Under soaring high-arched ceilings, stately yet subdued chestnut-hued Corinthian columns rise from the exquisitely polished floor. Acting as the mythical Atlas, the columns proudly bear (and strain a bit) the ornately carved and railed second floor. And all around are impossibly tall shelves of books. Thousands and thousands of books. As one peers down the central corridor that separates the columned, railed mirror images of bookshelves, you see the busts of great minds (Plato, Cicero, Samuel Johnson, I am sure) standing sentinel over the room’s riches.
This is The Long Room in the Old Library of Dublin’s Trinity College.
And, at once, I was in love.
I came across this picture on the cover of this week’s edition of The Weekly Standard. The editors had drawn me in, but now it was time for their kill shot: The Cultured Life by Joseph Epstein. A brilliant essayist reflecting on culture against a backdrop of an unparalleled library photograph?
Pow. I was bagged and soon to be prepared for supper.
Now to be sure, The Weekly Standard is a conservative (if not neoconservative) magazine that fits neatly into the realm of The National Review with writing (especially book reviews and essays) that also borrows from the thoughtful pages of The New Criterion. However, as I began to dip my toes into Mr. Epstein’s piece, I worried that I might be a bit disappointed.
But I wasn’t.
The Cultured Life asks the question about the value of “high culture”. Now, admittedly, when I saw “high culture”, my hopes shrank. Was this essay soon to become a haughty judgment that I went to the wrong schools, read the wrong books and, hence, lead the wrong life?
Although Mr. Epstein starts with quizzing his students on names such as Sergei Diaghilev, Francis Poulenc, Alexander Herzen and George Balanchine (I only knew two) and quoting Matthew Arnold (whom I have a bit of a grudge against for his shallow criticisms of my hero, G.K. Chesterton), his essay soon spurred me to thinking.
The study of culture matters because it focuses intently on what is True, Good and Beautiful. If the notion of culture (and its worldly trappings) devolves to pedigree, schooling, and status, then it is a false notion – a twisted, mocking deformity of a once noble thing. Mr. Epstein writes about his unlikely journey to the University of Chicago. Raised by parents who never went to college, he noted what a keen sense they had about people and the operations of the world. And Mr. Epstein was pleasantly surprised that, likewise, the intellectuals at his school (remember, this was in the 1950s) valued, more than where one was from, how much money one had and who one knew, “what one knew, and how deeply and subtly one knew it.”
To celebrate and immerse oneself in the True, the Good and the Beautiful, is to appreciate that which truly is the best. As Mr. Epstein wrote, “A cultured person has a standard, a recollection, through literature and history and philosophy – if not necessarily through personal experience – of greatness. Without such a recollection, rising above mediocrity is difficult, if not impossible.” To place before our eyes that which causes our soul to soar (the Long Room at Trinity College, for instance) is to be drawn to and reminded of the echoes of heaven. But it also requires us to tune out that which is distracting, demeaning and stultifying. If you are uncertain of this, spend the next hour looking at Google images of Renaissance art (while playing Mozart in the background). Then spend the following hour watching non-stop clips from Keeping Up With the Kardashians (if you can make it that long). I rest my case.
To better appreciate culture is the work of hunger and sacrifice. As Mr. Epstein reminded, “In the realm of culture, as in all non-vocational education generally, we are all autodidacts – all, that is, on our own.” And yet, the resources for culture – for the True, the Good and the Beautiful – is sitting at our fingertips. The Bible is available for only a few dollars as are William Shakespeare’s complete works. Most public libraries have free access to the Loeb Classical Library and as William F. Buckley once puckishly remarked, “Life can’t be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years.” Culture is there for the taking…but are we taking it?
True culture, in essence, is a respect paid to tradition. Mr. Epstein quoted Edmund Wilson when he wrote, “[For the man or woman of culture], there was nothing to do save to work with the dead for allies, and at odds with the ignorance of most of the living, that that edifice, so many times begun, so discouragingly reduced to ruins, might yet stand as the headquarters of humanity!” This made me think of G.K. Chesterton’s wise insight, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about… Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” Or even Whittaker Chambers dire, but hopeful warning: “It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.” Culture is born of tradition and we carelessly dismiss it at our peril.
As a Catholic (and a nerdy one, at that), I once constructed a model (made out of concentric circles of books) dubbed “Sources of the Catholic Faith”. At the center of the concentric circles are the Gospels, the New Testament reflecting on Christ, the Old Testament anticipating Christ and the teachings of Church Tradition. Emanating from this center, in subsequent circles, are the works of the Saints, the Apologists, the literary Catholics and ultimately the outer circle known as “Echoes of God in a Secular World”. This ring would include the works of culture: Mozart, Bach, Palestrina, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bramante (and on and on). These masterpieces are part of Mr. Epstein’s culture which the world often coos over, but fails to see for what they are and where they are from: Truth, Goodness and Beauty set forth by a loving God.
Once again, I gaze at the cover photo of the Long Room of Dublin’s Trinity College. And I sigh. For in that room, beneath the warm, inviting woodwork and housed within the binding of innumerable books is a Culture that, when properly represented, has one solitary, unimpeachable Source.
That is the Culture we should truly seek.
To read Joseph Epstein’s Weekly Standard essay “The Cultured Life” in full, click here
Photo credit: Pixabay