Saturday, February 8, 2014

Texts That Will Save Civilization

During World War II, Karol Wojtyła helped found the underground Rhapsodic Theater, believing that, so long as Polish culture existed, the Polish state could eventually stage a comeback against the Nazis (and subsequently Soviets). But without a culture, there would be no soul left to animate the body politic.

That got me thinking about the defining characteristics of cultures, ours in particular. One of the curious wrinkles is that the most important texts in one sense may not be the most valuable. A work with which people can engage - and I realize that engagement is culturally conditioned; different people interact with texts and one another in different ways, including dramatic performances, poetry readings, morning newspapers, sacred proclamations - may be more important than the intellectual insights of a particularly erudite, but inaccessible, text.

We come then to a thought experiment: If our own country were overrun by tyrants, which works would you preserve for the sake of preserving our particular form of civilization? And why?

A bit Fahrenheit 451, I'll admit. The one parameter I'd place is this: we might as well assume that the tyrants of this little scenario are either foolish enough to permit the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, or so thorough in their thuggery as to prove them untenable for salvaging. There's no point filling our list with obvious choices; I think unusual ones provide far more food for thought.

One problem I have in approaching this question is how to define civilization, our civilization. American civilization? Western civilization? Christendom? Which of these is the most serviceable category? To which do I feel the most connection? Which is most worth saving? After all, I have multiple identities. My Catholic faith does not fit neatly into my American nationality; indeed, for much of American history, many people would have said the two were at odds. My status as an Anglophone (and, yes, Anglophile) links me to a variety of countries around the globe, though America initially defined itself in opposition its Anglophonic cousins.

I have no easy answers to these conundrums, at least not today, though I do have a few texts to offer for discussion:

Homer, The Iliad. This work is foundational to Western literature for a good reason. It does not simply come before later works; it engages with a variety fundamental questions about pride, friendship, free will, heroism, and loss. Little surprise, then, that G. K. Chesterton commented that, "if the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die." Or, as my friend Wondrous Pilgrim explained, "Hundreds of generations have read this and wept. Who am I to argue with them. (And I've wept as well!)."

Shakespeare. When considering the Bard's work, I must confess the inability to choose a single work, or even a single class of works. The histories exert a strong pull on me, not only because I love all things historical, but also because so many deal with questions of public life. But the comedies may prove just as insightful on this account - who would argue that The Tempest is not, among other things, about politics? - while also offering a lightheartedness that may be especially valuable in difficult times. Moreover, I think that drama offers two virtues worth mentioning. First, it is something one does. Whether one actually acts it out or simply reads it in a group, it invites a form of social participation beyond mere reading. Second, and related, drama invites discussion. The conversation over food and drink which follows a performance of Richard III or Julius Caesar may be some of the best civic discourse one can find.

Russell Kirk, Roots of American Order. In some ways, including this work is a cheat. Kirk surveys the origins of the American way of life, reaching from ancient Israel and Greece, through Rome, medieval Christendom, and the English liberal tradition, and on to the American Founding, all the way to Abraham Lincoln. Thus, in one vast sweep, this work encompasses the ideas and cultures of many other works which might appear on this list. At times I suspect Kirk indulges in a bit of wishful thinking, romantically claiming connections which are not quite so clear. But there is much to value in the history here surveyed, and even if America was not founded with all this in mind, modern Americans would do well to consider it.

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. Doubtless, this work benefited from the fact that I recently re-read it. But Chesterton's survey of human civilization, from its earliest origins to the Christian age, a survey which greatly influenced C. S. Lewis, makes a number of important arguments regarding the place of religion in society. Moreover, Chesterton reminds us that civilizations can progress but also regress, a worthwhile caution. Most importantly, Chesterton points to the supernatural power of God, which can reanimate humanity in ways even the best of merely natural civilizations cannot. And he writes with a very enjoyable flourish.

Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail. I have written about this letter before. I think it is worth including here for three reasons: (1) it gives a glimpse of America in the latter half of the 20th century, (2) it draws extensively on the Western intellectual tradition, demonstrating how it can be applied to contemporary issues, and (3) it encourages reflection on how the tools of faith and reason should be applied to political injustice, certainly a worthwhile topic in difficult times.

Walter Miller, Canticle for Leibowitz. This is another work I have praised elsewhere. Although a very different genre, like Letter from Birmingham Jail it invites consideration of how people of faith many carry on in difficult times. This novel of monks in post-apocalyptic America also raises important questions about how the remnants of civilization are preserved, suggesting that the work of preservation should be carried on even in the absence of tangible benefits, though preservation should never be assumed to be complete nor should it become an end in itself.

Suggestions for other inclusions?

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