Those of us who respect, even revere the past, who value tradition, who both yearn for and promote the ways of the past as a helpful and healthful antidote to the psychological and cultural poisons of the present, are nonetheless living in a swirling vortex of those present poisons every day – nearly, every hour of every day. And for those of us who get a lot of our news and commentary online, the ceaseless 24-hour news cycle of factoids, “alternative facts,” pseudo-facts, and a plethora of competing perspectives can be overwhelming.
Even when the information is solid and accurate – which is not so often as one might wish – it is still coming at one at such a frenzied pace, and frequently with such a tinge of hysteria, that this commentator, at least, often feels like he’s on the bridge of a beleaguered starship Enterprise, bouncing Klingon disruptors off his forward shields, and praying those shields don’t collapse! Or to switch metaphors, to be struggling to find solid ground amidst the shifting sand of popular opinion, and even competing claims about the nature of truth and reality.
This is why it is so important to ground oneself in the tradition itself. Historical, intellectual, and philosophical, of course; but also cultural, artistic, and musical, among other components. I believe I mentioned in an earlier post that I have been listening to a good deal of Classical music, recently – especially from the Baroque Age, and the Classical Period itself.
I am also seeking to ground myself in solid traditions in other ways. One of the most important of these, of course, is my own particular spiritual and theological tradition – which, as the title of this blog makes clear, is the Anglican tradition of Christianity.
One technique or practice that I have long valued to accomplish this grounding in the Anglican Christian expression is through the Common Prayer tradition, and especially the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer. Rooted in the ancient monastic tradition, and even earlier – in the prayers of the earliest Christians, and their Jewish antecedents – the Daily Office is a means of “sanctifying the time” while worshiping the God Who created us, and Who sustains us in life. I know that I, personally, feel different and better when I am praying the Daily Office regularly, compared to when I am not.
Another way to ground oneself in the midst of the chaos and flux we seem to be enmeshed in these days is to read – and by that I mean books, not just articles or essays (although many of those can be good and helpful), and real books, not “e-books”: actual physical books, with paper and printer’s ink, not just electronic impulses in one’s e-reader, or pixels on a screen. And not just any books: C.S. Lewis’ famous dictum about old books is relevant here:
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”
I am currently reading three books, as pictured above. Technically, I am re-reading two of them – The Passion of the Western Mind and Tranquillity – and reading I’ll Take My Stand for the first time. What counts as “new” or “old” is inevitably somewhat subjective, but I’ll Take My Stand was published in 1930, Tranquillity in 1936, so neither is exactly wet behind the ears. Passion of the Western Mind was published in 1991, so it is a good deal newer; however, it is “from the last century”! That gives it a certain venerable quality that a mere 36 years might not otherwise afford…
I’ll Take My Stand is a symposium and manifesto in the form of collected essays by “Twelve Southerners,” also known as the Southern Agrarians; their theme is a defense of the Agrarian and traditional way of life as against modernity (and had it existed when they wrote, post-modernism): the contemporary techno-industrial civilization (if one can use that term) that was already ramping up at the time they wrote, and which has expanded dramatically in the near-century since. I have reviewed I’ll Take My Stand in my previous entry, so I shall not discuss it further here, except to recommend it highly.
The Passion of the Western Mind, the newest of the three, is – in the words of its author, Richard Tarnas – “a concise narrative history of the Western world view from the ancient Greek to the postmodern,” and aims to “provide, within the limits of a single volume, a coherent account of the evolution of the Western mind and its changing conception of reality.” At a time when Western culture and civilization, history and heritage, and all that it has been, meant, and accomplished to date is under attack, it is useful to have such a concise yet comprehensive (nearly 500 pages of text and endnotes, not including bibliography and index) account of that intellectual tradition.
And while Tarnas makes clear that the Western worldview has evolved over time – it is not and has not been a static thing – I agree with him that
“The history of Western culture has long seemed to possess the dynamics, scope, and beauty of a great epic drama: ancient and classical Greece, the Hellenistic era and Imperial Rome, Judaism and the rise of Christianity, the Catholic Church and the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and Romanticism and onward to our own compelling time.
“Sweep and grandeur, dramatic conflicts and astonishing resolutions have marked the Western mind’s sustained attempt to comprehend the nature of reality—from Thales and Pythagoras to Plato and Aristotle, from Clement and Boethius to Aquinas and Ockham, from Eudoxus and Ptolemy to Copernicus and Newton, from Bacon and Descartes to Kant and Hegel, and from all these to Darwin, Einstein, Freud, and beyond.
“That long battle of ideas called ‘the Western tradition’ has been a stirring adventure whose sum and consequence we all bear within ourselves. An epic heroism has shone forth in the personal struggles of Socrates, of Paul and Augustine, of Luther and Galileo, and in that larger cultural struggle, borne by these and by many less visible protagonists, which has moved the West on its extraordinary course.”
This is our tradition, those of us who are of Western heritage. It is not perfect; we are not perfect. But it is ours, and it is both grand and glorious! I am looking forward to re-immersing myself in it, even as I strive to defend it against its many and vociferous detractors in the brutal public square – which at times seems more like a gladiatorial arena – of the early 21st century.
And finally, there is Tranquillity. As its very name suggests, this book is a respite to me, one I return to for comfort and solace on many occasions. While I’ll Take My Stand defends the traditional, agrarian, and communal life, and Passion of the Western Mind explores the larger intellectual and cultural contexts within which that life has been lived, Tranquillity describes it – and that in comfortable, homely detail.
Written by the late Col. Harold P. Sheldon (1888-1951), a Vermont-born outdoorsman who joined the Army as a buck private and rose through the ranks to serve as an officer in World War One, then went on to become a fish and wildlife conservation official, outdoor magazine editor and outdoor writer, Tranquility is subtitled “Tales of Sport with the Gun,” but it is much more than that.
It is a window into a world which was vanishing even as he wrote about it, and which is now largely gone: a slow-paced world of small towns and rural countrysides, of bee-hunts and coon-hunts, of fly-fishing on the Belden Brook, of gunning for “pa’tridge” (grouse) and woodcock in the brushy thickets of the Champlain country, and for ducks, geese, and doves in a post-Reconstruction South that still remembered its genteel and hospitable ways.
It reflects a time when it was perfectly acceptable to hang a sign on one’s office door that advised would-be clients and visitors that one had gone fishing, and this does not appear to have notably affected one’s “bottom line.” Its characters, including The Captain (based on Sheldon himself), The Doctor, and The Judge, The Dark-Haired Lady, and many others, have become like old friends, and I wish more than a little bit that I could step back into their world!
It is, in any case, a reminder of what we once had… and perhaps, could have again, in essence if not in detail.
Finally, in what I hope is an exercise in the positive uses of technology, I have signed up for two online courses (and am likely to sign up for more, as time and opportunity allows) through Hillsdale College’s free online course program: History 101: Western Heritage, from the Book of Genesis to John Locke, and what I am presuming must be History 102 (or maybe 201…?): American Heritage—from Colonial Settlement to the Current Day.
Of the first, Hillsdale says:
“The story of the West is a grand and unique story, but it is also a universal story. In Jerusalem and in Athens lightning struck. Socrates asked the question what is the right way for a man to live? Not an Athenian, not a Persian, not a Spartan, but a man as a man. In Jerusalem is born the knowledge of a god for every human being, not a god of a city, not a good of a people, but the god for all men and all times. That lighting has remade the world, and that’s what we mean by western civilization.”
And of the second:
“On July 4, 1776, America—acting under the authority of ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’—declared its independence from Great Britain. The new nation, founded on the principle that ‘all Men are created equal,’ eventually grew to become the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world. This course will consider the history of America from the colonial era to the present, including major challenges to the Founders’ principles.”
While I already hold both a B.A. and a Masters in humanities disciplines, primarily history, I am looking forward to these as “refreshers,” and am sure to gain new insights from them.
It is often said (or used to be) that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” (attributed to Edmund Burke). It is important to remain engaged, to stay informed of present events, and to do what one can to strive for sanity amidst the present madness. This blog is, of course, one way I seek to do that; writing op-ed pieces, letters to Congressional representatives, and occasionally (albeit rarely, these days, as it uses an amount of energy disproportionate to the usual results) engaging in direct debates are among the others.
But just as a tree cannot grow – certainly not healthily – unless it is solidly rooted in fertile soil, so we cannot sustain the fight for the survival of Western culture unless we are solidly grounded in that culture. I have described some of the ways I am attempting to maintain that solid grounding. You may have others, but I hope this provides both useful information, and encouragement. We have need of both!