I have just been re-reading an old book. Not old in the sense of its being 18th century — it is Dacre Balsdon’s Oxford Life, which came out in the early 1950s. One does not have to have been a scholar or a commoner at one of the colleges in Oxford in order to find high pleasure here. For one thing, the prose itself is glorious: understated, droll, well-tempered, urbane, and what the English would call “spot on.”
This itself raises one preliminary question, namely, how do we arrive at prose like this? Certainly it has nothing to do with one’s trying to cobble up a “style.” Nor can it be taught in any writing seminar. It is clearly the fruit of one’s having been wholly at home, perhaps from childhood on, through school (an English public school) and university, in the centuries-old domain of civilized discourse. Such discourse appears to have disappeared from the American map. There is nothing in our journalism, television, politics, or education that remotely echoes such prose. It is difficult for a gloomy man not to suppose that somewhere in the last half century we (America) have seen the collapse of discourse. To be sure, we muddle along through our exchanges of speech, somehow getting the idea across. But Dr. Johnson, or the nonagenarian president of Magdalen, Dr. Routh, would find our modes of discourse not only impenetrable but appalling.
But a larger question presents itself in connection with the ancient topic that lies between Athens and Jerusalem, asked by Tertullian in the second century. What, in other words, do the very highest achievements of human culture (Athens) have to do with the Eternal (Jerusalem)?
The topic has been canvassed by theologians and philosophers for almost 2,000 years now. How do we harmonize, or else set in opposition, the two regions of high human culture on the one hand and holiness on the other?
Lest the word “holiness” appear to introduce a laughably capricious element into such an exalted topic, we may recall that the word bespeaks one of the only two options that we mortals have. Either we are going nowhere in the end, and art, music, poetry, drama, architecture, and civility must supply the only consolations offered to our brief moment on stage; or we are, in fact, going somewhere else, and the only route thence is the route of holiness.And this “else” itself, far from being merely a state of affairs somewhere over the rainbow, rustles and swells and whispers and oozes in every single detail of this mortal trek of ours — not only in Bach and Mozart, or in Caravaggio and Vermeer, or in Dante and Shakespeare, but (perhaps more crucially?) in every instance of generosity, fidelity, and purity that appears in the actions and attitudes of “holy and humble men of heart.”
The question may be trivialized, of course. On the one hand, one may adopt the merely cultured attitude: I will become discriminating. I will surround myself with porcelains and fabrics and landscapes and friends of the most delicate sensibilities. Let Calvinists and Puritans and other riff-raff burden themselves with virtue and the terror of the Last Trump. So amusing. Or, on the other hand, one may announce one’s disdain for all matters of culture: All questions of taste and discrimination and civility are beneath me. I am zealous for “the Lord.”
The difficulty with both of these simplifications is that they are, well, simplifications. Neither has come to grips with what sort of creature we mortal men are. We are neither angels, who apparently can look straight at Reality and bear up, nor beasts whose existence seems to be wholly material (although on that last point, I am one of the ones who hopes that the animals are in on something that will only be revealed to us all at the Last Day, and that will turn out to be glorious). The first man, perhaps an aesthete, has impoverished himself by failing to grasp the mystery of our having been made for God, and the rigorist has perhaps failed to explore just how the truly noble achievements of human culture trumpet the majorem gloriam Dei.
But back to my book about Oxford. The book is the work of an Oxford man, and is itself a very fine thing. And Oxford? Here, certainly, we find the highest order of scholarly and literate culture. This university stands as a sort of paradigm for all human inquiry, at least in popular imagination — and, to some extent, perhaps justly.
Is it a good place? Hum. Tertullian might find himself scrutinizing the matter. On Athens’s accounting, we would all have to say yes, in that the university’s contributions to human culture are undoubted. On Jerusalem’s accounting, one will most certainly find centuries of true piety and virtue at work in the hearts of countless scholars there.
But then, Oxford is like every human place. It is made up of us mortal men. Hence the good qualities of Athens are to be found there: courtesy, gravity, genius, jollity, brilliance, hard work. But other qualities of Athens are also to be found there: jealousy, niggardliness, malice, vanity, venality, cravenness, pusillanimity, humbug, hatred. By Jerusalem’s touchstone, these latter qualities spell, finally, damnation.
That seems severe. Only a prig would write off Oxford (or Padua, or Yale, or Tubingen, or Main Street, or your house or mine, for that matter) with such a compendious judgment.
So we end up with a platitude (the platitudes are true, come to think of it). Our mortal scene is a jumble, not to be unscrambled until the Day of Wrath (and Mercy). Athens and Jerusalem locate themselves not so much in Greek or Levantine geography as in the inner man. And who but an oaf does not wish to find some testimony to Athens in his own imagination, while he makes his way along toward the only City that will finally survive the Shaking of the Foundations?