The Compass Rose: Explorations in Thought

Category: 2017 Issue

Post-Truth and Liberal Education

David W. Livingstone, Ph.D.

The following remarks were presented at Vancouver Island University during the “Teaching in the Post-Truth Era” panel on April 12, 2017. I would like to thank the organizers, Dr. Melissa Stephens and Dr. Sonnet L’Abbé, for inviting me to join this interesting and timely panel. These thoughts about liberal education are my own and are not intended to represent the views of VIU or the Liberal Studies Department. Some parts of this essay were presented at the BCPSA annual meeting in 2010, and a longer version of this paper is scheduled to be published on in fall 2017.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee

When one looks at the history of higher education in Canada and the United States it is striking to note that at one time just about every university regarded liberal education as central to its purpose. Moreover, that purpose was connected to, though not entirely limited to, citizenship broadly conceived. At the time of Canada’s founding in 1866, one of the architects of our Constitution, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, argued before a Montreal audience that education is “an essential condition of our political independence.” His understanding of education, the kind of education required for Canadian national identity, came from the “classical sources.”

With some notable exceptions, most of our contemporary publicly-funded universities have drifted from these original goals which have been eclipsed by either vocational training or narrow specialization and research. And in some departments, the notion that a university education ought to be guided by the pursuit of truth is even put into question. I would argue that unless this original purpose is recovered by our institutions of higher education, our society and the individuals who make it up will be culturally, politically, and spiritually malnourished, citizenship will be compromised, and debate about difficult issues will continue to become intellectually thinner and simultaneously shriller.

Liberal education traces its roots back to the ancient Greeks, and to Plato in particular. In the Middle Ages it came to mean an education in the trivium and the quadrivium, together comprising the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic; geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.[1] Liberal education includes aspects of subjects now found separated into the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. It is an education that methodically and systematically addresses the question of the meaning of life and does so through critical reflection on great works from a variety of “disciplines”: philosophy, politics, science, art, religion. While interdisciplinary, it is an education that nonetheless has a specific, identifiable content. At the “core of liberal education was the duty of the teacher to impart and cultivate those talents and excellences which would prepare a student to bear the obligations of citizenship and to begin the exploration of the intellectual and spiritual life.”[2] While it is possible to obtain a decent liberal education in Canada apart from so-called, “great-books” programs, nevertheless the “multiversity” and its cafeteria-style programming is now the norm, and this represents a shift from higher education a century ago. Liberal education is now but one option available to students. In most Canadian universities the student is left to decide the content of their education, choosing from a bewildering array of courses, some serious and some less so. They must gravely and prudently choose their courses in the absence of the very education intended to cultivate their prudence and gravitas. It’s as if we expect them to know the purpose of higher education before they have any experience of it. It’s no wonder they default to courses that at least (so they think) promise them a path to employment. And so across North America we have seen a decline in enrollments in the humanities and the liberal arts. But what do our students miss by making this choice? And how might our society and our political culture be affected over time by the absence of liberally educated citizenry?

In the early twentieth century, the American civil rights pioneer, W.E. B. Du Bois, was thinking about the purpose of higher education, and particularly what emancipated American slaves would need in terms of education if they were to take their place as free citizens of a democratic republic. He declared that they needed a college that could give them the best that liberal education had to offer. Now that their body was emancipated they would need to free their mind, and they could best do this through the study of the great authors of the past, including, he thought, Aurelius, Aristotle, and Shakespeare. Du Bois opposed Booker T. Washington’s idea that freed blacks needed vocational training first and foremost if they were to become independent. Surely in the final analysis some combination of these two perspectives is required, We shouldn’t downplay our students’ desire to find meaningful work when they graduate, yet university has always been about more than training for work, and it hasn’t always been about preparing activists to change society before they have even considered carefully the principles upon which that society that affords them the freedom to study is built. What Du Bois insists on is that true freedom requires a freedom of the mind from prevailing currents of thought and habits. In particular, Du Bois was concerned that the emancipated blacks in his day would be subsumed into a political economy that would give shape to their minds below the standard of what they should strive for.

W.E.B DuBois

“What if the Negro people be wooed from a strife for righteousness, from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all and end-all of life? What if to the Mammonism of America be added the rising Mammonism of the re-born South, and the Mammonism of this South be reinforced by the budding Mammonism of its half- wakened black millions?”[3]

The ubiquitous concern for money and for utility in America—in any democratic society, really—may crowd out the higher, human concerns. Du Bois shares Aristotle’s view that citizens “must be able to do necessary and useful things, but still more they must be able to do the noble things. Accordingly, it is with these aims in view that they should be educated.”[4] Vocational training and liberal education are both needed, but of these two, liberal education is higher because it aims to illuminate the comprehensive goals and purposes of life to which the vocational tasks serve as means.

Remarkably, Du Bois does not regard the tradition of great texts as one of the causes of black oppression. Rather he regards these books as potential sources of human liberation. In fact, he argued that blacks in the United States would be denied genuine freedom—freedom of the mind—if they were denied access to these avenues of human liberation. For Du Bois, these texts do not enforce distinctions of race or color; there greatness lies in the fact that they transcend these contingent aspects of the human person.

W.E.B. Du Bois

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”[5]

Du Bois concludes that “the true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”[6] Du Bois’ “true college” is jeopardized when it directs itself primarily by standards of utility and so-called relevance. His view of the capacity of liberal education to emancipate the individual is based on the unspoken premise that the truth is what unites us across color lines, and across other features of human personality that make each of us unique. It is not for the purpose of erasing those interesting differences that we ought to pursue this common goal, but simply to set what makes us different within a larger frame of shared, human aspiration and higher fulfillment.

Reflecting on the place of wisdom-seeking in contemporary education Sean Steel, writes that “education, contrary to what is most often said today among reformers, cannot properly by ‘student-,’ ‘child-,’ or ‘learner-centered”; it must be truth-centered. Consequently, its center must lie somewhere between the teacher and the learner….There can be no genuine dialogue between teacher and student where the center is not somewhere between the discussants—if truth rather than either of the participants is not the central concern of both parties.”[7] Yet this notion, that the truth sits between teacher and learner and unites them in a shared activity benefiting both, has been under attack within the academy for a long time. We certainly have to wonder if this attack on the truth in our institutions of higher learning is at least partly responsible for generating the post-truth era we find ourselves in today.

Richard Rorty

One might say the attack on truth began with the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who writes: “It is nothing more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than appearance. That claim is even the most poorly demonstrated assumption there is in the world. People should at least concede this much: there would be no life at all if not on the basis of appearances and assessments from perspectives.”[8] This Nietzschean perspective is adopted and developed by the influential 20th and 21st Century pragmatist, Richard Rorty. There is nothing that we can know that exists by nature, and indeed nothing has an independent “essence.” Where the classical thinkers may have looked to nature, especially human nature, to learn about our ends and purposes, contemporary “philosophers” teach us instead that this was a fool’s errand based on dogmatic metaphysical assumptions, metaphysics being the search for those unchanging principles of the universe that undergird and hence explain changing realm we inhabit. So Rorty concludes that we should stop being metaphysicians and become “ironists.” The ironist, he explains, “is a nominalist and a historicist. She thinks nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence. So she thinks that the occurrence of a term like ‘just’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ in the final vocabulary of the day is no reason to think that Socratic inquiry into the essence of justice or science or rationality will take one much beyond the language games of one’s own time.”[9] But if there are no natures, then human beings do not have a nature either. This “insight” leads to the conclusion that we must construct meaning in our lives rather than discover it.

According to Rorty, “slogans” like “natural human rights,” concepts that the Canadian founders thought existed and ought to be secured through Constitutional structures, turn out to be nothing more than “handy bits of rhetoric.” They refer to nothing real, nothing in nature. The risk of adopting Rorty’s viewpoint is that it removes the shared goal of pursuing the truth that Du Bois and others believed was the path to true liberation for all human beings. Instead, if we go down the path offered by Rorty and others, we close ourselves off to one another. Our young people, educated to believe that behind so-called truth there lies only masked power can too easily conclude that amassing and wielding power to advance their interests is what matters most. Justice then appears to them to be nothing more than “the advantage of the stronger.” And ultimately we are more apt to become impressed by our differences rather than by what unite us.

So let me conclude by referring to the person I started with, D’Arcy McGee. For though he suffered various forms of bigotry and experienced violent faction, and, sadly, though he was killed by an assassin’s bullet, he expressed high hopes for Canada and its political institutions, provided we citizens focus on what matters. “The object of all intellectual pursuits, worthy of the name,” he said to his Montréal audience, “is the attainment of Truth.” It is the “sacred Temple to be built, or re-built,” and “the Ithaca of every Ulysses really wise.” McGee intended to give future generations of Canadians who were fortunate enough to live under the Constitution he helped craft some sage advice, if only we will recall it and try to live by it:

Thomas D’Arcy McGee

“Regarding the New Dominion as an incipient new nation, it seems to me that our mental self-reliance is an essential condition of our political independence; I do not mean a state of mind puffed up on small things; an exaggerated opinion of ourselves and a barbarian depreciation of foreigners; a controversial state of mind; or a merely imitative apish civilization. I mean a mental condition, thoughtful and true; national in its preferences, but catholic in its sympathies; gravitating inward, not outward; ready to learn from every other people on one sole condition, that the lesson when learned has been worth acquiring. In short, I would desire to see, Gentlemen, our new national character distinguished by a manly modesty as much as by mental independence; by the conscientious exercise of the critical faculties, as well as by the zeal of the inquirer.”[10]


[1] For similar definitions see Anthony Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale: Tale University Press, 2009); Peter Emberley, Waller Newell, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); Richard Myers, Colin O’Connell, Patrick Malcolmson, Value Relativism and Liberal Education: A Guide to Today’s B.A. (University Press of America, 1996). For a brief look at liberal arts curricula in early Canada, see See R.A. Falconer, “The Tradition of Liberal Education in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 8, 2, 1927; In the U.S. context, consider Anthony T. Kronman, Educations’ End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), chp 2-3.

[2] Peter Emberley and Waller Newell, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 3

[3] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1908; New York: Bantam Classic text reprinted from the 1953 Blue Heron edition), 57. Prepared for the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center,,%20, accessed April, 2017.

[4] Aristotle, Politics, VII, 1333a3l-b4 (emphasis added).

[5] Du Bois, 76.

[6] Du Bois, 58

[7] Sean Steel, The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education: Historical Sources and Contemplative Practices (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), 136

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil , Aphorism 34

[9] Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 74-75

[10] McGee, “Mental Outfit of the New Dominion” The Journal for Education of Upper Canada, Vol XX, no.11, 1866, 177.

“An Appeal to Moderate Patriotism”

By Braedan Zimmer

Patriotism is often associated with an unconditional love and support of one’s country, even at the expense of all other countries. A patriot in this form (an extreme patriot) can be dangerous and radical, at times using violence for the betterment of their country without exhausting all other means of achieving their aims; extreme patriotism is often decidedly detrimental to society. That being said, a different form of patriotism stands to be encouraged. Stephen Nathanson explores a form of patriotism called “moderate patriotism.” The moderate patriot, as he describes, has a loyalty and special affection for his country, but operates within the limits of morality. This means that if the moderate patriot’s country is undertaking immoral actions, the moderate patriot will not support his country. Moderate patriots are equally as partial to their country as extreme patriots, with all the same love for it. The moderate patriot, however, holds his country morally accountable, which in turn leads him less frequently to war when other means of peacemaking are attainable.

Extreme patriotism is an exclusive preference for one’s country that is subversive to morality, while moderate patriotism allows one to deeply love and prefer one’s own country while respecting moral obligations to humanity as a whole. Leo Tolstoy describes extreme patriotism as “the exclusive desire for the well-being of one’s own people” (Nathanson 536). Because the extreme patriot will not be opposed to the hostile treatment of other countries, when his country stands to benefit in some way, he is morally inferior to the moderate patriot. In contrast, moderate patriots do not turn a blind eye on morality while pursuing good for their country. In accordance with moderate patriotism, Zdenko Kodelja quotes Nathanson in saying that “the Golden Rule…does not say ‘do unto your fellow countrymen as you would have them do unto you’. It says ‘do unto others’, and the lack of a qualifying term shows that all others are meant” (537).

While the adherence of moderate patriotism to morality separates it from the dangerously preferential tendencies of extreme patriotism, Alsadair MacIntyre criticizes moderate patriots for not being genuinely patriotic (Nathanson 540). He questions the conviction with which they support their country when situations cause patriotic actions to conflict with morality. One example MacIntyre offers is a country’s conception of the “good life.” MacIntyre contends that moderate patriotism cannot be reconciled with a moral standpoint (Nathanson 543). He uses the example of the Iroquois Indians, explaining that the raids on their traditional enemies are an important part of their “good life” (Nathanson 543). Nathanson sums up MacIntyre’s argument: “moderate patriotism is empty, since it requires sacrificing one’s own community’s way of life if objective moral assessment shows it to be wrong” (543). He disagrees with MacIntyre, though, maintaining that moderate patriots can recognize the need to change certain aspects of their culture, but it does not mean they do not understand what is being lost, or that they will not work to try and find other ways to express the aspects of culture that need expressing (544). Nathanson contends that if, to the Iroquois, raids are an opportunity to prove the high achievements of valour and martial skill, then the moderate patriots who worked to stop the raids may also search for a different outlet to display the virtues of their culture (544). He continues that if actions of a certain country were exempt from moral criticism because they are essential for the good life, then “we would be unable to condemn slavery because the niceties of the plantation life required it” (544). These arguments suggest that moderate patriots do genuinely prefer and love their country, but they maintain that even their own country’s actions aren’t immune to moral scrutiny.

Tolstoy in 1897

In terms of the effects of morality on a country’s affairs, moderate patriotism is preferable to extreme patriotism in that it is much less conducive to war. Nathanson quotes Tolstoy in saying that “the root of war is the exclusive desire for the well-being of one’s own people: it is patriotism” (536). While Nathanson admits that Tolstoy is guilty of overstating when he says that war is the unequivocal product of patriotism, he maintains that the extreme patriot’s exclusive desire for the good of their own country can easily lead to war if it stands at odds with the good of other countries. Sigal Beth-Porath makes the observation that, with the encouragement of extreme patriotism, war can turn “the citizen” into “the solider” (317). Nathanson entertains the logical procession that if one cares only about one’s own country, and one’s country could benefit from possessing things that another country currently possesses, then what would stop one’s country from going to war to obtain those possessions in the name of the country’s good (541)? Moderate patriotism is not guilty of the same dangerous preferential tendencies as extreme patriotism. A moderate patriot, as Nathanson describes, can “sense that patriotism can be carried too far and that moral constraints do apply to actions taken on behalf of one’s country” (541). Here he posits that a moderate patriot can understand when their country’s actions can’t be morally justified, and will no longer support his country when that time comes. In this way, moderate patriotism works against some of the brutal wars fought for immoral reasons, wars that may have been started by an extreme patriotic mentality.

In relation to war, MacIntyre again criticizes moderate patriotism, using resource conflict as his example. He describes a situation in which two countries are both in need of a certain resource to survive, but there is only enough for one country. He predicts that, in this situation, moderate patriots would be unable to justify taking the resource because it isn’t morally right, while extreme patriots would be willing to go to war to secure the resource for their country (Nathanson 541). The inability to do whatever is necessary to preserve the well-being of their country leads MacIntyre to believe that moderate patriots would be unable to defend their country. Nathanson only partly agrees with MacIntyre’s appraisal of the situation. He points out that, in this situation, extreme patriots would not count the lives of the other country’s people as significant losses if they are able to secure the resource (Nathanson 541). They would unhesitatingly pursue the resource by any means necessary, including the possibility of war. In contrast to MacIntyre’s arguments, though, Nathanson does not feel that moderate patriots are necessarily useless defenders of their nation. Logically, the moderate patriot would first examine the claims to the resource made by both countries. If the opposing country’s claim is greater, offers Nathanson, then the moderate patriot might urge their community to make a sacrifice (542). If the moral strength of each country’s claim to the resource is the same, however, and only one country can survive, the moderate patriot would not logically be indifferent to which country dies; he would defend his country. The same principle is observable with a father and his child. If there are many seats on a carnival ride, a father is not going to fight another father to ensure that his child gets on first. Contrarily, if it is the last carnival ride of the day, and there is only one open seat, the father is not going to offer it to the other child; he is going to do what he can to make sure his child gets to enjoy the ride. We see in these examples that extreme patriotism can cause people to move too quickly to war; however, when defence of a country is needed in extreme situations, moderate patriots would be as effective as extreme patriots.

As clearly demonstrated, the moderate patriot’s capacity to love their country is much the same as a patriot of the extreme nature. The moderate patriot’s commitment to not only their country, but to moral justice leads them to take more care in conflict, and go to a greater length to avoid war with other countries than extreme patriots. The fact that moderate patriots do not follow their country blindly, but let their actions be guided by morality allows them to be greater stewards of their country as well as superior global citizens. Patriotism in its extreme form is dangerous and breeds violence, but in its moderate form, it is a welcomed virtue that allows people to feel deeply connected with their country without forgetting their ultimate and necessary connection to humanity as a whole.

Works Cited
Ben-Porath, Sigal. “Wartime Citizenship: An Argument for Shared Fate.” Ethnicities 11.3
(2011): 313-25. SAGE. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
Kodelja, Zdenko. “Is Education for Patriotism Morally Required, Permitted or
Unacceptable?” Studies in Philosophy and Education 30.2 (2011): 127-40.
SpringerLink. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
Nathanson, Stephen. “In Defense of ‘Moderate Patriotism’” Ethics 33.9 (1989): 535-52.
JSTOR. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

“Filippo Brunelleschi and the Spirit of Classicism”

Brunelleschi ~ Presumed depiction in “Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus,” Masaccio. Uploaded by Aislesalvotimeingh Created: June 24, 2015

By Jill Foster

With the rise of the Renaissance came the renewal of values with fresh inspiration sought for in classical antiquity, and the architecture of this time was no exception to this trend. By digging into the characteristics of classicism and its role in the Renaissance, this paper will argue that Filippo Brunelleschi’s architecture most clearly captures the Renaissance spirit of classicism through his marriage between ancient influenced proportions and 15th century Florentine values while using classical characteristics to create new spaces.

Before expanding on the ways that Brunelleschi best illustrates classicism, we must first outline the meaning of the term. According to William Fleming, classicism should be understood not only as the revival of antiquity but also as “a search for past examples to justify new practices” (211). For Fleming, it is not so much about reviving ancient ways as it is about surpassing them. By this definition classicism can be understood as drawing influence from ancient architecture, literature, and art and applying these elements to modern practices and values. This both redefines them and creates a new, and superior culture. That being said, in order to demonstrate how Brunelleschi best illustrates these features, there must first be an analysis of his revival of ancient architectural elements followed by how he repurposes and surpasses their features to marry antiquity with pre-existing values through innovation.

The Pantheon, Rome

In regards to classicism as the revival of antiquity, Brunelleschi had direct access to ancient buildings, having fled to Rome after losing the Baptistery door competition in 1402 (Turner 41). He diligently studied the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (Fleming 212), and once he returned to Florence he then used his knowledge of the Pantheon, the Parthenon, and other ancient monuments to work on projects such as the dome of the Duomo, the Pazzi Chapel, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, all the while creating structures that had never been seen before (Fleming 192). The Roman Pantheon consists of a large dome, a porch, Corinthian grey granite columns with white marble capitals, a square patterned floor and a rotunda which has the exact same diameter as the height of its dome—it is believed to be the first building in which the interior was made to outshine the exterior (Cartwright “Pantheon”). The Greek Parthenon was created using a 4:9 ratio in which everything from the diameter of the columns in relation to the space between columns, the height of the building in relation to its width and the width of the inner cella in relation to its length are all consistent with this ratio—outlining a focus on perfectly straight symmetrical harmony (Cartwright “Parthenon”).

Parthenon, Athens (image by Steve Swayne)

It is fitting that Spiro Kostof categorizes classical ancient architecture quite simply as an initial measurement which is then used to determine all other proportions of the building (381) (a technique which from here on out will be referred to as rational proportions), and it is clear that Brunelleschi adopted these techniques in his buildings.

Brunelleschi’s churches, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, like the Parthenon, were built on this ancient technique of rational proportions in which the square formed beneath his domes in the intersection of the centre naves and transepts were repeatedly used throughout the spaces to determine the proportions of the buildings. This initial unit of measurement is repeated and can be clearly seen on the floors of the churches as he outlined each measurement with grey stone, whether for full units in the center nave or half units in the side aisles similar to the flooring seen in the Pantheon. Aside from rational proportions, Brunelleschi breaks away from the previous chaos and embellishment of the gothic style and revives the clarity and coherence of the ancient characteristics previously described.

San Lorenzo, Nave (showing proportional design)

These direct revivals of classical elements have been demonstrated in the Pazzi Chapel, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito through the use of smooth, clean lines, perfectly symmetrical and parallel arches, evenly and consistently spaced columns, classical entablatures, Corinthian capitals and a peaceful two-toned colour pallet, in which grey represents the structural elements and white the non-structural features. In addition to what can be seen, while it was never actualized, Brunelleschi’s initial plan for Santo Spirito was to have each side chapel be seen from the outside in semicircles around the entire building as this was reminiscent of the ancient Roman temples Minerva Medica and San Vitale (Kostof 383). However, they were plastered over after Brunelleschi’s death, perhaps for differing too much from the other buildings already present in Florence. The exterior of both Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo being unfinished and plain is also reminiscent of the Pantheon’s focus on the perfection and rationality of its interior. Through these classical characteristics Brunelleschi replaced the mystery and ornamentation of the gothic style with direct reference to ancient simplicity, rationality and cohesion.

Santo Spirito, interior.

In addition to the blatant revival of antiquity and influence of classical styles, Brunelleschi also creates a marriage with the deeply embedded Christian values existing in Florence at this time; achieving Fleming’s definition of using past examples to justify new practices thus surpassing what came previously. Brunelleschi’s rational proportions pay honour to a rational God by illustrating perhaps the kind of perfect and simple spaces the divine ruler Himself would create. The ceilings also show this marriage through the Roman styled square tiling and Christian rosette imagery as seen in San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito. While the gothic style has also been viewed as marrying Christian themes with architecture, there is something altogether separate achieved by Brunelleschi’s classical approach through use of lavish and luxurious materials and highly ornamented detailing. The gothic style encourages the impression that by understanding beauty at its most extreme and expensive, one may perhaps better understand the perfect spiritual beauty and splendor of the divine realm. Though the structure is abstract and arbitrary, fitting whatever one can into a single space, this can be understood as architecture creating an emotional response to Christianity and paying honour to the regal king that is the Lord. Brunelleschi on the other hand, through his classical inspiration, plays with the intellectual experience of spirituality by having the perfectly executed rationality and simplicity of his building’s structure invoke an inherent feeling of calmness and cohesion that puts the mind at ease to better accommodate worship with this new understanding of a rational and intelligent God. While San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito also have additions of lavish gothic altarpieces, highly ornamented chapels, and 17th century paintings, these elements were not in Brunelleschi’s original plan and distract from the simplicity originally intended to showcase the precision and unity of classicism.

Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence)

Brunelleschi’s innovation did not end at the experience of rational Christianity through architecture. He also used classical influence to create something never seen or achieved before: the dome of the Duomo. While the dome illustrates and fits in best with the category of gothic architecture, it would not have been completed without Brunelleschi’s new found knowledge of ancient architecture and inspiration of the Pantheon’s dome. Fleming suggests that while the dome may be gothic in style it is Brunelleschi’s innovation of hiding the functional elements and his creation of a smooth silhouette that characterizes the new Renaissance style (192). The dome surpassed anything that had come before it, becoming iconic and essential to Florence’s civic identification. Brunelleschi, thus, with his classical influence established a symbol for a new Florence that valued innovation through rebirth.

Filippo Brunelleschi, cutaway of the Dome of Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore)

Following this trend of innovation and surpassing the old, not only did Brunelleschi’s work inspire the use of carefully pre-determined architectural plans and a break from viewing an architect as a craftsman rather than an artist, but he also deliberately used his ancient styled proportions and symmetry to invent a new type of one-point perspective in a three dimensional space (Kostof 405). Kostof, referring to Brunelleschi, states that “he wanted his buildings experienced as if they were projected on a perspective grid, as if the user were walking into a painted picture” (382). It was this innovation, according to Kostof, that set Brunelleschi’s work apart from classical architecture, which never had this concept of fixed perspectives in mind (382). Additionally, according to Alberti, when an architect understands linear perspective and mathematics and has knowledge of ancient sources he becomes the master of universal law and comes closer to the divine (Kostof 408). It becomes clear that Alberti himself believed Brunelleschi was such an architect because his dedication to him in On Painting suggests that the innovation of ancient times will not be lost when men such as Brunelleschi continue to reignite the spirit of classicism (35). While many classical spaces were inspired by Brunelleschi, such as Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library and Medici Sacristy, and while these are innovative, these spaces add to what Brunelleschi had already accomplished in his new Renaissance style, which paved the way for new innovations sparked by his resurgence of classicism.

Furthermore, Brunelleschi’s architecture best exhibits the spirit of classicism through not only his direct reference and use of classical techniques such as Corinthian capitals, ancient entablatures, two-toned colour pallet and rational proportions but also his breakthrough to meld the old with the new through innovation. Brunelleschi’s use of ancient architecture to create a new meaning of a rational and intelligent God, his creation of the dome and his invention of one-point perspective in three dimensional spaces are just a few ways that Brunelleschi not only revived the classical elements of the past but also surpassed already present works. In this way he helped pioneer the new Renaissance style and a new identity for Florence.


Work Cited

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. Trans. Cecil Grayson. London: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Cartwright, Mark. “Pantheon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., 12 Jun. 2013. Web. 01 July 2016. <>.

Cartwright, Mark. “Parthenon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., 28 Oct. 2012. Web. 01 July 2016. <>.

Fleming, William. “The Florentine Renaissance Style.” Arts and Ideas: 6th Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 191-215. Print.

Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

Turner, A. Richard. Renaissance Florence: The Invention of New Art. London: Lawrence King Publishing Limited, 1997. Print.

“Closed on Account of Transformation: Two-Faced Humanity in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros”


  By Zoe McKenna

Satire as a genre is born from general dissatisfaction and disillusionment with humanity as a whole. It is a critique of society, often in such a way as to make humans and their actions laughable or absurd. The public reaction to satire led to the formation of the Theatre of the Absurd, which portrayed satirists’ worldviews in such a way as to be in contrast with the realistic plays of the time (Esslin 293). Ionesco was an iconic satirist in his lifetime and wrote several absurdist plays, one of which is called Rhinoceros.

Rhinoceros is set in a small French town, which inexplicably becomes overrun with rhinoceroses. The main character, Berenger, is a drunkard, who is unhappy in life, and so alcohol is his solace. He is close friends with a man named Jean, who is a self-proclaimed man of culture. The play opens with the two men having a heated discussion over Berenger’s poor attitude and lack of will-power, and it is in this part of the play that the first rhinoceros is seen. Soon after, another rhinoceros is seen, and debate begins between the two men and other witnesses as to whether this rhinoceros is the same as the first, or a different one entirely. They do not reach a conclusion. One rhinoceros leads to another, and it is revealed that townspeople are transforming into the animals. At first, everybody is appalled by this. However, one by one, each succumb to the appeal of joining the ever-increasing herd of rhinoceroses in the town, until only Berenger remains human. Berenger is terrified of transforming into a rhinoceros, and stands strong in his individuality until the end of the play.

As with much of the absurdist theatre, the commentary that Ionesco makes on society is hidden underneath layers of bizarre stereotypes and numerous unanswered questions. At closer inspection, however, the object of Ionesco’s satire is quite directly embodied by one of the characters within the play. Botard, Berenger’s callous left-wing coworker, says to his boss, Mr Papillon, “[T]he fact that I despise religion, doesn’t mean I don’t esteem it highly” (Ionesco 51). He says this to appease his employer, after disrespecting religion only moments earlier. In this respect, Botard is being very ingratiating, or in other words, two-faced. It is this quality of being two-faced that motivates the play. Ionesco is commenting on the human ability to be insincere, and to go back on one’s word. All the characters, except Berenger, exhibit this quality, and they all eventually transform into a rhinoceros, at which point they have literally become two-faced.

The arrival of the rhinoceroses came as an understandable shock to the townspeople. In Act One, when the rhinoceroses were first seen, Berenger tried to logically explain their presence in the town. “Perhaps the rhinoceros escaped from the zoo,” he said (Ionesco 20), but Jean reminds him that they have had no zoos since the “the plague … ages ago” (20). Berenger then offers the explanation that the rhinoceros had escaped from a travelling circus, or had been hiding in the surrounding swamps (20-21). Jean contradicts him on both these points, as travelling circuses had been banned in their town, and they are situated in a very arid area of France, and so there were no swamps for the rhinoceros to hide in (20-21).  Jean declares that “It [the rhinoceros] shouldn’t be allowed!” (19).

In the first scene of Act Two, the debate and condemnation surrounding the rhinoceroses continues. Botard is indignant that the rhinoceros do not exist at all, and claims that they are a myth (Ionesco 54).  In an effort to describe the rhinoceros to Botard, Daisy, the typist and Berenger’s love interest, refers to them as “a very big ugly animal” (51). When it is revealed that their coworker, Mr Boeuf, has turned into a rhinoceros, the comments do not get any kinder. Dudard comments that “it’s probably not tame” (60), and Mr Papillion very swiftly fires Mr Boeuf.  They speak of Mrs Boeuf being able to divorce her husband, and claim to be the injured party, and they look to try and replace Mr Boeuf’s role in the office, as he is “no use to [them] anymore” (63).

Until this point, anti-rhinoceros opinions were made perfectly clear. It is in the second scene of Act Two that attitudes begin to shift. In this scene, Berenger visits Jean, to make amends for the fight they had the previous day, and to check up on him, as he is unwell. Jean has a headache, a fever, and a small bump on his forehead. The day before, Jean had been adamant about his dislike for the rhinoceroses, however during Berenger’s visit it is revealed that this is no longer true. After Berenger informs Jean that their co-worker has turned into a rhinoceros, Jean says that “he’s probably all the better for it” (Ionesco 78). This is very disconcerting to Berenger. Jean goes on to say how he thinks that humanity’s morals are flawed beyond repair, and perhaps they should be more like the rhinoceroses, and follow the laws of nature, instead (79). Jean finally declares that “humanism is all washed up!” (80), and very shortly afterwards transforms into a rhinoceros. In the span of one day, Jean had transitioned from an outspoken opponent of the rhinoceroses, into a willing beast himself.

The drastic switch in view continues and develops in the final act of the play. At this point, Berenger has secluded himself to his home, as the herd of rhinoceroses outside continues to grow. He is paranoid that his headache, caused by drink and stress, is the beginnings of his own transformation into a rhinoceros, something he fears greatly. He is visited by his co-worker, Dudard, and they discuss the events. Berenger refers to the transformations as a “nervous disease” (89). Dudard comments that “certain illnesses are good for you” (89). Dudard later reveals that Mr Papillon has transitioned into rhinoceroses. This shocks Berenger, as he viewed Mr Papillon as a man of good standing, who was above the nonsensical goings-on. Dudard asks Berenger to try and be more light-hearted about the situation. Berenger says that Dudard will be “siding with the rhinoceroses before long”, to which Dudard  replies, “[n]o, no, not at all” (97). However, shortly afterwards, Daisy arrives to visit Berenger, which makes Dudard unhappy. He leaves quite quickly, and then transforms into a rhinoceros.

When Daisy arrives, she brings news that Botard has also become a rhinoceros. Berenger finds this difficult to believe, as Botard has been so avidly against the entire concept. Daisy says that Botard claimed to be “mov[ing] with the times” (Ionesco 103). The scene progresses with Daisy and Berenger confessing their love for one another, and deciding to come together as a united front of humanity in a world consumed by animals. Unfortunately, this is short lived. Daisy is soon no longer concerned with the dust and noise that the rhinoceroses make, and is more fixated on “adapt[ing] [. . .] and get[ting] on with them” (118).  She grows more and more unhappy with Berenger’s harsh views of the herd, and says to him, “[t]hose are real people. They look happy. They’re content to be what they are. They don’t look insane. They look very natural. They were right to do what they did” (119).  She even goes as far as to say later that the rhinoceroses are “like gods” (121). It is not very long before the couple completely fall apart over their different opinions, and Daisy leaves to become a rhinoceros.

Jean, Botard, and Mr Papillon changed their minds on the matter of rhinoceroses within the span of a day. They acted against the opinions they had previously held, making hippocrates of them all. Even more extreme, Dudard and Daisy changed their minds within the span of a few moments, making them perhaps the most fickle characters of all.

Rhinoceros is a play of extremes. All the characters have a strong, vocalized opinions on the rhinoceros at all times. This makes it quite clear how drastically attitudes changed over the course of three acts, moving from avid opposition, to support and inclusion. The townspeople decided to overlook the absurdity of the rhinoceroses being in the town and the damage that they had caused. It could be said this was the entirety of Ionesco’s objective in writing this play, as such an open critique of the human capacity to be so mercurial and insincere is not an insignificant comment to make. However, taking into account the time period in which this play was written, it is near impossible to ignore where Ionesco’s disbelief in humanity was sparked, and the additional layer of criticism to this satire.

The play was originally published in 1959, but Ionesco had been living in France since 1938 and was present for the German occupation of France from 1940-1944. During this period of time, he saw many French people adapt to the occupation in ways he did not agree with. At first, they rejected the German regimes as barbaric and overbearing, but over time they became normalized and accepted. Many French people joined the French Communist Party and showed support for Nazism. This was also a time of considerable racial tension in France, which was another contributing factor to aspects of this play. All these ideas were portrayed metaphorically throughout Rhinoceros.

The reaction to the rhinoceros was much like that to the German occupation in 1940. The French people were overcome by “outrage” (Quinney 46), as the idea that the German forces could overpower them and their country was as absurd to them as the presence of the rhinoceroses were to the people in the play. During the occupation, the French people were surprised to not be immediately “shot down in the streets” (Quinney 47). Similarly, the townspeople in Rhinoceros were scared and appalled at the presence of the rhinoceroses, in Act One, as discussed above. The intrusion of the rhinoceroses was representative of the intrusion of the German forces.

Then, there was the aspect of the increasing number of rhinoceroses, which was indicative of this increasing number of German supporters within France. At the beginning of the play, the rhinoceroses had no support. There was, however, a large element of conformity, and to an extent mob-mentality, among the townspeople. There is extreme pressure on Berenger to conform, and in two ways. The first, is to become a cultured man, like Jean, The second, is to participate in the hysteria surrounding the first appearances of the rhinoceroses. All the characters, except for Berenger, speak in cliches through the first act, with exclamations such as,“Well, of all things!” which is frequently repeated. This is exhibitive of a lack of individual thought from the majority of the townspeople, who would rather rely on overused turns of phrase which they know to be acceptable opinions to voice rather than speak openly in opposition and run the risk of being berated, as Berenger had been. This play shows “both comically, and nightmarishly, the phenomenon of ideological contagion, and the surrender of human individuality and intelligence to herd-like conformity” (Calinescu 395), regardless of whether the widely-held opinions are aligned with the individual’s ideas, or not.

The same motion towards a homogenized mindset was seen during the Occupation. The French people worked towards collaboration with the German forces, and this particular collaboration was not forced upon the people, but was in many ways a conscious choice to adhere to a new way of life (Lemmes 158). This aspect of choice is important to note, as it differentiates between succumbing to the stronghold of an occupying force, and deciding that the occupying force offers something enticing, or more preferable, than what already stands, even if that offer directly opposes a current way of life.

Perhaps, if Berenger’s French town had been overrun with butterflies, a much more amicable alternative to the beasts that they were faced with, he would have minded it considerably less when his friends and coworkers transformed into them. This was not the case, however, and his town was instead confronted with large, unruly creatures, who left a great deal of damage in their wake. This was true as well, to the German occupying forces. The Nazi regime was infamously unforgiving towards Jewish people, and also towards people of colour. This racist undertone was addressed quite deliberately in the first act of the play, as the term “Asiatic mongol” was used derogatorily towards Berenger (Ionesco 38). This was a thinly veiled nod at the Nazi propaganda that was circulated during the occupation, which portrayed the Jewish people as having horns (Quinney 45). Ionesco was quite deliberate in choosing an aggressive animal, as the group of people he wishes them to represent were extremely animalistic in their violence.

The political angle of the play speaks to how Ionesco found his own friends and colleagues equally as two-faced, and hypocritical when faced with the German forces in wartime France. He found their lack of willpower disheartening, enough so to make him question the capacity that humans had for individual thought altogether.

Berenger remains steadfast throughout Rhinoceros. He was an individual in Act One, and remained so through to the end of the play. It is quite clear in understanding the position Ionesco was in while writing this play, that he found a voice in Berenger, and that he considered himself the steadfast individual in his own situation. To Ionesco, Berenger was the superior party in the altercation. Berenger concluded the play with a passionate and empowering monologue on fighting for what one believes is right.

The question remains, however, if this kind of action is really superior at all. It is quite clear that Berenger has no true plans on how to proceed against the rhinoceroses, other than with a vague idea of violence. And in his solitude, there is no one to guide him. He is an untamed individual who has quite “blindly denounced collectivism” (Danner 213), and at what cost? If it is absurd to join the collective mind, how is it not also absurd to be relentlessly defiant?  Berenger began the play with a sort of unconcerned apathy towards the rhinoceroses, and yet ends the play in angry opposition to them. Does this not also make him a hypocrite? The rhinoceroses, in all their destructive ugliness, are content, where Berenger is not. Perhaps he would have been wiser to conform, in the hopes of finding happiness in companionship. Or perhaps he was right, and one can only find true satisfaction by maintaining their individual beliefs.  “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles /And by opposing end them” (Shakespeare 3.1.1751-1753)”, we do not know. Whether it is nobler to be blatantly animalistic, or gallantly human, we also do not know.

Works Cited

Calinescu, Matei. “Ionesco and Rhinoceros: Personal and Political Backgrounds.” East European Politics and Societies, vol. 9, no. 3, 1995, pp. 393-432.

Danner, G. Richard. “Bérenger’s Dubious Defense of Humanity in Rhinocéros.” The French Review, vol. 53, no. 2, 1979, pp. 207–214.

Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.”  The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 4, no. 4 May 1960, pp. 3-15

Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros. Translated by Derek Prouse. Penguin Books. 2000. Print.

Lemmes, Fabian. “Collaboration in Wartime France, 1940-1944.” European Review of History, vol. 15, no. 2, 2007, pp. 157-177.

Shakespeare, William, and Harold Jenkins. Hamlet. London: Methuen, 1982. Print.

Quinney, Anne. “Excess and Identity: The Franco-Romanian Ionesco Combats Rhinoceritis.” South Central Review, vol. 24, no. 3, Fall 2007, pp. 36-50.




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