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The Path of Wilderness for the Western Tradition

Editor's note:
Anthony Barr interviews, James Matthew Wilson, who is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University.  An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. His latest book, The Vision of The Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in The Western Tradition, is the topic of discussion in this interview.

One of the most arresting metaphors in your book is of the wilderness of mirrors. Can you walk us through what that metaphor means and why it matters that we modern pilgrims are so often trapped in this wilderness?

JMW: The phrase comes from T.S. Eliot’s rather agonizing poem “Gerontion.”  There, Eliot was attempting to describe the present condition of the West as it seemed to so many in his day: a civilization that had once been great, been capable of heroic action and self-emptying piety, but now appeared more like an impotent old man living in rented rooms in a boarding house, recalling past glories as he awaits extinction.

When people lose the capacity for true devotion, they do not lose the hunger for it.  Rather, cultural decadence is just that state where the most profound and abiding human desire—for beatitude—loses all sense of that true object, and so the age proliferates with wayward, perverted hungers, as the lost soul seeks to sate itself on insubstantial substitutes.  In a world where man believes in nothing, we find not a dreary emptiness, but a frenetic carnival, an overwhelming phantasmagoria of “mirrors,” false lights that promise and fail to fulfill us.  Eliot saw his class of persons as indulging “a thousand small deliberations,” hoping they might “Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled, / With pungent sauces,” and so “multiply variety / In a wilderness of mirrors.”

It is common in our day for people to deny that there is a universal Good at which all human beings by nature aim.  This should make the world seem empty and dim—nihilistic.  To the contrary, it has the effect of rendering every small, peculiar desire an idol; in refusing the one God, we become enchanted by many gods—from the novel gadget to the gourmet meal, and on to the Maoist violence of contemporary identity politics.  We brook no impediment to the performance of its rites.

The solution to this is not more “tolerance.”  We desperately need help righting our will, our desires, to accord with reason, nature, and truth.

You argue that the Western Tradition is the path out of the wilderness. What is your elevator-pitch summary of what this path is and why it is preferable to the wilderness?

JMW: Yes.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  I wrote The Vision of the Soul not because I had something new to say, but because the young student I once was was shocked to discover that the most pressing and profound contemporary problems—things that make us feel so “unique” and in need of new solutions—were better described and diagnosed by our forefathers.  I’d been had.  From Plato and the authors of Scripture to St. Thomas Aquinas and Julian of Norwich—all these figures had the genuine article.  They sought to orient the human soul not to the wilderness of mirrors but rather the one true light and to aid the human person in becoming adequate to the contemplation of its splendor.  Such contemplation is not a nice diversion; it is human happiness itself without which nothing else good may be done.  For its sake, we would sell everything else.

Early on in your book, you make a rather bold claim: “artistic form is in some sense the ground of our knowing” (16) and both truth and goodness are made manifest to us in the realm of the aesthetic. How would you respond to the modern reader who objects: “but isn’t aesthetics hard to pin down? How can epistemology be tied to something so elusive?”   

JMW: The great minds of the modern age saw that the beautiful, wherever it was found—in nature, in the fine arts, in a set of car keys sitting on your dresser—arrests the mind and allows it to enter into a kind of stasis that is also an absolute fullness of activity.  To preserve this privileged domain of human freedom, philosophers from Kant to Nietzsche (and onward) sought to isolate it.  In consequence, aesthetic contemplation became a discrete and eccentric human activity at best tenuously related to the rest of the necessities of human life.  In seeking to shelter from mere use something they found to be of transcendent value, they inadvertently made aesthetics seem entirely subjective and relative—and always incidental.

But, in fact, what I call the broad Christian-Platonist tradition, which comprehends all the great minds of the West and in which we all still participate, tells us another story.  Beauty is a property of being; indeed it is being’s self-gift to other beings, the capacity of existent realities to give themselves in abundance to be known and loved as existing.  Human nature is ordered to the contemplation of reality, to that of all beings and of Being Itself.  Beauty is not a special, or ancillary concern of the few.  It is that feature of reality that draws us out of ourselves to see the splendor of truth as it causes each thing to be and all things to hold together as a cosmic and created order.  Without beauty, you cannot know, love or pray.

One criticism of conservatives regarding their relationship to art is that they don’t pay attention to the art of their own day because they assume that since it is “modern” it is therefore “bad” – What are your thoughts on that phenomenon? Are there contemporary artists (filmmakers, novelists, painters, etc.) whose work you find particularly rich in meaning?

JMW: One aspect of the decadence I described above is that the established and traditional forms and institutions of a culture also lose their object, their sense of purpose, and along the way their conventions of practice and canons of excellence.  But nature hates a vacuum.  When modern artists came to sense that their work might not be gratuitous but merely superfluous, their practice responded in kind.  The new canon of excellence became one that is in a sense “non-falsifiable,” that of self-expression or critique of every social or ontological dimension of reality that stands in the way of self-expression.

Older works of art seek rather to manifest being, that is, to express not “my truth” but truth per se.  Human nature does not change, and so older works of art will also more frequently manifest reality in significant and powerful ways than do contemporary works.  If all we required was a shelf of books capable of conveying all the profound moral, ontological, and aesthetic truths necessary for a flourishing human life, we could assemble one that takes up about “five feet” (as the old Harvard Classics were called), and it would probably begin with Homer and it could stop before Shakespeare with no devastating loss.

But we do not require art and belles lettres only as distillations and conduits of wisdom.  We need new music, new writing, new art that brings received wisdom to new life in every age.  We need this so that the culture itself is alive with what is ancient and true and so that this culture will be fruitful, vital, flourishing.  We do not really conserve our culture if we merely preserve it; we need to renew and refresh it so that what is permanent and eternal suffuses and informs what is contemporary.  The proper response to decadence in the arts is to work for their renewal.  When you encounter the barbarisms of our age, you cannot simply shake the dust from your sandals and leave without risking becoming a different sort—perhaps a very well mannered—barbarian yourself.  You do have to pick your painting, plastic arts, books, and music carefully, of course, as the “non-falsifiable” quality of self-expression as a principle of art has led to there being more poetry, more painting, more music—more, more, more—regardless of how little anyone actually wants to read, look at, or hear it.

Many on both the Left and the Right are concerned about the status of freedom-of-speech on college campuses. Why is dialogue under attack today? What advice do you have for faculty and students who face these pressures at school?

JMW: For more than two centuries now, the continuous warning from the right about the modern left has been that the latter is ideological, by which we mean it posits a particular political program as a religious dispensation and the pursuance of that program as the one way by which man can take control of history and bring time to its destined completion.  First, there was liberal universalism, then there was Marxism.  When Marxism failed to bring about an external, “material” end to history, its adherents went “spiritual,” they internalized Marx’s often brilliant social critiques.  The premises of this belated Marxist dispensation are easily summarized: power is the absolute principle of reality; history is the conflict of the powerful and the powerless; and, finally and with a certain novelty to it, all culture, from language to manners and morals on to the physical and social sciences and the Christian religion itself, are mere expressions of the power of those with power used to put down the powerless.

It is not “dialogue” that is under attack.  It is sin; it is human imperfection.  The contemporary left is driven by a desire to scour our culture clean until no trace of “the privilege of the powerful” is left.  Its adherents will not stop until the whole world has been rendered “safe.”  And it never will be safe, because they have misdiagnosed everything.

They err in three ways.  First, power is self-evidently not the only or highest reality; we all know this simply by the fact that we are all shocked by the effrontery of the very idea.  We all want truth and we want power to be governed by truth, rather than power to chase truth away.  As Plato said, it is the Good that generates and rules over all.  Second, we need to recognize that we live in history and exercise a certain limited stewardship within it, but our purpose is not to perfect the world, but to continue our pilgrimage through the world—to use the world as St. Augustine says—that our souls may journey toward a perfection that informs but categorically transcends the world.  There are no last battles here,  only skirmishes.  Anyone who tells you political action is the source of human meaning and salvation is not helping you, but blinding you to your real destiny.  You are being asked to live in a much smaller world than that to which your soul is really called.  Third, the project of making the world “safe” is in fact a crude kind of psychological projection.  It tells us that hell is always other people.  But in fact, as Solzhenitsyn once said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.  If you try to perfect the world instead of your own broken self, you will bring both to ruin.  If you misunderstand original sin as some pathology of power, you will have to kill all the patients to cure the disease.

These three premises are essential to the very life of universities.  The so called assaults on free speech and dialogue on our campuses are not signs of an irritating “intolerance” on the part of some students and professors amid a generally healthy intellectual and institutional culture.  Rather, most universities have long taught that the only reality is power, that history is some kind of “class” conflict, and that all of culture is but a series of power-disciplining signifiers.  They teach most students to pursue power and a small minority to become “activists” against it, but the future officer of the Chamber of Commerce and the future president of the association for feminist philosophy are both drinking from the same poisoned well.

Cast such places in the abysm and start over.  We must stop teaching utilitarian technocracy and Marxist culture critique, which are but two expressions of the same materialist convictions I just described, and reseed our schools with those who recognize the soul as a noble adventure to be properly cultivated and prepared for action in this world only through joyful contemplation of what transcends it.

What general advice do you have for humanities students? Any recommendations for books that might not be well-known or widely taught?

JMW: The difference between the reseeding program I just proposed and the one on offer by the contemporary left is that anyone may enter upon the former.  We learn and love fully and properly only in community, but even the lonesome student reading the Symposium or John’s Gospel in an austere dormitory is already part of a brilliant community.  His companions are the angels and saints and all those who have lived and who have still to be born.  He has only to find suitable guides for the pilgrimage, and even in the best of times, those guides will mostly be found in good books.  To this physically solitary, spiritually crowded pursuit, the contemporary student must add a hard head.  You may not be interested in believing in nothing, but the advocates of an idolatrous nihilism, as it were, certainly are interested in seeing that you do.  They may well not be your professors, but just, say, your college orientation staff.

Here are the books that changed my life, beyond the most obvious ones from the tradition: Yvor Winters, In Defense of Reason and his Collected Poems; Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue; T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays and Complete Poems and Plays; Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition; Wendell Berry, What Are People For?; Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience; John Paul II, Fides et Ratio; Joseph Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture; Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and The Degrees of Knowledge.  As important, no doubt, were the poems and writings of W.B. Yeats, John Donne, Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, Helen Pinkerton, Alexander Pope, and Richard Wilbur.

 

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  • A fascinating read. Thank you for opening up for me a thinker and poet I had not known.

  • brians

    A marvelous interview, loaded with wisdom and erudition. I was going to purchase Wilson’s book, but was brought up short. $28.45?! Transcendence is only for the wealthy or the single, so it seems. Looking at Villanova’s tuition certainly seems to confirm it.

    I’ll just have to continue muddling through the original texts of the tradition on my own, I suppose.