On Essays and Letters

Recently, a former student, Nicholas Wheeler, knowing my proclivities, gave me Volume CLXXII of “The World’s Classics.” The title of this particular volume is A Book of English Essays (1600-1900). The essays were selected by Stanley V. Makower and Basil H. Blackwell. At the very end of the preface, we find the following rather touching addendum: “Mr. Makower had not long been engaged on a selection of English essays, when his regretted death left this fruit of his taste and experience in the forming.” Basil Blackwell, having finished Merton College, Oxford, went on not only to finish “forming” this volume but also, in 1913, to take over his father’s famous bookstore and publishing business.

imageThe “formed” book was first published in 1912, and reprinted in 1913 (twice) and in 1914. One notes that 1914 was the beginning of the Great War, though I did find a copy of this volume with a 1927 copyright. The publisher was not Blackwell but “Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, London Edinburgh Glasgow New York Toronto Melbourne Bombay.” Those were the days when the British still had an empire. It was printed in Oxford by “Horace Hart, Printer to the University.”

Mr. Wheeler inscribed, on Candle-mass 2007, the following explanation of the gift: “I acquired this little collection of essays two years ago when I was in Oxford, and should like you to have it.” One can hardly fail to be touched by such a remark, both that a student would think to buy such a book and to know that Schall would particularly enjoy it. The book contains 51 essays from 41 authors in 440 pages. The authors include Hazlitt, Dryden, Sir Richard Steele, Francis Bacon, Francis Thompson, Richard Jeffries, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving. Thomas Fuller’s “The Good Sea Captain” was particularly good.

Mr. Wheeler next cited three favorite passages from essays in the book. The first was from Sir Thomas Browne, “On Dreams.” It read: “That some have never dreamed is as improbable as that some have never laughed.” Logically, that remark implies that we all are dreamers and laughers, a comforting thought. Belloc, who was too young to be cited in this book of essays, but who is the language’s best essayist, once called us human beings “we laughers.” I have always loved that phrase and was pleased to be reminded of it by none less than Sir Thomas Browne.

The second citation is from Dr. Johnson’s “On the Advantages of Living in a Garrett.” Johnson wrote, “I never think myself qualified to judge a man whom I have only known in one degree of elevation.” This means, no doubt, that we must see many levels of a man to know his virtues and, yes, his vices. Even though he clearly knows that we ourselves are not gods, Johnson does not say that we should never judge a man. It is often our responsibility to judge the character of a man. We must decide how he stands to ourselves and others. We are not required to affirm that the acquired character of a man makes no difference in this world. Sometimes it is a life and death matter.

The third passage is from Matthew Arnold’s essay, “Dante and Beatrice.” It reads: “Dante saw the world, and used in his poetry what he had seen; for he was a born artist. But he was essentially aloof from the world, and not complete in the life of the world; for he was a born spiritualist and solitary.” I take this solitariness to mean something of what Cicero meant, citing Cato, that “he was never less alone than when he was alone.” In some sense, even to see the world we must at times be alone, be solitary. We must let the world be there; let it happen to us.

Arnold’s conclusion, however, makes us wonder if he forgot what Dante first saw on the streets of Florence, wonder even if he (Arnold) knew the central doctrine of the Christian faith about our destiny.

Even to Dante at twenty-one, when he yet sees the living Beatrice with his eyes, she already symbolizes this for him, she is already not the “creature not too bright and good” of Wordsworth, but a spirit far more than a woman; to Dante at twenty-five composing the Vita Nuova she is still more a spirit; to Dante at fifty, when his character has taken its bent, when composing his immortal poem, she is a spirit altogether.

No one, not even God, wants for any human Beatrice to be “a spirit far more than a woman.” Even Aristotle understood this. Human beings are persons, body and soul, not pure spirits. To love them as pure spirits is not to love them at all. To love them as incarnate persons, we must love them as they are. But loving them as they are always points, necessarily, to that love in which they already exist through no power of their own.

“There is another thought connected with the presence,” James Henry Leigh Hunt wrote in his essay in this book, “Shakespeare’s Birthday,” which “may render the Londoner’s walk the more interesting. Shakespeare had neither the vanity that induces a man to be disgusted with what everybody can enjoy; nor on the other hand the involuntary self-degradation that renders us incapable of enjoying what is abased by our own familiarity of acquaintanceship.” To be “disgusted” with “what everybody can enjoy” is but vanity. Oftentimes, as Chesterton often pointed out, we are incapable of enjoying what is because we are so used to it that we no longer see its newness and wonder. After all, something we see again and again does not become less wondrous because we see it again and again. This is, in part, what Beatrice herself stood for.

Finally, I note the book’s passage from George Eliot’s “Authorship.” She writes, “It is for art to present images of a lovelier order than the actual; gently winning the affections, and so determining the taste.” Recall that the word “taste” was used to describe what the book’s editor, before his death, was striving to accomplish in this book. We are “more human,” Allan Bloom said in the Introduction to his Shakespeare’s Politics, when we are watching a Shakespearean drama than we are in the routine of our daily lives. We see more what we are when we see more clearly what we ought to be, or indeed ought not to be. Images of a lovelier order than the actual—the actual order itself is the basis of our wonderment about any “lovelier order.”

The “lovelier order” does not take up where the actual order ends. Those who live in the lovelier order are the very ones who lived in the actual order. This is what Beatrice means; otherwisethere is only despair. A man should not be “disgusted” with what “everybody can enjoy.” The very structure of our being causes us to wonder what it is that “everybody can enjoy.” When we filter it all out, this resolution is ultimately what revelation is about.

The good that causes what is also is to be, if we choose, our good. This too is what Beatrice on the streets of Florence was about. In this life, however, in our London walks, all of us, like Mr. Makower, remain “in the forming.” We seek in our very being images “lovelier” than the present, where, in the same present, there are, indeed, lovely images if we just notice them in spite of the “familiarity of our acquaintanceship.” None of the “images” that we ultimately seek had their beginnings elsewhere than in the streets of Florence. When we are told that we are made in the “image and likeness of God,” we cannot but be surprised, again to recall Chesterton, that what is conforms to what we would want if we could have it.

James V. Schall, S.J., is professor of government at Georgetown University and author of, among many other titles, The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking (ISI Books, 2006).