given up thinking for prejudice and fixed ideas without foundation. It is a paradox, but no contradiction, that the path to our future may lie in some of the best that the past has to offer.            

Work, Integrity, and the Priestly Calling in the Novels of J.F. Powers

                Award-winning 20th century writer J.F. Powers wrote short stories and novels. I encountered his first novel, Morte D-Urban in a used bookstore a few months ago, and since then I have also read his last, Wheat That Springeth Green. Morte D’Urban won the American National Book Award in 1963. Wheat That Springeth Green apparently took Powers twenty-five years to complete. Both books show the same careful craftsmanship on the levels of prose and overall construction.  Both concern the lives of Catholic Priests in mid-century, middle-west America, a favorite topic for Powers. One critic has asserted that Morte D’Urban is the classic American novel on work, and the same can be said of Wheat That Springeth Green. Both depict the compromises, disillusionment, sometimes sheer exhaustion that are involved in pursuing a career, especially one involving membership in a large organization. As a retired military officer, I was struck by the interplay of ideals and ambition, leadership and authority, sacrifice and compensation, and tradition/doctrine and the individual, that are features of both military and religious professions.  

                Of course, there are demands that are particular to the clergy, in the case of Catholic priests there is rule of celibacy (strictly observed by both protagonists, although this does not mean that it isn’t an issue).  Another pitfall for parish priests may be the need to attract paying church members and to otherwise raise funds. Both priests are intelligent and somewhat worldly, but in one instance the priest’s willingness to court a wealthy donor, overlooking flaws in the man’s character, along with a scene in which he is forced to confront the price of his celibacy, may help to bring on a personal crisis. The other priest as a young seminarian seems to be aiming at sainthood, or at least sanctity, even wearing a hair shirt for a time. He falls far short of sainthood, and he adjusts himself to the practical demands of running a parish, but along the way, and perhaps in contrast to the other priest-protagonist, he retains his integrity. He refuses, for example, to resort to hard-sell tactics to raise money, even when pressured by his bishop to raise exorbitant sums. He also maintains his opposition to the Vietnam War, despite the fact that a defense plant is an important employer in the town, and an influential local journalist is virulently pro-war. We also learn that this opposition is no trendy liberalism. He has thought much about questions of war and peace, as he demonstrates when he gives a short but fairly advanced critique of Catholic “Just War” theory, claiming that it takes the individual conscience too little into account.  Powers himself was a conscientious objector in World War II, and was jailed for a time, also serving as a medical orderly, so it is more than likely that the priest is expressing the author’s antiwar views.     

                There are other interesting differences between the two priests. The more worldly priest is a man of unquestionable, even exceptional ability, but he has a tendency to hold himself aloof. The other priest is more successful in cultivating priestly fellowship and other relationships that do not necessarily further his career or lead to donations. He has a becoming instinct to side with the underdog.               

  When the more worldly priest gets his coveted shot at a position of leadership, he finds himself sick and tired, unable to perform at his best. One critic has said that he ends up embracing sanctity and forsaking the world that had meant so much to him. There is something to this view, but in a sense the priest has sanctity foisted on him by ill-health and lassitude. I would say that his retreat from the world is at least only partly deliberate. It might be said that the other priest is younger, a heavy drinker and putting on weight. It may be that when his opportunity at advancement comes, he won’t be fully capable of rising to the challenge. These are mature novels, by which I mean that not everything is revealed, and that the interplay of concealment and revealing is achieved artfully. Of course, we never know what will, or might happen after a novel ends. In this case, I like to imagine the priest would be prepared: More hope for all of us flawed servants of one god or another, trying to do our best.             

Milley, Muslims, and “Others”: Armies and Social Change

A recent article in the New York Times (June 27, 2021) reported on the inclusion of Muslims in the French armed forces. Although French society remains generally unfriendly towards Muslims, the French military has welcomed them, offering accommodation for their religious practices and increasing the numbers of Muslim chaplains. The article reminded me of the role that armies can play, sometimes unwittingly and reluctantly, in social change, particularly in the enfranchisement of marginal groups. The demands of military service are great, and those willing and able to shoulder them are accepted often despite outer differences which in less demanding occupations might be considered disqualifying. Gays and lesbians were marginalized in civil society and long denied the right to serve in the armed forces unless they concealed their sexual identity. Many have served, however, especially in World War II, when the draft resulted in the services taking on a massive cross section of young American men, and when women served in much higher numbers than ever before. Historian Allan Bérubé makes the argument that World War II saw the birth of the gay rights movement by giving gays a much stronger sense of identity and self-respect, and by creating networks of gay men and lesbians which would be turned towards political activism.    

Military service on the part of members of a marginal group, even if honorable and in large numbers, does not guarantee that acceptance will be extended to them by the larger society. The black soldiers who served in the Civil War and in World Wars I and II may have hoped that their service would be acknowledged by greater acceptance from American society at large, but this was not to be. The military eventually integrated, however, and when it did so it was in advance of much of civil society. Many black Americans have found the military a personal vehicle to social mobility and status. In this, they have echoed the experience of immigrant groups since our founding. The army of the Revolutionary War had a high percentage of recent arrivals. This has likely been the case with all American armies since and, as the recent French experience indicates, we are not alone.

            The role of the armed forces in social change is obviously complex. Some would deny that the armed force should concern themselves with social change, sticking instead to their warfighting role and other assigned missions. Regular, volunteer militaries such as the one America has had since the 1970s tend to attract socially and often politically conservative individuals, people drawn by tradition and generally comfortable with the exercise of authority. In my book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Fought and Thought the Modern World into Existence, I make the argument that armies have been agents of civilization as well as warfighting entities, that armies guard, build, and create as well as destroy.  Military service can also be highly instructive, introducing members to a broader experience and conception of humanity itself.  

            The recent remarks of CJCS General Milley about the desirability of service members having an understanding of such matters as critical race theory and the Capitol insurgency might be considered in this context. Soldiers educated or self-educated in important historic, political, and social issues might become agents of social stability and change. Such agency would have to take place within the limits placed on partisan political activity. Soldiers so educated might also become more effective as leaders and teammates, fueled by a greater understanding of human rights and their importance in the Constitution and the oath of service they swear.  Military forces have long been viewed as schools of citizenship, and they may serve their societies in a variety of ways, to include contributing to necessary social change. The armed forces and individual servicemembers can set an example of inclusion and act the role of informed citizenry. As veterans, we can also participate more freely in the electoral process and other public matters, promoting necessary social change and inclusion, and thus providing a service to our country as great and valuable as that which we rendered in uniform.                 

Evacuate Our Afghan Allies


About 17,000 Afghan nationals who served U.S. forces during our long military campaign in that country are still waiting for admission to the United States. Not only did these men and woman serve at great risk, but the threats to them have also actually increased with the reduction of U.S. forces. They are now being targeted for murder and reprisals against their families by members of the Taliban who see them as infidels. The Taliban know that the service of these people was absolutely vital, that many American servicemembers owe their lives to an Afghan interpreter or other associate, so now these men and women, who served us heroically under conditions of great danger, are being killed because they worked for the Americans.  When the last U.S. Forces leave Afghanistan in a few months, the only effective impediment to the Taliban reprisal will be removed, and thousands more will die, often with their families. It’s time to get them out. Now.               

The principal means under which Afghan and Iraqi nationals who served the U.S. military have come to this country is called the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. The course of applying for SIV status is extremely lengthy, taking up to five years. It has been slowed by the COVID pandemic. Many have been killed as they navigated this process, some, tragically, after having their applications approved and on the verge of leaving Afghanistan for America.  Given the available in-country resources and the difficult security situation, it strains credulity to think that the remaining thousands of SIV applicants could have their visas approved before the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces. The other option, and the best course of action at this point, is to stage a mass evacuation of the remaining SIV applicants.

             The United States has done this before. At the end of the Vietnam War and of our involvement in Kosovo we conducted evacuations of persons who had served our cause and who were at risk. U.S. forces train to conduct non-combatant evacuations. With its naval, aviation, and logistical assets it can conduct these operations on a large scale and over long distances while providing security both for its own personnel and for the evacuees.

                There are both practical and ethical reasons for the United States to conduct this operation. On a practical level, who is going to want to work with us or ally with us if we abandon our friends, especially in a moment of crisis in which they are in imminent and mortal danger? These people have demonstrated guts and resiliency in an extremely hard school. Whether their time in America is short, or whether they go on to apply for citizenship and remain, they will be an asset to our Republic. On an ethical level, we have incurred a moral obligation to the people who have risked their lives in the service of the United States. If we fail to act, we will have blood on our hands, not merely innocent blood, but that of comrades in arms.

             A successful evacuation of people in the SIV pipeline with their families could be an exercise in honor and redemption for America and the armed forces. Like Dunkirk, this could be a sorely needed victory and inspiration in difficult, confusing times, an unmistakably good action to remind us of our better angels. What kind of people are we?  I remember hearing a story from a woman who had been a refugee from her country as a little girl. American troops were on the runway on the day she left. Her father pointed to one of them and said, “That’s an American soldier. If things go wrong before we can leave, run to him. He will protect you.”  As an American and veteran, that is surely how I want people of other countries to see us, as brave, honorable, dependable. We have the chance now to show this face to the world, but the time is slipping away, and the orders must go out soon, or we will lose this chance, and fail to our loss and to our shame.