Christianity & Classical Culture As the Basis for American Civilization

Christianity and Classical Culture
“We are dwarfs mounted upon the shoulders of giants,” Bernard of Chartres told his scholars in the eleventh century. The great Schoolman meant that we modern folk incline toward the opinion that wisdom was born with our generation. We see so far only because of the tremendous stature of those giants, our ancestors, upon whose shoulders we stand. Gothic architecture in the eleventh century could not have existed without its foundations in the ninth and tenth centuries—or for that matter, in the architecture of ancient Syria. Atomic physics in our sense could not have come into being without the speculative spirit of the seventeenth century—or for that matter, without the intuitions of the pre-Socratic Greeks. Our civilization is an immense continuity and essence. Bernard, Bishop of Chartres, was right: If we ignore or disdain those ancestral giants who uphold us in our modern vainglory, we tumble down into the ditch of unreason.

A French philosopher of our time, Gabriel Marcel, writes that the only healthy society is the society which respects tradition. We ought to live, Marcel says, in an atmosphere of “diffused gratitude”—of sympathy for the hopes and achievements of our ancestors, from whom we derive our life and our culture, and which we are morally obliged to pass on undiminished, if not enhanced, to our descendants. We are grateful to the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. This feeling or atmosphere of diffused veneration is weakened in our modern age, for many people live only for themselves, ignoring the debt they owe to the past and the responsibility they owe to the future. They are ungrateful; and ingratitude brings on its own punishment.

Normative knowledge, then, is no burden, but instead a rich patrimony. Those who refuse it must be taught by personal experience—a hard master, as Benjamin Franklin says, though fools will have no other. Edmund Burke gave this concept of willing obligation to the dead, the living, and those yet unborn its most moving expression. We are all subject, he wrote, to “the contract of eternal society.” This immortal contract is made between God and mankind, and between the generations that have perished from the earth, and the generation that is living now, and the generations that are yet to come. It is a covenant binding on us all. No man has a right to abridge that contract at will; and if we do break it, we suffer personally and all society suffers; and we are cast out of this civil social order (built by the giants) into an “antagonist world” of total disorder—or, as the New Testament has it, into the outer darkness, where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

We moderns, Burke continued, tend to be puffed up with a little petty private rationality, thinking ourselves wiser than the prophets and the law-givers, and are disposed to trade upon the trifling bank and capital of our private intelligence. That way lies ruin. But though the individual is foolish, the species is wise; and, given time, the species judges rightly. The moral precepts and the social conventions which we obey represent the considered judgments and filtered experience of many generations of prudent and dutiful human beings—the most sagacious of our species. It is folly to ignore this inherited wisdom in favor of our own arrogant little notions of right and wrong, of profit and loss, of justice and injustice. Burke, though the most prophetic man of his age, never thought himself taller than the giants from whom came his strength.

This is no less true in the twentieth century, and in America. Our normative inheritance in the United States is of European and Asiatic origin: Normality does not recognize frontiers.

In the Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gasset declared that American civilization could not long endure, were it severed from European culture. Ortega was right: American culture, and the American civil social order, share with modern European civilization a common patrimony. The principal elements in that inheritance are Christian faith (with its Judaic roots); the Roman and medieval heritage of an ordered liberty; and the continuity of great “Western” literature. It is a legacy of belief, not of blood.

What joins the cultures on either side of the Atlantic is a complex of religious and moral and social convictions, given expression in literature, that Europe and America have received from common spiritual and intellectual ancestors. If this inheritance should be much diminished, all the elaborate fabric of our material civilization could not long survive, either side of the ocean, the collapse of this subtle inner order and this intricate institutional order.

The Influence of Christianity on America

The first article in this common patrimony, I have said, is the Christian faith, including its origins in Judah and Israel. All the important aspects of any civilization arise from its religion—even the economic system of that civilization. As Irving Babbitt wrote a generation ago, economics moves upward into politics, politics into ethics, ethics into theology. This is no less true in the United States of America than it was in ancient Egypt or than it is in modern India. And the United States is a Christian nation, notwithstanding the opinion expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his message to the Bey of Tunis. In the things which most nearly concern the private life and the public good, they draw their moral and intellectual sustenance from the Old World. The prophets of Israel, the words of Christ and his disciples, the writings of the fathers of the Church, the treatises of the schoolmen, the discourses of the great divines of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation—these are the springs of American metaphysics and American morality, as they are of European metaphysics and morality. They underlie the beliefs even of those Americans and Europeans who deny the validity of Christianity. And with Christian doctrine there are blended certain elaborate elements of classical philosophy.

In its immediate influences upon culture, perhaps the most important aspect of Christianity is its account of the human personality: its doctrine of the immortal soul, the unique character of every soul, the concept of human dignity, the nature of rights and duties, the obligation to practice charity, the insistence upon personal responsibility. European and American civilization has been erected upon the foundation of the dignity of man—upon the assumption that man is made for eternity, and that he possesses dignity because he has some share in an order that is more than temporal and more than human.

The student who endeavors to ignore the power of Christianity in European and American culture is as foolish as would be any physician who should endeavor to ignore a patient’s personality. Christianity is at the core of our civilization—its vitality, indeed. Even the virulent totalist ideologies of the twentieth century are influenced by Christianity, inspired by a misunderstanding of Christian doctrines, or by a reaction against Christian principles; hate it though they may, the ideologues cannot break altogether with the Christian religion.

The Influence of Rome on American Law & Politics

The second article in our cultural patrimony is our theory and practice of ordered liberty: our system of law and politics. This is derived from Roman and from medieval sources—and in part, more remotely, from Greek philosophy and historic experience. To the classical and medieval ideas of justice, and to the classical and medieval social experience, there has been added a modern body of theory and practice—although too often we modern folk, including the scholars among us, exaggerate the importance of “liberal” contributions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of which latter contributions have not stoutly withstood the severe tests of our twentieth-century time of troubles.

The doctrines of natural law; the concept of a polity, a just and balanced commonwealth; the principle of a government of laws, not of men; the understanding that justice means “to each his own”; the idea of a healthful tension between the claims of order and the claims of freedom—these passed directly from Europe into American theory and institution. More than any other single figure, Cicero influenced the theory of both European and American politics—and through that theory, our political institutions.

To this general heritage, the English added their common law and their prudent, prescriptive politics; and the English patrimony was directly incorporated in the American social order—and even then modifying it not in favor of some newfangled abstract scheme, but rather on the model of the Roman Republic.

The Influence of Classical Literature

Yet the third article in this common patrimony is more enduring, perhaps, than even political usage. Great words of literature join us in an intellectual community. And the ethical cast of enduring humane letters, working upon the imagination, is as normative as is religious doctrine or political principle. Humane literature teaches us what it is to be a man. Homer and Hesiod; Heroditus and Thucydides; Sophocles and Plato; Virgil and Horace; Livy and Tacitus; Cicero and Seneca; Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius; Dante, Petrarch, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, and all the rest—these have formed the mind and character of Americans as well as of Europeans. The best of American literature is part and parcel of the normative continuity of literature, extending back beyond the dawn of history.

In all essential respects, then, Europe and America enjoy a common faith, a common system of law and politics, and a common body of great literature. They make one civilization still. These normative and cultural bonds have outlasted dynasties, empires, and even philosophies; though injured now and again by war or social dissolution, they rise with renewed vigor after every period of violence or decadence. Whether this heritage is to survive the twentieth century must depend, in no small part, upon the reinvigoration of a popular normative consciousness.

The soul of a civilization may be lost at the very moment of that culture’s material triumph. In our time, we run no risk of experiencing too little change; whether we like it or not, we ride the whirlwind of innovation. To give direction to this change, and to insure that generation may link with generation, some of us must undertake the rescue of the moral imagination.

The undisciplined modern mind, thinking it pursues facts, often follows a corpse-candle to the brink of the abyss—and sometimes over that brink. “The Devil played at chess with me,” wrote Thomas Browne, “and yielding a Pawn, thought to gain a Queen of me, taking advantage of my honest endeavours; and whilst I laboured to raise the structure of my Reason, he strived to undermine the edifice of my Faith.”

If a man relies wholly upon his private rational powers, he will lose his faith—and perhaps the world as well, risking his nature at the Devil’s chess-game. But if a man fortifies himself with the normative disciplines, he draws upon the imagination and the lessons of the ages, and so is fit to confront even a diabolical adversary.

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk was a twentieth-century political theorist, historian, moralist, and cultural and literary critic who is credited with helping to found the modern conservative movement with the publication of his hugely influential book, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. His writings display an antipathy toward ideology, which he defines as the religion of politics, and a devotion to the idea of the importance of literature and art in the formation and endurance of a culture.

Leave a Reply

Skip to content