Does our modern body politic, like the human body, have a core? Obviously not. In fact, it seems fair to say that no one, culturally speaking, feels anything but disorientation and dislocation in this world of COVID and radical political division. Indeed, this election season rouses more dread of coming unrest, regardless of who wins, than any election in my memory.
Several decades ago—this will come as a surprise to some—the human body did not have a core. An apple had a core, but it was something you cut out and threw away. In fact, according to that great repository of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the figurative sense of core back in 1400 or so was something that “stuck in your throat,” as if you’d swallowed Adam’s original apple. A “core” implied “part of the original corrupt nature still remaining” after baptism, the remnant of original sin. The point was to get rid of it.
Not so with the new core, needless to say—though you might want to get rid of some of the excess that tends to gather there. Back when people my age were doing exercises in high school PE or football practice, we used all the muscles that now constitute the core, but such terms as “core stability” did not exist. Nobody advised you to “strengthen your core.” Just to be sure, I checked the OED, and, as I had suspected, this new usage was not noted by the great dictionary until 2016 when enough instances had earned it an entry. “Core exercises” and “core stability” became common terms only in the 1990s.
In her invaluable book Natural Symbols, Mary Douglas shows that, universally, “the human body is the most readily available image of a [social or cultural] system,” and in this case, something more than a personal fitness recommendation shines through the use of core. In the culture, as in one’s own body, everything is off-balance and uncoordinated without a stable center. This language about the body’s core reflects (no doubt unconsciously) a sense that the larger order needs a strong core of convictions from which balanced energies flow.
Do we have such a core? Obviously not. In fact, it seems fair to say that no one, culturally speaking, feels anything but disorientation and dislocation in this world of COVID and radical political division. In many people I know, this election season rouses more dread of coming unrest, regardless of who wins, than any election in my memory—perhaps more national dread than any since 1860.
If “the center cannot hold,” as W.B. Yeats put it a century ago, the felt need for “core stability” is symptomatic of disorder in that larger body we constitute as a people. But how can we achieve it? Education is vital, yet when colleges think in terms of a “core curriculum,” it is often understood to be the irreducible minimum of a genuine education. In other words, one might go on to major in any number of things, but one cannot can consider oneself educated without knowing this subject matter that often ends up as a smattering of different disciplines, a matter of familiarization rather than depth. Core sometimes seems to take on its original sense—something you suffer through and get rid of.
At Wyoming Catholic College, by contrast, we understand the whole curriculum, all four years of it, to be the core of an education for life. We ground our students in poetic knowledge (including a great deal of memorization), in the Latin language, in the perennial philosophy, in the truths of theology, in mathematics and science and the fine arts. Our outdoor program is COR, which stands for Catholic Outdoor Renewal, but the word cor, which is Latin for heart, inevitably suggests its homonym and our emphasis on core principles.
The whole of what we do at Wyoming Catholic College might be understood as the recovery of core stability: a grounding in the real world, including what transcends this physical existence; a daily practice of centering our lives on God; a thorough working-through of the great narratives and images, arguments and ideas, that give our traditional understanding of human nature its particular realization in the West, especially in America.
Last night, the College had its annual Constitution Day lecture, this time presented by Visiting Professor Judge Leon Holmes, recently retired from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. In the face of widespread forgetfulness about the principles underlying our Constitution, Judge Holmes developed in detail the three truths embodied in our founding document: 1) a true understanding of imperfect human nature, both in its tendency to evil and its capacity for reason and right judgment; 2) the recognition that liberty and justice transcend politics because they come from God, not from positive law; and 3) the Founders’ understanding that men who hold office must possess temperance and prudence, the virtues necessary to a just order.
To hear these truths articulated once again in this strange and unsettling time spoke to the heart. In honoring the Constitution, Judge Holmes’ lecture embodied what we mean to do in the whole of this education. If we are to find again that vital stability at the core of our political life together, it will be through remembering hard-won truths about the reality of human nature, not by pretending (again and again) that man can be remade by protest or fiat.
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The featured image (detail) is courtesy of Pixabay.