First Things First

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

That is from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who is one among our gallery of honored men and women at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. Wonder and gratitude come first. Only if you are capable of wonder can you delight in the beautiful work of art. Only the grateful son can really understand the father.

Need I say that wonder and gratitude are rarely fostered in our time? The “critical” stance is. Most such criticism is canned stuff. And the people who engage in it do not know how absurd they really are. Imagine someone almost entirely ignorant of classical music daring to express a “critical” opinion about Bach because he did not do something or other that everyone now is supposed to do. Imagine someone who cannot place an Italian painting within two hundred years led by his instructor to look down on Caravaggio because—you may fill in the blank.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Shakespeare hated Jews. He didn’t—but it is a lot easier to say so, and have done with The Merchant of Venice, than to deal fairly and intelligently with the theology of grace that informs the play. Milton hated women. He didn’t—but it takes you only a minute to say so, while it takes a long time and some careful attention to read Paradise Lost and learn what he does believe about man and woman and marriage.

If it is criticism first, which is usually one part genuine engagement and nine parts envy or sloth, then expect all the icons to come down. The churches will not be long to follow. It may be a church in Calgary, whose members have done no harm to anyone, with the excuse that some Catholics or Anglicans long ago and far from Calgary did harm; but that hardly matters. St. Junipero Serra devoted his life to the spiritual and temporal welfare of the Indians in California, and he wore his body to a wisp in doing it. But he must come down too. You are damned both ways.

Not, as I say, at Magdalen College. And this bears some attention.

The walls of our main building are lined with framed photographs of heroic modern souls who sought the truth and told of what they saw. Some of the portraits are deeply moving; I think of the elderly Josef Pieper, his countenance bespeaking kindness, wisdom, and strength. Not all of them are Roman Catholic. We honor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—and we will all be reading, this year, large selections from The Gulag Archipelago. We honor Václav Havel, who urges us not to live by lies, and who gives us, as an example to follow, the lone storekeeper who turns about and will no longer post communist propaganda in his window. We honor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood against the massive venality and cruelty of the Nazi regime. We honor Martin Luther King, who stood against the massive sluggishness of a nation not living up to its best lights.

We make no claims about their perfect sanctity or wisdom. It may be truer to say that Saint-Exupéry longed for faith and, in his longing, possessed some measure of it. Reverend King was a deeply flawed man. It is not clear that Havel believed in God at all.

Yet at Magdalen College we permit them to teach us—along with others in that gallery, such as John Henry Newman, Flannery O’Connor, and John Paul II; and still others who lived before the days of the camera, Catholics such as Shakespeare, and Cervantes, and Dante; and other Christians too, such as Milton and Dostoyevsky; and the great pagan poets, historians, and philosophers, such as Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Livy, and Virgil.

We are grateful to them first, and we behold their accomplishments with wonder. When you meet someone so committed to truth-telling as Virgil was, even when the truth was not exactly what his patron the emperor Augustus wanted to hear, and when he embodies his human insights in a work as poignantly beautiful as the Aeneid, you should give thanks, and let the teacher teach, insofar as he can. Dante did not think himself too high and mighty to learn from the old Roman. And who are we then to presume upon our wisdom? 

Donatello dug up the rubble in fifteenth-century Rome to unearth copies of ancient Greek sculpture. He learned from the pagans. His own work transcended theirs because he had the faith they did not have: I am thinking of the intense spiritual life in his prophets Jeremiah and Habakkuk, sculpted for the exterior of the cathedral in Florence. But without the Greeks, he would not have attained those heights.

And maybe this is another way of saying that when you are dealing with most human things, unless you are in the realm of the monstrously evil or the blankly stupid, you will not see unless you first love. Such love, however, is scorned by anything that I have encountered (in more than four decades of being a student or a teacher in higher education) that bears the adjective “critical.”

“What the professor does not understand,” said the feminist critic at the conference, interrupting the elderly man who dared to suggest that they had gotten things wrong, “is that we don’t like Shakespeare.” And the audience erupted in laughter and applause. But think of what she must have been missing. 

Students at Alfred University, in Alfred, New York, objected to a statue of King Alfred—the town was not named for the king, but it was a nice coincidence, as Alfred was himself a strong patron of learning. “Would he have been in favor of education for women and minorities?” asked one student, apparently unable or unwilling to imagine the world of ninth-century England. One of the professors objected to it, saying that although he was important for the advancement of learning, still he was in the line of what she called “D.W.E.M.,” dead white European males. Well, the statue stands, but not for honor. The student activities page says that Alfred sports a pumpkin for Halloween. Any resemblance between that squash and the noggin of an Alfred University student is entirely coincidental.

We at Magdalen would never erect a statue of Nietzsche, that great hater of the Christian world, but we read him, and we do not treat him with contempt, not even when we show how badly wrong is his view of Christian self-denial and martyrdom. And perhaps Nietzsche sees some of the truth; surely he is a bracing nay-sayer to the bland progressive optimists of his time. Even Nietzsche is better defined, though, by what he loved than by what he hated.

But if you really want to know what we love, or Whom, come and listen to our students, all of them, practicing the chants, the polyphony, and the hymns for Mass. What, by contrast, do people sing when they tear good and noble things down? Or do they ever sing at all?

[Photos, from left: Josef Pieper, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Václav Havel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King]


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