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tragedy of modernityOne of the most heinous crimes against humanity that modernity has perpetrated is its war on the humanities. And let’s not forget that the humanities are thus called because they teach us about our own humanity. A failure to appreciate the humanities must inevitably lead to the dehumanizing of culture and a disastrous loss of the ability to see ourselves truthfully and objectively.

The follies and fallacies of modernity and their dehumanizing consequences have been critiqued by some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. T. S. Eliot’s Modern Education and the Classics, published in 1934, complements C. S. Lewis’s own ‘Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English’ which was the sub-title of Lewis’s book, The Abolition of Man. Both works insist that education cannot be divorced from morality and that the latter must inform the former. Similarly Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) dovetail with Lewis’s position as regards the necessity of Christianity to any genuine restoration of European culture. Most notably, Eliot’s depiction of ‘The Hollow Men’ in his poem of that title, published in 1925, prefigures Lewis’s ‘Men without Chests’ in The Abolition of Man who are fictionalized to great satirical effect in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the latter of which contains a delightful parody of the disintegration and dumbing-down of the modern academy.

Evelyn Waugh, in his magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited, a novel inspired by a line in one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, lampoons the “hollow men” produced by modernity in his portrayal of the characters of Hooper and Rex Mottram. Hooper had “no special illusions distinguishable from the general, enveloping fog from which he observed the universe”:

Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncesvales, and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.[1]

Like Hooper, the character of Rex Mottram serves as a personification of the product of modern, disintegrated and dehumanized culture. In the words of Julia, he illustrates not only the ignorance of those who have been afflicted by the inadequacies of modern education, but the ignorance of their ignorance that is the hallmark of the “hollow man” or the homo superbus:

“You know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took me a year of marriage to see. He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed … I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole …”[2]

In the context of the knowledge of history, so woefully absent in Hooper, Mottram and the hollow men of modernity that they represent, three distinct facets of historical reality are absolutely necessary, namely historical chronology, historical mechanics and historical philosophy, i.e. when things happened, how things happened and why things happened. The last of these, though it is dependent factually on the other two, is the most important. If we don’t know why things happened history remains devoid of meaning; it makes no sense. As such, historians must have knowledge of the history of belief. They must know what people believed when they did the things that they did in order to know why they acted as they did. They must have empathy with the great ideas that shaped human history, even if they don’t have sympathy with them. This whole issue was addressed with great lucidity by G. K. Chesterton’s great friend, Hilaire Belloc, perhaps the twentieth century’s most important historian (with the possible exception of Christopher Dawson):

The worst fault in [writing] history … is the fault of not knowing what the spiritual state of those whom one describes really was. Gibbon and his master Voltaire, the very best of reading, are for that reason bad writers of history. To pass through the tremendous history of the Trinitarian dispute from which our civilization arose and to treat it as a farce is not history. To write the story of the sixteenth century in England and to make of either the Protestant or the Catholic a grotesque is to miss history altogether.[3]

Clearly frustrated at this supercilious approach towards the past that blinded many historians, Belloc offers a practical example of its effects upon scholarship:

There is an enormous book called Volume 1 of a Cambridge History of the Middle Ages. It is 759 pages in length of close print … It does not mention the Mass once. That is as though you were to write a history of the Jewish dispersion without mentioning the synagogue or of the British Empire without mentioning the City of London or the Navy …[4]

In order to avoid the chronological snobbery that presumes the superiority of the present over the past and which causes this lack of proportion and focus, historians must see history through the eyes of the past, not the present. They must put themselves into the minds and hearts of the protagonists they are studying; and to do this adequately they must have knowledge of philosophy and theology in order to understand their own academic discipline and in order to remain disciplined in their study of it. An ignorance of philosophy and theology means an ignorance of history.

History is, therefore, best studied through the prism of theology, a fact that has effectively made the study of history impossible in the post-theological modern academy. And what is true of history is equally true of literature. An ignorance of theology and philosophy disqualifies most literature professors from being able to understand the literature that they purport to teach. Meanwhile art historians claim to be able to “explain” the meaning of mediaeval and Renaissance paintings without a knowledge of the philosophy and theology that was their inspiration and their purpose. And so we see how the tragedy of modernity metamorphoses into a comedy of errors, the sheer inanity of which was summed up by Chesterton: “To say that the moderns are half-educated may seem to be too complimentary by half.”[5]

Modernity’s ignorance is indeed a great tragedy, but its ignorance of its ignorance is a greater if darker comedy, warranting the grim gallows humour of the satires of Eliot, Lewis and Waugh. Yet, although the hollow men are lost—and there are none so lost as those who do not know that they are lost—there is no reason for future generations to follow them into the wilderness of the Waste Land of just deserts that they are building for themselves. The task for those of us who have not succumbed to the malaise of modernity is to ensure that future generations have the gift of a real and true knowledge of the humanities. As Chesterton said, and it is right that the last word is his: “Teach, to the young, men’s enduring truths, and let the learned amuse themselves with their passing errors.”[6]

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Notes:

1. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library, 1993, pp. 8-9
2. Ibid., pp. 181-2
3. Hilaire Belloc, A Conversation with an Angel and Other Essays, London: Jonathan Cape, 1928, pp. 166-7
4. Robert Speaight (ed.), Letters from Hilaire Belloc, London: Hollis & Carter, 1958, p. 75
5. G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, June 2, 1928
6. G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, Oct 15, 1910

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