Some years ago, at an excellent high school in Minneapolis, I taught a seminar to junior boys on ancient and early Christian authors. The course began with a full-length reading of Homer’s Iliad, and at Christmas, with the seminar half over, my informal poll always revealed that this was the boys’ favorite work up to that point.
While there was something, I am sure, about Homer’s vivid descriptions of warfare — of eyeballs skewered on spearpoints and fingers clawing the dust — that was especially appealing to their sixteen-year-old minds, I am also sure that there was something in the nobility of those heroes that inspired their admiration.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The course ended in the spring with St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, undoubtedly one of the most difficult works of theology ever written. Because I was neither trained as a theologian, nor well-schooled in Augustine, it was everything I could do to render that text even minimally intelligible to my students. But much to my surprise, my informal poll at the end of the year quite often named this austere and technically demanding work as the favorite of the entire year. Think of that: On the Trinity the favorite of sixteen-year-olds!
And now, looking back on this seminar, I think I can give the heroes of the Iliad much of the credit for my students’ intellectual progress. For Homer instructed them in what the Greeks called to kalon. This word is often translated as “the fine” or “the good” or “the noble,” but it has an aesthetic as well as a moral sense and so also can mean “the beautiful.”
The heroes of the Iliad exhibit great sacrifice; they are ready to deny their very lives for the sake of their honor — they are beautifully noble. Such sacrifice lifts up the spirit and inspires it to greatness. It is attractive in a moral sense, surely, but it also has the effect that a great work of art has on us: It pulls us toward it with the entirety of our mind, heart, and senses. It possesses us before we know we are possessed by it.
At each stage of this seminar, as I see it now, a noble figure, and finally Christ himself, led the way into a deeper intellectual appreciation of the truth. By the time we got to the subtleties of Trinitarian theology my students were affectively disposed to the grandeur of the Trinity even before they grasped the smallest part of its meaning.
This is how we most often approach the truth. We grasp it first under the aspect of its goodness, its nobility, its beauty, before we grasp it analytically by the mind. This was well known by the ancients.
The late Allan Bloom observed that in order to inspire his young interlocutors to engage in the difficult work of defining justice, the Socrates of the Republic first inspires Glaucon and Adeimantus, so hungry for the life of honor, by inviting them to a noble task — the founding of a city, albeit a city in speech. Aristotle, in a famous remark, advises that the young (of any age) are unfit to study moral philosophy. In saying this he does not mean that the young are simply too emotional to study moral philosophy. He means, rather, that the young have not yet had their emotions properly educated. The intellectual understanding of the virtuous life presupposes the right emotional disposition. Without such disposition to the truth, lectures on virtue are futile.
I am only reiterating here a theme taken up by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Modern education, as Lewis saw it at mid-century, was busy creating “men without chests.” The chest, as the ancients understood it, was the seat of the emotion associated with the pursuit of great and difficult things, things that were kalon. Plato calls this emotion the thumos. Nowadays we often call this emotion “heart,” as when we say the injured Olympic gymnast performed the exercise with great heart. Lewis’s contention was that the almost cruel rationalism of modern education depreciates the emotions by disassociating them from truth.
Modernism’s next move is fatal: Because emotions are bound up with loving and hating, with friendship and courage and temperance — that is, with morality — then it is clear that morality is unconnected with truth. A society of men without chests, without emotions that are capable of attunement with reality, is a society of relativists and skeptics.
But as Lewis writes in a memorable phrase, “In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment.” In the third hour of the bombardment only a well-trained desire to pursue the great and difficult will enable the soldier to perform his duty.
What too often is missing in professional teaching, or in any activity that attempts to bring others to the truth, is attention paid to the heart. If a student is going to be impressed by the truth he must also perceive its goodness, its attractiveness, its nobility. When it comes to philosophy, the important thing is to attract students to the Socratic truth that the unexamined life simply is not worth living.
What first attracts us to Christianity, after all, is not dogma, but the person who is Christ, or how Christ is present in those persons already busy imitating him. The faith must be delivered to us by a witness. It must be heard. And what we hear must be something fine, something kalon, to inspire the heart and dispose the mind to the subtleties of doctrine — and, at times, to help us stay united to the truth when the subtleties of doctrine elude us.
The Christian witness by definition involves nobility, for to be Christ-like is to sacrifice, to surrender great but mundane goods for the sake of the highest good. This is one reason, I believe, why Pope John Paul II begins Veritatis Splendor with the story of the rich young man from Matthew’s Gospel. What Christ asks the young man to do — to give up everything he has and follow him — is startling, shocking.
What the pope asks of the faithful in this encyclical — to give up our merely personal desires and become obedient to natural and divine law — is likewise startling, shocking. For the rich young man, the pope writes, “the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life. This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion.”
In the pope’s eyes the young man’s question, “What good must I do to have eternal life?” is “ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us.” Notice how the pope understands the rich young man as already attracted to the truth even before he meets Jesus. Notice too that it is not the young man’s ignorance of the answer contained in the Law that prompts him to ask his question. “It is more likely,” the pope writes, “that the attractiveness of the person of Jesus had prompted within him new questions about moral good.” The beautifully noble is the rich young man’s first bridge to the truth. Jesus means to attract him further by inviting him to perform a further act of nobility. Alas the young man refuses, and goes away sad.
This interlude between the rich young man and Christ is a very short and tragic story. Yet notice how it takes the form of a story. Whenever the heart is struck we embark upon a quest — however long or short. The lover must go in search of the beloved, and that quest will be filled with all manner of pitfalls, reversals, setbacks, partial successes, and the ever present possibility of defeat as well as victory. The quest of the lover for the beloved also can be characterized as an imitation; for the lover always seeks to conform himself to the ways of the beloved. Through the grace of God our attraction to Christ can, unlike that of the rich young man, take the form of imitation as we attempt to unite ourselves to him.
In his Poetics, Aristotle remarks upon the naturalness of human imitative acts by noting how as children we first learn our lessons by imitation. As childlike Christians our imitative acts continue throughout our lives. We “put on” Christ, as St. Paul speaks of it, as though to encourage a very serious kind of playacting. The religious, in taking the habit and a new name, is only the most conspicuous player in the drama.
But the imitation of Christ is certainly more than the acting out of a story we have heard and liked. It is fashionable today to speak of the moral life as a kind of narrative, as the acting out of a story. But the trouble with mere narratives is that they tend to compete with other mere narratives, and in such an environment relativism and skepticism are bound to prosper. A look at the sacraments, however, suffices to remind us that the imitatio Christi is not simply a persona we put on in order to give some shape to our heterogeneous experience. When we attend Mass we are doing something more than what we do when we act in a play or attend the reenactment of a Civil War battle.
In the Mass, Christ’s sacrifice is not just reenacted; it is literally re-presented. And in participating in this sacrifice we become one with Christ in a way more intimate than the human mind — though not the heart filled with grace — has the means to comprehend. In the Christian story, in short, God is the author who invites us into a collaboration with him. As we partake in the sacramental life of the Church, and labor faithfully in our apostolates, we make straight the path of Christ in a world intent on its own destruction.
It is noteworthy that toward the end of Veritatis Splendor, after the pope has made his argument for the exceptionless nature of certain precepts of the moral law, that he turns to a discussion of martyrdom. The discussion makes a nice parallel with the opening meditation on the story of the rich young man. The martyr is what the rich young man might have been, if he had followed through — all the way through — on the original promptings of his heart. What the martyr sacrifices for the sake of his heart’s desire, the rich young man clutches onto for fear that he may lose it. The sacrifice the martyr makes is an imitation of the same sacrifice to which Christ invited the rich young man. The martyr is the hero of a comedy, the rich young man that of a tragedy.
The pope’s meditation of martyrdom, moreover, reminds us that the foremost way to the truth expounded in this encyclical is through the witness of those courageous enough to make sacrifices for it. Only acts of such grandeur, of such moral beauty, will be able to cut through the vain mess of modern moral arguments and inspire others to the fulfillment of the truth already signed upon their hearts.
It is a story like that of Susanna from the Book of Daniel, who chooses to die rather than yield to the sinful passions of her unjust judges, that has the potential to strike the human heart with wonder and awe and dispose it to the truth. “By her acts,” the pope underscores, “she revealed the holiness of God.” The same can be said for the story of John the Baptist, or St. Stephen. Stephen’s martyrdom, as Robert Sokolowski has noted, provided St. Paul with a powerful manifestation of the Christ he himself had not seen.
Our Christian stories too can help convert, if our imitations are faithful. Although, as it is said, there have been more Christian martyrs in this century than in all the others combined, Christian witness does not usually involve martyrdom. For most of us, simple day-in, day-out orthodoxy in a world hell-bent on destroying Christianity is more than sufficient. Here was Chesterton’s point in Orthodoxy: In a world driven mad by a frigid rationalism, simple orthodoxy will appear like the spirit of romance.
In his essay “The Last Pope,” the novelist Graham Greene sets himself the task of defining the nature of Christian civilization. Could it be, he asks, that a Christian civilization is nothing more than the sort of arrangement that would allow everyone to follow with the least resistance the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount? To answer in this way, Greene contends, is to mistake his categories. The city of man can never be the City of God and to expect it to be so is only to invite frustration and perhaps despair. But while the perfect imitation of Christ is impossible in this world, Greene notes, it is also the case that human frailty has been redeemed by Christ. In order that man may imitate Christ, Christ first of all imitated man. He took on our position in the universe so that we might better learn how to take on his.
Thus for Greene the mark of Christian civilization is not perfection on earth. Quite the contrary. The mark of Christian civilization is “nothing more than the divided mind, the uneasy conscience, and the sense of personal failure.” As long as men continue to recognize the bite of conscience, Christianity will persist on earth.
Greene goes on to give a synopsis of an unwritten story in which the tyrant of a brave new world keeps the last pope alive in order to demonstrate how dead the Church is and to root out any possible Christian survivors. The story ends with the tyrant, tired of his game, finally deciding to execute the pope. Just as he does so, however, the thought rushes into his mind: “Is it just possible that what this man believed is true?” Another Christian is born.
While it may take more than the bite of conscience to sustain a particularly Christian civilization, there is much to Greene’s insight. The culture of death is only one description of the world in which we live. It is also the culture of Christ as long as the faithful continue, despite their imperfections, to imitate Christ by following their consciences to the point of witness.
Christian sacrifice, Christian witness, must be the first premise in our arguments with the world. We should notice that this culture of death has no real heroes, neither does it win converts. People fall into it, to be sure, on account of fear or disillusionment with the things of this world. No one, however, is inspired to join it for its own sake; it is not a culture to which one would offer his life. So here is our opportunity. In a world paralyzed by fear, and especially the fear of death, it is up to the Christian to witness to a life undaunted by fear, to re-present in the story of his own actions the heroic figure of Christ, and thereby attract others to the truth.
This article originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.