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How Much is the World Too Much With Us?

It’s sometimes easy to smile cynically at the Romantics of the nineteenth century, to dismiss their desire to receive the “greatest delight which the fields and woods minister.” But there were plenty who even over a century ago felt the need to slow down, to go into the woods, “live deliberately,” and “drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms.” The unbridled desire for things has a cost in any epoch. And when those desires are misguided, it is actually worse, as Boethius suggests, if one should obtain the object of his desire.

“The world is too much with us,” writes Wordsworth. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” It is hard to imagine he wrote this over a century ago; no loud cartoons, no ads flooding daily existence, no shopping malls, no Netflix series, no credit card debt. Yet the cost was real even then. “We have given our hearts away.” And if we are to teach our children anything it is that the human creature is more than a consumer. A life where getting and spending is the highest good quickly becomes a hollow and vacuous life, and school as schola is the medicine.

We are all familiar with the psalmist’s reminder to “Be still and know that I am God.” But we perhaps too familiar with it to grasp the fullest sense of that imperative. We have not merely lost leisure; we have forgotten our very need for it. If we are indeed too comfortable with the call to “be still,” then the Latin might render it a new verse entirely: vacate et videte quoniam ego sum Deus (Psalm 45:10). There is probably more to be said about St. Jerome’s choice in using these verbs, but the English derivatives “vacate” and “vacation” should be plain enough. Striking perhaps, but this vacation is not the sort that we find at Disney World or at Six Flags.

Joseph Pieper renders psalmists command thus: “Have leisure and know that I am God.” Leisure, then, is not present in the debaucheries of the frat party. Nor is it found in the riotous elations of the Gatsby mansion. And if any moral interpretation is to be gleaned from the life and works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is that leisure is not the same as pleasure. There is a true leisure and a false leisure. A life in restless pursuit of the American dream might be convenient, entertaining, and pleasurable; but this does not mean it is the good life. Even if we set our wills to achieving the Dream, we would be as “boats against the current” of infinite desire. This is why the full realization of failure to satisfy one’s own longings hardens and congeals into that modern disillusionment that was shared by Fitzgerald and his ex-patriot friends. There may be happy moments at the Gatsby mansion, but be assured in the end, it is not the eudaimonia that Aristotle uses to describe the abiding beatitude and lasting blessedness of a virtuous life.

Being human means that we are easily lead astray, and often times by our competing passions and desires. The Stoical chemotherapy is to then kill those passions. The hedonist indulges them. Plato speaks of the chariot of the soul and how difficult it is to progress when the lead horses are incompatible. For the man whose desires are distracted, the soul can seem to be drawn and quartered by these unequally yoked horses, pulling at the seamless joints of the tripartite soul. Recall that Plato describes the soul as a city of many members, and it is the primary goal of his Republic to draw out this analogy: that a just state is as a just soul (Plato, Republic, 368D). Most people understand that we can desire the wrong thing, but we tend to forget this also means we desire too much of the lesser goods surrounding us.

One of those goods that should be ordered higher in our educational programs is the attention given to Nature. Remember being outside? “They Used to Call It ‘Air,’” writes Esolen. Recall that “Method 1” of the Ten Ways to the Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is to “Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible.” This is the other cost that Wordsworth warns about. It’s not only that we “lay waste our powers,” but that another kind of loss takes place: we retreat from the real world. Not the world that invites our “getting and spending” but the world of God’s creation, the green world of gratuity that makes no artificial demands upon us. In thoughtlessly consuming, “little we see in nature that is ours.” Our commitments as consumers and our inordinate desires lead us to Augustine’s inquietum and to the disintegration of the soul.

Many have lamented the increasing alienation of modern man to Nature. In Last Child in the Woods, journalist and bestselling author Richard Louv notes the emergence of what he calls “nature deficiency disorder” (10). Louv explains the cost of our contemporary indoor life, the therapy that affords, and the “Spiritual Necessity of Nature for the Young” (293). But again, all this we could have gleaned if we had popularly taken heed of the Romantics. Some have wrongly imagined that schola promotes loneliness or naval gazing. True leisure, however, lifts our gaze away from self and focuses our eyes to behold the other that is found in Nature and Neighbor (and supremely in God). This is yet another important question to consider in the classroom or in the home. Does our school or home promote a regard for the natural world? Does the course or pedagogy orient the student towards wonder at the created order? Does your contemplation of Spring, for instance, lead to the analogous contemplation of the Annunciation and the Incarnation, as it did for Hopkins?

A final thought. Yes, I am aware that if you are reading this, you are most likely inside, on the computer or tablet, and open to the indefatigable interruptions of the Net. But this is only a proof of my words. Go outside. Learn with your students there, “under the open sky, and list to Nature’s teachings.” Then we might not have to forfeit our Christianity to have sight of Proteus rising from the sea, or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

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