This is the second of two parts of a conversation with Bradley Birzer, who holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair of American Studies at Hillsdale College and is one of his generation’s most important scholars of conservative thought and the tradition of Christian Humanism. He is the author of several books, including American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth, and Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, as well as many articles, essays, and reviews. He is also a founding contributor to The Imaginative Conservative.
Too often, conservatives seem obsessed with political answers to what are better understood as cultural questions. Where have conservatives gone wrong?
Great question. And of course I don’t have a definitive answer, only some thoughts. First, only the very rare young woman or man cares about culture. Culture is the province of the middle-aged and elderly, or so it seems to be in the modern age. A young person understandably craves definite and concrete answers for most things in life, not being terribly comfortable with mysteries, especially as he or she enters adulthood—one wants security at that point. But that same young person often also rather idealistically believes in changing the world. Wanting certainty as well as change, the young person finds politics a tempting route to take to promote the best things. There’s excitement, there are votes that make the thing tangible, and there are other young persons, all working toward a common goal.
I would go so far as to state that for the really virtuous young woman or man, politics is the seductive path.
For the most part, we (meaning almost all of us) have lost the ability to discern power from love. We now assume—“well, yes, power corrupts, but that’s the way of the world. We might has well make the most of it.” To me, this is akin to saying, “well, yes, I am an alcoholic, but I’ll just have a shot or two of vodka. It’s simply the way of things.”
Much of the Western tradition has sought to teach liberally educated persons to make fine distinctions. With the demise of liberal education, the world and our ability to make good choices has sunk with it. Good people still make good choices, but the range of choices has narrowed considerably as our vision of what is transcendent has dimmed. As we view the world itself in infinitely more hues of gray, we actually lose our ability to see nuance in real good and real evil.
What is more, most culture has become popular culture. There’s very little high culture any more, very little patronage for the arts at the highest level. The highest arts have been brought down as entertainment for everyone, and only a very, very few still compose or paint in any kind of way that might possibly be recognized a hundred years from now.
Those of us who care about culture have surrendered art to the freaks and music to the corporations. We rarely, if ever, support real journals of thought,and we’re generally content to live in our own subjective worlds, worlds made safe by our own selective and—if we have kids—protective bubbles. Kirk always claimed this was a sign of growing decadence. Two generations later, I would confidently claim this as a survival mechanism, a necessary privatization of our culture and our families.
I don’t mean to be too gloomy. There are signs of potential revival all around us. Some truly beautiful music is being created, but almost exclusively in the rock world. Thirty years ago, someone could have claimed jazz as well, but jazz isn’t nearly as interesting as it was a generation ago. In fiction, there are some excellent new works, but they’re very, very dark. Real imagination—at least of the kind of a George MacDonald or J. R. R. Tolkien—seems rather lacking.
Virtue, strangely enough, arises mostly in comic books and superhero movies. Why, I’m not totally sure. But I think it has do with our innate desire to find excellence. In the ancient world, people had gods and demigods. In the medieval world, people had saints and martyrs. In our modern and postmodern whirligig, we have Spider-man and Batman.
I don’t think I’m answering you, except to state that we need to find excellence wherever it arises and in whatever context it arises. T. S. Eliot thought we entered a Dark Age around 1900. If this is true, our job is to preserve as much as possible and sanctify as much as possible.
In our cynicism, we need to reclaim our ability to see good and evil. This might take generations to reclaim.
In your excellent book on Christopher Dawson, you refer to his “Augustinian” historical approach. What is this and why is it important?
Of all things I’ve written, the biography of Dawson has been my favorite. Everything just kind of came together for me as I was writing that. It was a joy, to be sure, and I felt a great sense of mission as I wrote it. I also love the layout of the book, the quality of paper, and so on.
For all intents and purposes, St. Augustine was the first historian we would recognize in the Christian world. Thucydides tried to be objective (and came across as flat), and Herodotus took everything with equal seriousness (and comes across as a little sensational, though I love his work).
Augustine takes the best of both Greeks and sanctifies the classical understanding of cycles, but he also realizes that the Johannine and Pauline story of the New Testament allows us the grace to break out of the cycles themselves. St. Augustine isn’t content being merely a historian, though. Having enjoyed a true liberal education, Augustine also sanctified Aristotle, Plato, and, most importantly, Cicero and Virgil. I’m stating this from memory, but didn’t St. Augustine cite The Aeneid something like eleven or twelve times in the opening chapter to The City of God? The real Rome, of course, is not Rome at all, but the New Jerusalem.
In 1930, Sheed and Ward published one of the most important books of the past century, though almost immediately forgotten. It was a series of essays celebrating the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Augustine simply entitled A Monument to St. Augustine. Edited by Christopher Dawson and Tom Burns, it included contributions from some of the most important scholars of the twentieth century, including Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. But the list of other writers is rather astounding: Dawson, of course; Martin D’Arcy, Maurice Blondel, Erich Przywara, E. I. Watkin, and C. C. Martindale. As it happened, it served as the transition from the four-issue journal, ORDER, one of the most breathtaking attempts at journalizing (I’m sure Kirk’s University Bookman took something from ORDER, however indirectly), to the sixteen-volume series, Essays in Order, which attempted to bring all European Christian Humanists into dialogue with each other during the early 1930s. And in many ways, it worked. That set the stage for similar attempts in America. I think Dawson was the great Christian Humanist nexus in the U.K. and Europe. Kirk was the same in America.
I must state here that one of my prized possessions is a copy of A Monument once owned by fiction author Christopher Morley, complete with his copious notes and marginalia. It’s a beautiful thing.
In his autobiography, The Church and I, Frank Sheed recognized St. Augustine as the most important man of the twentieth century! Dawson agreed, as did Kirk.
You have written a lot on the tradition of thought you call “Christian Humanism.” What is Christian Humanism, and what can it say to contemporary culture?
Christian Humanism has everything to say to contemporary culture, if only contemporary culture will listen.
When I claim the title of “Christian Humanist” I in no way—following in the path of Dawson, Eliot, Kirk (and Russello)—mean an exclusive Christianity or Catholicism. As a Catholic, I believe in universality. That is, I believe, as do all practicing Catholics, that every person (regardless of the accidents of birth) is made in the image of God—fallen, but still a temple of the Holy Spirit and a reflection of the love of the Logos. This is not limited to professing or baptized Christians. It means everyone. Everyone. Again, regardless of the accidents of birth. Plus, for us to presume to knowwho is “saved” or not is the height of arrogance and folly.
Christian Humanism is higher than left-right politics or any ephemeral distraction of the moment. It is, I think, the best way to connect past, present, and future, as well as time and eternity. It claims a certain narrative of the history of Western civilization and the Western project from the pre-Socratics to Eliot to Kirk to Pope Benedict XVI. I think Eliot’s Four Quartets is the ultimate modern expression of Christian Humanism, tying all aspects of the Logos together.
Ultimately, Christian Humanism is a recognition that the liberal arts and Christianity need one another. Penultimately, though, it claims a certain fundamental dignity of every person everywhere and in any time.
You recently started up another site devoted to “prog rock.” What is that and how does it fit, if at all, within your conservative universe?
I’m not sure if it has anything do with it, except tangentially, as all good art needs to be sanctified and conserved. As with the best of jazz, progressive rock attempts to make rock a form of art rather than of mere emotional expression. Progressive rock musicians usually think of the genre as a complex art, often bringing in unusual time signatures, long solos, and philosophically and mythically oriented lyrics. Rarely is it elevator or wallpaper music. Instead, it takes a certain amount of dedication and investment to listen to a prog album.
Carl Olson (of Ignatius Press fame), Canadian philosopher Chris Morrissey, and I founded www.progarchy.com as a celebration of music with no necessary political or theological connections. That is, we approach the music (jazz, rock, metal, classical, prog) as music.
It’s a great way to destress while still writing! We have a blast.
In your analysis of conservative thought, what are the things conservatives should be doing to regenerate the culture?
Well, I think Kirk always understood it best: make your part of the world meaningful, colorful, and beautiful. Have children. Paint. Write. Read. Plant gardens and cultivate the growing of living things. Eat well and drink well. Love life and cherish everything. It all goes rather quickly, and it’s always very delicate and fragile.
Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Part Two of a two-part interview with Bradley Birzer, who holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair of American Studies at Hillsdale College. Birzer says the conservative task privileges preserving and sanctifying culture over politics. He also discusses Augustine, Christian Humanism, and progressive rock.