Freedom, on a Mountain

In another month or so, our cheerful students will be returning to Magdalen College, up here on Kearsarge Mountain, in New Hampshire. There are three things in the center of campus that tell what we are all about. One is the main building where we study and talk about the works we are reading, where we take our meals together, and where you can play games on an enormous indoor field, or go shoot pool in the student lounge. The other is the beautiful stone chapel, and if you hear the strains of Palestrina’s Sicut cervus coming from that way, you should know that maybe half of the students are there, practicing the music for Mass on Sunday. It is glorious.

The third thing is the mountain. You look to the south, beyond the tops of the birches and the maples and the blackberry-laden slopes of Kearsarge Mountain, and you see the mountains facing you from ten or twenty miles away on the other side of the valley. On a fine afternoon they are all bathed in sunlight.

I think that they all belong together, that they all give witness to the freedom of the education to which we have devoted our love.

The professor

Let me illustrate first by counterexample. In a recent issue of The Chaucer Review, two feminist scholars, having slandered that most broadly human of poets, calling him a rapist and a racist and other things just as foul, wonder what they should do now. I might recommend their leaving Chaucer to people who love his work, and earning a living at something else. But their attitude is common in the academy. That they could write as they did without embarrassment, without fear of ridicule, is telling. They have chains on their souls, and their job, as they see it, is to forge chains for other people’s souls too.

That was the case with a pitiful young fellow I met in my last and unhappy year at Providence College. He was a native Spanish speaker, from Colombia. When I said that he should remain in our section of the college’s (mangled, but still breathing) course in Western Civilization, because we would be reading Spain’s greatest playwright, Calderón, he was if anything saddened by the news. “Still European,” he said. Chains on the soul.

At Magdalen this coming semester, in the four-year Humanities course that all students take simultaneously, we will begin with the American Revolution and take things down to the current day. Many of the readings will be friendly to the good Catholic and will feed the imagination richly. We will be in Russia with The Brothers Karamazov, and in modern Norway, in the care of the Catholic novelist Sigrid Undset, with The Wild Orchid and The Burning Bush. We will listen to the admonitory wisdom of Solzhenitsyn, in excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago. We will hear the longing in the voice of Eliot, who tries to shore up the fragments of a civilization in The Waste Land.  We will hear the songs of those most cheerful and winsome of American poets, Whittier and Longfellow, both of them friendly to the Church they were not members of.

The students

We will also be reading from great Catholic philosophers and theologians, such as Newman and John Paul II. That is just a rather small selection from the year’s offerings.

And we will have authors who most assuredly do not want the Church to survive. Most notable among them will be Marx and Nietzsche. Both of those men were titanic haters. But that does not mean they got everything wrong. Our students will have learned enough about medieval and early modern history to scout out Marx’s errors and monstrous distortions, as when he compares the state of the apprentice to that of a slave. I am more interested, though, in how they will react to Nietzsche, who could write rings around almost anybody, and who is like Kierkegaard and Newman in this sense, that he saw into the emptiness of merely cultural Christianity – and spat out the bland liberalism that was to be its replacement.

In other words, we will do more justice to Nietzsche, we Catholics who have all the reason in the world to loathe him, than the feminist scholars do to the good and wise Chaucer, or than everyone else in the academy will do to people born before yesterday, who did not profess the current secular orthodoxy. Why? First, because it is right. We do well to interpret the words and deeds of others in the mildest light they can admit; we hope that the Lord will do so for us. Second, because your enemy is not wrong about everything. But the third reason is for me the most powerful.

The chapel

Think of that mountain. The truth is a power, a dynamism. It is as senseless to call the truth a cramp on liberty as to call a mountaintop a narrowing of the sight. From it you enjoy a breadth of vision and imagination that people confined to their fluorescent-lighted political cubicles do not know exists. You are not threatened by the atheist Nietzsche, as my poor student was threatened by the priestly Calderón. You need not worry about that patch of mud a thousand feet below. You are not tangled up in a wet thicket of bittersweet and poison ivy. You can extend your arms. You can look up and down and all around.

There is a rich joy to be atop the hills of the liberal arts. Our students do not have to apologize for reading Tolstoy. Apologize, indeed! They do not have to say, “Here is the use to which we will put the man, for political advantage.” They do not wear the social manacles. Why do you climb a mountain, anyway?

Or we may put it in this fashion. Why sing, or pray? If you ask why, you do not know what singing or praying are. At Magdalen, we know.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.