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classical education butterflyUnreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many. —The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot

I moved frequently in the later years of my childhood—not just from town to town, state to state, or country to country, but from continent to continent. In my adulthood I have moved several times as well. After so many relocations, I have realized that the most important movements in life are about physical journeys entwined with spiritual ones.

There are places where one arrives which, although you can see clearly how you traveled there, you are neither sure of the pathways forward nor are you at all sure why you have arrived at that precise place and time.

Think of the iconic caterpillar to butterfly illustration. If you will, the “locations” in life described above are “caterpillar destinations.” When we eventually do leave them, we neither travel nor relocate, we do not exactly just grow or mature…we metamorphose.

As the caterpillar disintegrates and is remade into the butterfly, we too experience a dissolution from which we will emerge a different being: the same, but made strikingly new both with respect to inward essence and outward manifestation.

In my own experience, one is never fully aware this is happening until the disintegration is under way. It generally arrives at an ordained time, triggered by certain circumstances, yet nonetheless often takes us by surprise because we have settled into being what we think we already are and always will be. When the realization dawns, we tend to be deeply ignorant, in the midst of the disintegration, of what “reintegration” might look like.

These caterpillar destinations are some of the most challenging places to be in life, as the waiting in stillness and formlessness insists upon silence and what feels like an imposed, unnatural personal rest in the midst of a creative storm over which we have no control. These are some of the most beautiful places, as the stasis imperceptibly transforms us in unrecognizable increments—like a painting starting to take form—until the end result, the work of art, is revealed.

Many of these are natural periods of transition that we universally recognize. Forgive me if I focus here on instances peculiar to my own sex, but since I am speaking from experience, it is only reasonable to do so. Consider, for example, adolescence. The girl is not the same as the woman who emerges following puberty. The advent of parenthood is another example. A woman is not the same after pregnancy, labor, and birth as she was when she was a bride. Similarly, the wiser, older woman is not the young mother who has not yet passed through menopause. There are many more caterpillar destinations in life than these, of course, but these are some of the most obvious.

We tend to view such transitory places between these states as fraught with the tension that comes from fragmentation, disorder, and exhaustion… because that’s what they do, in fact, frequently include.

In our aspirations and dreams—so often, as the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung recognized, expressed in our fairy tales—we wish for the other-worldly godmother who will wave her magic wand and suddenly we will be gorgeously arrayed for a magnificent ball. I think most of us know, though, that the reason the star of that story, Cinderella, is so easily adorned with a flourish and an incantation lies in the fact that she is already beautiful to begin with: She does not need transformation.

Cinderella’s magical moment is not metamorphosis; it is raiment. In the physical time and space in which we must necessarily live between conception and death, however, we are not usually Cinderellas; We are more like her step-sisters. The magic wand would not only not work for them, but it feels somehow inappropriate to utilize it. The famous step-sisters are not fit for such garments. Something deeply transformative—spiritually and physically—is needed for them to become ready to be covered with clothing suitable for a great celebration in a royal hall.

When I was working in psychotherapy, I sometimes asked clients the question, “If you could wave a magic wand, what would your life look like?” This question was taught to me as a counseling technique, and it presupposes the understanding that, more or less universally among human beings, things are not as we would ideally wish them to be. In addition, we know we ourselves are not what we could—or want to—be. It is not a secret to anyone. Our society believes that unless we identify what the ideal looks like, we will be “a-teleological”—unmoored, directionless, caught up in the torrents of existence.

The problem with this question, however, is that the profoundest moments of metamorphosis are not actually up to us. The assumption is that we can actively do something no matter where and what we are in life, that we can personally lift the wand and wave it and transform ourselves into what we strive to be. While that may be true in some ways (for example, we can decide to be a radiologist, and frequently we can bring such a goal to fruition), it is not true in terms of authentic caterpillar destinations: Unless our pre-birth lives are terminated in some way, we move from the womb and come naked and crying into the world… no matter what. Adolescence happens… whether we like it or not. Parenthood will, more often than not, come upon us unless we actively restrict it. And, if we do not die young, there is nothing we can do to stop the transition from maturity to old age. Ultimately, that final caterpillar destination arrives for all, without exception. We die.

Thus, while these moments are far from being undirected, they are not directed by us; they have a teleology whose origin transcends us, and it is one which we only dimly grasp, if we grasp it at all. Even caterpillar destinations on a much more obscure scale, occurring regularly in our lives but perhaps missed by us because they pass by more swiftly and with less fanfare, come under this umbrella. A vast amount about being human is not as firmly under our control as we, in the twenty-first century, have persuaded ourselves to believe.

These caterpillar destinations are extended moments of dynamic energy and formation. If we are honest, we will admit that we do not navigate them for they are, in a profound sense, unmapped territory. We cannot totally control them for we have no fully accurate blueprints and we own few tools appropriate to them. We can usually simply submit to them and experience them and come through them. Only in that final sense can we captain our ships—holding still through the storms, returning to life “as usual” after the event as creatures altered by the experience.

Like sudden sea squalls, caterpillar destinations are dictated by force beyond our ken. To be undone and reconstituted in this way is a tremendous and fearful thing—but we must be so unmade and then re-formed in order to move on. That is, in a nutshell, a fundamental reality of life as we experience it in the dimensions in which our mortal lives unfold.

Our western culture today recoils from these caterpillar destinations; treats them as uncomfortable, unsettling, distasteful, and sometimes even terrifying periods of unknown and unmanageable alien agency. If you seek substantiation for this, simply consider the following questions: Do you see how far we will go to avoid childbirth? Do you detect how much we seem to desire to shut away our little children in institutions? Do you hear the disparaging ways in which we talk about our teenagers? Do you recognize how much we smirk at “mid-life crisis”? Are you able to weep in recognition of how we ignore old age and death by hiding them away in forgotten corners of our cities?

Our culture does all it can to inhibit, repress, or suppress caterpillar destinations with addictions and medical interventions like pain killers, numbing drugs, and psychotropic prescriptions. It pathologizes such transformative moments; mocks them; rejects them. We have forgotten what it means to submit to being human—because for humans, passing through in these watershed caterpillar destinations is not negotiable. We pretend otherwise. In psychology, this pretense—if recognized for what it is—would itself be described as a form of delusion, a disassociation from reality reminiscent of psychosis.

Imagine what might happen if the caterpillar were to fight metamorphosis with every mechanism at its disposal and with all its energy, shaking its metaphorical fist at its own nature; trying to catch and suppress every incremental movement towards transformation…and wallowing in rage and grief and apathy because no matter how hard it kicks against the pricks metamorphosis will, in fact must, occur. Having wounded itself so thoroughly and deeply in its struggle, it becomes a damaged creature and it cannot recognize itself; a being that cannot realize it is meant to fly; a creature that does not know what it is meant for; it has condemned itself to a perpetually potential, but never actualized, beauty.

This seems to be, for the most part, the collective unconsciousness of postmodern man (I am tempted, in the vein of Lewis’s Abolition of Man, to rephrase this as “posthumous man”): Striving always for egocentric-creation, self-definition, and personal re-formation. And when the inevitable reality happens and the other-directed living being emerges from the naturally imposed cocoons of life… these unavoidable caterpillar destinations…it does not understand itself, rejects itself, and lashes out with savagery as a wounded animal does when it is in pain and cornered.

Perhaps it is not going too far to say that this produces a kind of apocalyptic horror—at best an insistence to remain in the cocoon forever, like the dwarves at the end of Lewis’s Last Battle, and at worst a dreadful demand to look upon the face of the Gorgon and be forever turned to stone (the quintessential example of something intrinsically non-human) trapped eternally at Dante’s City of Dis.

This is why, today, although we live in a time which has summarily rejected examination of the past as “irrelevant,” it is more important than ever to educate our children classically, looking to artifacts, symbols, and methods of the ages that have preceded us. We must classically educate in this sense: that we see clearly, not the Hegelian evolution of the spirit foreshadowing and paralleling Darwinian physical evolution, but rather the permanence of the fundamental nature of individual human existence in each person from the first moments of consciousness through death; a journey inevitably involving caterpillar destinations that have been hallmarks of the lives of men and women from time immemorial.

In every credible retelling of history, in every piece of literature worth reading, in every instance of wholesome advance and enlightenment in areas of human existence from farming to the arts to abstract mathematics throughout recorded time, there are profoundly significant lessons to be passed on and absorbed about caterpillar destinations—about metamorphosis— that our children will benefit from contemplating. They will be gifted with insights into when such transformation might happen; what it looks like; what it feels like; what its impact is; how to submit to it; how to see its beauty; how to not just endure but flourish under its touch; how to rejoice in, and not to rail against and reject, metamorphosis.

To support this claim, one could bring up anything that is generally considered “classical” (classical pedagogy, classical content, any and all of it could be discussed). But the royalty of all the so-called “classics” which serve as icons for classical education are the Homeric epics. It is there that I will turn for a single, brief illustration. Listen to what Eva Brann points out in her book Homeric Moments as she discusses the benefits reading Homer brings to its students:

Aristotle… bring(s) into use a word very familiar to us in its modern adaptations: energeia, often translated ‘activity.’ For us energy is the capacity for being actively at work, but energeia is the fulfillment itself of that capacity, expressed not in locomotion but as a kind of vibrant stasis, when any being is fully at work just being itself, being what it was meant to be. Into the dynamic, temporally flowing narrative of the epics are set these stations of activity, when the tale comes to its fulfillment in a high point, a moment of summary significance.[1]

Although this is not precisely Miss Brann’s intent at the juncture in which it appears in her book, I see this as a nod at describing not only caterpillar destinations—think of them as “life energeias”—but how classical works such as Homer’s poems bring those moments into the consciousness of their readers in order to be epiphanic: lessons we learn about metamorphosis.

This has powerful potential to teach our students how to accept what it means to be a human being and how to recognize purpose and telos that may no longer be conscious, or even intuitive, to us. This endows students with at least the epiphany of realizing the condition in which we created beings live as we pass from one caterpillar destination to another. Rather than recoiling in horror from them, rather than kicking against and writhing under the imposition of metamorphosis, rather than suffocating it beneath the weight of synthesized medications and battling with an endless arsenal of “how-to” books claiming to help us endure it, we can learn to see metamorphosis when it is coming. We can learn to anticipate it, prepare for it, meet it head on with an equipped perception that embraces all that it can mean; and its meaning is precisely what it is to be human.

In our story-telling today we are obsessed with the apocalyptic because we are living in such a time; a stealthy, undercover, eclipse: the annihilation of humanity through its own rebellion against its creator (whoever and whatever one thinks that might be; there are powerful Christian articulations to each part of this scenario—but, profoundly, one need not address them explicitly in order for the sense of this to be clear). In the end this mutiny is a rebellion of the human self against itself. The work of classical education can restore understanding of ourselves to ourselves, and promises the healing of all manner of apocalyptic plagues—perhaps all of which arise out of the stubborn refusal to metamorphose.

Reflect for a moment upon the apocalyptic symbol of our times, the zombie. “He” is trapped mechanistically within a glaringly obvious a-teleological reductionist physicality: he has lost all semblance of that which we normally consider human “spirit”—his reason, his morality, his ability to love. He has also lost all resemblance to human physical health, for his body rots and disintegrates as he zealously hunts and blindly feeds.

And what does he feed upon? What does the zombie seek as nourishment? That which is human. The zombie instinctively realizes that it is only through that which is human that he can be restored, his sensitivity to human presence is therefore acute and predatory, and yet the zombie cannot (in most renditions of the tale, save a rare few—World War Z and Warm Bodies come to mind as examples) return to being human; neither can he pass through death to the afterlife.

The zombie is in fact so far from being human that to reference the zombie with any third person pronoun such as “he” or “she” is, in itself, an aberration (readers probably sensed that as they moved through the previous paragraphs). The zombie is an “It.” This is because zombies are caught, forever, in a caterpillar destination. It is not too radical a postulate to hypothesize that zombies are our cultural reflection, perhaps some form of archetypal image revealed through our stories and fairy tales, revealing what we subliminally perceive ourselves to be: trapped in dissolution, de-personalization, and stalled transformation.

The fact that these images are so prevalent today in our cultural narratives sends us a multi-faceted message that we are mired in quicksand—that we intuit ourselves as trapped in a quagmire in which we have denied ourselves the ability to metamorphose. Indeed, if we continue to cut ourselves off from the lessons and wisdom of the past, if we insist, for whatever reason, on limiting our understanding of what it means to be human solely to the fragmented ideologies of the post-modern moment, we endanger ourselves. Jung writes, “The unconscious no sooner touches us that we are it—we become unconscious of ourselves.”[2] Our unconscious realization of our zombie-like state has perhaps already flowed over us, and as a result it has already been actualized in us.

Obviously this is metaphorical speech. Of course I am not claiming we actually are zombies. And yet our metaphors describe things which are not seen on the surface; they go deeper, their reach is broader. They unveil truths that otherwise we would be at a loss to articulate. Therein is one of the profundities of the Jungian archetype, and the significance of symbol to our human expression. In this case, it is the expression of our “selves.”

In his conclusion to Beauty in the Word, Stratford Caldecott notes: “Our humanity is bound up with our capacity to realize that being (and therefore everything that exists, in one degree or another) is one, good, true, and beautiful. When we are brutalized into ignorance of this fact, or denied the experience of it, the taste of it, then we have become less than human.”[3]

We have, indeed, perhaps “brutalized” ourselves into such ignorance and into a stultified, zombie-like, state. Herein we writhe in discomfort but insistently refuse to be liberated through the means which have, for millennia before us, brought us through such transformative states.

Yet there is still hope. As Jung also notes, “To ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem.”[4] To ask ourselves how to heal is to begin the journey. It is possible to wave a magical wand and turn the tide, releasing ourselves from bondage in our cultural caterpillar destination. I believe the return to classical education may yet return our humane-ness to us. We need only reclaim it. The transformation will not be instantaneous, but it will begin.

A friend posted a meme recently on social media that caught my eye as I was writing this essay. The image contained the following quotation from poet Maya Angelou: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Classical education invites us to study, contemplate, and embrace two thousand years of recorded transformation—those caterpillar destinations, moments of “life energeia”—that have been bequeathed to us in order that beauty may once again bloom in the wasteland.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


[1] Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad (Philadelphia: Paul Dray Books, Inc. 2002), 10. Print.

[2] Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1968), 22. Print.

[3] Caldecott, Stratford. Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (Tacoma: Angelico Press. 2012), 134. Print.

[4] Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1968), 23. Print.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for this article. We now have a new phrase: Caterpillar Destination. So often our culture needs to discuss a problem but hasn’t yet learned to see the problem, it doesn’t have the vocabulary. This will help.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Brian. I agree wholeheartedly. Having the terminology for a conversation is always important — and is one reason why, with our tendency to more and more vague language and empty symbolism, we are gradually making our conversation less full of meaning, and therefore less effective in terms of communication. Reclaiming language — and in fact allowing it to organically grow (kuddos to Shakespeare for setting such an excellent example for us lesser mortals) — is a significant part of bolstering effective discussion. We will all benefit from it.

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