I hope that every one of the participants of the second The Imaginative Conservative symposium, “The Books that Make Us Human,” knows how much we appreciate their thoughts and their time. Considering the large number of hits and page views over the past two weeks, the readers have enjoyed the symposium immensely.
A few weeks ago, a regular The Imaginative Conservative reader wrote a note questioning the direction of the blog. It was, he worried, moving too quickly toward a certain political and philosophical orientation, thus attenuating the importance of The Imaginative Conservative itself. Whether I agree with him or not on the particulars (and I’m honored he wrote us in such a thoughtful and politely concerned manner), his note did remind me that when Winston created this blog a little over a year ago, he did so with the mission of the contributors addressing things that matter across time and for all of humanity—not just the political and economic problems and follies of the moment. In this, Winston wisely followed one of Kirk’s most important ideas—that culture, theology, and literature count far more in the long run than do politics and economics. In essence, one’s imagination must be formed properly, and one’s soul must be ordered well.
It seems fitting, then, that in response to the 10th anniversary attacks on the World Trade Centers, The Imaginative Conservative asked its contributors and readers to remember that which makes us human, that which matters most. In these things, as the greatest figures in western history have observed, we share a common humanity not only with each other in the West, but even with our friends and enemies in the Mideast and Orient.
Looking back over the great book recommendations presented during the previous two weeks, I can’t help but feel humbled. While I’ve read much, I’ve not read enough. My guess is this is true for many of us.
So, thank you all, and may the Great Conversation continue until God brings us to the dawn of the Eighth Day.
Virgil, The Aeneid.
What’s not to love? A page-turning classic, complete with heroes, villains, wicked gifts disguised as mysterious and tacky lawn art, sacred groves, betraying gods, vengeful goddesses, a divine mother who gives her son really fancy armaments made by her husband, a Carthaginian witch who commits suicide, a descent into hell, and the establishment of civilization on the banks of the Tiber. Perhaps the greatest story of all time, it offers reluctant hope in a world torn apart by sin.
Cicero, On the Laws
The greatest of the ancient republicans began with the nature of myth (the Oak planted by the poet lasts for eternity, while the one planted by the ploughman must die) and ends with a discussion of the inherent dignity of the individual person.
St. Augustine, City of God
Take fourteen years, Christianize Plato, Cicero, and Virgil, and throw in a classically-educated heretical bureaucrat of the Roman empire made whole by Grace and you might just end up with Augustine’s magisterial work. Responding to the pagan critics of his day, claiming the Christian God had betrayed the eternal city, Augustine stood strong in his defense of the continuity of the ancient and Christian worlds. Christianity, Augustine argued, did not come to destroy the ancient world, but to fulfill it, baptize it, and give it a meaningful life and purpose.
Dante, The Divine Comedy
The greatest poetic work of all time, Dante gives us the grand tour of all that really matters. Through the journey, the reader retches, cries (for sorrow and glory), and laughs. Certainly, no person comes away from reading this work quite the same. Most likely, the reader confesses and prays fervently.
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings for ¾ of my life. While I’ve read it many times, nothing can compare to the privilege of reading it to my children. The modern equivalent to the ancient Aeneid, The Lord of the Rings addresses all of the things that matter most: the good life, heroism, sacrifice, beauty, time, sacramentality, faith, and hope. And, of course, there are generous helpings of beer and pipeweed.
Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Following the advice of everyone’s beloved patriarch, John Willson, I try to read this book at least once a year. I’ve yet to encounter a book that so well addresses the American condition as does Cather’s Death Comes. An exploration of humanity, culture, time, and space, Death Comes even ends with a twist, one that forces you to reexamine every thing you’ve just read. Far from coming across as contrived, the twist makes the reader deeply aware of the profundity of the art and the story.
Miller, Canticle for Leibowitz
Full of hovering carnivorous birds, decayed fall-out shelters, wisely angry Jews, befuddled saints, mad Renaissance lights powered by bicycle pedals, and lots and lots of exposition on Catholic theology and philosophy, Miller’s masterpiece is nothing less than Augustinian Science Fiction. The central question of the book: can Grace free us from the bonds of this world, or must we remain trapped forever in the Polybian cycles of birth, decay, and death?
More, Pages from an Oxford Diary
A short book written on his death bed, Paul Elmer More’s Pages provides one of those preciously rare, pure glimpses into the life of a soul in this world. From childhood innocence and devout Christianity to teenage skepticism to adult desire to create one’s own universe to an unadulterated desire and longing for Grace, Missourian More gave us the best Confessions since the fifth century North African saint did. It is not accidental that More’s good friend, C.S. Lewis, labeled the Princeton New Humanist as a “spiritual god uncle.”
Eliot, The Four Quartets
Certainly one of the greatest works of art of the previous few centuries, The Four Quartets, asks the reader to step inside of a mystery—a sacramental mystery—and view the world and Creation from the inside looking out. Along the way, the reader explores the primal elements, the Christian virtues, and the world in all of his glory and horror. The poem begins with the confused brilliance of Heraclitus and ends with the completeness of the Incarnation.
Kirk, Program for Conservatives
The author’s best book, in my not so humble opinion, Program sought to answer Kirk’s critics. With the success of Kirk’s first great work, the hagiographic Conservative Mind, allies and opponents wanted to know specifics. Would the conservative advocate this kind of tax policy, that kind of educational reform, and what kind of foreign policy? Kirk answered these questions with grace and poetic skill. Only a return to first principles mattered, the younger, angrier Kirk wrote. And, in the end, there is only Love.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.