Tag Archives: Christian Humanism

From Venus to Virgin

“Lustrous among the cloudbanks,” the goddess Venus descended into the grove of oak trees, telling her son, Aeneas, that her gifts were of divine origin, forged by the fires of her husband, Vulcan. Venus embraced Aeneas as she offered him the weaponry and armor. He, amazed, looks each piece over, one by one, unsure whether to be more shocked that his mother was a goddess or that she had defied her own father to aid him.

He cannot get enough of them, filled with wonder,

turning them over, now with his hands, now his arms,

the terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire

the sword-blade honed to kill, the breastplate, solid bronze,

blood-red and immense, like a dark blue cloud enflamed

by the sun’s rays and gleaming through the heavens.

Then the burnished greaves of electrum, smelted gold,

The spear and the shield, the workmanship of the shield,

No words can tell its power.

For there, upon the shield, was the entire story of Rome, its past, its present, and its future, for Vulcan possessed the power of the seer, and directed by his wife, he had written it all.

Armed by his mother’s confidence and gifts, the half-god Aeneas of the destroyed city of Troy conquered his Latin foes, creating a new people that would rule the Mediterranean for over a millennium.

As Socrates awaited his execution by the hands and vote of the Athenian people in 399BC, a “woman in white” appeared to him in a dream, assuring him that in three days, he would spend eternity with his people and the gods in the land of Phthia. Socrates found more comfort in this dream, than in all of his own logic or the reassurances of his best friend, Crito.

When two Lakota warriors—the first representatives of their people—traveled onto the Great Plains of North America, they encountered a vision of the Great Buffalo Woman, a being shrouded in white light. One of the Lakota could not see passed her beauty and immediately felt lust in his heart. The other, though, saw her for what she really was, the lawgiver. The Great Buffalo Woman destroyed the lustful one, but she rewarded the other with the laws to govern his people, the laws by which all good Lakota would live.

At the moment a young Celtic man needed a tangible sign to unify his warring peoples, the Lady of the Lake emerged to offer him the sword, Excalibur, to unite and lead his people into virtuous victory. So armed, Arthur created a brotherhood the ushered in a Kingdom of Summer. . . for a while.

At Princeton, an eager and enthusiastic young student asked T.S. Eliot just why were there three leopards in his poem of conversion, Ash Wednesday, and who was the lady?

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. 

To which, Eliot replied, is it not enough that the lady honors the Virgin? Pagan or not, does she not point to the Blessed Mother of God, and, thus, to God? It is more than enough, Eliot assured his audience.

When another frustrated king, an Anglo-Saxon who would one day be known as Alfred the Great, begged of God aid in his battle against the heathen Danes, not God, but the Blessed Virgin appeared to him.  As Chesterton recorded it:

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,

More than the doors of doom,

I call the muster of Wessex men

From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,

To break and be broken, God knows when,

But I have seen for whom.

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God

Like a little word come I;

For I go gathering Christian men

From sunken paving and ford and fen,

To die in a battle, God knows when,

By God, but I know why.

And, yet, like most of us, Alfred craved sureity.  If he put his faith in Mary and in God, would he be rewarded.

And this is the word of Mary,

The word of the world’s desire

No more of comfort shall yet get,

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

Then silence sank.

Venus might promise victory, but Mary, rightly, only offers hope.  Yet, it is a hope that breaks the bounds of the world, and shows us eternity.

Tolkien, Wagner, Nationalism, and Modernity

“Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”–J.R.R. Tolkien

[Originally delivered at an ISI Conference, “Modernists and Mist Dwellers,” on Friday, August 3, 2001.]

     When the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1961, its author was appalled.  Fluent in Swedish, J.R.R. Tolkien found no problems with the translation.  Indeed, Tolkien often considered the various Scandinavian languages as better mediums for his Middle-earth stories than English, as the medieval Norse and Icelandic myths had strongly influenced them.  His disgust, instead, came from the presumption found within the introduction to the Swedish edition.  The crime: translator Åke Ohlmark had compared Tolkien’s ring to Wagner’s ring.  “The Ring is in a certain way ‘der Niebelungen Ring,’” Ohlmark had written. Indignant, Tolkien complained to his publisher: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.”  The translator’s commentary was simply “rubbish,” according to Tolkien.[i]

     Ohlmark was not the only critic to make the comparison.  A Canadian English professor, William Blissett, reviewing The Lord of the Rings for the prestigious South Atlantic Quarterly, found several parallels between the two legends but was unwilling to preclude “any direct Wagnerian influence.”[ii]  By the early 1960s, the comparison was becoming common.  In his last interview before his death, Tolkien’s closest friend C.S. Lewis claimed to have wanted to write a new prose version of Wagner’s Ring Opera.  Lewis feared, though, that “at the mention of the word Ring a lot of people might think it was something to do with Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’”[iii]  Since the first comparisons in the 1950s, many critics have used Wagner’s Ring against Tolkien.  One famous English poet referred to The Lord of the Rings as “A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh.”[iv]

[Scroll down a bit to go to page 2 of this lecture]

Edmund Burke Against the Antagonist World

Liberty Fund Edition of Reflections.

[Originally published at The Imaginative Conservative]

Should one generation ever consider itself greater than any other generation, past or future, Edmund Burke warned in his magisterial Reflections on the Revolution in France, the entire fabric of a civilization might very well unravel and, ultimately, disintegrate.  Our modern ears have no right to discount Burke’s argument as simple hyperbole.  What takes centuries to build and hone, however, can take moments to undo.  We have witnessed numerous generations since Burke wrote this, and we have seen the arrogance of several, but most especially the Vatican II generation and the so-called “counter-culture” generation of the 1960s.  To this day, we suffer from the arrogance of each.  They each, in the name of toleration, progress, liberalism, and humanitarianism to submit to their teachings blindly.  As one great Canadian and Stoic man of letters argued in the early 1980s, “They shout about love, but when push comes to shove, they fight for things they’re afraid of.” 

Once a generation succeeds in separating itself from past and future, it harms not just civilization but the very dignity of man.  The individual man, unanchored, becomes, Burke noted darkly, “would become little better than the flies of summer.”

[Please scroll down a bit to go to page 2]

I Never Met Russell Kirk

[First published at The Imaginative Conservative}

At the beginning of his Histories, Herodotus notes that a normal person enjoys 26,250 days in his or her life, no day ever exactly like another.  I’m not quite sure I want to count how many days I have left, assuming I could even know such a thing. It’s certainly very wise of the Good Lord not to let us know such things.

Still, as I think about my own days, some wisely spent, others squandered, I have only a few serious regrets.

One of my two most important—at least as it hovers over my being—is that I never actually met Dr. Russell Amos Augustine Kirk in person.  I had the opportunity several times, but I never took advantage of these.  There are lots of reasons why this happened (or, as the case really was, failed to happen), but they really all came down to the same thing—I took too much for granted while in my 20s.  I seemed invulnerable as did those I loved and admired.  As one of my other heroes, Neil Peart, once wrote, “We’re only immortal for a very short time.”  My immortality seemed rather assured as did that of those whom I respected.  Strange considering my own father died when I was only two months old.  Yet, that happened before I was conscious of the world, and the whole story of his death had much more mythical significance than real influence.

Life has a funny way of teaching us each the lessons we so painfully need to learn, and I was rather shocked in the summer of 1994 when I heard that Russell Kirk had passed away.  I was only 26, but I knew I had missed my chance to meet the great man, a man I had studied intensely for about six years at that point. 

[Scroll down a bit to go to page 2]

Approaching Weathertop: Anatomy of a Scene

In his personal recollections of his mentor, hero, and friend, George Sayer remembered that J.R.R. Tolkien possessed the uncanny ability to match his facial expressions and speech patterns to and with the prevailing mood of any given conversations.  “As I saw with him and the Lewis brothers in the pub, I remember being fascinated by the expressions on his face, the way they changed to suit what he was saying,” Sayers recollected. “Often he was smiling, genial, or wore a pixy look. A few seconds later he might burst into savage scathing criticism, looking fierce and menacing. Then he might soon again become genial.”[1] It was not affectation, but sincere intensity. The very same might (and should) be claimed of his writing ability. When the mood calls for levity, Tolkien writes with levity. When the mood calls for depth, Tolkien writes with depth. When the mood calls for contemplation, Tolkien writes contemplatively. As a twentieth-century author, he was an absolute master at this.

One can see Tolkien’s skill in the approach to Weathertop, chapter 11 of book one of The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Knife in the Dark.” Having slowly fled the social and near fatal disasters of Bree, September 30, the four hobbits, Bill the Pony, and Strider the Ranger make their way east of the village, en route to the Elvish safe haven of Rivendell. They won’t arrive in Rivendell until late on October 20, but they have no idea of just how long it will take. Dispirited, the party moves anxiously and uneasily, not sure who in the village had betrayed them to the demonic black riders. The same riders—at least four of them—attack Frodo and his party on the evening of October 6.

On October 4, after an agonizing journey through insect-ridden marshes, Frodo and his party spot Weathertop for the first time. Strider advises a roundabout route, thus approaching Weathertop from the north, a path better hidden from the spies of the enemies. On October 5, the hobbits feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep. “There was a frost in the air, and the sky was a pale clear blue,” Tolkien writes.[2] As the party nears Weathertop, they find themselves on “an undulating ridge, often rising almost to a thousand feet, and here and there falling again to low clefts or passes.” The last looks and leads into the east, seemingly endless in vista, and the party views “what looked to be the remains of green-grown walls and dikes, and in the clefts there stood the ruins of old works of stone.”

[Please scroll down a little bit to go to Page 2 of this post]

The (accidental) Christian Humanism of Steven Wilson

The Meaning of a Life: Steven Wilson’s Hand.Cannot.Erase.

An Incarnational Whole

One of the greatest things in this whirligig of a world—however fraught with a string of perilous and gut-wrenching disasters—is the mystery of the human person.  And, until God so decides to end this existence, every person is a new reflection of the Infinite.  From the Catholic Humanist perspective, every human is an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom.  Each person, born in a particular place and time, comes only once, a life to burn as brightly or not, for one’s self or for another, in the time allotted to each of us.  “Dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world,” the grand Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, understood.  Fewer truths have ever been spoken in such perfect formation of the English language. 

Yet, speaking on the mystery of the person and personhood, Pope John Paul II put it even more beautifully in the penultimate month of 1996.

The mystery of the Incarnation has given a tremendous impetus to man’s thought and artistic genius. Precisely by reflecting on the union of the two natures, human and divine, in the person of the Incarnate Word, Christian thinkers have come to explain the concept of person as the unique and unrepeatable centre of freedom and responsibility, whose inalienable dignity must be recognized. This concept of the person has proved to be the cornerstone of any genuinely human civilization.

As someone who has had the privilege of teaching history and writing biography the entirety of his professional career, I hope and pray that John Paul II’s words and ideas each across everything I teach, think, and write.  As such, I am always looking at and for new ways to understand the dignity of each individual person, however tragically flawed.

Nearly six years ago, such a statement and manifestation of dignity arrived in the most unusual of ways: in the form of a rock concept album by the rather devoutly atheistic, seemingly always grumpy, and unbelievably talented English musician, Steven Wilson.  His album, a sixty-seven minute story about a lost soul, came out on February 27, 2015.  In terms of lyrics and music, Wilson’s work is extraordinary by the standards of any genre.  What should intrigue us most, however, is the subject matter and how Wilson fills it out.  The subject matter is the uniqueness of each human person, and he focuses on the life of one lost soul.

[Please scroll down a bit to go to page 2]

Christopher Dawson: Preparing to Fight Modernity

Too sickly to fight in the Great War, Christopher Dawson volunteered for civilian duty and spent roughly fourteen years reading and drawing up ideas to prepare for a career in writing.  He had received a profound mystical vision on Easter, 1909, while visiting Rome.  In that vision, the nineteen-year old Anglo-Welshman believed God had commanded him to record the entire history of the world, showing him all times and all peoples at once.  Determined to live up to what God had asked him, he began building upon an already solid liberal education.

During these years, he kept extensive notes and journals influential writings included in his notes came from the significant historians, anthropologists, and thinkers from every school of thought from his day.  Generally, he took notes in the same language as the original texts, and he delved deeply into Plato’s Laws and the various writings by Aristotle, Xenophon, and Heraclitus.  In his journals, now residing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, one can see vividly that Dawson readily moved through a variety of languages including English, French, Greek, and Latin.[1]  

In the same notebook, presumably after reading the above authors, Dawson concluded tellingly: “All the events of the last years have convinced me what a fragile thing civilization is and how near we are to losing the whole inheritance which our age might have acquired [sic] enjoyed.”

In addition to his voluminous academic and scholarly reading, he also devoured wht works of Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, P.J. Wodehouse, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells, R.H. Benson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a huge selection of science fiction, historical fiction, American westerns, and English detective stories.[2]  G.K. Chesterton, especially, influenced Dawson, as the latter regarded him as “one of the greatest champions of Christian culture in our time.”[3]  Chesterton’s most influential work on Dawson was his epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse [read from this?].  This poem, perhaps the most significant call to arms for twentieth-century Christian Humanists, equally inspired C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Russell Kirk.

[Please continue reading on page 2]

Christopher Dawson and Johannine Divine Madness

March 29, 2007

[Thanks to Phillip Carl Smith, the Orestes Brownson Council, and ISI for the invitation to speak at Notre Dame; it’s always a great pleasure to be here at Our Lady’s University; as was mentioned in my bio—I lived in Zahm for three years back when Fathers Tom King and Bill Miscamble were the rectors.  This past August, my wife, family, and I came over to the college for a day of research.  It happened to coincide with the arrival of the students.  As we pulled into the visitor parking lot by the library, my wife noticed a sign for Farley parking.  It said, “Farley, protecting its residents from Zahm since 1973.”  My wife hasn’t let me forget this.

I also want to thank Kevin Cawley, an amazing archivist over at the ND archives]

To put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as “with fervor”), Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  

Additionally, prominent American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on the thought of Christopher Dawson and other figures of the Catholic literary revival as early as the mid-1930s.[2]  

In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  

Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  

In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

[Please keep reading on page 2 of this post]

The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.  

In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane.  Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson.  And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  As evidence, Sheed could cite much.  By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s,  American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day.[2]  In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

[Please continue to page 2 of the post]