I have some friends expecting their first child in April. For Christmas, I bought them a copy of Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. I was so intrigued by the premise that I bought myself a copy. It reads like The Screwtape Letters for teachers with a bent toward the humanities. Full of wonderful (and often convicting) quotes from literature of significance, Esolen always finds a way to “turn things” against the wisdom of history to show us how much we are losing as our culture continues to stagnate.
And so the best of literature and history has been on my mind these last few days, which made reading a recent post by Carl Trueman at First Things particularly poignant (particularly when paired with the year we’ve had and the year we’re about to embark on whether we want to or not). In “Ciceronian Times Call for Ciceronian Voices,” Trueman makes an argument for his own perspective on writing by thinking about one of his heroes: Cicero.
Learned, well-read, a philosopher, an orator, a lawyer (well, nobody’s perfect), and a politician, [Cicero] was the very epitome of the truly engaged thinker, the intellectual man of action. And he was the preeminent dissenting voice as Rome dramatically changed from a republic to an empire, a change in which Cicero himself was eventually a casualty.
And it is from that particular point in history that Trueman sees a parallel of our times (just as we often find parallels in the times of writers and thinkers like Augustine or David Foster Wallace, really). Trueman continues:
That change from republic to empire was traumatic and transformed Rome (and thereby the West) forever. And it is arguable that a similar thing is happening today. Our republic, and the philosophies and social realities upon which it was built and by which it has been sustained, are giving way to an empire, an empire of desire. Whether one agrees (as I have come to do) with the arguments of thinkers like Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby, who see the origins of our current situation in the very origins and ambitions of the American experiment, or whether one sees our current society as a disastrous malfunction of the same, there is surely consensus on the fact that things are changing in fundamental and permanent ways. Liberalism is in trouble, as is the republic built upon it. The empire of desire, of which both expressive individualism and populism are symptoms, looks set to triumph. A chaotic and unsustainable triumph, no doubt, but a triumph nonetheless.
Which is where Trueman hopes his voice can come to play.
Ciceronian times require Ciceronian voices: Thoughtful, learned, literate, historically and philosophically astute, cultured in the true sense of the word, and engaged in the public square. To address the present we surely need to avoid the clichéd pieties of political correctness that serve only to bolster special interests. But we must also resist the simplistic populist rhetoric of reaction. We have to address the present by drawing on the history and culture of our past. And we must do so in a public way that calls out those who abuse their power while giving good arguments to those who wish to work for a deeper, greater good than the myopic vision offered by the regnant gospel of immediate gratification.
As I have read through Esolen’s Ten Ways, I have found myself saddened by the acknowledgement that much of what Trueman hopes for might be beyond the scope of the current moment. I am hopeful, mind you, but I also know that the losses that have made our current situation a reality run deeper than we think. To be “thoughtful, learned, literate” and all of the other good qualities in Trueman’s list might make one irrelevant in a world that rejects the presuppositions such a voice needs for real reception and consideration.
I am hopeful, though. And over the next week or two (particularly once I work through those reflections on habit that I mentioned a couple of days ago), I hope to try and articulate my own thoughts on the current moment.
You can read the rest of Trueman’s post here.
(image from foreignaffairs.com)