In a world agog with labels and categories we too often leave important ideas behind. With paleocons, traditionalists, neocons, Leocons, libertarians, classical liberals, anarcho-capitalists, distributists, and agrarians, the right can be as bad as the left in its fetish for classification.
One group that defies easy definition are the women and men we might call Christian Humanists. In 1939, the New York Times gave their philosophy a lineage. “This is the theme recurring in much of the writings of some of the foremost thinkers of our day, such as the late Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, and [Nikolai] Berdyaev, Christopher Dawson, and T.S. Eliot.” The newspaper of record might have added others: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their circles in Britain, as well as philosophers Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson in France.
“Humanism is a tradition of culture and ethics,” proclaimed the English historian Christopher Dawson, “founded on the study of humane letters.” The moment St. Paul quoted the Stoics in his mission to Athens—“In Him we move and live and have our being”— he bridged the humanist and Christian worlds. (The line came from a centuries-old Stoic hymn, “In Zeus we move and live and have our being.”) From that point forward, Dawson argued, any separation of one from the other led to what we must consider “dark ages.” Just as “man needs God and nature requires grace for its own perfecting, so humane culture is the natural foundation and preparation for spiritual culture.” Christianity and humanism mix so readily, wrote Dawson, that they “are complementary to one another in the order of culture, as are Nature and Grace in the order of being.”
Regardless of the labels Christian Humanists attached to themselves—some, like Babbitt and More, were “New Humanists”; others, like Maritain, “Integral Humanists”—all of them sought to remind the world, as it turned toward gulags, ideology, and terror, that the human person, no matter how fallen, carries with him a unique face of the infinite.
“In this twentieth century of the Christian era the real contest is between the power of transcendent faith and the power of the totalist revolt against order,” Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, wrote in 1963. “In our hour of crisis the key to real power, to the command of reality which the higher imagination gives, remains the fear of God.”
Kirk spoke for all the Christian humanists of the century—disparate thinkers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, E.I. Watkin, Owen Barfield, Frank Sheed, Etienne Gilson, and John Paul II, to name a few, who upheld the traditional concept of each human person as an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom, deeply flawed but also a bearer of the Imago Dei.
In their many works of faith and scholarship, these thinkers analyzed the innumerable horrors of the 20th century and argued that the solution was really quite simple: to embrace the moral and beautiful image found in each soul and to reclaim God’s gift to us, our humanity. “Man is man because he can recognise spiritual realities,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “not because he can invent them.”
As the label “Christian Humanist” suggests, these writers, poets, and philosophers defended liberal education as the only true education. The liberal arts—connecting ancient, medieval, and modern man—liberated one from the immediate problems of this earth and linked each person to a greater continuity that transcended time and space. The liberal arts leavened the reason of each person, conferring citizenship in a Republic of Letters—what Cicero and the Stoics labeled the Cosmopolis and what St. Augustine would call, in a specially Christian understanding, the “City of God.” Any other form of education merely forced a stifling conformity on a person, making him less what the Creator uniquely made him to be.
That was their common ground. Yet at best, these women and men formed only the loosest of alliances. Intellectual as well as personal differences separated them. C.S. Lewis especially had difficulty with a number of his fellow Christian Humanists. “Stick to Gilson as a guide and beware of the people (Maritain in your church, and T.S. Eliot in mine) who are at present running what they call ‘neo-scholasticism’ as a fad,” he wrote to a Roman Catholic nun who would later become president of St. Mary’s College in northern Indiana. Christopher Dawson, for his part, assumed—probably correctly—that Lewis had taken much of the argument of his Abolition of Man from Dawson’s own 1929 work Progress and Religion.
Before a reconciliation in the 1950s, when both served on the committee to revise the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Lewis loathed Eliot for his modernist poetry. “Surely it is natural that I should regard Eliot’s work as a very great evil,” Lewis wrote to Paul Elmer More. “His intention only God knows: I must be content to judge his work by its fruits, and I contend that no man is fortified against chaos by reading the Waste Land but that most men are by it infected with chaos.”
Perhaps most damning, according to Lewis’s lights,
Eliot stole upon us, a foreigner and a neutral, while we were at war—obtained I have my wonders how a job in the Bank of England—and became (am I wrong) the advance guard of the invasion since carried out by his natural friends and allies, the Steins and Pounds … the Parisian riff-raff of deviation, allied Irishmen and Americans who have perhaps given Western Europe her death wound.
Even within Lewis’s group at Oxford, the Inklings, there was much disagreement. When American scholar Charles Moorman wrote of them as a collective entity, Lewis’s brother Warnie recorded in his diary, “I smiled at the thought of Tollers”—J.R.R. Tolkien—“being under the influence of Moorman’s group mind.”
(On the other hand, sometime member Owen Barfield thought a group mind might be ideal. One should pursue the “sober effort to build up and maintain a common stock of thought rather than to startle with a series of sparkling individual contributions,” he wrote in 1940. To promote truth and defend the ideals of the West, Barfield continued, a group of men should create “a commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright.”)
Like Lewis, Dawson had mixed feelings about Maritain but liked Etienne Gilson. Certainly the Augustinian Dawson felt little sympathy for Maritain’s extreme Thomism. The 20th-century neo-Thomists, especially Maritain, tended to believe that religious emotion was dangerous, while rationality was an essential precursor to faith, as all reason would lead back, inevitably, to God. This was a belief that Dawson found simply wrong. He explained his opposition in a 1957 letter:
It is, of course, necessary to define this philosophy of culture against the absolutism of the Neo-Thomists and the relativism of the moderns (I do not know what else to call them, for they now disavow the name of positivist and materialist too). On the whole I would say that my thought is in the tradition of the medieval English scholasticism—a theological absolutism combined with a philosophical relativism, and it is also the tradition of the French Catholic traditionalists like Bonald and de Maistre.
While Dawson revered St. Thomas and considered him the pinnacle of medieval thought, he argued that other strains of Catholic thinking equaled and completed Thomism.
Just as he considered the Neo-Thomists too theoretical, if not outright ideological, they thought little of Dawson, regarding him as a mere historian—a recorder rather than a creator. Meanwhile, Maritain regretted Eliot’s failure to come into the Roman Catholic Church, quipping, “Eliot exhausted his capacity for conversion when he became an Englishman.”
Politics also divided Christian Humanists. Maritain and his brand of neo-Thomists were more pro-liberal and pro-democracy than were the Augustinians, especially Dawson and Kirk, neither of whom held any fondness for plebiscitary rule. Kirk feared that mass democracy served as a pseudo-religion. “This error of perfectibility is one of the illusions to which democracies are especially prone,” he wrote in 1960. “A distaste for the supernatural; an excessive appetite for comforts; a notion that all the problems of life may be solved by some simple formula or law—these are deceptions into which many men slide in democratic times.”
Still, the fragmented Christian Humanists of the 20th century—whether Augustinian or neo-Thomist—drew upon each other’s works frequently, and some, especially the members of the Inklings, were close friends. Dawson and the poet Roy Campbell met with the Inklings as a whole or with various members from time to time. Eliot thanked and cited Dawson in many of his philosophical and literary works, and his “Four Quartets” seems to represent Dawson’s arguments regarding culture in poetic form.
Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson, especially his Making of Europe and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. That volume, wrote Gilson, “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy. Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages], my own work would have been other and better than it is.”
Tolkien’s mythological Middle-earth work often parallels Dawson’s work from the same period, and Tolkien drew on Dawson frequently in his own academic papers. And Dawson edited one of Maritain’s books. Kirk perhaps best summarized and synthesized this diverse group’s thought. “In that Christian Humanism,” he wrote in 1957, “it is altogether possible, lie the norms which could restore nobility to letters and order to a sea of troubles.”
A group of men of this intellectual caliber and traditionalist mindset could never have arisen in any recent century prior to the 20th. It was only then that the madness of the French Revolutionaries, the dominance of scientism and positivism, dehumanized technology, and the anti-religious ideologies of the socialists and utilitarians—all the worst qualities of the centuries preceding—combined to bear malicious fruit. The Christian Humanists, each brilliant in his own way, arose in the 20th century as if an answer from Grace, and fought the good fight, attempting to re-infuse the culture with Christianity.
Today the whirligig of modernity and post-modernity swirls us closer and closer to the abyss. At home, our culture drowns in its pornographic advertising, clothing, and entertainment. With some exceptions, our politicians pander to the lowest common denominator as they dismantle the republic in favor of a flabby empire without purpose or meaning. Indeed, for many of our leaders, “democracy” has become a term of religious significance and intensity, and “freedom”—not the natural law, as St. Paul told the Christians of Rome—“is written in the hearts of every man and woman on this earth.”
With even fewer exceptions, our academics remain trapped in their own subjective realities, publishing only for each other. The average American student knows that he “is worth something” and “is as good as everyone else,” but he could never name the last serious book he read, let alone one of the seven cardinal and Christian virtues. He may well not even know what a virtue is or that such a thing exists.
All of this should make us return to first principles and to the most important questions one can ask: What is man? What is God? And what is our relationship to God and to one another? The Christian Humanist does not pretend to have the answers, but he knows these questions must be raised. The Christian Humanist, wrote Kirk in 1956, understands that the “past and present are one—or, rather, that the ‘present,’ the evanescent moment, is infinitely trifling in comparison with the well of the past, upon which it lies as a thin film.” Indeed, the Christian Humanist understands that he is always a second away from eternity.
Brad Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History at Hillsdale College and the author of American Cicero.