by Anthony Esolen
American professors who call themselves liberals almost always do one of three things when it comes to reading old books. They ditch them, they disparage them, or they wrench them out of joint so that they can be made to do obeisance to what all correct-thinking people are supposed to believe and speak today.
Not all of them do so; I have known some who have not. But in the preponderant majority, they do, and they are proud of it. And thus do they foreclose one of the most readily available means of educating themselves and others; and it should go without saying that when professors who call themselves conservatives do the like, they too are in the wrong.
It is not just that reading the old books gives you an opening toward truths that your own society has overlooked. That is certainly true, but it is not the point I wish to make here. It is that when you get away from the fury of your own political issues, you have a chance, born of leisure and human sympathy, to think about complex matters in a mature, even-handed, and impartial way.
Let me give an example.
For Christmas this year, my dear wife Debra bought me a complete set of the Waverly novels by Sir Walter Scott, in the handsome hardcover edition produced by the fabulist, Andrew Lang, and provided with copious introductions and notes from both the author and the editor, and charming glossaries of Gaelic and Scots-English words. I never knew before that you could get the “grew” on you when you were in the presence of something uncanny (cf. gruesome), or that you might feel that way in a “massy-more,” that is, a dungeon.
Mary, Queen of Scots, had cause to fear such imprisonment. In The Abbot, Scott tells the story of her being held under house arrest in Scotland, and then her unfortunate attempt to raise an army to take back her authority from James, the prince regent, resulting in that final and disastrous decision, when she fled Scotland to place herself in the power of her envious cousin and mortal enemy, the hard-favored Queen Elizabeth. Scott paints her character with as much sympathy as he can, and in fact, Mary is a dignified, shrewd, and beautiful young woman, suffering in part the consequences of her own sins, but in part also the sins of others against her. Scott places her at the moral and intellectual center of every scene she is in. He does so even though he did not share Mary’s Catholic faith. His abbot, too, is a holy man, a patriot in what Scott believed was the wrong cause.
“Sir Walter himself was a Scottish Episcopalian,” not a member of the Presbyterian Kirk, as Lang notes, and he was an antiquarian too, a lover of things beautiful and old, so that we might think that he would abominate the destruction of the cathedrals, “the gutting of monasteries, the greedy plundering of graves, the ignorant despoiling of treasures art.” And in fact, Scott recounts some of the wanton destruction. It was all quite unnecessary, as Lang says, as “Calvin might have been preached in the ancient and beautiful edifices.” But says Lang, Scott also let his readers know quite clearly that he thought it was better “that the minsters should be overthrown than that erroneous and superstitious doctrines be preached in them.”
I doubt that anyone now would be in danger of losing his livelihood because he expressed the wrong opinion regarding who was the rightful sovereign of Scotland or England, or whether John Knox was to be abominated for his austere and nation-dividing reformation of the Christian faith, or what value the great works of medieval art had in opening up the human heart to the transcendent God. And that is precisely where an opportunity lies for real growth in wisdom. William Butler Yeats read Shakespeare’s Richard II as entirely sympathetic toward that anointed king whose sins—including, however, the act of cynical political treachery and cowardice that opens the play and sets his downfall in motion—resulted in his being forced to abdicate the crown and put it into the hands of his hated cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, hence King Henry IV.
When I first read the play, I could not abide Richard’s effete egotism, and I argued that ability to govern was more significant than the mere fact that Richard had been anointed king. Yet I admitted that Shakespeare cast an ironic eye on that ability, as he allowed the first long scene in which Henry’s rulership is dramatized to teeter on the edge of farce. And when I read the play now, I see that the tragedy involves not just the loss of a particular king, one who brought his downfall upon himself, but also the loss of an entire form of rule. Perhaps a demagogue cannot become a king but by destroying the very idea of a king.
It would be good for us all, I think, to wrest ourselves away from the current age and give ourselves the chance to consider, with warm hearts and active minds, human affairs that do not directly touch on our own. It may even take the form of learning, with sympathy, about great persons whom we would place, though with a rough approximation at best, in the political camp opposite to our own.
I think here of General William T. Sherman. The conservative in me finds the era of Reconstruction to be appalling; I shake my head when I hear that Sherman long refused any dealings with his son after the latter decided to become a Catholic priest; I find his magnificent and terrible march from Atlanta to the sea, destroying everything in his path, to be morally ambiguous, an act of modern warfare that we now take for granted. Yet the same Sherman suffered in his reputation in the North for giving generous and manly terms of surrender to his defeated enemies; and his stark refusal to run for president in 1884 ought to be a model in the matter of ordering your priorities.
Or I read, in my copies of The Century Magazine, articles by the reformer Jacob Riis, on the state of the poor in New York City, and I find in him a passionate believer in the welfare of children and the dependence of that welfare upon both the moral and the physical environment in which their families live. Thomas Sowell has argued that Riis was wrong in attacking the filth of the tenements because the immigrants who lived there were not going to live there for good; they saved their money on the cheap rents and so got free of them.
But I cannot help suspecting that Riis was correct in calling one of the streets an alley of death, describing the squalor and noting the appalling rate at which children did not escape them but died of diseases that ran rampant. Riis himself knew both what it meant to be destitute and near starvation, as he had experienced both, and he knew also that moral strength can supply the want of many material advantages, while moral weakness is the readiest way to dissolution and poverty. In other words, we have a full and interesting and complicated human being here, one whom his contemporaries might have found easy to pigeonhole, but whom we cannot; and so, again, we can learn.
I understand, of course, that my words will largely be lost in the wind. The first casualty of our hypernervous, overadvertised, electric-jitter politics is the capacity to think politically at all—to think of human goods and how societies attain them, conserve them, or squander them away. But the opportunity is there. I am now reading The Fair Maid of Perth, and I am the better for it, I hope, if for nothing else than that it is a human thing to do.
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Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen’s most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute’s 2021 Russell Kirk prize “for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue,” Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.
Photo “Person Reading Book” by Porapak Apichodilok.