In the spring of 1946, W.H. Auden came to Harvard to read a poem to the university’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Titled “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times,” the poem envisioned a postwar world in which, the war-god Ares having quit the field, public life would be dominated by a renewed contest between “the sons of Hermes” and “Apollo’s children” — the motley humanists against the efficient technocrats, the aesthetes and poets and philosophers and theologians against the managers and scientists and financiers and bureaucrats.
These two factions, Auden suggested, could ideally coexist: The Apollonian genius is for government and rule, and “the earth would soon, did Hermes run it,/Be like the Balkans.”
But the Apollonian spirit, ever ambitious, cannot bear to leave the humanists to their poems and ideas and arguments, and so it seeks to expand its empire outward:
But jealous of our god of dreams,
His common-sense in secret schemes
To rule the heart;
Unable to invent the lyre,
Creates with simulated fire
And when he occupies a college,
Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.
During his visit, Auden met James Conant, then president of Harvard and a man associated with the Apollonian transformation of the modern university, its remaking as a scientific-technical powerhouse with its old religious and humanistic purposes hollowed out. “ ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself,” Auden wrote of the encounter. “And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”
This anecdote appears near the end of “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in An Age of Crisis,” a new book by Baylor professor Alan Jacobs. Auden is one of his main subjects. The others are T.S. Eliot, Simone Weil, Jacques Maritain and C.S. Lewis, a group of religious thinkers whose wartime writings Jacobs depicts as a sustained attempt, in the shadow of totalitarian ambition and liberal crisis, to offer “a deeply thoughtful, culturally rich Christianity” as the means to a postwar humanistic renewal in the West.
Jacobs also depicts their attempt as a failure, because in the end neither a Christian humanism nor any other kind has been able to withstand the spirit of Conant, of technocratic ambition, of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well.
In explaining those shifts many conservatives blame humanists themselves, for being politicized and marching lockstep to the left, and for pursuing postmodernist obscurantism in their scholarship and prose. But I think it’s more useful to step back a bit and recognize both politicization and postmodern jargon as attempted solutions to a pre-existing problem, not the taproot of the crisis.
That problem is the one that Auden identified 70 years ago: In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform — or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.
At the moment both efforts look like failures. But is there an alternative? Here I would dissent a little from the sternness of Jacobs’ pessimism, since I think the Christian humanists he describes — and their secular and Jewish counterparts — had a little more short-run success than he suggests. There was real growth in humanities majors beginning in the 1950s (stronger among women than men, but present among both), and that indicator corresponded to a genuine mass interest, mediated by journalists and popularizers as well as academia, in pursuits that now seem esoteric and strictly elitist — poetry and public theology, classical music and abstract impressionism, the Great American novel and the high theory of French cinema and more.
What sustained this temporary cultural moment, middlebrow and crass but still more successfully humanistic than our own? Three forces, in particular, that are no longer with us.
First, there was a stronger religious element in midcentury culture, visible both in the general postwar religious revival and in the particular theological-intellectual flowering that Jacobs’ subjects embodied, which rooted midcentury humanism in a metaphysical understanding of life — an understanding that both ennobled acts of artistic creation and justified a strong interest in the human person, his actual person as opposed to just his brain chemistry or social role.
Second, there was the example of a rival civilization, totalitarian communism, in which the Apollonian model had been pushed to its materialist-utopian conclusion and discovered only a ruthless, inhuman dead end.
And third, forged in response to the communist threat, there was a sense of Western identity, Western historical tradition, that could be glib and propagandistic in a from-Plato-to-NATO style, but at its best let people escape the worst of late modern afflictions, the crippling chauvinism of the now.
This precise combination is not recoverable: Communism is dead (I think), the religious landscape of the 1950s is even deader, and the humanistic history of midcentury was Eurocentric in a way that a more globalized and multiracial society could neither embrace nor sustain. But a hopeful road map to humanism’s recovery might include variations on those older themes.
First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims.
Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink.
Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online — today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian machine that Jacobs’ Christian humanists opposed.