Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West
© 2019 Brad Birzer
Most people, including myself until a few years ago, would describe humanism as a worldview championing the possibility of, and the need for, humans living moral, meaningful lives through and for wholly natural reasons. The word itself, though, has an older and broader meaning, and it’s that which Birzer addresses in Beyond Tenebrae. His Christian humanism is not secular humanism with a soft spot for Jesus, but rather a continuation of the medieval tradition (studia humanitas) — itself fusing Christianity and classical wisdom — that emphasized pursuing the edification of the individual and the polis through the study of the liberal arts (poetry, history, philosophy, etc) .In Beyond Tenebrae, Birzer comments briefly on the state of the west, before sharing reflections on the life and work of those who have lit up the darkness in their time. We live in a crumbling house whose beauty is marred by graffiti, its maintenance neglected by children too absorbed by their solipsistic screens to acknowledge anything besides themselves can exist, and Birzer hopes the example of these remarkable men and women from the past will encourage the reader to pick up the torch and carry on — or perhaps encourage those who feel it’s all hopeless to continue.
Although one expects from the arcane title and subject that Beyond Tenebrae would be heady, that’s not the case at all. Birzer offers the book as tribute to literary friends, authors who have fed his soul and strengthened his mind. As such, it can be conversational — but Birzer is chatty even when he’s lecturing, and his earnest pleasure in talking about these men and women and chewing over their ideas is why he’s one of my favorite people to listen to. The men and women saluted here include the expected (Russell Kirk & Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) as well as more than a few surprises (…Margaret Atwood?) and names known only to scholars. These people did not share an ideology; they were, Birzer comments, all unique individuals, and some were outright characters despite their frequent disdain for Individualism as an ethos. Put them in a room together and one would probably have to look for the exit given the table-pounding arguing that would ensue. They were, however, bound together by the common pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful — and they all considered themselves nothing but links in a chain, bringing the past forward and promoting its wisdom to those who would make the future. Frequently, Birzer’s subjects are responding to the work of the other, as when Solzhenitsyn comments on Nicholas Berdyaez’ principled defiance of the Soviet state. We are here invited to eavesdrop on the Great Conversation.
The title of the book merits some looking-over: Tenebrae refers to the three days of Holy Week , beginning with Maundy Thursday, in which the lights of the altar are successfully dimmed until nothing remains but the darkness of Holy Saturday. It is in that growing darkness that we find ourselves today, Birzer writes. It is a darkness which has been growing for centuries, deepening every decade and never more rapidly than the 20th century. The catholicity of the human experience (catholic as in universal) was being fragmented: specialists studied aspects of human life, but never man in full. Man was being reduced to a thing to be managed by a totalitarian order, language and beauty and personality bulldozed over for the equivalent of parking lots: flat, grey, grim. Tolkien and Lewis both worked the passion of Christendom into their literature, creating the worlds of Middle-Earth and Narnia to illustrate the inner ogres the west faced, and the heroism needed to triumph over them. Many of the subjects themselves realized that they needed to organize and coordinate to better resist the growing tide: they needed to work together to rebuild the Republic of Letters. There were no institutions which could do it for them, least of all the inheritors of the humanist tradition, the Universities. No university today has ‘universal’ man at its heart: the holistic, classical program which began eroding away in the 19th century is almost wholly gone, save in islands like St. John’s, Hillsdale, and a few other places which make a classical education their aim. Instead, the universities produce ever-more arcane and sometimes absurd specializations, and their end products live so firmly in their minds that they’ve lost all touch with reality.
Birzer connects Christian humanism to the conservative tradition — that’s the conservatism of Burke and Kirk, not the bomb & bribe antics of the republican party — because it is the humanist tradition which they seek to conserve; that tradition holds the Permanent Things that Kirk wrote about. Happily, though, Beyond Tenebrae isn’t simply a collection of biographies of people brooding over virtue; instead, Birzer’s extensive reading of his subjects’ works allows him to bring both varied perspectives and and more unexpected merits to the table. A reader dimly familiar with Russell Kirk would expect to find him saluted here for his writings on culture and governance, but Birzer instead focuses on his anti-war writings, as Kirk believed the United States’ permanent war state was steadily eroding its character as a republican nation. (Bill Kauffman would agree.)
Beyond Tenebrae is a must-read for those who read the classics for their insight and edification, as Birzer’s reflection on Christian humanism reveals why the classics have their enduring appeal. For the serious classics reader, Birzer’s book is a extensive visitation and chat with friends, who share with us their wisdom, humor, and unique perspectives. I’ve continued to revisit it in the weeks since I first read it, and suspect I will continue to do so for some time to come. Don’t be surprised to see it a top-ten entry in December!
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The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, Phillip & Carol Zaleski