Art, Books/Wide Reading, Christianity, High School
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Laocoon: Entering the Great Conversation “Mind to Mind” by Lori Lawing

Why did Charlotte Mason urge us to “treat children in this reasonable way, mind to mind; not so much the mind of the teacher to that of the child…but the minds of a score of thinkers who meet the children, mind to mind, in their several books, the teacher performing the graceful office of presenting the one enthusiastic mind to the other.”? (vol. 6, pg. 261)  Why did she want students to meet the great thinkers of all history mind to mind?  Did she want them to engage in an ongoing conversation with the great thinkers of the past?

I agree with Leslie Laurio in her October 11, 2010 blog entry “Echoes of CM in Adler’s Great Books Syntopicon.”  It seems Charlotte Mason and Mortimer Adler had the same prospects for children to enter the “great conversation.” Adler states, “the phrase ‘the great conversation’[i] conveys in a striking manner what all of us have in mind when we imagine the history of thought as a magnificent debate.… a cultural heritage which liberal education tries to transmit from generation to generation” (Adler).

Through literature, sculpture, and poetry I witnessed this great conversation taking place recently as I “performed the graceful office of presenting one enthusiastic mind to the other” (Mason, vol. 6, pg. 261).  I have had the privilege this year of teaching high school aesthetics.  The students were already engaged in a “conversation” while studying Virgil’s The Aeneid, so I knew they had read and discussed the scene where Aeneas portrays to Dido the story of the Trojan horse.

Laocoon, the priest, had objected to receiving the “gift” from the Greeks.  He hurls his spear into the wooden womb of the gift horse.  Later, as a punishment, the Trojans believe, Laocoon and his two sons are attacked by twin serpents from the sea.

Aeneas relays to Dido, “Now a new portent strikes our doomed people…twin giant serpents, rearing in coils, breasting the sea-swell side by side, plunging towards the shore…their eyes glittering, shot with blood and fire, flickering tongues licking their hissing maws…first each serpent seizes one of his small young sons, constricting, twisting round him…Next Laocoon…they trap him, bind him in huge muscular whorls, their scaly backs lashing around his midriff twice” (Fagles, 81).

As I was preparing the ancient Greek and Roman art that I would integrate with the students’ literature, I came across the following sculpture:

The very scene!  I displayed it before the students.  They recognized it immediately!  Now housed in the Vatican, this massive marble sculpture, known as the Laocoon Group, was unearthed in Rome in 1506.  It is believed to be the ancient Greek sculpture described by Pliny the Elder, who attributed the work to three sculptors from Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydus.  It dates to about the time of Christ.  Michelangelo[ii] saw the sculpture and proclaimed it to be most remarkable piece of art ever.  The conversation continues by Lord Byron in his narrative poem, “Childe Harold.”

“Now turning to the Vatican go see

Laocoon’s torture dignifying pain;

A father’s love and mortal’s agony

With as immortal’s patience blending; vain

The struggle! Vain against the coiling strain

And gripe and deepening of the dragon’s grasp

The old man’s clinch; the long envenomed chain

Rivets the living links; the enormous asp

Enforces pang on pang and stifles gasp on gasp” (151).

Percy Shelley then enters the conversation, disagreeing with Byron.  He describes the father Laocoon:  “He is sick with pain and horror. We almost seem to hear his shrieks.  His left hand is on the head of the snake that is burying its fangs in his side…[The sight makes] the spectator of this miracle of sculpture turn away with shuddering and awe, and doubt the reality of what he sees” (Shelley, 26)

Now may I indulge and enter the conversation as well?  I note an irony in Aeneas’ tale.  Laocoon is a priest and this attack of the serpents occurs just as Laocoon is sacrificing a bull.  Virgil uses a simile to describe Laocoon which I find ironic: “all the while his horrible screaming fills the skies, bellowing like some wounded bull struggling to shrug loose from his neck an axe that’s struck awry to lumber clear of the altar” (Fagles, 81).  The sacrificial bull may lumber clear.  Laocoon, the priest, however, cannot.  He is caught in the death grip of the serpent. The priest is now the sacrifice, unable to escape his doomed death.

Another story tells of a Priest who is the Sacrifice.  A sacrifice for sin is required.  The very One who requires the death sacrifice is the One who offers Himself to be that sacrifice.

From Homer to Virgil, Pliny to Michelangelo, Byron to Shelley, and students to teacher, we have continued the conversation of war, death, sacrifice, and redemption.  Oh the wisdom of Charlotte Mason to have us enter the great conversation “mind to mind”!

© Lori Lawing 2011

Adler, Mortimer J., and  Ph.D.. “ADLER ARCHIVE: The Great Idea of Dialectic, by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D..” The Radical Academy. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2010. <http://radicalacademy.com/adler_idea_dialectic.htm&gt;.

Byron, Lord. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a Romaunt. London: W. Dugdale, 1820. Print.

Fagles, Robert. The Aeneid. New York: Viking, 2006. Print.

Mason, Charlotte. The Original Home Schooling Series. Rockland, Me.: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply, 1989. Print.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, and Richard Holmes. Shelley on Love:  an anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Print.


[i] Mortimer Adler attributes the term to Scott Buchanan by quoting from his 1927 book Possibility.  See http://radicalacademy.com/adler_idea_dialectic.htm#1

[ii] Lynn Catterson contends that the Laocoon Group is a forgery by Michelangelo; however, another authority has said her claims are “noncredible on any count.”  See NY Times 2005 article http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/19/arts/19iht-forgery.html

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This entry was posted in: Art, Books/Wide Reading, Christianity, High School

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Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

3 Comments

  1. Lori Lawing says

    Great, Megan! Thanks for suggesting Purcell. I was not familiar with that piece, but I’ve now listened to it and you’re right, it is haunting and beautiful. I’ll plan to include it in our continued conversation in class next week. Thanks, my friend!

    -Lori

  2. Leslie says

    “Now may I indulge and enter the conversation as well?”

    You know, it never occurred to me that I could actually take part in the conversation. I thought it would be satisfying just to follow it, like a fly on the wall, but actually being privileged to enter it is an exciting thought!

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