The major project I am currently working on concerns Christian humanism in a time to total war — in particular, in World War II. In the midst of a an unprecedentedly vast war, a number of prominent and highly accomplished intellectuals saw the need for a renewal of a rich and subtle humanism — which is surprising in itself, it seems to me — and for many of them that humanism needed to be grounded in a doctrinally robust Christianity. This seemed odd enough to me that I thought it needed to be accounted for. Thus this book.
One of the major figure in the story I’ll tell is W. H. Auden, and I’ll give significant attention to a little-known lecture he gave at Swarthmore College, where he taught during much of the war. Swarthmore has, to my great pleasure, made available online its collection of Auden memorabilia — including the full typescript of the lecture, entitled “Vocation and Society”. (How cool is that?)
In the book I’ll explore this lecture at some length, but right now I’ll just say something about the end of his talk, where he introduces an interesting and important question: Is democracy after all sustainable? Or, to put the question more precisely, Is it self-sustaining? Auden echoes a famous essay by E. M. Forster in offering “Two Cheers for Democracy,” but he withholds the third cheer for rather different reasons than the atheist Forster had. “Two cheers for Democracy,” says Auden: “one because it admits vocation, and two because it permits contrition. Two cheers are quite enough. There is no occasion to give three. Only Agape, the Beloved Republic, deserves that.” What he would later call “our dear old bag of a democracy” is sustained, not by itself, but by belief in something deeper and greater than itself. So Auden concludes his talk not with those cheers, but with the reading of a few lines of a very recent poem.
Just four months earlier T. S. Eliot had published “Little Gidding,” the last of his Four Quartets, and Auden finished his talk by reading the poem’s concluding lines:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Auden’s vision, then, is of a vocation-based education sustained by a democratic polity, and a democratic polity sustained by Christian faith. This vision stood against the commanding power of the nation-state, against pragmatism, against modern technocratic canons of efficiency.
Just after the war Auden visited Harvard to read a poem to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. One of the dominant figures of American culture at that time was James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president, who, captured by the techno-utopian mood of the war years, was striving to modernize the university and transform it into a research powerhouse focused on science and technology. In so doing he emphasized the humanities, especially the classics, far less than Harvard had done through much of its history. Auden told Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”