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On Not Being Fit for the Modern World

November 10, 2020


In the drab grey of postwar Europe, Britain’s favorite misanthrope Evelyn Waugh penned a novella named Scott-King’s Modern Europe. Scott-King is an Englishman, a classics professor, and an old boy grandee of Granchester public school. A lover of gentlemanly customs and old virtues, Scott-King finds himself becoming somewhat of an anachronism in a world of shallow politics and rumbustious ideologies. Ill-suited for the modern world of breathless progress and brutal efficiency, he maintains his status at the school as a curious holdover from a bygone age. While others will trim for the new age, he will stay expert in forgotten poets in dead languages.

As the story unfolds, however, Scott-King finds himself invited to a scholarly conference in the glorious nation of the future—the totalitarian state of Neutralia. Lauded as a land of promise, Neutralia purportedly offers all that is good in modernity. But once there, the scholar finds himself shuffled around by dishonest leaders who are aided by a fawning press. Manipulated into lending intellectual credibility to blatant propaganda and recognizing the visit for the farce that it is, the aged professor finds himself enduring the harrowing ordeal of safely getting home. What began as trip surrounding academic honor ended as a dystopian nightmare.

Upon returning to school, Scott-King is called in for a conversation with the headmaster.

“You know,” [the headmaster] said, “we are starting this year with fifteen fewer classical specialists than we had last term.”

“I thought that would be about the number.” [Scott-King responded.]

“As you know I’m an old Greats man myself. I deplore it as much as you do. But what are we going to do? Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ anymore. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?”

“Oh yes,” said Scott-King. “I can and do.”

Scott-King had concerns about the fruits of shallow modernity, for he had experienced them firsthand. The modern world is enamored with the catchwords freedom and progress. Without being expressed as means to an end, they have become foggy ends in and of themselves. But what is freedom? “Freedom,” according to St. John Paul II, “consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” And what exactly is progress? G.K. Chesterton quipped, “My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.” For freedom and progress to mean anything, you must start with, as Chesterton explains, “a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals.” In other words, to know what we are free to do and to understand in what direction we are to progress, we must know who we are and what is the Truth.

Scott-King would defend man against modernity by advocating for the role of the classics in humanity’s formation. I would enlarge his program by championing faith and a liberal education. To keep us human, to help us avoid devolving into dark, angling creatures, we need the Church and the collected wisdom of the humanities. The Church is our avenue of salvation and the humanities offer a robust seminar in human nature. The Church, according to Chesterton,

[is the] one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.

In fact, he would continue, “Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves.”

Liberal education (specifically literature and poetry) offers insights from Dostoevsky to Dickens, Shakespeare to Austen, Milton to Bronte, Dickinson to Frost. It provides lives of experience between the covers of a book. Tales of tragedy and comedy, heroism and villainy all rotate around a central hub that is the truth of human experience: we are dignified, fallible, and redeemable. In his farewell address, esteemed Yale professor Donald Kagan celebrated the four indispensable goals of a liberal education. Liberal education, according to Kagan, is an end in itself opening us to the contemplative life, a means of shaping character, a tool to prepare for a career in the world, and a vital contribution to personal freedom in an encroaching society. And in his seminal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Devoid of faith and a grounding in the humanities, we become stunted and mechanical. We lose sight of the divine and the humane. To be sure, we will still be formed . . . but formed instead by the forces of modernity. C.S. Lewis leads us to the logical conclusion of such vacuous formation:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

In what is one of the most frightening things I have ever read, Adolf Hitler crystallized the outcome of ideological modernity—an outcome that Scott-King found in the dystopia Neutralia and feared in his native England:

When an opponent declares, “I will not come over to your side,” I calmly say, “Your child belongs to us already. You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.”

On the final page of Scott-King’s Modern Europe, the headmaster looks warmly and sadly at the aging professor. Explaining that the number of students studying the classics will only continue to wane, he asks Scott-King if he would consider taking on another subject (like economic history) lest his job be threatened. The professor declines. When asked what he will do, Scott-King concludes:

“If you approve, headmaster, I will stay as I am here as long as any boy wants to read the classics. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for this modern world.”

“It’s a short-sighted view, Scott-King,” [answered the headmaster].

“There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.”