Chesterton on chronological snobbery


A short line from Chesterton that I hadn’t run across before, as quoted in this piece from the Imaginative Conservative by GKC biographer Joseph Pearce:

[M]an should be a prince looking from the pinnacle of a tower built by his fathers, and not a contemptuous cad, perpetually kicking down the ladders by which he climbed.

Chesterton is writing in praise of the historian Christopher Dawson, whose work “has given the first tolerably clear and convincing account of the real stages of what his less lucid predecessors loved to call the Evolution of Religion.” This was a topic of especial concern for Chesterton, and meditations on that topic form a large early part of his own book The Everlasting Man.

But his primary concern in this line is with a problem that CS Lewis and Owen Barfield, both drawing from Chesterton, would later term “chronological snobbery.” Lewis: chronological snobbery is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

This is the air we breathe, now. It’s the water we swim in without even knowing it. In his essay, Pearce imagines a scenario in which a resurrected Plato is first treated as a curiosity, then as a nuisance, and finally as a subject of scorn. I don’t have to imagine this—I’ve seen it. I have to take great pains to teach my Western Civ students anything of value about—to follow this example—the Greek philosophers. Virtually all their textbooks offer about Plato and Aristotle is that they were sexists who made excuses for slavery. Inadequate.

Chesterton’s solution to chronological snobbery was tradition. From Orthodoxy: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Key to embracing and maintaining is tradition is a certain pietas or respect for the past. This is the minimum buy-in. Without respect—a respect that should blossom into a filial love—the tradition breaks down and you are left with nothing but yourself. A paltry and limited thing and, to kick this back to Lewis one more time, a prison:

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough.

That’s from An Experiment in Criticism, which Lewis published in 1961. Chesterton’s earlier essay argues almost exactly the same thing, expanding the scope from wide reading to a wide and deep understanding of the past and, especially, our debts to it. To expand the line I quoted earlier with a bit more of its full context, Chesterton is summarizing Dawson’s scheme of “four stages in the spiritual story of humanity.” He concludes the summary—and the essay—by saying that

I will not complete the four phases here, because the last deals with the more controversial question of the Christian system. I merely use them as a convenient classification to illustrate a neglected truth: that a complete human being ought to have all these things stratified in him, so long as they are in the right order of importance, and that man should be a prince looking from the pinnacle of a tower built by his fathers, and not a contemptuous cad, perpetually kicking down the ladders by which he climbed.

Don’t be a snob. Have a suitable respect for the past and you will inevitably learn from it and enrich yourself.

Pearce’s entire essay is worthwhile—you can read it here. You can read the entirety of Chesterton’s essay, collected in Avowals and Denials in 1934, here. And I’ve previously written about pietas, which I’m more and more convinced is the most important of our neglected virtues, here.

Jefferson on ignorance and freedom


This morning I happened across this quotation from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Charles Yancey, a Virginia state legislator, in January 1816, seven years after leaving office as president to return to private life back home in Virginia:

if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.
— Thomas Jefferson, January 6, 1816

The whole letter is quite remarkable, a blend of commentary on mundane Albemarle County infrastructure projects (a dam project that could wreck property values and the navigability of a river); his fervent hopes that an acquaintance named Captain Miller will be able to open a brewery nearby (both for his own enjoyment and for humanitarian purposes: “I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families”); and some quite pointed—and still relevant—observations about the early 19th century mania for banking:

Like a dropsical man calling out for water, water, our deluded citizens are clamoring for more banks, more banks. the American mind is now in that state of fever which the world has so often seen in the history of other nations. . . . we are now taught to believe that legerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth as hard labor in the earth. it is vain for common sense to urge that nothing can produce but nothing: that it is an idle dream to believe in a philosopher’s stone which is to turn every thing into gold, and to redeem man from the original sentence of his maker that ‘in the sweat of his brow shall he eat his bread.’

But the most striking portions of the letter come near the end, when Jefferson reflects on the prospects of funding improvements not just in roads and canals (the big infrastructure craze before railroads), but in education. He theorizes about a minor tax that could help fund education at every level, including a projected college which would later become the University of Virginia, and criticizes the fanaticism bred in students after they leave to study in New England universities. (The more things change…) Jefferson:

if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. the functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. there is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

I am less sanguine than Jefferson—a hopeless Enlightenment rationalist who did not believe in original sin or any of the doctrines that traditionally imparted a salutary dose of reality to ambitious moral improvers—about the power of the press and of education, and have a hard time knowing which it would be more foolish to place much hope in. But Jefferson is exactly right that in a system such as ours, it’s up to the citizenry to defend themselves against abuse of the powers they have granted to their government. Republics run on such tensions.

I don’t think I have to argue that we’ve failed. By Jefferson’s lights, we are now and have for a long time been asking the impossible.

And education does have a role to play, especially if we hope to recover some of the republican virtues and liberties the Founders assumed were necessary to maintaining freedom. (See Jefferson’s friend John Adams on this point here.) After all, the purpose of liberal education is to train free people—citizens. It’s precisely that vision informing Jefferson’s comments above.

You can read this quotation with a bit more context here or the letter in its entirety here. You can even peruse Jefferson’s original, with a helpful transcription, here. The portion I’ve quoted has sometimes been shared with a spurious additional line or two about citizens being informed. I think this probably began as a gloss on Jefferson’s original and got lumped in with his actual words, as is the wont of internet quotation. You can read about that at Monticello’s page on spurious, corrupted, or misattributed Jefferson quotations here.

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.

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.


*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.

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.

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?

O'Connor on recognizing (and writing) good stories

Flannery O’Connor at home in Milledgeville, 1962

Flannery O’Connor at home in Milledgeville, 1962

This morning I made it a point to track down the exact wording of a line from Flannery O’Connor that has stuck with me for years. After some digging around I finally uncovered it. The line comes from “Writing Short Stories,” a lecture for writing students collected in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. For context, here’s the full paragraph in which the line appears:

A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you.
— Flannery O'Connor, "Writing Short Stories"

Now I am not so naive as to suppose that most people come to writers’ conferences in order to hear what kind of vision is necessary to write stories that will become a permanent part of our literature. Even if you do wish to hear this, your greatest concerns are immediately practical. You want to know how you can actually write a good story, and further, how you can tell when you’ve done it; and so you want to know what the form of a short story is, as if the form were something that existed outside of each story and could be applied or imposed on the material. Of course, the more you write, the more you will realize that the form is organic, that it is something that grows out of the material, that the form of each story is unique. A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.

All the books that have had lasting meaning for me, that have kept on teaching me things, and have only grown with the years rather than diminishing and falling away, have precisely this quality—of offering you more and more out of a well that is in no danger of running dry. There’s more where this came from, somewhere down below.

There is also a wonderfully anti-Platonic emphasis on the particular and organic in that paragraph—fitting for a woman who described herself as a “hillbilly Thomist” (a label I have been trying to appropriate for years). I have definitely seen form emerge from my own work more often than I have imposed form on it. Each story has a way it wants—needs—to be told. The writing of it will reveal it.

On that note, a final thought: Immediately after the above passage, O’Connor writes:

The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.

This is, in fact, some of the best advice she offers in the lecture. (A footnote at the beginning of the text in Mystery and Manners quotes her elsewhere saying that “Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.”) Learn by doing. Tinker and figure it out. What stops us—what stops me—from simply writing a story is aiming at perfection the first time through.

While I was writing Dark Full of Enemies some years ago, friends in a writing group encouraged me to complete what they called a “get-words-on-paper draft.” That proved immensely helpful, and helped me better understand a line from Chesterton that has always nagged at and bothered the perfectionist that hunches in one tidy corner of my soul: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Do, and you will eventually do well.

Chesterton on the spiritual benefit of heatwaves

Current staTus

Current staTus

I ran across the following Chesterton quotation today and found it apropos for two reasons. First, today is the anniversary of Chesterton’s death at the age of 62 in 1936. Second, while the weather here in upstate South Carolina has been mild—even occasionally pleasant—for about two weeks now, the three weeks or so before that were an increasingly miserable foretaste of late July or August heat. No cloud, no wind, just sizzling on the griddle of the piedmont.

From a June 11, 1910 column in The Illustrated London News:

The chief gift of hot weather to me is the somewhat unpopular benefit called a conviction of sin. All the rest of the year I am untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. But in hot weather I feel untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile.
— GK Chesterton

I resemble that remark. You can read a longer chunk here.

Leave it to Chesterton to find some kind of spiritual benefit in what would otherwise just be inconveniently hot weather. Of course what he’s cheekily describing here is the self-knowledge and humility that should come through all hardship, something he is by no means the first to comment on.

A good reminder for the next time I’m doubling up on anti-perspirant.

Oh—my “Mount Writemore” t-shirt arrived in the mail yesterday. It depicts Chesterton, CS Lewis, George MacDonald, and JRR Tolkien on a much more interesting version of Mt. Rushmore. It’s available in a variety of sizes and colors (mine is “asphalt”) from the Babylon Bee. It’s also available as a poster. It’s deeply silly and I’m very excited about it—a very Chestertonian response I think.