As Evelyn Waugh noted,
barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment, however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.
In one sense, the barbarism that Flaubert and Waugh descried is a perennial threat. What is new is its celebration as a form of liberation. We live at a moment when intellectuals have traded the pursuit of truth for the sophistry of power politics, when all manner of obscenity is broadcast and championed by those charged with preserving our cultural and intellectual heritage, when the public square has become a pit of snarling vituperation. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that nobody but a blockhead believes that our conduct does not form our character. We are as we act, and we have been acting very badly indeed.
It is a melancholy truth that the conservative response to the onslaught of barbarism has been conspicuously impotent. Part of the reason is that conservatives long ago ceded authority in cultural and intellectual matters to leftists, who in turn have capitulated on every issue to the most radical elements.
But culture is not the whole answer. In one of his essays on humanism, T. S. Eliot observed that when we “boil down Horace, the Elgin Marbles, St. Francis and Goethe” the result will be “pretty thin soup.” That truth was also at the heart of Hillsdale’s dedication of Christ Chapel. As Eliot concluded, “Culture, after all, is not enough, even though nothing is enough without culture.” What else is there? Religion, or at least some acknowledgment that the ultimate source of our moral vocation transcends our mundane interventions. Eliot put it neatly: “Either everything in man can be traced as a development from below, or something must come from above. There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist.”
It says a lot that Eliot’s articulation of this core belief of traditional conservatism should be deeply controverted today, even by many conservatives. The depth of that controversy is perhaps an index of our confusion. Dostoevsky once claimed that if God does not exist then everything is permitted. Considerable ingenuity has gone into proving Dostoevsky wrong. To date, though, the record would seem to support him.
A Christian college of no particular Christian tradition strikes me, prima facie, as doomed to the same sorts of spiritual deaths as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and countless others (some of which haven’t yet succumbed but are in vegetative states). But somehow Hillsdale has been pulling it off for 175 years now, with founding principles that put the Ivies to shame, and with independence from government money and meddling. Everyone who really believes in diversity — you know, like diverse diversity, not uniform “diversity” — should be grateful that such a place exists.
If my grandchildren don’t want technical educations in college, it would be high on my list of “Please, God, let them choose …” institutions.
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The Lord is King, be the peoples never so impatient; He that sitteth upon the Cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet.
(Psalm 98:1, Adapted from the Miles Coverdale Translation, from A Psalter for Prayer)