What does the classical epic of Roman grandeur and imperial design have to say to Americans in 2021? On the subject of...
Art for the Country’s Sake
Ours is an age of urgency and distraction. Between smartphones and social networks, politics and the pandemic, the demands of the moment threaten to monopolize our thoughts. Repose and reflection are becoming difficult things for Americans of the twenty-first century even to imagine. Turn your attention to Tacitus or Shakespeare and you fall behind: the news cycle moves on, your friends get a season ahead of you in binge-watching the latest Netflix or Disney+ hit. If you do make time to read, you must read as much as possible, checking classics off the list as quickly as you can. Don’t chew your food, just swallow—that way, you’ll get more down.
Rote complaints about Americans’ not reading enough miss the point: to consume literature the way one consumes news or entertainment is only another kind of dissipation. History, philosophy, poetry, fiction must all become part of the mind’s inner workings if literature is to help humanize us and rehumanize us in this increasingly inhuman world. Our nature is not simply of the moment like a mayfly’s. Our nature has the capacity for temporal depth, which is a prerequisite for intellectual and moral depth. Those depths are in turn sources of strength for society and the individual alike. Tacitus and Shakespeare—not just read but read into one’s being—do much to fortify the soul and the republic against the plagues of the hour.
Literature may tend to flourish in free, commercial, and even imperial nations because it has a special role to play within them. Society must have order, and human beings understand themselves, and others, through the particular roles they play. But the kaleidoscopic variety of personalities, interests, and walks of life in a free country or one with extensive ties to the wider world (whether those are ties of arms or trade) defies any simple understanding. The only way to know such a society is through art. As valuable as they are, statistics can convey nothing of what the different parts of society feel like to living human beings. A very broad circle of acquaintances can provide such feeling, yet your own presence at the center of the circle imposes an order that is likely to be more personal than it is representative of the whole, or any of its distinctive parts. Literature, by contrast, subordinates the reader to the author for a time, until the reader takes the thoughts and feelings he encounters on the page and makes them part of his own mind.
Without literature that requires serious investment of thought, a commercial republic becomes crass, a free country shortsighted, and an empire steadily more servile or brutal, or both. Literature alone doesn’t save souls or make bad men good, nor does it redeem society. But it does add dimension to the citizen’s understanding, and good citizens can put that depth to good use for their countrymen. It informs judgment in politics and law, and if it does not guarantee that anyone makes the right decision, it at least helps to make clear the societal ramifications of our choices. The shallow citizen, on the other hand, trapped in his moment, is powerless to understand the forces that shape his world and people within it. Every effect, for him, is a result only of an immediate cause—whatever the news is obsessed about this cycle. The citizen deepened by literature can imagine, and therefore also perceive, much more: the wider network of human motives (and follies) that traces the order of society.
Reflection is time consuming and difficult, and worse, it is unfamiliar: a modern American hardly knows where to begin, and a university education today is little help with that. Often it is a great hindrance, and not only as a result of politically correct courses. The specialization that has overtaken the academy, and the mistaken belief that novelty in itself advances scholarship, has narrowed the temporal horizons and the intellectual breadth of the latter-day academic. A small magazine cannot repair this loss by itself, but it can make a beginning. This, in large part, is what Modern Age exists to do.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of Modern Age.
Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”
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