A few years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of a MacArthur genius award, and a popular writer on race in America, admitted he had never heard of Saint Augustine. Many people rushed to point out the irony, that an African American who makes much of Africa – he has named one of his sons for an African fighter against French colonialism – should be unaware of the greatest writer ever to come from the continent.
But that was not the real trouble, the real cause for disappointment. Coates, I am sure, is but one among the millions of our American elites whose education violates the law of flowing water, and manages to be narrow and shallow at once. He hadn’t heard of Saint Augustine – but who has?
Can we be sure that the professors hanging about in the faculty lounge at State College have heard of him, let alone have read or at least opened the Confessions?
Go to Silicon Valley, and visit a cafeteria at Google. Which is more likely, that the people sitting at a table can have a boisterous conversation about the latest Marvel Comics movie featuring Spider-Man, or that they can even drop one or two sensible comments on Cervantes and the Knight of the Woeful Countenance?
Go to the House of Representatives, and drop the name of Tocqueville. It falls like a pebble into a deep well, with hardly a ripple or a sound.
I don’t think I am exaggerating. We suppose our schools serve at least the rich and powerful, but in crucially important regards it is not so. Their graduates can scramble up a half-literate essay, they can learn science and medicine and mathematics and what passes for law, but they are hardly less ignorant of the great heritage of western arts and letters than are the children of the slums.
And they have this additional disadvantage. They are unlikely to have darkened a church door, so that the spiritual heritage of Christendom is for them at best an uncharted territory, an unknown continent, and at worst, a monster of the post-Christian imagination, a bugbear to frighten secular toddlers.
They need not go to Marvel or MIT for a message from another universe. Opening the Imitation of Christ will do.
Elites tend to be arrogant and to spin roulette with the moral law. But at least the ordinary man might expect from them good manners, polished taste, a certain noble reserve, a willingness to be first to bear the burden of war, and education fit for ladies and gentlemen. Our elites are as arrogant as any French courtier in the last days of Louis XVI, and they lead in spreading diseases of moral corruption; but we get from them nothing compensatory – they are ill-mannered, slovenly, loud, timorous, and ignorant.
Well, what do we do about it? I know what we at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts do about it. We teach students who read and discuss, not just for a section of one special class, Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Shakespeare and Cervantes, Michelangelo and Rodin. And not because we want to show off, but because we love them, because they have searched for the truth, and they have strained their muscles and nerves to bring beauty into the world.
When the young Augustine was at Carthage studying rhetoric among other young men who strove for power and influence in the world of law, he happened upon a book we have since lost, the Hortensius, by Cicero. That book changed his life, because it kindled in him a hunger for wisdom, what the Greeks called philosophy. I guess that in a bad world, we need a Hortensius now and again.
The good news is that we have them, thousands and thousands, more easily available to the hungering mind than ever been before. Many of these are rightly in the keeping of the Church: Augustine’s Confessions, for one, and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, two works without which I would not have become a professor of Renaissance literature, and, more dreadful to consider, without which my Catholic faith might not have made it across the secular desert called Princeton, but starved along the way.
Many other works belong, so to speak, to all the world, but the world has cast them aside, or slandered them, or mangled them beyond recognition. The world will have to turn to the Church not only for Christ, then, but for Cicero too, not only for wisdom regarding the things of Heaven, but for human wisdom about human things, not only for Paul, but for Plato. And more.
The elites have been in the vanguard of cultural evisceration, in all kinds of ways. Only the Church can recover the abandoned land, and till it with love. By comparison with what people still within living memory once took for granted, there are now no dances, no socials, no local ball leagues, no community singing, few parades – and those but exercises in garishness and obscenity. And no genuine common life.
The Church can still do for man what man once did for himself. She must do so, too, or we must be condemned to preaching not to bad men but to half-men.
Which brings me back to Mr. Coates. He is a man of great inborn talent. He ought to be evangelized. Before he can be – I am speaking of the general case – the subsoil of humanity must be enriched.
Let those who have heard of Christ only as a curse, and who, not coincidentally, can no longer conceive of the beauty of those human things, glance our way and see merriment, marriage, good manners, lively conversation about great and good artists, composers, and poets, and children everywhere.
Let the elites learn from us, the foolish and the deplorable, and almost the only people left in the world who can tell what it was like to be that lost soul in Carthage, long ago.
*Image: Don Quixote by Adrien-Louis Demomt, 1893 [National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia]
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