When we survey that last 100 years in even the most cursory manner possible, the one objective and rather obvious thing that holds the century together is both the attempt to deconstruct the human person and the counter effort to uphold his dignity. Contempt and defense, seemingly in a Manichaen-like struggle. While the Gulags, the Holocaust Camps, and the Killing Fields mutilated and raped the human person in every conceivable (and some not so conceivable) way, a wide variety of brilliant individuals did everything possible to protect him from abuse at all levels.
Without even the pretense of exaggeration, one could argue that future historians will view the 20th century as the century in which the fundamental nature of the person came into question, and humanity as a whole waged nothing less than a civil war over that definition.
Sadly, that civil war continues, though not in the fashion it raged during, say, the first half of the 1940s. What was once obvious jack-booted thuggery has been sugar coated and packaged in pleasing colors and soft textures. Hard despotism has de-gelled into a soft, democratic despotism.
But, that’s only a home. In many Arab nations, abuses are not only rampant but openly defended, and, in much of the world, human slave trafficking is worse than it has ever been in the history of the world. At least in terms of absolute numbers.
Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth has come to pass in our world of reality. “Always after a defeat and respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”
Man remains. The western tradition, at its best, has attempted to understand the glories and the failings of the human person. From the pre-Socratics through Dante and Petrarch, one can trace a continuous line of intellectual thought liberating itself from the morass of this world and its brother abyss to look beyond and find transcendent truths. Man is loving, man is prideful. Man is creative, man is possessive. Man is dignified, man is slothful. And . . . .
In my previous two posts at The Imaginative Conservative, I discussed the nature of labels and labeling, and the unfortunate consequent dehumanizing and division labels bring. Readers of TIC might very well call themselves some form of conservative, libertarian, anarchist, traditionalist, etc.
In the end, what holds all of us The Imaginative Conservative readers together is our desire to promote the dignity and liberty of the human person through a just and ordered society. We disagree, more often than not, on how to get there, but we do want to get there.
Perhaps, this is our form of “progress.” But, we also know that progress takes many turns, and sometimes the world approaches its own end, and sometimes it reaches for its beginning. More often than not, it builds towers that lead to nowhere, and we, once again, speak nonsense.
Labels especially, along with unfurled and colored rags, often bring the most primitive and raw emotions out us. As with all propaganda, such diminishing of the human person to a singular and particular aspect of the human person appeals to our most base level. It rather intentionally bypasses reason.
True ideas—ideas that deserve to be treated well, cultivated, and rediscovered again and again—can never appear on a poster, on a refrigerator magnet, on a Precious Moments’ figurine, or on a bumper sticker. When we see a group of persons acting as a herd, wearing the red kerchiefs of Khmer Rouge, the swastikas of the Nazis, or carrying the Little Red book of Chairman Mao, we should, depending on the circumstances, either ignore them or pound them to a pulp before they do the same to the decent, well-meaning citizens of the world.
But, again, putting all of this aside, what remains: the human person.
Yet, we should avoid delusion. I do not mean to present nothing but an abstract vision of man and human personality or dignity. I assume if you’re reading The Imaginative Conservative, you agree that there is no permanent progress, and utopia never exists just over the horizon, around the corner, or at the end of the rainbow. As Burke stated in 1790, at the end of their groves lies the gallows.
I do mean, however, to present each human person as a unique being, never to be repeated in time or space.
The human person is glorious and disgusting. He is brilliant and ignorant. He carries with him, at birth, the mark of original sin, but he is also a temple of the Holy Spirit. He chooses poorly, yet he carries the Imago Dei. He creates Auschwitz, and he writes the Divine Comedy. And. . . .
Writing of Dante, I can’t help but think of Tony Esolen. He delivered probably the best talk I’ve heard in my fourteen years at Hillsdale. For those of you who know me, you know what a terrible snob I am when judging lectures. Esolen captivated me from his first word of greeting to the audience. During his utterly profound talk, he made a comment that I’ve been mulling over ever since. As he was talking about perspective, he joked that a century from now that people would look at a photo from our era: a smallish Albanian nun standing with a president and his wife. As Esolen put it, most will ask, “which president is standing with Saint Teresa of Calcutta?”
I love this thought. It reminds me very much of Christopher Dawson’s argument that God never sends a tyrant without also raising a saint.
In the Roots of American Order, as one of my best students pointed out to me a few years ago, Kirk also claimed that all of history revolved around the extraordinary individual, extraordinary for good or for ill. “In every age,” he argued, “society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.”
Saints, it seems, truly are spiritual aristocracy. They are aristocracy, though, not of their own choosing, but because God called them and Grace spoke to Grace.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.