Screwtape on flippancy

In addition to reading Letters to an American Lady for myself and Prince Caspian as a bedtime story for my daughter, last week I started listening to John Cleese’s great audiobook performance of The Screwtape Letters again. While a coincidence and not even remotely by design, I’m now getting a triple dose of CS Lewis—two of them in epistolary mode. This is not a bad thing.

Lewis’s cutting, brutally honest insights into human behavior and sinfulness make Screwtape a revelation and a joy and a disturbing challenge every time I read it. Uncle Screwtape is particularly good at creating taxonomies of human badness, sorting basic kinds of sin into more specific subcategories that still ring true. Consider this, from Letter 11, in which Screwtape explains that while human laughter qua laughter is not necessarily useful to the devils, certain kinds absolutely are. The “patient,” the young tempter Wormwood’s human victim, has recently made fashionable friends with a penchant for certain kind of knowing laughter. After parsing a number of ways humans can amuse themselves and laugh together, Screwtape concludes with a description of hell’s favorite kind of humor:

python diabolical.jpg

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

The key line here is, I think, Screwtape’s succinct explanation that “Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made.” This kind of flippancy is mostly a matter of tone: simply invoke a particular person or group or idea and wait for the laughter as if it’s inherently funny or worthy of mockery. We’ve all seen this.

But flippancy also relies on a certain in-group disdain for outsiders, and it’s this tendency, as the full letter in the broader context of Screwtape makes clear, that gives flippancy its real danger—the inherent danger of bad company, of cliques. Lewis called such cliques “the inner ring” and was particularly attuned to the temptation offered by inner rings. The bad influence of an exclusive set—especially one perceived as fashionable—appears repeatedly in his fiction and non-fiction work throughout the 1940s, probably most notably in That Hideous Strength, in which Mark Studdock strives for and is seduced into a prominent place in a diabolical circle of scientists.

Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made.
— Screwtape

In “The Inner Ring,” a 1944 lecture, Lewis gave a good description of such cliques and their dangers, but what concerns me here is his description of the kind of language and humor that marks membership in the group: “There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks.” The more unthinking disdain you can pour into your flippant references to opponents or enemies, the more you mark yourself as a member of the group and the more the group affirms you.

(Take away the jocular element and you get something even worse—pure virtue signaling. Virtue signalers are almost invariably humorless people, so even among the flippant there is still hope.)

I think we have a surfeit of this kind of laughter nowadays—exacerbated as always by our internet bubbles and media that are inimical to serious thought or discussion—and it’s exactly as destructive as Screwtape implies. Flippancy borders on mockery but without the potentially salutary moral effect that well-deserved mockery can supply, leaving only the self-satisfaction of the mocker and his audience. Flippancy is also lazy, relying on no more cleverness or wit than a child in a schoolyard pointing and laughing. At least the child gets the exercise of lifting his arm.

You can read the entire letter (Letter 11) here or listen to Cleese’s performance of it here.

The Core Curriculum arrives

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_%281825-1905%29_-_Homer_and_his_Guide_%281874%29.jpg

I’m pleased to announce that the latest show from the Christian Humanist Radio Network, The Core Curriculum, has arrived! This podcast will work through Columbia University’s list of core texts in the Western literary canon book by book, starting, in this series, with the Iliad.

This show is set up like a seminar or panel, with a stable of rotating hosts and guests for each of the eleven episodes in which we work through Homer’s masterpiece. I was honored to participate in a few episodes. Homer provoked great conversations among us and I’m excited to hear what everyone else talked about. If you’ve been looking for an excuse or a prompt to read through one of the great books of both Western and world literature, this is your chance for a deep dive into the story with some good company.

As with other shows on the CHRN, you can subscribe to the Core Curriculum and listen via iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting apps. I’ve embedded the first episode in this post via the network’s flagship show, The Christian Humanist Podcast. You can also download the episode directly here or look at the episode’s shownotes at the CHRN’s website here. I’m honored to have participated and really excited about this project’s future. Listen in and enjoy!

Southern meanness, Southern politeness

James Dickey as the Sheriff of Aintry in the film adaptation of his novel  Deliverance

James Dickey as the Sheriff of Aintry in the film adaptation of his novel Deliverance

Over the weekend I ran across Florence King’s With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy while browsing my favorite used book store. King (1936-2016) was a Southern humorist, author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, and longtime columnist for William F. Buckley Jr’s National Review. Her specialty was misanthropy—the dislike of mankind.* I had heard her name invoked quite often by other writers for that magazine, and they always spoke with immense affection and admiration for her razor wit and savagely keen eye for human stupidity. So when I saw her name on the spine I grabbed it and started flipping through it.

This passage hooked me. Near the end of a lengthy description of Ty Cobb’s famous temper and general gruffness, King writes:

The Southerner’s famous mean streak is usually attributed to a murky sadomasochism involving fears and fantasies of interracial sex, but I suspect it is really a reaction against the demands of Southern hospitality.

This caught my attention for two reasons. First, it is the fashion, in our sex- and race-obsessed age, to ascribe everything weird or distinct about the South and Southerners to anxieties surrounding miscegenation. This is seldom invoked as a sole causal factor but it is more and more often the first line of explanation, though it fails for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it was not unique to the South. Second, King’s suspicion jibes precisely with an observation made by the Coen brothers some years ago, about which more below.

King, delightfully, goes on:

South Carolina novelist Blanche McCrary Boyd writes: “Southerners are as polite as cattle, except when they’re not. When they’re not, they might shoot you or chase you around the yard with a hatchet.”** Living up to a reputation is an exhausting business. It is humanly impossible to be as gracious as Southerners are supposed to be, but we long ago got in too deep. The rest of the country came to believe our propaganda and, fatally, we came to believe it ourselves.

In consequence, we produced monsters of hospitality who cast a pall of incessant, unbearable niceness over the entire region. All classes participated in the torture. The aristocratic prototype of hospitality is the crystalline great lady of whom it is said, “She’s kindness itself.” The plain-folks prototype was my grandmother, the miles gloriosus of the spare cot, constantly braying, “We’ll make room!” and issuing jocular threats about what she would do to a guest who even thought about leaving too soon. (“I’ll just tie you right up and keep you here!”)

Hospitality carried to such extremes is bound to create its opposite, and so we produced the misanthropic good ole boy who greeted out-of-state travelers with speeding tickets or unmarked graves, depending upon his mood. If Ty Cobb had not been a ballplayer he would have made a great Georgia sheriff.

In his first book The Southern Tradition at Bay, Richard Weaver briefly describes the some noteworthy elements of the famous caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks. Sumner, in a speech laced with sexual innuendo (there’s that projection, again), had insulted Brook’s dying uncle, Senator Andrew Butler. Weaver notes that, as Brooks prepared to avenge this insult, he “deliberated for two days over whether to use the horsewhip, the cowhide, or the cane for his assault upon Senator Sumner because a different degree of insult was implied by each.”

That’s the same care taken in seeing to the comfort of guests applied to the avenging of an insult. The Coen brothers once said that part of their inspiration for Fargo was their observation that “the most polite societies are also the most violent societies.” Compare the courtliness and cold-bloodedness of Arthurian chivalry or the Nibelungenlied, the oathbound rules of host and guest in the Eddas or Beowulf, or the brutal vengeance of Odysseus upon the suitors—the latter a straightforward case of redressing an abuse of hospitality.

The key factor in all of these examples is honor, of course, and King’s observation should ring true the moment you dip into the study of any honor culture. Understand the seemingly paradoxical relationship between mild-mannered courtesy and violence, and how honor adjudicates these conflicting impulses, and you’ll have grasped something important about Southerners. Until then you can only misunderstand and dismiss.

Ty Cobb’s meanness, by the way, has been grossly exaggerated. He was tough, competitive, and extremely aggressive, but as Charles Leerhsen demonstrates in his excellent recent biography A Terrible Beauty, most of the stories of Cobb’s frothing-at-the-mouth psychosis and racism are either caricatures or lies. Check that book out for sure, especially if you love baseball. Here’s a sample of Leerhsen’s findings from Hillsdale College’s Imprimis.

Oh—and I bought King’s book. Can’t wait to read the rest.

Notes

*I am a wannabe misanthrope, too lily-livered and obliging to embrace the lifestyle. I therefore find people like King wonderfully amusing. We need them the same way Lear needed his Fool.

**True story—An aunt of mine, one of the saintliest, kindest, most hospitable and charitable people God ever graced me in knowing, quite famously chased my grandfather around the yard with a hatchet when they were children. His offense? He had eaten a piece of watermelon she had claimed for herself.

CS Lewis on blame

Over the weekend I started reading Letters to an American Lady, one of a few books by CS Lewis that I hadn’t gotten to yet. This book was published posthumously and consists of the letters Lewis sent an American woman—addressed as “Mary,” a pseudonym, in the book—over the course of about thirteen years, from 1950 until shortly before his death in the fall of 1963. While they never met, the correspondence was regular and warm and friendly, and ranges over a charmingly wide array of subjects.

(I was interested, for instance, in Lewis’s take on the coronation of Elizabeth II: “I didn’t go . . . I approve of all that sort of thing immensely and I was deeply moved by all I heard of it; but I’m not a man for crowds and Best Clothes.”)

In one of his early letters to Mary, a Catholic convert, Lewis, an Anglican, addresses the widespread perception that failings in the Church and erroneous beliefs among the faithful are always the fault of the clergy. In the middle of this reflection, he writes:

 
I am rather sick of the modern assumption that, for all events, ‘WE’, the people, are never responsible: it is always our rulers, or ancestors, or parents, or education, or anybody but precious ‘US’. WE are apparently perfect and blameless. Don’t you believe it.
— CS Lewis, May 30th, 1953
 

Hear hear. We could call this scapegoating, but that word has a surviving connotation of formality that I think Lewis was right to avoid evoking. That’s too grand; formally trying to assign blame in a rational way is too much work. The more pernicious habit is apathetic, inactive refusal to see any blame in oneself.

I began to add my own glosses to Lewis’s list of the blameworthy, but I think his words speak for themselves. He has perceptively listed almost all of the things we prefer to fix blame on, including the totemic magicians we elect, the wicked dead we prefer to remember with moral hauteur if at all, organic institutions or artificial systems that have broken down, or, failing all of those, anybody else. Our family. Our friends. Our neighbors. Our enemies. Especially the last, where we can make it stick.

Last week I ran into Walmart on an errand and passed by the little island of “inspirational” books that are always for sale there. Among the devotionals and self-help books and paperback Bibles was a book called Living Successfully with Screwed-Up People. I don’t want to malign a book I haven’t read, but if it doesn’t begin with a chapter about oneself, the reader, and one’s own screwups, the book has already failed.

Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien in  Tolkien  (2019)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien in Tolkien (2019)

Last weekend I finally got the chance to see Tolkien, a film I’d been looking forward to with guarded optimism. The film tells the story of young JRR Tolkien, focusing primarily on his youth, education, and experiences during the First World War.

When the film begins, young Ronald (the first R in his famous initials) and his younger brother Hilary are living in an idyllic English countryside with their mother, a widow. Ronald and Hilary return from a woodland romp in which they pretend to be knights to find their mother in earnest conversation with Fr. Francis Morgan. Their life, already difficult owing to a move from Africa, where Ronald was born, to England and the death of the boys’ father, is about to become more difficult yet. They move from the countryside to industrial Birmingham, where the boys’ mother shortly dies. Fr. Francis, now their guardian, sends them to school, where the homeschooled boys are awkward but brilliant.

In this stretch of the story the film finds its two themes in two forms of love—friendship and courtship. First, Ronald is at first mildly antagonized by and then invited to join a group of precocious fellow schoolboys. Four in number, they leave the grounds to have tea in the back tearoom of a local store, where they disrupt the stuff middle-aged usual crowd with their enthusiastic discussions of mythology and art. Ronald gives their fellowship a joyfully clumsy nickname, the Tea Club, Barrovian Society or TCBS. Second, Ronald meets Edith Bratt, a fellow orphan and boarder at the home where he and Hilary share a room. He is immediately smitten. The film follows these two relationships—Ronald and the TCBS, Ronald and Edith—for the rest of its running time, through tragedy in the first case and into joy in the other.

A view of Middle Earth

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The film’s strongest asset is its visual splendor. Well-used landscape shots of the English countryside or the Oxford skyline or the Western Front evoke the love and loathing Tolkien felt for these places and suggest their atmospheric influence on his work, especially the most extreme of Middle Earth’s locations—the Shire in the countryside of his boyhood, Mordor in the smokestacks of Birmingham and the cratered moonscape of the Somme. This is a good-looking movie, and fantasy elements incorporated into the nightmarish, hallucinatory battle scenes—ringwraiths and dragons and even Sauron himself—work better than they should on the strength of their eeriness.

The war scenes themselves are outstanding, depicting the twenty-four-hour hell of the Somme authentically, with muck and grime and standing water in a no-man’s-land full of tree stumps and shell holes. Tolkien captures a thimbleful of the horror of the Western Front and shows Ronald’s dark, helpless place in it.

The film also has some truly inspired moments. My favorite depicted the news of England’s declaration of war on Germany in 1914. As Ronald’s fellow Oxford students flood the quad and cheer the arrival of a great adventure, Ronald sits quietly on a bench reading one of the great passages of Old English literature to his mentor, Professor Wright. It’s the speech of Byrhtwold in The Battle of Maldon:

Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens.

The acting is fine but not outstanding, for reasons I’ll talk about shortly. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Ronald. As I worried, he’s too pretty, too billboard handsome to convince me he’s Tolkien. He did well enough with the material given him but I never believed he was the character. The same goes for Lily Collins as Edith, who performs better than Hoult in an even more underwritten part. The standout in the cast is Sir Derek Jacobi as Wright, in a very small part that only pops into the latter third or so of the film. Jacobi imbues Wright with such intelligence, affability, and goodness that it immediately underscores how far short the other cast members fall.

Where it went wrong

I think the writing, from a screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, is to blame. Most of the parts are underwritten or simply clumsily written. The actors do their best but the script simply isn’t well-formed or deep enough to tell the story well, and is too cliche-bound to tell the more complicated—and more interesting—truth.

A meeting of the T.C.B.S. in  Tolkien  (2019)

A meeting of the T.C.B.S. in Tolkien (2019)

The TCBS is a case in point. The young actors portraying the four depicted members can never take their characters beyond schoolboy stereotypes—the quiet one, the boisterous one, the nerdy one, the sensitive one—because the script never digs deeply enough for us to become invested in their friendships. We know the boys like each other simply because they spend most of their time declaiming poetry to each other. The one exception is Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle), a younger member whom the filmmakers depict mooning forlornly over Ronald, breathily commiserating about forbidden love after Roland is forced to cease communication with Edith. It’s a bizarre inclusion that adds nothing to the poignancy of Smith’s later death on the battlefield. It’s an example of the way modern film can’t seem to handle male friendship without sexualizing it. That it is so badly performed only draws attention to it.

But the weakest part of the film by far is the love story, which is a shame because, as I wrote in the spring, what I find most compelling and romantic about Ronald and Edith’s story is how much it breaks the mold of forbidden romance cliches. The real Ronald and Edith were forbidden to communicate by Fr. Francis—because Ronald’s grades had started slipping and because Edith was not a Catholic, about which more below—and Ronald and Edith obeyed. Edith got engaged to someone else. Ronald pined away until the evening of his twenty-first birthday, when he sat and wrote a letter to her proposing marriage.

The film hews to the facts in the broadest possible outline but everywhere you can feel the screenwriter massaging the details to fit the standard Hollywood mold. Ronald and Edith’s romance is communicated primarily through cuteness and smiles and twee sequences of whimsy, as when they cannot get seats for Wagner’s Ring and dance around in the prop department instead. Tolkien fell in love with a sharp, talented, and seriously religious and principled woman, but all the movie can give us are luminous smiles. Ronald responds to his forced breakup with Edith by getting drunk and staggering around the quad and lashing out at an old friend, then he steals a bus—something that actually happened, but not the way it’s depicted here. When at last he is old enough to pursue Edith, the couple is depicted as reuniting just before Ronald and the other members of the TCBS ship out to the Western Front. In reality, Ronald and Edith were already married by then. And Fr. Francis, an enormous influence in Tolkien’s early life and a man about whom Tolkien had nothing negative to say, is reduced by the screenplay to the role of an obstacle. In his extremely limited screentime he comes across as an out of touch fuddy-duddy, and Ronald lights into him for daring to dictate rules about his love life when he is celibate, a 21st-century zinger if ever there was one.

Finally, the film only makes token gestures toward the religious dimension of Tolkien’s life. One would be forgiven for not knowing that Fr. Francis was a Catholic priest, a serious omission given the level of anti-Catholicism in England at the time. That Tolkien’s mother lived in such miserable conditions because her own family had cut her off after converting to Catholicism is left out, as is the serious religiosity of the TCBS, which Tolkien regarded as the force that bound its (much more than four) members. And the difficulty of Edith’s conversion from her serious and devout Anglicanism to Catholicism also gets not a mention. I expected it, but it’s still disappointing.

In conclusion

I’ve had a lot to say about Tolkien’s flaws but I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I just can’t recommend it, first for all of the reasons I’ve outlined above, and second because I simply don’t know what someone who didn’t already know a lot about Tolkien would get out of the movie. That moment between Ronald and Professor Wright reading The Battle of Maldon as England goes its most destructive war blew me away because I’ve read The Battle of Maldon dozens of times. Would the average viewer feel the power of that scene as I did without knowing that thousand-year old poem? I doubt it.

By the same token, someone who doesn’t know Tolkien’s life story will get only a standard Hollywood melodrama about friendships that end in the tragedy of war and a love that overcomes obstacles thrown in its way. The details and specifics of these remarkale real people have been sanded away in favor of cliches. The result is a nice-looking film with underwritten parts that proceeds as if on autopilot.

Middle Earth still awaits its Tolkien movie.

Presentism old and new

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s signature on  Torse, effet de soleil  (1875)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s signature on Torse, effet de soleil (1875)

Herbert Butterfield (1900-79)

Herbert Butterfield (1900-79)

Writing in 1931 on the methods historians use to approach the past, the English scholar Herbert Butterfield asserted—in a line I’ve shared here before—that

the chief aim of the historian is the elucidation of the unlikenesses between past and present . . . It is not for him to stress and magnify the similarities between one age and another, and he is riding after a whole flock of misapprehensions if he goes to hunt for the present in the past.

Butterfield is attacking presentism, in particular the subject of the book from which this passage comes—The Whig Interpretation of History.

Whig history was a widespread interpretive stance that saw the past as a record of inevitable progress toward greater political and personal liberty, culminating in the modern, enlightened world of constitutionalism, liberal democracy, and modern technology. Whig historians celebrated freedom and enlightenment and lionized those historical figures whom they perceived as having helped the world toward those ends. In short, Whig historians approached the past with a particular and partial view of the present always first in their minds. Butterfield’s critique was that whiggish priorities and judgements distorted their view of the past and caused them to see illusory narrative arcs in vastly more complicated events.

Whig historians also tended to sort historical figures into categories of good and bad based on the figures’ perceived relation to the historian’s preferred present-day circumstances. But the Whig tendency—based on my reading—usually tended toward valediction of the heroes of the story (Luther, Henry VIII, Galileo, Cromwell, Locke, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Lincoln, and Edison to put together a shortlist) and dismissal of their opponents. Why pile on when history had tried them and found them wanting?

The temptation to make judgements like those of the Whig school is still strong, but where whiggish interpretations tended toward celebration, the default today—a progressive present-mindedness—seems to me to be condemnation.

This week Jonah Goldberg had an interesting and wide-ranging interview with economic historian and blackbelt-level contrarian Niall Ferguson on his podcast, The Remnant. Commenting on the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project, Ferguson offers a number of ways the project—which I haven’t read and toward the merits of which I therefore remain agnostic—has overstated or distorted its picture of the role of slavery in American history, then detours into a more fundamental level of historical interpretation. (Starting at 23:42 in the full episode.) Ferguson:

However, when much of this debate happens today it’s clear that all people really want to do is virtue signal and do identity politics and it’s the kind of opposite of the history that I believe in. In my view, applied history, making history, as it were, useful, is all about trying to learn from the past, to understand the experience of the dead, and see how it can illuminate our own predicament. The exact opposite approach is to say “Let’s take our norms and let’s export them to the past and wander around the early seventeenth century going ‘Tut-tut, wicked white supremacists’ at all the people we encounter.” But that’s become the mode in history departments all over this country to the point that they are deeply dull places that don’t in fact illuminate the past, they just import an anachronistic set of values and rather arrogantly condescend to the past.

I think the key concept here is “arrogant condescension.” The endemic presentism of today isn’t the celebration of the Whigs, which was a form of hero worship, but the condemnation of the progressives. Rather than teasing out sometimes imaginary strands of good people who did good things to help make the present possible, contemporary presentism sits in draconian judgement of all the bad people of the past—and they’re all bad people.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir,  Self Portrait  (1910)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self Portrait (1910)

In a less serious vein, here’s a piece by film critic Kyle Smith that I came across in which Smith makes a similar point. Writing of a new exhibition of Renoir that makes a great deal of hay out of his “problematic” nudes—an “investigation” that explains in mind-numbing detail Renoir’s manifestation of the “male gaze” and, in the inevitable piece of spectral evidence, “patriarchal” relations—Smith is forced to ask

What are the facts available to the prosecution in the case of People v. Renoir, indicted for multiple counts of being problematic in the first degree? Well, he painted nude women. But he didn’t just paint them nude, he painted them beautiful. Attractive, sensual, voluptuous. He liked his naked ladies, Pierre-Auguste. He thought you would probably like them too. Renoir’s nudes aren’t an interrogation or a subversion. He isn’t looking sideways or undermining expectations. He merely celebrates. Artists did that quite a lot in the 19th century. They didn’t know that 21st-century minds would acclaim art in proportion to how expertly it administered a cosmic noogie to the bourgeoisie.

(The exhibitors, like the pigs in the farmer’s house in Animal Farm, are still more than happy to display these signs of oppression, by the way. And charge $20 per person to see them.)

Flawed as it was, there’s a love in Whig history that has gone missing. But what the valedictory narratives of the Whigs and the vitriol of the problematizers have in common is an inability to see historical people from “the inside.” Both bring the story inevitably back to themselves. It’s arrogant, it’s uncharitable, and it doesn’t bring you any closer to understanding the past. Because why should you?

As it happens, I’ve written about this before. I’m sure I will again.

Griswoldville in the Laurel

laurel review.png

I’m grateful to Tracy and John at the Georgia Mountain Laurel, a great local magazine published in my hometown, for John’s generous review of Griswoldville in the September issue. (A Rabun County bicentennial issue, no less!) The review gives a few details about my writing of the book, including the role my grandfathers played in inspiring parts of the story, as well as a brief plot synopsis and a kind recommendation. Please check out the Laurel, and do check out Griswoldville as well if the Laurel’s review piques your interest!

Thanks again to the folks at the Laurel. They’ve previously reviewed No Snakes in Iceland and Dark Full of Enemies and have been an immense encouragement as each new project has come out.

You can browse the online edition of the Laurel here (the review is on page 40 of the magazine). For more information about Griswoldville, including praise from other readers, you can look at the book’s page on my site here or visit it on Amazon here.

Chesterton on the Iliad

Achilles mourns Patroclus, from a second century a.d. greek sarcophagus

Achilles mourns Patroclus, from a second century a.d. greek sarcophagus

From The Everlasting Man’s Chapter III: The Antiquity of Civilisation, in which Chesterton describes Homer and the Iliad and their place both in their own time, in Western civilization (hence “our first poem”), and in the hopes and despairs of all mankind:

[The Iliad] might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.
— GK Chesterton

Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as a blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact. It is said that the poem came at the end of the period; that the primitive culture brought it forth in its decay; in which case one would like to have seen that culture in its prime. But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.

I’ve returned to and chewed on this passage again and again in the decade since I read The Everlasting Man in grad school. There are two things I like about it:

First is Chesterton’s observation that Homer produced one of the great foundation stones of world literature despite humble origins and limited ambitions. Looked at another way, Homer didn’t try too hard. The stereotypical novelist who sets out to write The Great American Novel always fails—indeed, the stereotype would be incomplete without his frustration.

It’s those who tell intensely focused and intimately small stories that tend to reveal the most about the whole world. The parallel I always think of in this regard is Jane Austen. Few writers are as local and parochial in their plots, characters, and settings—her genre almost demands it—but few have said as much about the human condition and especially our flaws than Austen, or said it as well.

Give up ambition. Narrow your gaze. This is a reminder for myself more than anything.

Second is Chesterton’s praise of the Iliad as the sum total of human wisdom, the extremity it can reach unaided. Ancient man was not stupid and saw the world in a harsher and sharper light than shelter modern man does. Homer sees all and rightly assesses it, and the picture the Iliad leaves us with is unremittingly bleak. Even before faint point of hope on which the poem concludes—Hektor’s funeral—his father and his killer fall into each other’s arms and weep, one for the sons he has lost, one for his comrades and, not least of all, for himself. The end is coming as it does for everyone.

It’s true, Chesterton is saying, but it’s not the whole picture. If Achilles and Priam can hope for anything beyond the grisly deaths that await them just after the Iliad’s ending, they cannot know about it. That knowledge has to be supplied from outside, with sight keener than “merely mortal vision.” The mourning Greek heroes yearn for that without knowing it, and also not knowing that they are creating the world into which that outside vision will come and the desires that it will fulfill.

It’s a powerful passage and neatly encompasses the theme and achievement not only of the Iliad but of Chesterton’s own book. Check it out if you ever get the chance.

What have I done with my life?

Every once in a while you run across someone whose towering achievements put your life into some unwelcome perspective. (Real doses of humility are always unwelcome. I reckon they have to be to be effective.) Here’s one such famous moment from Plutarch’s Life of Caesar:

[W]e are told again that, in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. “Do you not think,” said he, “it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”

At my age all both Alexander and Caesar had accomplished some amazing things, and one of them had already died after having conquered much of the known world. Touché. And this story is doubly poignant for all of us, of course, because the man weeping over his failures is a man we remember now for his incredible military and political genius and long-lasting achievements. In the latter regard he outstripped even the man whose memory had brought him to tears.

I get something of that perspective when I read about people like Tolkien, one of my heroes—a polyglot creative genius who led a life of the kind of quiet, studious virtue really mature people only hope to attain.

But now consider one of Tolkien’s mentors. Here’s a passage from The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip & Carol Zaleski:

Oxford Philologist joseph wright (1855-1930)

Oxford Philologist joseph wright (1855-1930)

Joseph Wright would play a significant role in the growth of Ronald’s [JRR Tolkien’s] intellect, not only through his celebrated Gothic grammar but as Ronald’s instructor, friend, and mentor at Oxford. . . . Wright’s is one of the great Cinderella stories in the annals of English philology. Born in Yorkshire, the son of a charwoman and a miner who drank himself to death, he went on to work in Blake’s dark Satanic mills at the age of seven, changing bobbins on spinning frames and, in his spare time, selling horse manure. A lifetime of illiteracy and drudgery beckoned, but . . . Wright resisted fate, in his case successfully. When he was fifteen, a fellow mill worker taught him to read and write, using the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress for texts. Wright followed up by teaching himself Latin, French, and German through grammars purchased from his paltry income. Then he added Welsh, Greek, Lithuanian, Anglo-Saxon, Old Saxon, Old Bulgarian, and Old High German to his repertoire, acquiring a doctorate in the process at Heidelberg University. At thirty-three, he published his Middle High German Primer and later edited the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary. He became . . . England’s leading philologist, and was named professor of comparative philology at Oxford. In his breathtaking ability to master new languages, “Old Joe,”as Tolkien referred to him, served as an inspiring professional model; in his moral goodness, fortitude, and kindness, combined with his rough Yorkshire ways, he was a prototype for Tolkien’s Hobbits.

Consider this in light of the odds against Wright’s achieving anything and your admiration and shame can only deepen. Men like Wright leave the rest of us with no excuses.

And since I already touched on it, I think the cases of Wright and Tolkien should offer even more powerful and convicting examples than Caesar and Alexander because Wright and Tolkien were good men. After all, one of Plutarch’s reasons for including the anecdote quoted above was to demonstrate Caesar’s destructive ambition. The desirability of goodness over notoriety is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few years, and which I’ve written about here before.

Food for thought. How well are we using our lives?

The End of the World! on City of Man Podcast

Desolation  from Thomas Cole’s  The Course of Empire

Desolation from Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire

The final episode of the City of Man Podcast’s Ancient Asides series has arrived—it’s the end of the world as we know it! This episode covers the Roman Empire from the reign of Theodosius to the end of the empire in the west in 476 and the rise of the barbarian kingdoms that made medieval Europe, a story for another day.

You can view the shownotes here. Listen in via iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting apps, or by clicking “play” on the embedded Stitcher player in this post.

Here’s a complete listing of the Ancient Asides series, in case you want to catch up. Links will take you to City of Man’s shownotes pages on the flagship podcast’s website:

These episodes have been a labor of love for several years now, and I hope y’all have enjoyed listening to them as much as we enjoyed recording them. Please subscribe to City of Man if you haven’t already. Coyle and Ed are gracious and generous hosts and I was honored to be such a long-running guest on their show.

Thanks as always for listening. Until later, I’ll sign off with the words of St. Augustine’s City of God: “The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.”