For Marx, man is at heart economic. For Darwin, man is biological. For Freud, man is psychological. Each of these things is true. But man—a complexity and mystery even to himself—is all of these things and so much more.
True education seeks wisdom, not mere knowledge or technical skill. It does not believe in shaping the person for the here and now, but for the eternal.
Conservatism, [Kirkl argued, did not mean “stand pat-ism.” It meant conserving what is dignified, humane, good, and beautiful. It meant searching for timeless truths and making them palatable for each generation. It meant defending that which the world all too often forgets.
By engaging the minds and ideas of the past, the student [of the liberal arts] becomes liberated from immersion in or enslavement to the things of this world—the things of the immediate moment, problem, or generation. A liberal education thus inspires its students. “A crassly modern education, over weighted with economics, may educate us to be good clerks; only a curriculum in the broad humanities can educate us to be good human beings,” Peter Viereck wrote in the late 1940s. “By harmonizing head and heart, Apollo and Dionysus, the Athenian classics train the complete man rather than the fragmentary man.”
The conservative, therefore, never views history as progressive but as revelatory. That is, history reveals when and where the virtues have become manifest, and where the vices have predominated. With human nature as a constant, mankind neither becomes better nor becomes worse. He merely restrains or not, creates or not, embraces the virtues or does not. In his highest capacity, man embraces the greatest virtue, love—the willingness to surrender himself for the good of another.
Politics at best sustains a community, protecting it from immediate disorders, but rarely can it do more than restrain the evil within man. When politics attempts to shape, it almost always fails, creating distortions in human persons and communities.
In the words of Bell: “the whole cult of comfort is petty, ignoble, unworthy of human nature, absurd.” To chase it, he argued, is to chase the unnatural. Rather than elevating us, it will ultimately only degrade. Rather than embracing our humanity, we will sink into subhumanity. We will circle the abyss without even knowing that our footing is insecure.
As Lewis wrote: “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.’”
“Books, [Sister Madleva Wolff] noted more seriously and with love, “are my friends. Here they are again, shelf upon shelf, the poets from Beowulf and Langland to Eliot and Millay and Daniel Berrigan on the left of the fireplace, the mystics on the right. Lead me not into digression or we shall never emerge from this room.”
“That’s where all of us are standing now, he thought. On the fat kindling of past sins. And some of them are mine. Mine, Adam’s, Herod’s, Judas’s, Hannegan’s, mine. Everybody’s. Always culminates in the colossus of the State, somehow, drawing about itself the mantle of godhood, being struck down by wrath of Heaven.” (Canticle for Leibowitz)
Our true loyalties, as Cicero and those (like Kirk) who followed him argued, are with all of humanity, from Adam to the last living man. Our real citizenship resides elsewhere, and we are merely sojourners in the here and now. Indeed, it must be stressed vehemently that the very essence of the humanities exists to promote what is essentially human, not accidentally so.
What a marvellous review and, it sounds like, a great book! I read a book quite awhile ago called Climbing Parnassus that argues for a liberal/classical education and it was good but this one sounds even better. I’m going to try to track it down.
Review is still in the works! Everything above are quotations from the book. 🙂