A couple of years ago, W. H. Auden scholar and Baylor humanities professor Alan Jacobs published an essay asking what had become of all the Christian public intellectuals (“The Watchmen,” Harper’s, September 2016). Whereas once America’s public sphere seemed to comprehend a wide variety of voices, prominent Christian ones among them, in our age Christian intellectuals have retreated into the comfortable isolation of magazines and journals whose readership consists exclusively of the already converted.
Provocative though it was, Jacobs’s account struck me as in several ways distorting both our present “naked public square,” to use Richard John Neuhaus’s old phrase, and the character of the early and mid 20th centuries, to which he had appealed as a golden age comparing unfavorably with our own.
Evidently, Jacobs required no correction from me or anyone else. In this fascinating new study, he provides an answer to his own question — one bound to chasten our memories of an age that contained minds of titanic ambition and lasting fame, and one that should, finally, leave us with a sense that ideas matter, now no less than before, but that they work on us, most often, by curious and indirect paths.
Jacobs is a fine storyteller. On January 14, 1943, he begins, “President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, . . . along with the leaders of the Free French,” convened in Casablanca to plan for the remainder of the war. Where once victory had been in doubt, now it seemed inevitable. Though the Allies’ liberation of Europe was well over a year in the future, as the new year began it already seemed necessary to envision a post-war world that would overcome the errors of the old.
As Jacobs follows five great minds through the period, we watch as they attempt to imagine a resurrected civilization in the mold of what he rightly calls Christian humanism. In 1943, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, W. H. Auden, Simone Weil, and C. S. Lewis were all between the ages of 30 and 50. Each produced brilliant literary and philosophical works before and during the war; each challenged the West to reject the most dehumanizing aspects of modern culture and to recover a rich Christian heritage.
The quality and number of works Jacobs has to pick from is almost overwhelming. Auden wrote five major long poems during the war, including the epoch-naming “Age of Anxiety,” and innumerable essays. Maritain’s most comprehensive treatises of political philosophy, arguing for an integral humanism, had appeared in the Thirties, but they began to reach their largest audience only after the Nazi invasion of France forced on him extended exile in New York. Weil, who died during the war, wrote letters, essays, and her most extensive book, The Need for Roots, all in an intense period of daily war service and nocturnal composition, only to have them gain a huge and lasting audience in the decades that followed.
During this same period, Eliot brought his career as a poet to a conclusion, canceling the despair of his most famous poem, “The Waste Land” (1922), with the august philosophical lyrics collected as Four Quartets (1943). He complemented this valediction with his Idea of a Christian Society and Notes toward a Definition of Culture, which some readers at least have taken for the charter documents of a post-war conservative and Christian revival. Lewis, a decade younger then Eliot, completed some of his most popular books, including The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity, and important novels. Meanwhile, he sheltered children from the Blitz at his home in the Oxford countryside, giving him the germ of an idea for the marvelous stories he would publish years later. On the whole, Jacobs chooses his foci well among such modern classics, though with an obvious preference for his beloved Auden. This, we shall see, is instructive.
More interested in giving us a panoptic and impressionistic sketch of the era than in demonstrating a thesis in depth, Jacobs elucidates with ease something that has always fascinated scholars of the period. With the devastation of World War I, the economic crises of the Thirties, and the rise of radical movements inspired by, and often taking orders from, Soviet Russia, the totality of civilization seemed to be up for grabs. One world was ending and another, still unformed, was coming to be born. This sense of great crisis was answered by works of great philosophical, political, and literary imagination whose daring, for better or for worse, would seem almost inconceivable in the more staid and stable decades that followed. Moreover, these works came in profuse quantity.
Jacobs’s intention is to characterize what Christians specifically contributed to this great reimagining and also to measure the place they actually occupied in intellectual life. He manages to convey just how much these and other Christian intellectuals had reached a diagnosis. The Second World War was a symptom of the modern West’s dehumanization, by which they meant its reduction of society to impersonal forces and its equation of knowledge with technological power. The modern age had brought into being a system of mass education that bowdlerized the traditional spirit of learning as a preparation for the contemplation of eternal realities — of the “permanent things,” as Eliot would call them. Mass education had but prepared the way for the annihilation of great masses in the war. A recovery of education, at least for the few, as initiation into the contemplative life — literary, philosophical, and religious — was necessary.
This recovery of learning as a school for eternity would lead to three further programs that Jacobs describes under the rubrics “demons,” “force,” and “personalism.” Modern technocratic rationality claimed to have “disenchanted” the world: The devil was a superstition, and sin a psychological complex. That may be so, wrote Auden, but the demons and monsters only grow more powerful by our not believing in them. We must recover a sense of evil, sin, wonder, and fear.
Modern technology had also unleashed awesome new powers, but these were all instances of physical force. If there are eternal realities, they must be, in their peaceful stasis, beyond the push and pull of mere power. And so each of the figures Jacobs describes sought either to subordinate the regime of force to the intellect and spirit or, in the case of Weil, to reject force outright and to bring about a Christianity of pure self-sacrifice. When Weil died, her doctors concluded that it was because she had restricted her diet in an act of solidarity with her fellow French, who were starving under the Nazi occupation.
Only if we recover a sense of the depths of sin and the heights of the spirit (in opposition to the regime of force) can civilization be rebuilt so as to recognize that the mystery and worth of human beings lie in their personhood. In the years just before and after the war, many schools of personalism emerged, not all of them Christian, but each of them founded on some version of these Christian-humanist principles.
In rightly capturing these common ideas, Jacobs inevitably loses some of the fascinating variety of the figures who espoused them. The ideas themselves come to seem a bit obtuse. He also captures — and here I believe he must have been discovering as he was writing — how helpless these figures were to bring their ideas to bear on the broader culture. None but Maritain ever played a formal role in political life, and though Lewis’s and Eliot’s voices were broadcast on the living-room radios of millions of Britons, post-war England went on to become just the kind of secular welfare state they had found repellent and preached against.
For all the grandeur and ambition of their writings, the Christian humanists of the Forties were little more noticeably influential than those of our day. They depended on an audience of sympathetic fellow travelers to work out and give a first hearing to their ideas no less than do their counterparts in the present. With their constant summonses to contemplation, prayer, earnest faith, and ascetical sanctity, they clearly recognized something that Jacobs’s essay of two years ago failed to register, but that Auden appreciated from the moment he wrote his great poem “September 1, 1939,” in which he spoke of those who are good and loving as “ironic points of light” in the vast darkness. Intellectual influence is a communication of spirit with spirit, and of the soul with eternity. It acts within the interior privacy of each person and, should it come to have any measurable consequences for public life, it will be through a welling up from hidden springs impossible to measure.
When the world is blowing up around one, and direct action seems essential, this can be a hard lesson to accept. But the Christian humanist’s vision of providence and the dignity of the person teaches us that such indirect communications are not just the only way, they are the right way to keep the light alive.