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southernSome of the would-be defenders were the New Humanists of Allen Tate’s era. He criticized Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and Norman Foerster for their facile attempts to undo the de-humanizing effects of modern natural science. Generally speaking, they held that religion could be used to elevate society beyond the useful. Tate understood that religion could not be merely civil religion (John Henry Newman’s term). These Humanists thus participate in the American religion of the half-horse. In his “Fallacy of Humanism” (1930) Tate writes that “their thought refuses to exceed the moralistic plane: they steadily repudiate all religious and philosophical support.” Tate argues that in More’s writing, for instance, both religious and literary texts become opportunities for moral paraphrasing: “In either case, the full content of the literary or religious text is left behind.” The Humanists angered Tate, and he cites Aristotle’s critique of the sophists in the Nicomachean Ethics II.iv to explain why they cannot “make good their values”:

…taking refuge in talk they flatter themselves they are philosophizing, and that they will so be good men; acting in truth like those sick people who listen to the doctor with great attention but do nothing he tells them; just as these people cannot be well bodily under such a course of treatment, neither can those be mentally such by philosophizing.[26]

Tate argues that, with their non-philosophic ideas and social consciousness, the Humanists cannot convince anyone or change anything. They cannot either think through or achieve an “appropriate background,” for they ignore “the difficulty of imagining what the background should be.” Accusing Humanism of the problem it sought to remedy, Tate concludes, “It is a mechanical formula for the recovery of civilization.” Humanist thought places the “cart before the horse,” and because it gives the philosophy in the wrong place, it invites philosophical attack. Humanism should be culture, but it may be a little untamed in the Humanists until, like the digging of graves for gravediggers, “custom hath made it in them a property of easiness.”[27] Humanists have not helped to address or solve the problem posed by a science which quantifies the world to bring about the “conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate,” as Francis Bacon recommended.

The difference between the path that science has taken since Bacon and the older philosophic habit of empirical inquiry has shaped the tensions within the Western philosophic tradition. In sections III through V of “Remarks on Southern Religion,” Tate explains “our nature” as Westerners: “we have a special notion of tradition—a notion that tradition is not simply a fact, but a fact that must be constantly defended.” He makes his point clearer when he takes some time to show the difference between Western religion, or more precisely, the religion of the European Middle Ages, and Russian, Orthodox, or Eastern spirituality.

Following the classical philosophers, Western European Christians want to think about that which cannot ultimately be comprehended. As Westerners, we must satisfy ourselves that we have gone as far as we can according to the investigation of Nature on her own terms. We risk losing the vitality and mystery of faith, then, in an effort to defend religion in a rational way, i.e., through dogma. Dogma, as Tate presents its emergence, is arrived at in a way as exacting as the truths established by science; it “quantifies” in order to uphold the qualities (myth, symbol, image) of things. It becomes the “fact” of religion. In using rationality, then, religion comes to embrace practicality as its object, and nature then becomes the “whole.” “Western Reason has always played the ostrich by sticking its head in the Supernatural.” Tate then offers one of the most excellent insights of his essay, “Woe betide when it took its head out and got so used to the natural setting that it found it good.”[28]

In his 1925 poem “Homily,” the tensions caused by this inverse conversion of religion by “Reason, Science, or Nature”[29] are explored in the internal torture of the mind. Assuming a vatic role, Tate in his epigraph quotes Christ’s saying, “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.”

If your tired unspeaking head
Rivet the dark with linear sight,
Crazed by a warlock with his curse
Dreamed up in some loquacious bed,
And if the stage-dark head rehearse
The fifth act of the closing night,

Why, cut it off, piece after piece,
And throw the tough cortex away,
And when you’ve marveled on the wars
That wove their interior smoke its way,
Tear out the close vermiculate crease
Where death crawled angrily at bay.[30]

Tate’s poem shows that because of the “radical division between the religious, the contemplative, the qualitative, on the one hand, and the scientific, the natural, the practical on the other,”[31] the persona is tempted not by the flesh but by the mind. Illustrating Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility,” Tate’s speaker inhabits the Cartesian closeted mind—a dark place of linear thoughts. Death would be better.

On the other hand, Eastern belief does not produce either philosophy or dogma. It is “quite simply supernaturalism or the naive religion of the entire horse.” Despite this likeness to a whole religion, Eastern Christian belief insufficiently appreciates man’s desire to question, the Westerner’s distinction and “calamity,” or warlock’s “curse.” His commentary on Eastern Orthodoxy (the “naive religion of the entire horse”) continues in section III:

It never suspects the existence of those halves that render our sanity so precarious and compel us to vacillate between a self-destroying naturalism and practicality, on the one hand, and a self-destroying mysticism, on the other hand. For it seems that we are not able to contemplate those qualities of the horse that are specifically religious without forgetting his merely spatial and practicable half: we cannot let the entire horse fill our minds all at once.[32]

Tate’s condensed and provocative analysis of how the West has lost its love of learning for its own sake, love of God for His own sake, and connaturality with, not conquest of, Nature is, at times, cryptic but always leads us to find out the truth about ourselves—a task the American typically avoids. We seek to know what will work, he emphasizes, and America is the epitome of this European intellectual inheritance. But this is a difficult inheritance, one that leaves its beneficiaries on the edge of the abyss. As he writes in “The Mediterranean,” (1933) “We’ve cracked the hemispheres with careless hand!”[33] In a letter to Jacques Maritain, Caroline Gordon cites this line and comments, “there seems nothing for young men to do except to dive into the abyss caused by the crack (that old Cartesian crack about which you have written so eloquently.)”[34] Is there an antidote to such self-destructive violence?

Politics and Economics

When Tate thinks of the relation between America and Europe in his “Remarks,” he sees that the “peril” he has outlined is “most typical at present in its American form.” Though America “has recapitulated practically every form of European polity… Though she has repeated all the chief economic and political forms… she has not repeated the religious forms.” He goes on to make the statement most frequently quoted from this essay: “This anomaly gave us that remarkable society of the old South, which was a feudal society without a feudal religion.”[35] The North’s Protestantism was consistent with her economic and political life; a trading society was matched with the individualism of a trading religion. Tate is unrelenting on this point, critiquing New England while offering a version of Marx’s economic basis of society and of Weber’s linkage between Protestantism and capitalism: “[The Jamestown project] was a capitalistic enterprise undertaken by Europeans who were already convinced adherents of large-scale exploitation of nature, not to support a stable religious order, but to advance the interests of trade as an end in itself.”[36] The South’s religion should have been medieval Catholicism, the one that would reflect their attitude toward the land, nature, leisure, stories—the whole particularity of life that was not materialistic but “sensuous.”[37]

Tate’s account of the relation between economics and religion at first glance seems to echo Marx. But he really turns Marx upside down, and in the process, he gets his reader’s attention on one of his major points: “Because the South never created a fitting religion, the social structure of the South began grievously to break down two generations after the Civil War; for the social structure depends on the economic structure, and economic conviction is the secular image of religion.”[38] Understanding that the South could not create its religion, Tate holds that the forms of an integral culture proceed from its religion. He writes in section VI: “In fact, their rational life was not powerfully united to the religious experience, as it was in medieval society, and they are a fine specimen of that tragic pitfall upon which the Western mind has always hovered.” The South, then, like the West generally, is another instance of the “cracked hemispheres” described in “The Mediterranean.” Lacking a “full-grown philosophy,” Southerners “had no defense” “when the postbellum temptations of the devil, who is the exploiter of nature, confronted them.”[39]

Nevertheless, Tate suggests that the South should have seen that it could not defend itself with the North’s religion, “hardly a religion at all, but a result of secular ambition.” Instead, Southern clergy were satisfied to use the Bible to defend slavery, a device that could never win them the war nor save their culture. In effect, the “South separated from the North too late, and so lost its cause.”[40]

The religion appropriate to the South was the religion of the whole horse. It is at this point in his essay that Tate penetrates to the basis of community: it lies in a religion which can shape the interior life of its members by a shared contemplation of its images. He employs his horse image again to make his crucial, thoroughly non-Marxist and typically medieval point:

The Southerners were capable of using their horses, as they did one day at Brandy Station, but they could also contemplate them as absolute and inviolable objects; they were virtually incapable of abstracting from the horse his horsepower, or from history its historicity. For the horse fact and the historical fact, by remaining concrete, retained a certain status as images, and images are only to be contemplated, and perhaps the act of contemplation after long exercise initiates a habit of imitation, and the setting up of absolute standards which are less formulas for action than an interior discipline of mind.[41]

This interior discipline of mind results not in dogma or in a logical series or abstraction but in community. In his “Man of Letters in the Modern World” (1952), Tate talks about freedom and the act of appropriating images to letters, “our one indispensable test of the actuality of our experience.” Letters yield the “power of discrimination.” This is the test that Southern letters of the old South failed before these new agrarians of little practical experience took their stand.

In “The Man of Letters,” Tate restates his earlier distinction between dogma and the “absolute standard…of an interior discipline of mind.” The poet and the free man of letters generally do not merely communicate, but they speak or write so as to bring about communion. Communion is understood as the “recurrent discovery of the human communion as experience, in a definite place and at a definite time.”[42] Tate sets up the Aristotelian triad of end, choice, and discrimination to show the process of “general intelligence” as radically different from the communicators whose key words are drive, stimulus, and response.[43] He explains:

Is there in this language genuine knowledge of our human community—or of our lack of it—that we have not had before? If there is, he will know that it is liberal language, the language of freemen, in which a choice had been made towards a probable end of man. If it is not language of this order, if it is the language of mere communication, of mechanical analogies in which the two natures of man are isolated and dehumanized, then he will know that it is the language of men who are, or who are waiting to be slaves.[44]

Tate suggests that what the South lacked and acquired too late—and only through the violence of suffering and defeat even then—was the man of letters. In a real sense, as he indicates over and over in his essay, Southern life gave an experience of communion, but the tradition could not be defended because it was not fully free. Tate’s insight into communion, the basis of community, yields the thought that, without a sufficient symbolic language, all were destined for slavery in the South. Without a whole language of the “world’s body,” as John Crowe Ransom called it, a culture is vulnerable. Southerners had a religious life, Tate says toward the end of his essay, “but it was not enough organized with a right mythology.”[45]

We go back to the original question of this essay, then, and the surprising call for violence, for revolution, so that the South might get hold of its tradition. When Tate says that the Southerner, or any “die-hard agrarian,” was not willing to “subtract the human so as to set the [humane] principle free to operate on an unlimited program of practicality,” he is affirming the realism of the non-Romantic agrarian. When, in section V, he evokes the image of the old Southerners “highly critical of the kinds of work to be done,” he shows a community which works not merely to survive or succeed, but to enjoy “a rich private life,” and which studies history not for the sake of knowing it, “but simply for the sake of contemplating it and seeing in it an image of themselves.” This life of leisure is the kind of life conducive to “the interior discipline of the mind.”

It is the kind of discipline that brings insight into man’s evil as well. The Southerner, grappling with the same “ineradicable belief in the fundamental evil of nature”[46] as medieval man, remained “aware of the treachery of nature.”[47] Playing off the ironic Marxist undercurrent of the volume, Tate hopes to arouse an awareness of this treachery of nature both outside and inside man, an awareness that can now only be regained through violence. What kind of violence is of course in question. To begin to recover tradition requires seeing the illness of the modern mind sundered from the sources of belief, from image, from things “in their rich contingent materiality,” as Ransom would write. The Southerner must face “the dark center from which one may see coming the darkness gathering outside us.”[48]

In closing his “Remarks on Southern Religion,” Tate aims for his reader to face these outside political forces reflective of the inside ones. He aims, as the “agrarian” man of letters, to be “cutting away the overgrowth and getting back to the roots” so that communion is possible again. His writing is also an alert against the delusion of communism, which might be called the double of communion. (One discarded title for the volume, I’ll Take My Stand, it should be noted, was “Tracts Against Communism.”) He knows that “rearranging the foliage” will not essentially change anything; that structural changes cannot reorder the soul.[49]

As Glenn Arbery explains, Tate’s “enigmatic ending” implies that “the Southerner as a twentieth-century revolutionary is a contradiction; one does not act like Lenin in order to become George Washington.”[50] This is true enough. When Tate argues with mechanical politics, the kind that operates according to abstraction and not according to man’s fallen nature—the modern view of politics which he characterizes as Jeffersonian—he is suggesting that there is an older view of politics, the classical, which looks to the order of the soul in order to found the good political order.

This is the soul-centered, but more radical politics of an Augustine as well, one that requires the most radical of all movements, conversion.[51] Tate’s essay points to that inner restoration in the light-handed and ironic way that makes this essay nearly inscrutable. His ultimate conclusion points the way to a whole view of politics, one dependent on the deepest meaning of a whole religion: “[The Southerner] must use an instrument, which is political, and so unrealistic and pretentious that he cannot believe in it, to reestablish a private, self-contained, and essentially spiritual life.” The word “instrument” in this sentence evokes his whole distrust of politics, nature, and science viewed merely as means. In fact, at this point, Tate also seems to call into question the whole endeavor of I’ll Take My Stand in a way that echoes the opening footnote in which he enigmatically objects to the title as too exclusive: “it points to a particular house but omits to say that it was the home of a spirit that may also have lived elsewhere and that this mansion, in short, was incidentally made with hands.”[52] Surely he seeks to remind us of the agrarian spirit that derives from Troy, Sparta, and Rome. But his Biblical language warns his fellows, with a kind of prophetic irony, not to idolize a South whose houses were “incidentally made with hands.”

His poem “Last Days of Alice,” written one year after his agrarian essay, gives us the path to follow in what only can be an invitation to delve further into his work:

O God of our flesh, return us to Your wrath,
Let us be evil could we enter in
Your grace, and falter on the stony path.[53]

Tate’s call for violence understood as a “boring from without,” the “sole alternative” left to the Southerner, paradoxically proclaims the need for the recovery of what is essentially “within,” a “spiritual life.” This is a violence his essay cannot instigate on its own, without grace. His call in this volume is for nothing less than a spiritual revolution to restore the crack of the hemispheres, for in light of that rift, “The setback of the war was of itself a very trivial one.”[54]

This is the second essay in a two-part series; the first may be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the Political Science Reviewer (Fall 2001).


[26] Allen Tate, “The Fallacy of Humanism,” in The Critique of Humanism, C. Hartley Grattan, ed. (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1930, 1968), 133.

[27] Ibid., 166.

[28] Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,”I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1930, 1980), 165.

[29] Ibid., 164.

[30] Allen Tate, “Homily,” Collected Poems: 1919-1976 (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1977), 4.

[31] Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 173.

[32] Ibid., 163.

[33] Allen Tate, Collected Poems, 66-67.

[34] John M. Dunaway, ed., Exiles and Fugitives: The Letters of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 50.

[35] Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 166.

[36] Ibid., 167.

[37] Ibid., 172.

[38] Ibid., 168.

[39] Ibid., 173.

[40] Ibid., 168.

[41] Ibid., 169. Emphasis mine.

[42] Allen Tate, “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,”Essays of Four Decades (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1968, 1999), 11.

[43] Ibid., 12.

[44] Ibid., 14.

[45] Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 173.

[46] Ibid., 165.

[47] Ibid., 172.

[48] Allen Tate, “Preface to Reason in Madness,” Essays of Four Decades, 615.

[49] Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 175.

[50] Glenn Arbery, “Dante in Bardstown: Allen Tate’s Guide to Southern Exile,” Thought LXV (March 1990), 96.

[51] See the excellent study of Augustine’s influence on Tate by Robert Dupree, Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination: A Study of the Poetry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).

[52] Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 155.

[53] Allen Tate, “Last Days of Alice,” in The Fugitive Poets, William Pratt, ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1965), 99-100.

[54] Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 174.

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