Essays on Modernity: And the Permanent Things from Tradition
by James A. Patrick,
Introduced by Thomas Howard,
Edited by B. R. Mullikin.
Fort Worth: Tower Press Books, 2015.
Hardcover, paperback, Kindle, 190 pages.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of attending one of Dr. James A. Patrick’s lectures, you know how gentle and thoughtful a person he is. He wears his knowledge lightly, displaying his erudition through a quiet command of history, art, politics, and theology. But for those who have never heard him speak, this collection of essays serves as a lovely introduction.
Dr. Patrick was a co-founder of the now-defunct College of Saint Thomas More, a Roman Catholic liberal arts institution in Forth Worth,Texas. Its flagship publication was Tradition. This book gathers thirty-five articles and essays that were published in it between 1998 and 2011.
The title of this collection is drawn from the sub-title of Tradition during its years of existence: Essays on Modernity and the Permanent Things. The “permanent things,” of course, was a phrase originally coined by T. S. Eliot during a talk he gave in 1937—and later incorporated into his 1939 work, The Idea of a Christian Society. Readers of Russell Kirk are also likely to recognize it from his 1969 work, Enemies of the Permanent Things.
Dr. Patrick’s understanding of these “permanent things” revolves around the humane tradition of the liberal arts. It is an educational approach that is broad, generous, and—in the words of educator André Gushurst-Moore—“integrative,” bringing together the best in Western culture and civilization and reconnecting us with what modernity has destroyed.
These essays thus grapple with a broad range of topics and ideas: the nature of glory and honor; Darwinism and intelligent design; abortion and human dignity; even environmental degradation. Some chapters are short theological reflections on the nature of love or martyrdom; others are literary considerations of Shakespeare’s understanding of love and war, or the historical importance of the fourteenth century religious poem “Piers Plowman.”
Regardless of the subject matter, Dr. Patrick’s message is clear. He minces no words in his preface: “Ours is an age of revolution.” The age was “prophesied by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and perfected in the series of wars between the motley crew committed to the defense of Eliot’s permanent things, broadly the flawed, humane, Christian tradition, and the apostles of modernity, that succession inaugurated by Ockham and perfected in his contemporary auxiliaries, Richard Rorty and Peter Singer.”
In a short essay, “Freedom and Truth,” Dr. Patrick identifies various contemporary challenges to this humane tradition, including the modern, secular state, which he sees as an enemy of truth, continuously engaged in a denial of the true, the good, and the beautiful. That is why, he argues, education is the critical link in order to preserve tradition, return to order, and safeguard our freedom—“not merely [for] knowledge in the modern secularist sense, but education of the heart.”
In another particularly engaging chapter titled “Practical Advice About What to Do When the Barbarians Come,” Dr. Patrick laments the state of society: “Not since the days of Theodosius … have public morals … undergone so radical a revolution in so short a time in those three great matters that concern the human race most: sex, politics, and religion.” In response, he makes six tangible recommendations: Stay close to Christ. Return to the household. Write a book and ‘remember.’ Join the moral aristocracy. Multiply and be fruitful. And have hope.
“To return to the household,” he explains, “is to return to the family. Civilization has always been the work of the family, and when civilizations die, the only hope of any man is the family.” And when urging readers to write and remember, he says: “In periods when tradition is under attack by the barbarians, memory matters. The West owes its soul to the men of the fifth century who wrote as their world crumbled: Augustine, Boethius, and the court circle at Milan, Vincent of Lérins.”
These essays are not only insightful, they also provide a glimpse of the author’s personality—his gentleness and warmth, his eloquence and humor. When turning to the Iraq War, for example, Dr. Patrick playfully notes that George W. Bush “would not from my parochial point of view make very good dinner company, being as he is a combination of Yale, up-east wealth, Midland oil money, and evangelical religion, all things beyond my ken.” And when considering the loss of Christian civilization, he is elegiac: “The great French cathedrals, so full of beauty and interest, are now like whales washed up on an alien shore, the faith that built them a flickering light.”
In a recent video interview about his book, Dr. Patrick explains that the main purpose of publishing it was to “bring to bear on some contemporary situations the kind of insight that comes from a deeper understanding of the philosophical and Christian basis of our way of life.” And its overall message, he says, is simply: “Pay attention to your inheritance from the classical and particularly the Christian intellectual past—and use those resources to make your life better today.”
Readers of this collection will profit immensely from Dr. Patrick’s avuncular advice—and from his reminder that beyond the whirl of the modern world is still a realm that is eternal, deeply mysterious, and uniquely redemptive. His message is an immensely valuable one—especially in an age in which so many have forgotten so much.
Alvino-Mario Fantini is the Editor-in-Chief of The European Conservative.