Historical Truth, Beguiling Stories & Three Kinds of Hearers by Anthony Esolen
There once was a man.
Almost thirty years ago, the students at Alfred University, named for its small town of Alfred, New York, expressed their concern that a statue of King Alfred the Great, standing on campus, might be the wrong choice for a logo to advertise the school. One female student, a junior in English, noted: "If he was living in this day, would he endorse the education of women and minorities? Back then, education was just for the aristocratic males."
Well, it was not, really. Charlemagne himself, who inaugurated a minor educational and cultural renaissance in France, could read but not write. Alfred, who could do both, wrought a wonderfully earthy translation of Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy into Anglo-Saxon. He, too, attracted scholars to his court. The scholars were not necessarily "aristocratic." They were churchmen. The Church was the educator of the West, and when she sought young men to become priests, she never limited herself merely to grease-eating ruffians who could ride horses and swing swords. One could never quite get the Holy Spirit to sign on to the plans of aristocratic families.
As for women, one wonders how you could manage to get convents of nuns to pray the Holy Office if none of them knew how to read. The German nun Hrotsvitha was writing poems and plays in Latin at a time when drama had long disappeared from the West. That was in the century after Alfred. Two centuries before Alfred, Hilda, the saintly abbess of Whitby, governing a monastery of both monks and nuns, welcomed the illiterate cowherd Caedmon into her community when he showed a sudden God-given talent for transforming stories from Scripture into Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry.
The Use of Stories
We might multiply such apologies for the people of the past, but they hardly address the question of that self-satisfied junior. It would be like asking whether a tribe of Eskimos a thousand years ago would have helped us save the whales. It would be like asking a nomadic shepherd of old, following the paths of the winter rains and the temporarily running streams, what he would think of hydroelectric power. It is not simply to ask a question about which he might reasonably come to the "wrong" opinion. It is to ask a question that would make no sense. To ask it bespeaks stupidity not in the ancient shepherd but in the modern student.
It is a special kind of stupidity, this. It is not so much a failure of the historical imagination to address persons and ways of life very different from ours. It is strong evidence that the historical imagination does not exist at all. Try to explain "green" to a color-blind man.
And yet this color-blind man is a ferocious partisan of absolute hues, whose existence he denies. In some measure he is honest about his denial, though incoherent. We can, I believe, understand the quality of both his stupidity and his muddled absolutism by considering what use a sane man makes of stories in general, and history in particular, and what use, if any, our incoherent contemporary makes of them.
The Study of Poetry
In his Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney says that it is more profitable to study poetry—by which he means the crafting of stories—than to study either philosophy or history. Moral philosophy can show us the right thing to do but cannot move us to do it; the knowledge remains notional, in the head but not the heart. History can move us with rousing stories of passion and conquest, but right does not always triumph. Poetry alone can both instruct and delight, reveal the truth and cause us to love it.
There is in Sidney's view of poetic fiction an implicit agreement between the author and the reader, that we enter a realm in which one kind of truth, the bare historical, yields to another, the moral. It is a good thing, he says, to know what has happened in the past; and for that, we turn to the historian. "But if the question be for your own use and learning," he says, "whether it be better to have it set down as it should be, or as it was; then certainly is more doctrinable the feigned Cyrus in Xenophon, than the true Cyrus in Justin." Sidney can say so because he holds to moral standards that transcend time and place and culture. The Christian reads Xenophon, and that old soldier and weaver of stories works upon his soul, "not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright, why and how that maker made him."
But who will read Xenophon's Cyropaedia now? "What would Cyrus say," we can imagine the students asking, "about the education of women and minorities?" Cyrus is to be measured not by eternal verities, but by the cheap modern substitute, the "political." I use the scare quotes advisedly. For if we are thinking politically, that is, if we are thinking of the welfare of the polis, a self-governing locale, we meet all kinds of difficulties that have to do with limitations: the grain supply, the pitted roads, pirates on the sea, funds for city celebrations, the right training of the young, the strength of families, policies regarding trade with friendly but competing cities, and so forth; and then there is man, who sees some things and misses others, who is sharp one moment and dull the next, who can love passionately what is good, but who can also call good that which he happens to desire.
So to attempt to transpose Xenophon or Cyrus to the current day, and to grill him with "political" questions, is not to think politically at all, but to replace reality with a caricature. You will learn nothing from Xenophon that way. You may instead be out to teach him a lesson, him, that is, being the cartoon Xenophon you have made. At no time do you allow yourself to be still and to learn, so that the poetry of a wise man might penetrate your shell, crack it open, and show you the stars.
The Study of History
Then there is history proper. Consider Plutarch's life of Mark Antony, who vied for supremacy over the Mediterranean world with Octavius Caesar. Antony was warm-hearted, cruel, and generous by turns; Octavius was cold, shrewd, ruthless, and quite adept at governing. Plutarch does not like Antony, who tossed away his chance for empire when Cleopatra and her fleet fled from the naval battle of Actium, and he, like a servile lover, followed her. "Here it was," says Plutarch,
that Antony showed to all the world that he was no longer actuated by the thoughts and motives of a commander or a man, or indeed by his own judgment at all, and what was once said as a jest, that the soul of a lover lives in someone else's body, he proved to be a serious truth.
Cleopatra did not corrupt Antony. He had always lived the high life, surrounding himself in Rome with "players, jugglers, and drunken flatterers, upon whom were spent the greatest part of the wealth which violence and cruelty procured," that is, procured from the citizens. So, too, when Octavius was in Rome, dealing with seditions and revolts, Antony enjoyed himself in Greece, as he "let his passions carry him easily back to the old course of life that was familiar to him."
Yet the same Antony was beloved by many. One anecdote will show why. While he was fleecing and skinning the province of Asia, and thinking of laying on its people a second tribute in a single year, one of the Asians confronted him and suggested that he be so good as to give them in turn "a couple of summers and a double harvest time." For Asia "has raised two hundred thousand talents for his service," and "if that has not been paid," Antony might ask his collectors for it, but "if it has, and is all gone, we are ruined men." These words, says Plutarch,
touched Antony to the quick, who was simply ignorant of most things that were done in his name; not that he was so indolent, as he was prone to trust most frankly in all about him. For there was much simplicity in his character; he was slow to see his faults, but when he did see them, was extremely repentant, and ready to ask pardon of those he had injured.
It is difficult to like the young man who would be called Augustus. It is not so hard to like Antony, or to understand his fascination with Cleopatra, with whom he could "keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion." She, too, is quite a study. She was perhaps a very bad woman; she was surely not a good woman; but she was all woman. "Plato admits four sorts of flattery," says Plutarch, "but she had a thousand." She was the playmate par excellence: "Were Antony serious or disposed to mirth, she had at any moment some new delight or charm to meet his wishes; at every turn she was upon him, and let him escape her neither by day nor by night."
We may well recall her brave decision to die by her own hand rather than be led in triumph through Rome by the victorious Caesar, knowing the "joy of the worm," as Shakespeare's dealer in venomous snakes puts it. We may not recall that before she did so, she tried one poisonous drug after another on men condemned to death, to see which of them would be least painful. "My serpent of old Nile," Antony calls her in Shakespeare's play, and the epithet is apt.
Once you enter the world of history, you encounter the maddening complexity of human affairs, not to mention that labyrinth called the human heart. With hindsight we can say, with some confidence, that the young Octavius was far better suited for governing the Roman world than was the elder and more experienced Antony. We cannot be so sure of ourselves, though, when it comes to the noble-minded Brutus, and the ambitious and capable Julius Caesar, whom he assassinated.
Cato of Utica, who had opposed Caesar in war, slew himself, says the republican poet Lucan, to show his fellow Romans how precious liberty is; but that same Cato was a narrow-minded prig, stubbornly opposed to the land reforms that might have averted the civil war. What do we make of that? The Gracchi brothers had proposed reform decades before and were assassinated for it, because they had broken with the Roman tradition that forbade a man to succeed himself as tribune of the people; and it was the Scipios, culturally liberal but politically conservative, who had permitted the assassinations to take place.
And who were the Scipios? The most celebrated of all Roman families, and justly so. Scipio Aemilianus, victor of the Third Punic War, had ushered into high Roman society Greek philosophers, playwrights, poets, and historians, including the great Polybius (whose analysis of the Roman constitution was of great influence upon our John Adams). Cato the Elder scoffed at that cultural movement, though Cicero, in his treatise On Old Age, would later and not quite plausibly portray the old man as trying to learn a little Greek when he was not farming or talking to young men about virtue.
Draw nearer to home. William Tecumseh Sherman was a brute of a general, and his march from Atlanta to the sea wrought dreadful destruction and human misery; yet he fought against the keepers of slaves. He was generous in granting terms of surrender to his adversaries, as men of war are wont to be, and his reputation among the Republicans in the Senate suffered for it. If he had ambition, he had given it over by 1884, when he informed the Republicans that he would not run for president if he were nominated, nor would he serve if elected. He was born into a Roman Catholic family, but lost his faith during the war, and when his son Thomas entered the seminary to become a Jesuit priest, he stopped speaking to him. What do we make of that terrible man?
Of all the Civil War generals, the finest human being—deeply devout, beloved by his soldiers—was probably Stonewall Jackson, a genuinely kindly owner of slaves. Shall we therefore take down every statue of General Jackson, because in that regard he did not transcend his place and time?
Thaddeus Stevens, congressman from Pennsylvania, had himself carried from his bed of death to rally Republican senators for the removal of President Andrew Johnson from office, for the "high crime and misdemeanor" of cashiering one of his own cabinet officers, Edwin Stanton, secretary of the army. Stevens had all the fire of the true believer; he was a hater of slavery, animated by a desire to punish the former rebels of the south. Had he and his fellows succeeded—they failed by a single vote—we might as well have eliminated the office of the presidency. What was his animating principle? Equality? Vindictive malice? Patriotism? Or ferocious partisanship?
These are sobering questions. They are for mature people, not for innocent children or brats. They do not admit of simple stories. Yet we long for the simple story, as we long for clarity, not chaos. And here I suggest that there are three broad categories of modern man, each of them characterized by the stories they listen to and tell.
The Man of Faith
The first is the man with genuine religious faith. He is simple but no simpleton: he is a plain dealer. If he is of an intellectual bent, he can feel sympathy not only with his brethren, but with those pagan pursuers of wisdom whose minds, actuated by humility and ready to receive the light as a gift, penetrated most deeply into being and its goodness. He has an apprehension of the moral law, which is sometimes hard to apply, given the circumstances, but not hard to understand: Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind and strength; thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
If he is a Christian—I make no certain claims about men of other faiths—he will have a sense, often dull enough but sometimes keen and painful, of how far short he falls of fulfilling that law. Saint Philip Neri said, as he watched a man being led off to execution, "There but for the grace of God go I." Sonia tells Raskolnikov that he must fall to the earth in the middle of the busy city and cry out that he has sinned against the whole world, and that he, he alone, is responsible for all its wickedness. "You are the man," says the prophet Nathan to King David, by his own words convicting him of adultery and murder. In the words of the poet Robert Bridges, writing a hymn for Good Friday:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
Yet he has his stories of triumph. The pattern is that of the sinner redeemed, or the saint; and they are the same man, and the triumph is the man's only because God has performed the work in him and through him. "Frenchy" Bernadone, a popular and lively young man about town, a bit fussy about his fancy clothing, met a leper along the road and shied away in disgust. But then the grace of God moved him from within, and he leapt off his horse and ran to the leper, embracing him and kissing him on the lips of that face crumbling into ruin. It was Christ the Lord himself, Francis later said, whom he kissed.
"Late have I loved thee, O beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved thee!" cried Augustine, after a life of dissipation, worldly ambition, and disillusionment; but it is never too late for God. "This day you shall be with me in paradise," says Jesus to the repentant thief, dying upon the cross beside him.
Hagiography can partake of the child's tale, no doubt, and yet it is strangely fitting that it should be so, since the legendary is but the frolic and decorative border of a childlike truth, a truth that even a child can touch, and that no man, however wise, can fathom. "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not," says Jesus, "for of such is the kingdom of heaven."
The Man of Wistful Unbelief
The second is the man who has fallen out of childhood into a wistful and gray non-childhood of unbelief. He is Matthew Arnold, wishing he had the faith of his beloved father Thomas, headmaster of Rugby. He is William Faulkner, ending The Sound and the Fury with the black maid Dilsey going to church on Easter Sunday. He knows very well that all the best stories are on the side of faith, and he knows that man cannot thrive without those stories; he is C. S. Lewis before his conversion, stabbed by the experience of longing, but not yet seeing that there is in reality an object for his longing. He is an old professor of mine whose privacy I will not violate, weeping because he saw how beautiful was the faith of one of England's most brilliant poets, a faith he could not share.
Noble souls indeed, most of these: Santayana, Unamuno, Eco, Melville. I will not presume to say what shadow falls between them and the light. They tell the old stories, not of saints so much as of sinners brought back to life by unmerited love. So George Eliot, having lost the Methodist faith of her youth, gives us the moral fable of Silas Marner, betrayed by his fellow believers and fallen into a chasm of loneliness, misanthropy, and greed, until one Christmas Eve he finds an abandoned baby girl in the snow by his hut, and he slowly comes again to life and faith and communion with his fellow men. Or they tell the stories of a hell yawning just below the surface of an apparently civilized life. You do not have to go to Africa, Conrad suggests to us, to find the heart of darkness.
The second group is never going to be highly populated. Fit audience let them find, though few. The ground beneath them shakes, and most people who have no faith will abandon them, seeking the safety of the third group.
The Man of Superstition
The name of that group is Legion, or Mass Advertising, Mass Consumption, Mass Schooling, and Mass Politics; four facets of the same thing. Men of this group are not childlike, but childish: they are not mature enough for Arnold, and not humble enough for Newman. They want their saints' tales but without the sanctity. They want their redemption but without grace.
Because they are not brave enough to enter the dark caverns of the human heart, they cannot abide the manly Conrad or Melville. Because they are not innocent enough or childlike enough to raise their eyes and beg for God to come and heal them, they cannot abide the saintly Mother Teresa or John Paul II. History is too dark and tangled a forest for them, sacred Scripture too high a mountain to climb. Therefore they fall into worship of the biggest or most prominent things near them: sex, themselves, the State. Indeed, this three-poisoned deity does work as one, as when men cede to the State all of their political liberties in exchange for sexual license in the service of a narcissistic self-fashioning.
What a contemptible gallery of heroes do these superstitious people honor! Margaret Sanger: eugenicist, racist, despiser of the family and of the Christian faith, directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of unborn children. Harvey Milk: sexual predator, pervert, dime-a-dozen local politician, assassinated with the mayor of San Francisco but not for anything he believed in. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a pleasant and intelligent woman, but no genius, honored only because she has promoted all the correct feminist things, with little sense of history and no sense of the collapse of civilization round about her. Che Guevara: mass murderer, but in the "right" cause; Fidel Castro: spoiler of his nation; even Joseph Stalin, in whose honor the usually intelligent W. E. B. DuBois wrote an embarrassingly laudatory poem on the occasion of the tyrant's death. Et cetera.
Yet the superstitions do not hold. As soon as the "right" politics changes, as soon as the ladder falls or a black cat crosses your path, the hero becomes a villain, and that is that. Which suggests that the "saints" are not loved at all; they are not the objects of real gratitude. No sane and grateful man pulls up his grandfather's headstone when he learns the shocking truth, that his grandfather was a sinner. If people in this third group revel in tearing down statues, it is not because they love some mistaken vision of the good, but because they hate anything that reminds them of their smallness. They would erect statues of themselves. Failing that, they erase others.
They imagine fantasy-worlds of men who are not men and, especially, women who are not women, because they cannot forgive what men and women really are. They have no sense of sin, which afflicts everyone, including themselves, but they grasp at being among the elect, by having the most up-to-date pseudo-political opinions. A bad Calvinist might believe he was saved by his theology. These people are saved by commercials, slogans, rainbow banners, foul language, and a hatred of the truth.
How to save them? How to bring them to sanity? They must be beguiled by stories, whose artfulness will charm them before they are aware that the truth awaits them, patiently. Yet of all the people the world has ever known, they are the hardest to get to listen to a story; their attention span would embarrass a flea; their linguistic muscles are skinny and flabby at once; they know no poetry; they sing no songs from their fathers. They limp and stump about, and think that stumps and canes are normal and natural things. They cannot reject virtue, because they do not conceive of it to begin with.
It is not a good time. But it is what it is. And now, O world, listen up.
There once was a man.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2019). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.