Paul Elmer More’s final statement—a religious one—as offered in his book, Pages from an Oxford Diary, is one of the great short works of the last century. If offers a profound statement of faith from a man who spent most of his life being skeptical regarding Christianity. Though he consented to Christian truth later in his life, it remains unknown whether or not he ever received communion, even on his death bed.
Though few remember Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) now, he once stood with his closest friend, Irving Babbitt, as the leader of the so-called “New Humanist” movement. An editor of The Nation and a classicist at Princeton University, More influenced many of the greats of the 20th century—especially through his friendships.
A Jesuit, after all?
Among his closest friends were T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. The correspondence with Eliot, now housed in the Princeton University archives, is nothing short of beautiful. I’ve had the chance to spend roughly three weeks going through these papers, and I came away in awe of the little republic of letters the two men made. In a rather typical letter, T.S. Eliot teased More about his supposed lack of Christian orthodoxy
But having refused this, how much else of orthodox theology do you refuse? What about the Angels and Archangels and the Saints and the Patriarchs? And devotions of Our Lady? And I do not forget that an eminent friend of ours has called you a binitarian contra mundum. No, sir, I call upon you to demonstrate your orthodoxy; or alternatively, to demonstrate that you are the only Catholic living. What are your views now on the Marriage at Cana, and the Loaves and Fishes?
More took the teasing well, offering back to Eliot as much as he received.
C.S. Lewis acknowledged his profound debt to More several years after More’s death.
I once told Paul Elmer More that while it would be an exaggeration to call him my spiritual father, I might call him my spiritual uncle. By this I meant, in the first place, that one had in his presence that sense of comfort and security and well being which a child has in the presence of a grown-up relative whom it likes. I began to feel it almost at once. It was something I am not sure one would gather from his books—a real homeliness, almost an affectionateness, the very reverse of that rarified quality which some people may associate with American ‘humanism.’ In the second place, I meant that quality which the child would resent if it came from the father. In our own first conversation he corrected a fake [ ] accent and the misuse of a scientific term, which I had [ ] in print, in a way which ought to be common among old men but is actually quite rare. On the one hand it was so done that even the vainest young author could not have objected to it; on the other, there was no nonsense about all being in the same boat, or ‘you don’t mind my mentioning it’ or anything of that kind. It was quite definitely and undisguisedly the ripe speaking to the unripe—authority without egoism. At this distance of time I cannot remember much of our conversation. He found that I agreed with him about the futility of much academic ‘research’ and this led him to tell with great humour, and also great tenderness, the story of a young woman he know who refused to marry a man she loved because the ‘work’ (a thesis on some unspeakably obscure poet) ‘must come first. . . . He talked also of the ‘fundamentalism’ to which, in his opinion, the Church of Rome was committed. But most of our time together was spent in close argument. You saw at once he was the sort of man who welcomed attacks on his favorite beliefs and who was ready to give his whole attention to what you said without any irrelevant consideration of who you were. He was very fair and patient in discussion and talked for truth not victory. And all the time, however abstract the theme, the homely and human quality—sometimes manifested in the choice of an illustration, sometimes in the mere twinkle of his eye—was always in evidence, making one quite sure that his philosophy had roots in the earth. It is not, I think, what I should have expected. My impression is that the man was bigger than his books. There was more of him. Anything less like popular idea of a ‘don’ or a ‘philosopher’ would be hard to find. Perhaps the extremely rich and flexible voice (he spoke from the chest) had something to do with it. With renewed apologies for the inconvenience I must have caused you by my delay. Yours faithfully, C.S. Lewis.
Even Babbitt, rather more skeptical about Christianity than More, teased More about his faith. More remembered the following conversation, along North Avenue in Cambridge, England. The two were talking fervently to one another “when suddenly” Babbitt “stopped short, faced about upon me, and, with both hands rigidly clenched, ejaculated: ‘Good God, man, are you a Jesuit in disguise?’”
More failed to recall the exact topic of conversation, and he may merely have been Jesuitical in his argumentation, but the comment reveals much about More and how others perceived him. In answer to the question raised by Babbitt, More only wrote: “I have never been able to answer the question satisfactorily.”
Maybe he was a Jesuit after all.
Still, More ultimately rejected Babbitt’s understanding of a more skeptical humanism, because it never fully reconciled itself to religion; and Christianity for More provided ultimate purpose—an anchor to all that the humanists desired, the only proper end of humanism—for all of life.
That is the dilemma that faces the humanist. The intuition of free will; free will exercised for a purpose; purpose directed to clothe human life with value; value measured by happiness—the chain is perfect, link by link, only at the end it seems to be attached to nothing. And so I ask myself, reluctantly, almost wishing my answer were mistaken, whether those who advocate humanism, as an isolated movement, are not doomed to disappointment. It is not that the direction in itself is wrong; every step in the program is right, and only by this path can we escape from the waste land of naturalism. But can we stop here in security? For purpose that will not end in bitter defeat; for values that will not mock us like empty masks, must we not look for a happiness based on something beyond the swaying tides of mortal success and failure? Will not the humanist, unless he adds to his creed the faith and the hope of religion, find himself at the last, despite his protests, dragged back into the camp of the naturalist?
Reading through his many works, one gets the sense of a singularly honest man—full of integrity, ready to search for the Truth wherever it may lead.
Pages from an Oxford Diary
In his autobiographical Pages from an Oxford Diary, More explored the role of faith in culture and in the self. He labeled the book “a kind of informal prayer.”
He claimed that he was once—as a young man—very taken with the idea of a materialist “New Philosophy which should prove once for all that the world and men are the product of a fatalistic Law of Chance and Probability.”
More lost this idea when he discovered that such a materialism must lead to the conclusion that men are just machines and automatons, incapable of free will. At the same moment in his life, he also deeply resented the idea that he needed redemption through an acceptance of grace.
To reconcile these two things, More turned to reading published letters, autobiographies, and biographies, searching for the key to a successful life. After extensive reading, More believed that almost all such successful lives still seemed empty, devoid of something. “Almost invariably in the correspondence of writers and scholars and men of affairs the last letters are filled with open or ill-concealed despondency.”
Ultimately, and perhaps finally (though not completely), More settled upon Plato’s understanding of the “True, the Good, and the Beautiful.”
I can say simply and without reservation that to this goal I attained, and that I shall end my days a conscious, as I was born, an unconscious, Platonist.
Still, something nagged at More’s soul. “But here, I could not rest,” More recorded, echoing the words of St. Augustine. “Is that realm of Ideas a cold vacuum of inanimate images? . . . what I still needed was God.” After all, he admitted to himself, “long ago Jehovah rebuked Job for his presumption: ‘Shalt though by reasoning find out God’”?
Instead, More concluded,
We reason properly from facts, not towards them. The question of a God must be answered by direct experience, or by the sort of inference which is rightly called faith. . . . For many years the existence of the Ideal world has been as real to me as these visible phenomena of the material world, more real since in the sphere of Ideas illusion would have no part. Only slowly did the incompetence of such a belief, in itself with no connecting link between the two realms, dawn upon me. It was just the perception of purpose in the evolution of the world, as something above and beyond the static imitation of Ideas, that finally led me to the quest of a dynamic, personal agent at work. That made me a better as well as a more complete, Platonist, and it set me again on the road to Christianity. Now, the thought of a naked soul journeying forever on and on through inanimate Ideas, with no personal guide or consoler, with no glimpse of the majestic Spirit whose eternal home is there,–the thought of such a journey sends a shudder and a chill through me. I cry out: Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief!
As More finally decided, the gift of free will allows a man to choose grace rather than pride. Typically, though, one chooses pride:
And we, slothful servants, unworthy allies, treacherous children, ignoble friends, have wrought confusion and in our little blind egotism have added to the evil of the world, to the misery of ourselves, and—so the tragedy of the Incarnation would tell us—to the burden of the Creator.
The argument—in less personal terms—is strictly Christian Humanist, that is, it is based upon More’s conviction that the ideas of the best of the Greek Pagans flow into Christian theology and culture.
Greek literature, philosophic and religious, pagan and Christian, from Plato to St. Chrystostom and beyond that to the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD, is essentially a unit and follows at the centre a straight line.
As More understood matters, the priest has the primary role of liberating man from a servile existence. For this to happen, one needs leisure for the contemplative life, and the schools, led by the priests, should provide the fundamental vehicle for true leisure and advancement and preservation of culture.
And, hence, we arrive at the title of More’s religious memoir, Pages from an Oxford Diary. In the beginning of the book, More demonstrated a deep love for the venerable English university:
Oxford is the creation of the Church, and her beauty witnesses to the excellence of religion. The mark was put upon her once for all, wonderful city; and why should men seek to erase it? There are other places aplenty where laboratories may be erected and secular science may flourish; why not leave this fair domicile amidst her wandering rivers and her girdle of hills, why not leave it as a home for those who choose to ‘flee for the presse’ and to set their hearts on God’s peace? They should repay the world for all the world gave them. The signature of the Church is legible enough on the houses and streets of Oxford, but when one turns to the men who dwell in them and walk among them, one feels something like a shock. From the same cause can effects so unequal flow? Often I ask myself how it can be that dead stones and mortar should speak more eloquently of the divine presence that does the living face of man, made in the likeness of his Creator. Pass by the secular scholars, the philologians [sic], scientists, historians, economists, and their kind. But what of the men whose special calling it is to search out and proclaim the sacred revelation, whose profession is the Church? I should like to see Oxford still more under the domination of the priest. He has made it; the city is his. However it may be with the his own soul, he is the custodian of the ancient tradition of the spirit; he is the only security we have against the complete invasion of a devastating materialism.
For the mind to be empowered through leisure and true education, More argued, it must possess imagination, harnessed and honed. Imagination, as he understood it, allows one to see beyond the immediate; to see past to the long line of ancestors, all of whom contributed something to the order and justice of the world. “The imagination in its power of grasping in a single firm vision, so to speak,” he explained in his 9th book of Shelburne Essays, Aristocracy and Justice, “the long course of human history and of distinguishing what is essential therein from what is ephemeral.”
In More’s explanation, readers of The Imaginative Conservative cannot fail to see not only echoes of Edmund Burke but also an anticipation of the ideas of More’s most important student, Russell Kirk.
Indeed, imagination serves as the basis of all true conservatism:
The instinctive distrust of uncontrolled human nature and the instinctive reliance on the imagination are the very roots of the conservative temper, as their contraries are the roots of the liberal and radical temper, the lack of imagination, if any distinction is to be made, being the chief factor of liberalism and confidence in human nature being the main impulse of radicalism.
That which inspires the imagination most—the Incarnate Word, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity—reigns from (and above) the very center of history.
1) God, by becoming fully human, while remaining fully man, breaks down any pretense of a divide between eternity and time. The “raw conjectures about the absolute and the infinite and the unconditioned vanish away, and God appears before me simply as one who from the beginning has cherished a purpose; now brings it to fulfillment.”
2) God reveals Himself fully as the Orderer of All Things. For, the Incarnation proves the purpose of God—that He will bring order to the chaos we created.
3) God reveals the need to destroy the dark Necessity (evil): “We know that in some way evil and involuntary pain are bound together, and we seem to see that in some way also evil must be redeemed by voluntary suffering.”
Rejections and Apologies
In these points, More rejected the stronger teaching of the John Calvin (learned in his youth in St. Louis) and proclaimed the doctrine of predestination nothing less than effeminate, as it denied men the choice to suppress their pride. By proclaiming Grace so irresistible, More argued, Calvin destroyed the very notion of Grace.
The theology of the Reformation, which so magnified divine grace as to destroy human freedom, in this matter is false, as are all absolutes. We cannot escape the ultimate responsibility for choosing our path, and no true man would wish to do so. But to know that we have a great Friend at our side who voluntarily shares with us the consequences of our faults, who will not abandon us though we err seventy times seven, who shows us that the evil we do is a breach of trust between person and person, to know that is to gain a new insight into life and death, and to be inspired with new hopes; it may mean rebirth from above. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world.
I’ll conclude our discussion of More with his own conclusion about his life, written only days before his own passing from this world:
And so I sit and wait, in patience and serenity—for the end which is no end. I turn over in my mind the various possibilities of the long journey, amusing myself with fancies that I trust are not purely fanciful. Only of this I am assured, that some time and in some way, spirit to spirit, face to face, I shall meet the great Lord of life, and, falling before Him, tell my gratitude for all He has done, and implore pardon for all I have left undone.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is a part of a speech delivered at the Climacus Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, February, 2011. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
[Unless footnoted, all quotes are taken from More’s Pages from an Oxford Diary (Princeton University Press, 1937). Strangely, the book possesses no page numbers]
 T.S. Eliot, London, to Paul Elmer More, 30 August 1930, in Box 3, Folder 3, Paul Elmer More Collection (C0054), Princeton.
 Paul Elmer More, On Being Human (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1936), 27.
 More, On Being Human, 27. As to More’s orthodoxy or heterodoxy, see the excellent correspondence between More and T.S. Eliot, dated Shrove Tuesday, 1928, through January 11, 1937, in the Paul Elmer More Collection (C0054), Box 3, Folder 3, Princeton University Archives.
 See More, “A Revival of Humanism” in ON BEING HUMAN, 19-20
 More quoted in “Introduction” to Lambert, ed., The Essential Paul Elmer More, 19.
 More, quoted in Lambert, ed., The Essential Paul Elmer More, 25.