W. Winston Elliott III, founder and grandmaster of The Imaginative Conservative, recently posted a collage of all of the Senior Contributors to The Imaginative Conservative. It’s quite a picture, and it’s more than a bit humbling as well as inspiring. As I was looking at it, I couldn’t help but think of Christopher Dawson’s recommendation for reviving culture and the liberal arts: an ecumenical order dedicated to the promotion of all things incarnational.
Dawson and the Revival of the West
As is relatively well-known, Dawson spent much of the last third of his career imagining how to revive western culture. He found the interwar years alive with ideas and energy, if not with spiritual order. The post-World War II culture depressed him mightily, however, as he presumed that the dynamic interplay of ideas in the 20s had ended permanently. As he wrote in 1946, politics had swamped all else. No ideas that couldn’t be co-opted by the sphere of all things political (in the free and unfree world) were emerging. Politics and its utilitarian baseness adulterated all. What it could not subsume, it destroyed. In its avarice and imperialism, politics seemed insatiable.
Everyone debated the levels of subsidies or the extent of nationalization or the necessary levels of megatonnage or any other number of ungodly things, while ignoring the fundamental questions of the human person and the unique dignity of each life. In the unfree East, the blood of the martyred deadened all of the soil, while pretty pictures (moving and otherwise) conformed the citizens of the West with amazing efficiency and unexpected malleability.
Dawson, who despised politics, tried to think through a number of solutions to the problem of the loss and secularization of culture (which, of course, means nothing—a culture cannot be secularized without becoming nothing, he argued). Perhaps some colleges might start liberal programs of cultural studies and humanities. Perhaps presses could start reprinting the great documents of the medieval period, teaching them to a rising generation of students. Both of these counted on a huge number of factors—organization, interest, money, etc.
The most interesting possibility Dawson offered, though, was the creation of a religious order dedicated to the life of the spirit and the mind. He proposed this just prior to a series of strokes that rendered him incapable of writing or producing scholarship.
In a speech in Grailville, Ohio, in early June, 1961, the Anglo-Welsh scholar chastised the modern university for modeling itself after the factory, producing nothing but “specialists by the thousands.” While it might take generations, the results of such an education would only create more Nazi Germany’s and Soviet Russia’s. The human person, he claimed, had become conditioned: “his whole life is spent inside highly organized artificial units—factory, trade union, office, civil service, party—and his success or failure depends on the relations with this organization.”
To avoid such a future, the West must redirect “the whole system (of education) towards its spiritual end.” He labeled his barely formed idea an “Apostolate of the Intellect.” Ideally, it would replicate the best of the Benedictine tradition, preserving the most important aspects (documents, ideas, etc.) of the past while also promoting art and culture in the present and for the future. The model artist, Dawson believed, was T.S. Eliot. Just as Eliot had endowed modern forms of poetry with ancient and timeless truths, thus sanctifying modern poetry, the modern scholar must also sanctify what he inherits from this broken world.
To avoid group think, intellectual conformity, and the development of an ideological system, Dawson continued, the “Apostolate of the Intellect” should model Christendom: that is, it should have Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, and even virtuous pagans as its members. While it should have a Roman Catholic priest as a spiritual advisor, it must not merely submit to the whims of a modern bishop’s imprimatur (Dawson had had several bad encounters with imprimaturs, and he avoided them wherever possible). Instead, the Apostolate should exist to offer new ways of thinking about timeless truths. Even specific canons—such as those used at the University of Chicago and St. John’s—should be avoided as unnecessary to free and open inquiry. It must also avoid what Dawson feared as the tyranny of the philosophical, never as deadly as the tyranny of political science, but close. It should embrace theology as the queen and history and philosophy as her servants.
The Imaginative Conservative
The Imaginative Conservative is rapidly approaching its third birthday.
As it does, I cannot help but marvel at what Winston Elliott has done with it. When we started in the summer 2010 (all of my first posts were written while traveling across Montana and the Pacific Northwest on a now traditional three-week Birzer family road trip; usually having to wait until I found a wireless connect at some Hampton Inn to be upload to Winston), we did so as a way to argue with each other.
Though every writer at The Imaginative Conservative shares a religious faith as well as a love of things inherited, we vary widely when it comes to solutions, the extent of government interventions, etc. Conformity—even to our closest friends—is simply not attractive.
Three years ago, Winston and I thought of The Imaginative Conservative as a platform for us to debate among friends, open to anyone who wanted to watch and, we hoped, to join in. True to form, our first few posts were getting only fifteen to sixteen reads. But, Winston—through immense skill and dedication—quickly propelled The Imaginative Conservative into another stratosphere (or, perhaps, even into an entirely new solar system) all together. Less than three years later, The Imaginative Conservative ranks as one of the top conservative websites in the world, and we boast a dedicated and very lively readership. Ave, Winston!
But, back to my main point. Among those of us not on the left, we often debate the best way to promote our thoughts: through print, through books, through magazine articles, through blogs, etc. Winston and I have both realized, this question simply can’t be answered satisfactorily. Print matters; blogs matter; ideas matter.
Two weeks ago, I had the great privilege of going back through editions of The Burke Newsletter (edited by Peter Stanlis) and The University Bookman (edited by Russell Kirk) from the 1960s. Glorious. So many ideas, so many nuggets of wisdom. And yet, where are they now—in the basement of the University of Notre Dame. I’m sure I was the first person to go through either during the last several decades. Being in print is not necessarily a way to ensure longevity. But, again, this isn’t a contest, and it shouldn’t be some kind of Manichaen debate between print and internet. Both matter! In whatever way ideas spread, we should spread them. Media is merely a means, not an end.
Again, back to the main point. As I looked at that collage that Winston so wonderfully put together, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of real satisfaction. I’ve spent an immense amount of my non-family time writing for The Imaginative Conservative over the past three years. I’m coming up on 300 posts. I’ve been able to write about everything from the best books I’ve read, to the art I love, to the meaning of the liberal arts. As someone who feels naturally drawn to the keyboard, what more could I want?
Here at The Imaginative Conservative, we’re given space. Space to think, to explore, to interact, to imagine. Thank you, Winston. Thank you, The Imaginative Conservative. Thank you, my fellow writers. With every post, we make Dawson’s wishes a bit more of a reality.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.