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Medieval Philosophy

The Aesthetic Pedagogy of Francis of Assisi

Laura Smit
Boston University

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ABSTRACT: Despite his anti-intellectualism, Francis of Assisi was an effective teacher who intentionally illustrated the life of virtue in his own way of living. He was a teacher in the sense that the Hebrew prophets, Socrates or Gandhi were teachers. He was a performance artist for whom drama functioned pedagogically. His life was not always meant to be an example to his followers; sometimes it was a dramatic lesson, meant to be watched, not imitated. All drama is inherently a distortion of reality because it focuses the attention on one aspect of reality. Francis’ dramatized life distorts the importance of poverty, but this is a distortion from which we may be able to learn if we are able to imaginatively identify with Francis. For Francis, asceticism was a form of obedience, and obedience a mode of knowledge. Such ‘personalized,’ lived teaching is the only way in which virtue (as opposed to ethics) may be effectively taught. Francis followed the same model of paideia as Gandhi, bringing together the physical discipline of radical asceticism with the aesthetic experience of a dramatic life in which he played the roles of troubadour and fool.

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Unlike most of the other Western European figures of the 12th-century who are frequent subjects of academic study, Francis of Assisi was not a scholar. He had the education appropriate to the middle-class son of a prosperous merchant, but he never taught in a university, never wrote a Summa or a Commentary on the Sentences, never spent time in libraries. For much of his lifetime, the Order of Friars Minor didn’t even own a Bible, let alone any other books. Brother Leo, one of Francis’ closest companions, wrote of him that he "did not want his friars to be eager for learning or for books."(1)

As the order grew, this anti-intellectualism became a problem for some of the brothers. Especially as the membership began to include priests, more and more of the friars were educated men who wanted to use their education in the work of preaching to which Francis called them. They began to ask to combine the Franciscan commitment to rigorous poverty with intellectual rigor and study, but Francis remained adamantly opposed to any synthesis between poverty and study.

Despite this anti-intellectualism, Francis always functioned as a teacher. He was no hermit, isolated in the desert, absorbed in his own quest for union with God. The immediate result of his conversion was the formation of a fraternity, a group of men who became his students and followers, and who then joined him in the ministry of preaching and teaching to their broader community. Almost all of the extant writings of Francis are pedagogical, consisting of either practical guidance for how the friars are to live or prayers and responses for them to use in daily worship. He expected his brothers to watch his way of life and learn from him.

The topic of Francis’ instruction is the virtuous life. He is concerned to teach, not information, but a way of living. The other great teacher of 12th-century Western Christendom was Hugh of St. Victor, known as "Magister Hugh," who forms a definite contrast with Francis. Hugh also wanted his students to be virtuous, and much of his teaching was directed toward leading them through the process of a mystical ascent to God. But his approach is to provide information. He fills his students’ minds with data, arranged around complicated mnemonic devices which use vivid imagery to help students catalogue and retain all the material which Hugh considers important. His motto is: "Learn everything; you will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous."(2) Hugh’s Didascalicon is a medieval curriculum guide, subtitled "A Study of Reading." At the beginning of that work, Hugh admonishes potential students: "Not knowing and not wishing to know are far different things. Not knowing, to be sure, springs from weakness; but contempt of knowledge springs from a wicked will."(3)

Francis shows no interest in such learning for its own sake. He is concerned to illustrate a way of life, not with mnemonic devices, but with his entire being. He is a teacher in the sense that the Hebrew prophets were teachers, or that Socrates was a teacher, or that Gandhi was a teacher. His life is the lesson. The virtuous life which he wishes to communicate is the life of Christ. So he takes on the persona of Christ, as a role which he plays in the drama of his life. It is not accidental that his followers recognized Francis as "the Mirror of Perfection." His life is meant to be such a mirror. He is a performance artist for whom drama functions pedagogically. In Max Weber’s categories, he is an exemplary prophet: "an exemplary man who, by his personal example, demonstrates to others the way to religious salvation."(4)

Francis uses his imagination to craft and then embody a new approach to living. Francis embodies a unified, organic aesthetic response to experience in the drama which he makes of his life. In his biography of Francis, G. K. Chesterton sees this dramatic and artistic quality to Francis' life.

To talk about the art of living has come to sound rather artificial than artistic. But St. Francis did in a definite sense make the very act of living an art, though it was an unpremeditated art. Many of his acts will seem grotesque and puzzling to a rationalistic taste. But they were always acts and not explanations; and they always meant what he meant them to mean. The amazing vividness with which he stamped himself on the memory and imagination . . . is very largely due to the fact that he was seen again and again under such dramatic conditions. From the moment when he rent his robes and flung them at his father's feet to the moment when he stretched himself in death on the bare earth in the pattern of the cross, his life was made up of these unconscious attitudes and unhesitating gestures.(5)

For Francis, all of life is a stage on which he performs a lesson for his fellow friars.

His followers certainly accepted him in this exemplary role. Bonaventure structured his great spiritual guidebook, The Mind’s Journey into God, around Francis’ experience of receiving the stigmata on Mount Alverna. Even now, centuries after his death, Francis continues to be seen as the exemplum by Franciscans. Francis’ life experiences serve as a sort of text for the community which follows him. Francis is the one who incarnates Christ for the community, not only during his lifetime but also in the generations after his death.

But the concept of Francis as exemplum needs to be qualified. In his Major Life of St. Francis, Bonaventure makes the distinction between those acts of Francis’ which are examples and those which are portents. Bonaventure makes this distinction while recounting a particularly extreme instance of Francis’ self-mortification.

Once it happened that when he was weighed down with sickness, he relaxed a little the rigor of his abstinence in order to recover his health. When his strength of body returned, he was aroused to insult his own body out of true self-contempt: "It is not right," he said, "that people should believe I am abstaining while, in fact, I eat meat on the sly." Inflamed with the spirit of true humility, he called the people together in the square of the town of Assisi and solemnly entered the principal church with many of the friars whom he had brought with him. With a rope tied around his neck and stripped to his underwear, he had himself dragged before the eyes of all to the stone where criminals received their punishment. He climbed up upon the stone and preached with much vigor and spirit although he was suffering from a fever and the weather was bitter cold. He asserted to all his hearers that he should not be honored as a spiritual man but rather he should be despised by all as a carnal man and a glutton. Therefore those who had gathered there were amazed at so great a spectacle. They were well aware of his austerity, and so their hearts were struck with compunction; but they professed that his humility was easier to admire than to imitate. Although this incident seemed to be more a portent like that of the Prophet . . . than an example, nevertheless it was a lesson in true humility . . . (6)

The example of the prophet to which Bonaventure refers is Isaiah, who walked "naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and portent against Egypt and Ethiopia." I’ve always thought of these extreme instances of odd prophetic behavior which we find throughout the Hebrew Bible as pedagogical performance art. In reading Bonaventure’s account, this off-hand comment connecting Francis to Isaiah allows us to see Francis in just this way.

To many, the suggestion that Francis was playing a role, acting as a performance artist, is to question his sincerity. But the recognition that all our behavior as human beings may be understood as "performances," to use Erving Goffman’s word, does not imply that all such performances are cynical.(7) Robert Ezra Park points to the ubiquity of role-play as a positive part of our development into full personhood.

It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role... It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.

In a sense, and in so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves - the role we are striving to live up to - this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be. In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons.(8)

The New Testament challenges Christian believers to take on the persona or role of Christ. This is precisely what Francis set out to do in the performance which was his life. His project is the imitation of Christ.

Artistic acts, including drama, require the imposition of form and structure on life experience which is otherwise too vast to be completely absorbed or fully understood. This exercise of control, the imposition of order and limits on what would otherwise appear disordered, requires selecting certain elements of reality for our attention while ignoring others. Drama educator Dorothy Heathcote points out that the effectiveness of drama in educating for change depends upon a necessary distortion, resulting from such selection.

... the arts isolate a factor of human experience. They particularize something to bring it to your attention.

They use life and understanding of life, but they make you examine it through a particular moment of life; whether it is the frozen time that a painter captures for you or the ongoing struggle that a playwright captures for you. Therefore, art creates selection. It demands selection.

It seems to me that effective teaching is about selection. It has to particularize. It has to isolate. And because it does this, it distorts. You cannot have art that does not in some way distort. It distorts productively. Therefore, you do not see the whole, you only see a part through this distorted view, this particularization.(9)

Francis isolates the concept of poverty, which is a distortion of reality, but it is a distortion designed to teach and to effect change. It happens to be a distortion which I find particularly disturbing, because my own artistic sensibility involves isolating different concepts. This probably means that it is a distortion from which I can learn a great deal.

All views of reality are distorted. We can not look at reality except from within the framework of an worldview, limited by a horizon. As Paul Ricoeur says about ideology, "We think from it rather than about it."(10) Drama combines with imagination to enable an observer to step into an alternative reality, to look out at a different horizon. If we imaginatively enter into the drama of Francis' life, the way we might enter into a novel, we may be able to "fuse" our horizons with his, at least for a time, and thereby see our own more clearly.

Francis' pedagogy is clearly of a different order than that of Hugh, or that of his successor Bonaventure. Both in his learning and in his teaching, Francis is less concerned with theoria than with praxis. He makes use of aesthetic experience rather than traditional didactic method. The connection with the prophetic teaching of Isaiah is illuminating. The prophetic approach to teaching is always in conflict with the dominant authority structures and the dominant rationality of its time and culture. Prophets appear to be mad. Walter Brueggemann sees prophets as "subversive agents of transformation" who use an alternative language and an alternative rationality to confront the structures of power - "royal" structures in ancient Israel, perhaps feudal or papal structures for Francis. Brueggemann labels this mode of knowing as "the pathos of God" which "leads to a giving of new truth in uncredentialed channels.... In this poetry of pathos, the royal definitions of reality are overcome... "(11) Francis insisted on remaining an "uncredentialed channel." He refused to be ordained a priest, and one source of disappointment for him as the order grew was the introduction of the idea that Friars Minor should be assisted in finding locations and opportunities to preach, that their work should be sanctioned by local bishops, and that they should be "credentialed" by the existing structures of power and legitimation.

Francis’ imaginative and "pathetic" presentation of reality is not an excuse to free himself from obligation to authority or to stand outside the law. The friars are always to be the least, always subservient, always meek, always accepting of whatever treatment is given them. Francis deliberately recognized the authority of the pope and other church officers. This is consistent with the subversive nature of prophetic teaching. Although one might expect that the prophetic "canon of discontinuity"(12) would release its hearers from old-fashioned obedience to laws and rituals, Brueggemann argues that such is never the case. The proper response to a holy God is always obedience. The daring nature of prophetic madness is seen precisely in the radical nature of the prophets’ call to full obedience. Obedience itself becomes a mode of knowledge.

It is in such obedience that goodness is fully known. This necessary connection between the theory of virtue and the practice of virtue helps make sense of the Socratic insistence that to know the good is to do the good. Knowing the good is not the same thing as knowing ethics. Rather it is the same thing as knowing virtue, and that is far more complex and less easily defined. Leroy Rouner illustrates the difference:

Ethics is not a mystery; it is an intellectual structure of moral principles. Ethics per se is only the tuneless prescription of social oughts.

Virtue is a song. One has to get the tune right in order to know virtue. Can the soul sing? And if not, how can the soul be taught to sing? So virtue is a mystery, a song, a transforming vision. Can anyone really teach that? And how do we get it, if in fact we do?(13)

Rouner’s suggested answer to this question of how virtue can be taught is that virtue is taught through personalized education. He uses the example of Gandhi, who "regarded his own life as an experimental instrument for the transformation of a nation."(14) According to Rouner, Gandhi intentionally made himself into "an educational tool for the transformation of the Indian character. He was custodian, preacher and therapist for the whole nation, and the nation was his school. He wanted people to change radically, and he was ready to use himself as a transforming vehicle for that change."(15) It is no coincidence that Rouner keeps returning to metaphors drawn from arts education to describe the appropriate way for teaching virtue. He also makes the analogy to learning music at a good conservatory, in which the discipline of technique is combined with a respect for the individual voice.

As Rouner presents him, Gandhi is a practitioner of paideia, the classical understanding of education as training in virtue by means of physical discipline and aesthetic experience. In ancient Greek culture, the physical discipline was athletic, and the aesthetic experience consisted of Homer's poetry. For Gandhi, the physical discipline is more ascetic, and the aesthetic experience is directed toward crafts and a simplicity of life.

Francis inherits a tradition of understanding the Christian faith as paideia, an educational process of enculturation and worldview formation, but he creates a new sort of paideia, uniting the physical discipline of extreme asceticism with his new dramatic aesthetic. His aesthetic sensibility is shaped by the troubadour tradition of courtly love, which he uses as the language of his play. The role which he plays is a dual one: he is the troubadour/knight who is faithful to his mistress, Lady Poverty; and he is the archetypal fool, a figure who resembles the prophet in challenging accepted sources of power and authority. In this dual role of troubadour and fool, Francis lives out an extended metaphor by means of which complicated theological truths may be understood and internalized. The paideia which he offers takes the disciplined control of the body, accomplished through radical asceticism, and fuses it together in his own person with a Christian worldview embodied in a dramatic aesthetic.

To some extent Francis will always remain an enigma to all of us who refuse to join him in this drama. The lesson which he offers is presented in action, and it can be fully learned only by acting it out. Chesterton writes feelingly about the limitations of our understanding of Francis.

We used to be told in the nursery that if a man were to bore a hole through the centre of the earth and climb continually down and down, there would come a moment at the centre when he would seem to be climbing up and up. I do not know whether this is true. The reason I do not know whether it is true is that I have never happened to bore a hole through the centre of the earth, still less to crawl through it.... We cannot follow St. Francis to that final spiritual overturn in which complete humiliation becomes complete holiness or happiness, because we have never been there.(16)

Chesterton candidly admits that he has no intention of going there, down into the depths of humiliation and renunciation. Nor do I. But one of the joys of human life is that we may sometimes experience realities vicariously, by means of imagination. When we allow our imaginations to enter into the drama of Francis' life, we may begin to see that there is meaning in this play, that watching it may teach us something about the nature of God. Even if we believe, as I do, that Francis distorts reality by his excessive emphasis on poverty, we must admit that we also distort reality in other ways. Allowing our horizons to fuse with Francis' horizon, even if only in imagination, is a way for him to become our teacher.

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(1) The Writings of Leo, Rufino and Angelo: Companions of St. Francis, ed. Rosalind Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 211.

(2) The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 137.

(3) Ibid, p. 43.

(4) Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischoff et al (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1978), Vol. 1, p. 447.

(5) G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1923), p. 106.

(6) Bonaventure, Major Life, VI. 2.

(7) Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 17-18.

(8) cited in Goffman, op. cit., pp. 19, 20.

(9) Dorothy Heathcote, Collected Writings on Education and Drama (London: Hutchinson, 1984), p. 114.

(10) cited in Howard Williams, Concepts of Ideology (New York; St. Martin's Press, 1988), p. 111.

(11) Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 91.

(12) Brueggemann, op. cit., p. 104.

(13) Leroy S. Rouner, "Can Virtue Be Taught in a School?," Can Virtue Be Taught?, vol. 14, Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion, ed. Barbara Darling-Smith, p. 142.

(14) Rouner, op. cit., p.147.

(15) Rouner, op. cit., p. 148.

(16) Chesterton, op. cit., p. 86.

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