Invoking the Muses:
Why Inspiration Must Be Tangible

By Travis Copeland

Students need a concrete focus, not just abstract ideas, in order to learn to see the good, the true, and the beautiful.

If classical education is to inspire holistic human beings, then it must address the meaningless use of the word inspiration in American culture today. It must offer a hopeful, constructive, definitive, and purpose-filled inspiration, bound by eternal meaning and direction. Pop culture throws the word around on billboards, in commercials, and in so-called political discourse surrounding education. This lazy, ineffectual use of the term lends itself to hyper-individualism. It is so open to interpretation it has no meaning; it feels affirming, but communicates no constructive boundaries or telos. It says nothing about the end of education. With its frequency and ambiguity, classical education has another role to play: defining inspiration.

What should students—or societies for that matter—be inspired toward? The aim of a good education will bear resemblance to the aim of a good society, because education is aimed at making good citizens and not just good students. It is generally agreed that inspiration is essential: classical, parochial, charter, and public education rarely differ on this. However, disagreement over the purpose of education leaves us wanting direction and definition relating to inspiration. What is the classical educator’s answer to this question?

We must first keep in mind that classical education must be aimed at constructing something meaningful. It cannot merely be against cultural winds such as utilitarianism, communism, postmodernism, or a vague charge of “indoctrination.” Instead, classical education must construct an affirmative vision, one to inspire students who inhabit its classrooms on a daily basis. Even more, it must clearly define those ends. We as such-and-such a school are not just here to inspire your students arbitrarily, but we are here to inspire them to this specific end. So, what is that end?

O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

William Shakespeare, Henry V

Classically speaking, inspiration means teaching students to invoke the Muses over their education. It is giving them characters and voices from the past, which can encourage, excite, rebuke, and motivate. These voices are joined by the teachers to contribute meaningful direction and point out the ends of education: truth, goodness, and beauty. When directed, inspiration provides encounters with the great characters of literature, who became a chorus in the backdrop of a student’s life urging them to virtue and hope. This kind of inspiration is tangible, constructive, and purposeful. Pointing to a specific book or character, a student can say, and explain why, they were inspired by the cunning of Odysseus, the virtue of Atticus Finch, or the wisdom of Gandalf.

Rooted in the Græco-Roman world, inspiration has been part and parcel of human nature since the invention of writing. The early Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts made invocations to the gods; in the Christian era, the Medieval theologians, Renaissance writers, and Romantic poets all invoked the Muses. The idyllic voice of a creative presence helped the writers and artists produce sacred beauty and enduring goodness. Dante invoked Beatrice’s beauty and wisdom as she sought to set him on the right path through Virgil, and he sits within a tradition cultivated by the ancients. Both Homer and Virgil invoke the Muses in their tales of long wandering. Homer’s opening lines ask the Muse to sing to him of Odysseus, who was blown off course after the fall of Troy; Virgil calls on the Muse to recognize the persecution and mistreatment of such a man as Æneas, who leaves the same wreck behind in search of Rome. The Muses are called upon to invoke great tales of suffering, injustice, heroism, and virtue. They motivate the writer and reader alike to see the great men and women who inhabit these epic tales.

As a Muse who inhabited the spirit of the story brought the narrative to life, so too should a student be inspired by characters who bring to life their education. It was the Finch family who first came to life for me. Once encountered in To Kill a Mockingbird, I felt Scout and Jem’s playful spirits, Atticus’ firm virtue and paternal care, and the place of Maycomb, Alabama come to life. They were no longer confined to the book: they were a kind of dramatic chorus, encouraging my discovery through reading and offering examples of good, hearty people. Classical education should equip students with literary friends like Jayber Crow, Frodo Baggins, Elizabeth Bennett, Moses, or Uncle Tom. This kind of inspiration reaches deep into the soul of learning, penetrates time with eternity, and provides wisdom and purpose through story. In encountering these great characters, students will be inspired by their friendships to seek out more. Further up and further in they will go in their own reading in search of characters to add to the chorus who sing of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Inspiration should be tangible. It should be identifiable in literature. A student should be able to say, what, when, where, and why they were inspired. Let us forgo blasé rhetoric about inspiration and replace it with tangible literary friends, encounters, and depictions of a life well lived.

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Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other material here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Frederick Douglass and Carl Jung, or these “Great Conversation” posts on logic and the soul. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored.

Page image of Urania and Melpomene (Muses of astronomy and tragedy) by Louis de Boullogne, 1681

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