Editor’s note: The following article is based on an address given to a summer school of the American Institute for Catholic Liberal Education in San Cresci, Tuscany, Italy, on August 7, 2017.
About 35 years ago I wrote and published a book whose subtitle was “C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism,” but its main title, “The Restitution of Man,” was not actually my choice. I would have preferred it to be “The Restoration of the Person.” “Restitution” wasn’t really what I was talking about, but “restoration” was, and even then I felt the distracting, misleading gender limitation of talking about “man” when what I meant was really the category of the human person.
This was the concept that I was trying to recover, refurbish, and defend — the irreducible sacredness and ultimate value of the human person: person, not just thing; subject, not just object; end, not just means; essence, not just existence; soul, not just body; value, not just fact. Unlike the hypocrite Jefferson, we believe that this includes men and women, black and white, slave and free, Jew and Greek, and so forth, because the Christian tradition taught us so, over many centuries (see St. Paul, Galatians 3:28). We are with Lincoln, not Jefferson. But why should this central civilizing truth, almost a cliché, need C. S. Lewis’s efforts and even my own?
The answer to that question is philosophical, historical, and complex, but it shouldn’t be as obscure or as little understood as it is today. Although there was never a “golden age” of civilization within historical time, this radically noble idea was often better understood in the past, even the recent past. The Jewish scholar Samuel Moyn has documented the unique and powerful role of Christianity in articulating and defending this doctrine of “res sacra homo” in two important recent books, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010) and Christian Human Rights (2015). Moyn believes that militant Catholic and Protestant advocacy of fundamental human rights has been underappreciated and understudied, and some heroes in his revisionist narrative are Jacques Maritain, Pope Pius XII, and President Jimmy Carter.
What has led to the ignorance and undervaluing of history as the guide to life is the supersessionist idea of collective progress, the widespread belief in an immanent guarantee of moral improvement within historical time.
The idea of inevitable, cumulative, collective, irreversible human progress or improvement, which has been called the “Whig interpretation of history,” grew steadily in the West from the early 17th century onwards, and by 1914 was a widely accepted belief that had largely displaced Christian orthodoxy as the functioning ideology of the West. Let the distinguished historian Henry F. May, writing in 1989, carry the argument forward: “So strong, in fact, was this progressive and secular view of history that Auschwitz and Hiroshima only damaged, rather than destroyed, it. In the years after World War II the disillusion of most American intellectuals with the Soviet Union, the self-proclaimed heartland of progress and bastion of secularity, did rather more damage. Yet the progressive view of history succumbed only very slowly.”
Despite the apocalyptic, disconfirmatory evidence of Western and world history since 1914, the “Whig” or secular-progressive view of history, now freed of its equally mistaken Marxist competitor, has not actually succumbed. Its underlying, often unarticulated, faith in some kind of immanent teleological law of progress is still apparently impervious to empirical falsification by actual historical events. Though it should not be necessary, consider some indubitable historical facts. “The costs of the [Marxist/Communist] experiments in utopia were staggering,” the distinguished Harvard historian of modern Russia Richard Pipes tells us. “They took a huge toll on human lives.” He cites the French scholar Stephane Courtois, “editor of The Black Book of Communism, [who] estimates the global number of Communism’s victims at between 85 and 100 million, which is 50 percent greater than the deaths caused by the two world wars.” Of all this unprecedented mass murder, the eminent Oxford liberal Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909–97) wrote: “I have lived through most of the 20th century without, I must add, suffering personal hardship. I remember it only as the most terrible century in Western history” (emphasis added).
But perhaps the most lapidary, essential formulation of the crucial point in this argument was made over 40 years ago by a more profound and perspicacious émigré Jewish philosopher, Leo Strauss (1899–1973): “The idea of progress in the modern sense implies,” Strauss wrote, “that once man has reached a certain level, intellectual and moral or social, there exists a firm level of being, below which he cannot sink. This contention, however, is empirically refuted by the incredible barbarization which we have been so unfortunate to witness” in the 20th century.”
Notice: indubitably, empirically refuted. People had not usually taken G. K. Chesterton very seriously when he had said earlier in the 20th century, before World War I, that the doctrine of original sin was the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith, but it was true: and, alas, it is true. Isaiah Berlin tried to make this point, without admitting its Christian genesis and genealogy, by quoting Kant’s formulation that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.”
But we owe attention and praise to those 19th- and early-20th-century figures who kept alive and in view this realistic sense of human possibilities and prospects, of the perennial human duality of good and evil, right and wrong, wisdom and folly, strength and weakness: the popes, Kierkegaard, John Henry Newman, Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, and the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, who died just 120 years ago, on August 8, 1897, and whose prophetic historical writings about the nightmarish tyranny to come in the 20th century were finally published in English in 1943 in the middle of a spectacularly brutal and destructive world war that he had eerily predicted. And, according to the historian John Lukacs, the pious agnostic, ex-Protestant seminarian Burckhardt has something else to teach us too: “The great Jacob Burckhardt was probably quite right when he wrote that the Christian feelings of sinfulness and humility were feelings of which the ancient world had not been capable.” According to Lukacs, this “was a mutation of consciousness more important, and more profound,” than any of the changes of the modern age. Solzhenitsyn has made the same point, as has Samuel Moyn, mentioned above.
This change of consciousness originally took centuries to penetrate all classes and eventually gave us the visionary, holy Italian landscape, where we are privileged to be now.
This change of consciousness originally took centuries to penetrate all classes and eventually gave us the visionary, holy Italian landscape, where we are privileged to be now. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante and medieval civilization, Michelangelo and the Florentine Christian-humanist Renaissance, Shakespeare (think of King Lear and Measure for Measure), Milton, Bach and Handel, Samuel Johnson, Burke, Charles Dickens, Alessandro Manzoni, Abraham Lincoln, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Jacques Maritain, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Solzhenitsyn, and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) are only a few of the great congregation of witnesses. As the distinguished American statesman George F. Kennan (1904–2005) put it in one of his diary entries (Good Friday, 1980): “Most human events yield to the erosion of time. . . . The greatest, most amazing, exception to this generalization” is the life of Jesus Christ. Discussing the foundations of Christian doctrine, Kennan went on to write that the “combination of these two things: charity and redemption, . . . inspired an entire vast civilization, created a great art, erected a hundred thousand magnificent churches, . . . shaped and disciplined the minds and the values of many generations — placed . . . its creative stamp on one of the greatest flowerings of the human spirit” (The Kennan Diaries, ed. F. Costigliola, 2014). We may say that this tradition is the ultimate, permanent defense of the human spirit against its perennial and hydra-headed enemies.
This civilization gave us C. S. Lewis, who wished philosophically, imaginatively, and didactically to prevent “the abolition of man” by illuminating and critiquing the immanentist heresies of progressivism, scientism, and utilitarianism, of all forms of materialism, and by defending the “mere” human being, the “res sacra homo,” made in the image of God, rational and free, wounded and weakened by sin and folly, but disposed to know and love the Good and the True and their author, source, and goal.
Ambiguous and ambivalent cultural figures such as Jacob Burckhardt, John Ruskin, Arnold Toynbee, Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Clark, and Leo Strauss sometimes give us profound, poignant testimonies to truths that they can reach but not grasp, apprehend but not comprehend, see but not fully tell, as Vergil did for Dante. Another such ambiguous and ambivalent figure, another great historian, with whom I would like to conclude these remarks, was Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). Probably his most distinguished modern student is the Columbia literary historian John D. Rosenberg, who writes of him: “For Carlyle the contrary of history is not fiction but oblivion, the unraveling of the collective human memory that holds civilization together. History is not a record of civilization,” Rosenberg continues, “it is civilization itself, the past speaking to the present and to the future through the voice of the historian. Without that animating voice, we would have neither history nor elegy — only gibberish and unmarked graves.”
Rosenberg goes on to urge upon us another insight of Carlyle that I also employed in my recent introduction to a new edition of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, which was so heavily influenced by Carlyle: “At the end of [Carlyle’s great 1837 history] The French Revolution, in the farewell to the reader, Carlyle speaks of man as ‘an incarnated Word’ and of human speech as a living, sacred fountain.”
Springing from the “sacred fountain” that nourishes us all, C. S. Lewis’s rational precision and literary eloquence incarnated the Word and resisted the abolition of the human person so frequently enacted both physically and metaphysically over the last 100 years and with malignant ingenuity in our “brave new world” today. May his name be praised — along with the names of all the noble individuals, known or unknown in this world or to us, who resisted the abolition of the human person and affirmed the reality of the Good and the True.
— M. D. Aeschliman has taught at universities in the United States and Italian-speaking and French-speaking Europe. He is a professor emeritus of education at Boston University and a professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland (Lugano). He has edited paperback editions of historical novels by Malcolm Muggeridge (Winter in Moscow (1934), 1987) and Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities (1859), 2012). He has written regularly for National Review since 1984.