The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

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Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know
Anthony Esolen - 03/10/08
excerpted from Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature


Is it possible, as a critic, to come to wrong conclusions on every important point? If our criticism were subject to random chance, we would be bound to get many things right. But the more intelligent we are, the more consistent our conclusions will be, and if we start from false principles, the more consistently wrong they will be. Take for example a young critic of medieval and Renaissance English poetry. Suppose that he is thoroughly conversant with the language of those old texts. Suppose also that he knows the history of England—and not just the wool trade or the tin mines or other now fashionable niches of economic history. Grant that he knows it well enough to place the poetry in its historic context, the better to understand what the words on the page mean. Grant him the rare knack for catching the well-turned phrase or the well-hewn line. Such a critic must still fail if he does not also understand what it might be like to believe in the Christianity which was the shared faith of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, and Milton.

Can such an understanding be attained? If not, why read books? I am a great lover of the poet Lucretius, though he is a materialist and, for all practical purposes, an atheist, while I am not. When I read Lucretius, the skeptic, the satirist, and the scientist in me can relish his attack upon superstition. So could the ancient Christian polemicist Lactantius, who enjoyed the poetry and then used it as a sabre against paganism. But Lactantius could hardly have done so had he not entered into the spirit of Lucretius.

For the sake of understanding materialist poetry, then, I become provisionally and temporarily a materialist. As C. S. Lewis says, what the critic requires is not so often a suspension of disbelief as a suspension of belief. It is too easy to respond that such self-transformation is an illusion. Of course we cannot leave our minds behind. The point is that our minds possess myriads of possibilities, usually dormant, inactive, unrealized. Good reading sets them in motion. For the sake of Lucretius’s great poetry I allow the materialist in me to take the stage and declaim. That Lucretius’ voice is still bound up with my own does not matter. It could not be otherwise; nor do I require it. All I require is that humbling release of what I am and what I believe now, surrendering to what I might have been or to what I might have believed had I been more like Lucretius. I say with Alyosha Karamazov, who tries to understand his brother Ivan, “I want to suffer too” (The Brothers Karamazov, 287). I surrender in imaginative love.

Now there is a catch to this surrender. The farther you are from the faith of the author you are reading, the more readily you will acknowledge the need to surrender yourself, but the more difficult it will be. The closer you are to the author’s faith, the easier the surrender would be, could you ever be prevailed upon to see the need. In the case of Christianity, it is as Chesterton puts it. You had better be in the faith completely or out of it completely. The worst position, if you want to understand it, is to be partly in and partly out, or to have a passing, culturally based familiarity with its surface. You are neither so familiar with it as to probe its depths, nor is it so strange that you are moved to approach it with care. You take the attitiude of Petronius, or of “Tertium Quid.” You’ve seen it all before.

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