The Place of the Lion: The Power of Ideas
Charles Williams, perhaps the most mysterious Inkling, has a smaller overall reader base than his more well-known contemporaries mostly due to his hackneyed, uninventive narratives. The Place of the Lion, for instance, deals with this common, everyday problem: “what do you do if Platonic Forms manifest themselves as spirit animals in the material world and begin overwhelming it, possessing its residents and causing wanton destruction as the world of the Ideas moves closer to our world of images.”
Obviously, I jest. Charles Williams is anything but hackneyed; rather, it seems that he is often difficult for people to penetrate due to his complex subject matter. This, coupled in The Place of the Lion with dense, dreamlike, philosophical prose and an expansive and intricate bibliography of references, can make the narrative feel daunting, disorienting, and even frightening. While this might serve as a discouragement to casual readers, Williams is quite enjoyable once you get the hang of him and surely worth the effort. As we gear up for the coming school year, The Place of the Lion is helping me think about education and our goals for The Saint Constantine School.
Ideas are real.
First, The Place of the Lion tells us that Ideas are real. This concept is familiar to the reader of Plato, but takes on a more immediate meaning in The Place of the Lion. Meditating in medieval thought and its interaction with Plato’s world of Forms, Williams holds the spiritual and the physical worlds closer together than post-Enlightenment scientism generally allows.
As the Ideas invade the material world, they elicit a wide variety of reactions from its inhabitants. Some see the Ideas and are overcome, others attempt to harness the power of the Ideas; still others merely notice the practical effects the Ideas’ presence have on the material world. Regardless of these varied reactions, the Ideas exist and impact everyone.
These Ideas serve as the governing principles of creation, providing the material world with its immaterial qualities. Buildings, for example, must be held up by Strength, artfully crafted with Subtlety, and adorned with Beauty. As the Ideas invade the material world, they call manifestations of themselves back into themselves—building collapse as the Strength is taken from them. These governing principles affect everyone in the area, regardless of their ability to see those principles and interact with them directly.
Even outside the scope of Williams’ fiction, Ideas work this way. Whether or not Strength is recognized as its own thing, it indeed exists and its manifestations in the physical world have a direct impact on the people in it. Buildings without Strength will fall, as will human beings who lack it. Indeed, Williams argues that these Ideas are present in individual people. Strength, Subtlety, Speed, Beauty, Virtue, and the like combine in man and give him his fullness.
To deny the existence of these metaphysical ideals, as many do, does not remove them from prevalence or undo their impact on the created world. Ideas exist whether we like them or not—we only control whether or not we pursue an understanding of them.
At The Saint Constantine School, we think that Ideas are real and are worth knowing. We will seek them out with our students and with the great writers of the Western canon. We will ask “What is virtue?” and will expect our students to thoughtfully consider the question as if it is a real thing that we can find and know. But as Williams warns us, Ideas can be dangerous as well as wonderful, and so we must approach our search for them in a particular way.
Ideas harnessed for selfish gain will destroy you.
An understanding of Ideas must not be pursued for selfish gain. This is dangerous to others, yes, but not nearly as much as it is dangerous to one’s own soul. In the novel, Foster pursues Strength that he might overpower those who oppose him. He seeks out Strength and Strength alone, giving himself up to It for what he thinks will be his own gain. What he doesn’t realize or account for is that this Idea, a real, present, supernatural power, is more powerful than his desire for selfish gain. He is overcome and possessed by it until, instead of a man, Foster is a mere beast of Strength.
Too often our own pursuit of Ideas comes dangerously close to imitating Foster’s. We want knowledge, not for its own sake, but for the sake of our own ends. We want to appear intelligent, to gain power and acclaim, to feel good about ourselves. In seeking out these governing principles and attempting to use them, we end up being used by them.
Like her friend Foster, Miss Wilmot, rather than opening herself up to Strength, decides to use Subtlety to meet her ends. Like Foster, she cannot forever harness and use the Power she has summoned, but is overcome and possessed by it. In a particularly horrifying section, the true Miss Wilmot and the possessed Miss Wilmot alternate in speaking, the possessed version speaking slyly of dark, petty plans to take revenge on those who have slighted her as the true Miss Wilmot breaks through and cries out for help.
At some point the man who lies to get ahead becomes a liar; he who treats his neighbor without kindness becomes unkind. The businessman who climbs the ranks through unchecked Subtlety—betraying friends and playing them against one another to get ahead—eventually and inevitably becomes the snake. His own personhood is overcome by the Idea that he has uncritically employed to reach his ends. The desire for Strength becomes an all-encompassing desire; that which we would use for our own ends becomes the end for which we exist. If we give ourselves over to unchecked Ideas for selfish gain, we will be overcome by them and taken up into them.
We not only need to pursue Ideas towards proper ends, but those ends must be found by the dictates of Virtue.
Ideas must be overseen by Virtue.
The Place of the Lion does give us a different example in Anthony, whose refusal to be overwhelmed by Ideas finds its basis in Virtue. He discovers that it is only through this Idea that he can properly assert dominion over the rest of the governing powers and bring them to harmony within the human person.
All Ideas must be pursued only by one who is governed and protected by Virtue. Virtue assures that Ideas are sought for proper ends and in proper moderation. Subtlety, inordinately pursued, produces snakes; just as Beauty, inordinately pursued, can overwhelm and destroy us. It is through Virtue that our desires for Ideas are properly ordered and it is by Virtue that we can assert dominion over them in ourselves.
At The Saint Constantine School, we recognize Virtue as the primary goal of education. Woe to the man who learns Subtlety without the faculty by which it is to be moderated and brought to justice. Not only will The Saint Constantine School student learn to think well, read well, and write well; he will learn to love the Good and pursue it as an end, subjecting each of his actions and thoughts to the authority of Virtue. We believe that it is better to be good than to be clever, and that cleverness, left unchecked, might be a student’s downfall. This is why we believe that Virtue education is important, and it is why we believe that Ideas must be balanced by community.
Ideas must be balanced by community.
Ultimately, the problem of the novel is resolved through character relationships that create balance between their counterparts. If a lone individual is rarely correct on his own, being a member of a community will allow for a balance that holds Ideas in check, ensuring that one does not overwhelm the rest. The leonine man and the lamblike man who take community seriously will balance and edify one another, helping each bring Virtue to the forefront while battling down the tendency to let another Idea rule.
Community is essential to education. A child can learn in a vacuum, but if he never has his thoughts tested against others in community, he will miss things. Communities will examine the theories of individuals and expose false ones to be false. Communities will be impacted by the characters of its members and lead them toward Virtue.
This is why community is one of the most important aspects of The Saint Constantine School. We sort students into houses, where they are mentored and develop deep, lifelong friendships. They celebrate feasts together, do the hard work of scholarship together, and discuss important ideas together. They establish real culture and real relationship, bringing out the best in each and battling down vice together.
At The Saint Constantine School, we take Ideas seriously, both in fear and in wonder; and we pursue them and embody them with Virtue, balancing them harmoniously through real, substantive community.
May our school be a Place of Friendship.