Years ago, Alan Jacobs was a professor of mine at Wheaton College, teaching everything from the Iliad and Paradise Lost to Michel Foucault and Stanley Fish. He was also an emerging public intellectual whose writing could be found in traditional scholarly publications as well as the Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal. Today, he is a professor of humanities at Baylor University, having published a wide range of books on topics including hermeneutic charity, the technology of reading and the challenge of thinking in a fractured age. His new book, The Year of Our Lord, 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, explores the inheritance of the Christian intellectual tradition in the middle of the twentieth century, weaving together the life and thought of W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain and Simone Weil.
We corresponded in July shortly before the book’s publication. The resulting dialogue has been edited for clarity.
Robert L. Kehoe III: A few years back you reviewed Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man, which explored a range of concerns about the state of the human condition voiced by leading writers and intellectuals (e.g. Arendt, Faulkner, Bellow, Ellison and O’Connor) in the mid-twentieth century. For me, one of the most memorable parts of the essay was your confession that reading Greif’s account led you to question whether or not The Year of our Lord 1943 was worth developing. What was it about The Age of the Crisis of Man that prompted your initial doubts? And what inspired you to press on?
Alan Jacobs: I had actually been working on The Year of our Lord for quite some time when Greif’s book came out, and had a massive trove of notes. I had also spoken with a couple of trade editors about the project, and they suggested pretty strongly that if I wanted this to be a trade book I needed to broaden my scope beyond the original plan to write about distinctively Christian figures, and instead look at a larger matter: How the simultaneous rise of fascism and communism had given Western democracies a kind of identity crisis, a felt need to ask themselves whether their project really could sustain itself over the long haul—and if so, how. The Christian figures who had first prompted my inquiries would then be seen to offer one set of answers among several possibilities in the intellectual marketplace.
Thinking that my project could indeed be a trade book, I was gradually moving (though maybe just drifting) in the direction those editors had suggested—and then Greif’s book came out. At first I was distressed, because he has so much to say about those very who-are-we and what-do-we-stand-for questions. But then I realized that he had done me a favor by writing about the parts of the story that I wasn’t primarily interested in. I was then compelled—or, if you prefer, liberated—to write the book I had originally wanted to write. And if that didn’t turn out to be a trade book, so be it. I have a day job.
RK: The end result is a fascinating and peculiar little book. I haven’t read a piece of scholarship quite like it. There’s a dramatic flow where the characters can change from page to page; sometimes paragraph to paragraph. And the subject matter ranges from Weil and Maritain’s interpretation of Freud and Marx, to Lewis and Auden’s thoughts on demon possession. Was this the narrative vision that you had in mind from the start?
AJ: It was obvious to me from the outset that there is a standard academic way to write a book like this: Introduction; Chapter 1, Maritain; Chapter 2, Eliot; Chapter 3, Lewis; Chapter 4, Auden; Chapter 5, Weil; Conclusion. But it was also obvious that I would bore myself to death if I wrote it that way. Moreover, what absolutely fascinated me as my research developed was the amount of thematic overlap among these writers, even when they had no idea what one another were writing. They seemed to be magnetically attracted to the same themes, even at the same time: for instance, the notion of being caught up in spiritual warfare against demonic forces seems to have been particularly strong in the first years of the war and fades later.
Obviously, the complexity of these intertwinings posed narrative challenges; but I found myself thinking of a book I particularly admire, Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a narrative of four Catholic literary lives: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Elie does a marvelously skillful job of braiding those narratives, and though I had one more figure to deal with than he did, I thought I could perhaps do the same. I wanted to be able to pick up a theme or image in the writings of one author, and then show how it appeared in another, and then in another—and move then to a related theme, or the next significant event in the life of one of my figures. Ultimately I hoped that the reader could step back from all those details and see what Henry James once called “the figure in the carpet.” I’m not sure I succeeded but I am awfully glad I tried.
RK: What did Auden, Eliot, Lewis, Maritain and Weil, together as intellectuals, have to offer that wasn’t emphasized by other contemporaries, or captured in Greif’s account?
AJ: They don’t offer the same prescription, but to speak very generally, the older figures (Maritain, Eliot, Lewis) tend to believe, or at least hope, that it’s possible to rebuild and renew Christendom—to have a Western European society that is grounded in Christian tradition, though without any mandated acceptance of Christianity. (Their views are not altogether unlike those of Viktor Orbán in Hungary today.) Roughly speaking, Maritain hopes to draw and keep the attention of heads of state (including his own head of state in exile, Charles de Gaulle); Eliot hopes to influence the influencers, the people who worked behind the scenes in the various halls of power; and Lewis seeks to address a large public directly via talks, journalism, books and radio broadcasts. All of them count on an audience that had received some degree, however imperfect, of Christian formation, and could perhaps be persuaded to deepen their own interest and then infiltrate either the halls of power or their own neighborhoods with a body of Christian thought and practice.
For the younger figures, Auden and Weil, the ship of Christendom has sailed; for them, the chief question is the place that Christian ideas can find in societies that structurally reject them. They’re more likely to ask whether Christianity can be made intelligible, especially as something relevant to the whole social order, to people for whom it is a foreign language or sheer nonsense.
Don’t take this distinction as absolute, but in general terms it’s correct, I think.
RK: And all of this was taking place in the context of a broader intellectual and geopolitical climate, which you illustrate by highlighting some of the key arguments emerging in the mid-twentieth century in the United States and Europe.
AJ: Those sections (mainly, though not exclusively, early in the book) are what remains of that bigger who-are-we and what-are-we-fighting-for context, within which I certainly needed to situate the narrative even if I didn’t want to tell it all. A big part of this story features Robert Maynard Hutchins, who had started his enormously ambitious project of reinventing the University of Chicago just as global fascism and communism rose. It was therefore natural for him, especially when in the public-relations mode that he relished, to describe the UofC’s devotion to the Great Books, including great religious books, as giving it a special power to articulate and defend the democratic order.
So when at the outset of World War II, Louis Finkelstein, the new President of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, created the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life—quite a mouthful—it was appropriate that he invite Hutchins and Hutchins’s right-hand man Mortimer Adler to participate. But this gave the opportunity for some major thinkers of a pronouncedly secular bent (John Dewey and Sidney Hook) to argue that Hutchins had taken the UofC down a dangerous, potentially theocratic path that in the end would undermine rather than sustain democracy. Describing these arguments proved to be a great way for me to show the larger context in which my little crew of thinkers was operating.
RK: What was the crux of those respective arguments, and who (if anyone) came out on top?
AJ: None of them did! It was an argument conducted among a varied cast of people who hoped to shape the future of the society they lived in but ultimately had to accept technocratic rule. As Paul Kennedy has explained in his recent book Engineers of Victory, the war was won, and was widely understood to have been won not by thinkers gathered in rooms to talk, but by “problem solvers” who built the machines that crushed the Axis machines. This is part of what Reinhold Niebuhr was concerned with when he warned against the dangers of “winning the war but losing the peace”: allowing the imperatives of technological superiority unrestrained power in ways that would become difficult to reverse, or even to critique, once the war was over. And by “imperatives of technological superiority” I mean what I have called in other contexts the “Oppenheimer Principle.” When Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance came under review after the war, during the Red Scare, and he was asked about his motives in leading his country’s atomic bomb project, he replied, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” Oppenheimer eventually came to regret this attitude, but it was widespread among the “engineers of victory,” always with the fig leaf that the Axis simply had to be defeated. You don’t have to be a Christian intellectual or even have any sympathy with Christianity to understand why the people I wrote about worried, on religious grounds, about the emergence of this mindset. It was what made the destruction of Dresden and other German cities, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not only possible but in a very real sense inevitable. Immediately after the war, Auden, as a new American citizen, joined the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in order to examine the effects of that bombing on German cities and people—he was assigned because of his fluency in German—and one of the regular themes in his letters from Germany is the frequency with which, as he pursued his investigations, he found himself weeping.
RK: Before the war ended, what was happening in the lives of Auden, Eliot, Lewis, Maritain and Weil that drew your attention to 1943 in particular?
AJ: Many years ago I had picked up a copy of Jacques Maritain’s little book Education at the Crossroads. One day I was thumbing through it and noted that it is based on a series of lectures that were given in January of 1943. I had recently read a lecture given by W. H. Auden at Swarthmore College on very similar themes, also in January of 1943. I thought this rather odd. Then I remembered that C. S. Lewis’s little book The Abolition of Man was yet another meditation on education and the formation of young minds and hearts. It turns out that this book also had its origin as a series of lectures given at almost exactly the same time as Maritain’s and Auden’s. This all struck me as very strange: Why, right in the middle of the most massive war that human beings had ever inflicted on one another, were all these Christians thinking about education? Trying to answer that question led me eventually to writings from the same period by T. S. Eliot and Simone Weil, and thus to the whole book.
RK: You also point to a number of private experiences that inform this coincidental pursuit of questions, and public expressions, about the nature of education.
AJ: Again I think we see a significant generational difference. The three older men remembered the Great War and were struck, as many millions were, by a kind of disbelieving horror that something as bad or worse was coming a mere two decades later. (This horror had an especially personal character for Lewis, who had fought in the war and been badly wounded, and who was afflicted by nightmares of his experiences for the rest of his life.) The younger thinkers were small children in the years of the Great War and had no memory of the long European peace (and the belief in the inevitability of progress that it had generated) that preceded that conflict. A broken Europe was the only Europe they knew. And Maritain, with his wife Raïssa, had felt such emptiness in a quite personal way even before the Great War. They had pledged to each other that they would find some meaning in life or else commit suicide together; to their everlasting surprise, what turned them around was the lectures of the philosopher Henri Bergson, who was not a Christian (or a conventional religious believer of any kind) but rather a non-observant Jew. Nevertheless his ideas were the ones that set Jacques and Raïssa on the path to a lifetime of faithful Catholic belief.
RK: For me your fifth chapter, “Force,” wasn’t just centrally located: it really was the conceptual and dramatic fulcrum of the narrative, where your cast of characters is reckoning with what Weil describes as a blinding deformation by our submission to “the weight of [military, technological, ideological and political] force.” For her, that submission stems from a broader spiritual emptiness, corresponding with a belief that we as humans can solve our own problems “without grace.”
AJ: My take on that goes back to Foucault’s genealogy of modernity as it relates to the Western democratic order: in essence, a long, gradual, almost insensible development through which overt force comes to be covert, its character invisible to those most affected by it. By consolidating the power of technocracy and its “problem solvers,” the successful Allied war effort dramatically extended the realm of covert force in the decade following the war. This was understood even at the time. Consider the vast publishing empire of Henry Luce: if right after the war Time could still put figures like C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr on its cover, a decade later figures like John von Neumann, prime architect of the digital computer and the hydrogen bomb, had assumed center stage. (Von Neumann’s untimely death in 1957 was covered in a lavishly hagiographic spread in Life.) People were widely aware that there were dangers that accompanied submission to technocracy: Vance Packer’s 1957 book on advertising, The Hidden Persuaders, tells one part of the story, while President Eisenhower’s farewell warning about the rising power of the “military-industrial complex” tells another. But most people in the West preferred such submission to any imaginable alternative—in large part because alternatives ceased to be imaginable. This is the product, not of overt force, but of a subtler and more sustainable kind.
RK: So the voices you summon were all exploring a model of education that could serve as a counterpoint to the intellectual, political, social and technological instrumentalization of force. Maritain envisioned an education that could provide the “internal and spiritual freedom,” rooted in “knowledge and wisdom, good will, and love.” For Auden, that kind of freedom was only possible if education was conceived primarily in pursuit of vocation. What did Auden mean by thinking and teaching vocationally?
AJ: Auden’s talk about vocation—given at Swarthmore College, where he taught during much of the war—is little known, but quite profound. He encourages his students to pursue what he calls, borrowing a phrase from a colleague in psychology, “subjective requiredness”: that is, something you feel that you are required to do, that you are not really free to ignore—even if all the people around you are requiring, or trying to require, you to do something else. Auden is not telling his students to follow their bliss, he’s telling them to follow their conscience—and if they don’t have one to follow, something has gone very wrong in their formation. He further argues that one of the things that makes democratic societies truly democratic is that they allow and even encourage their citizens to experience, and heed, subjective requiredness. It’s an essay I wish many of today’s college students would read. (Their parents need it even more.)
RK: You conclude this unlikely story with a nod to Jacques Ellul, who became one of the leading prophets and critics of the burgeoning technocratic society. Anticipating how problem-solver culture would take hold, Ellul envisioned a future starved of creativity, devoid of spiritual depth and purpose, where “children are educated to become precisely what society expects of them.” Apart from the fact that aspects of his vision seem to have come to life, why was it so important to give Ellul the final word?
AJ: Auden was born in 1907, Weil in 1909, Ellul in 1912. He’s not that much younger than them, but the difference is significant. Also, he lived in occupied France, where Weil wanted to be but couldn’t get to. During the war she was mainly in London, Auden in various parts of America, but Ellul was trying to raise food for his family, preach sermons to his tiny Reformed congregation, and smuggle Jews out of France. This was an existentially threatening time for Ellul, and it happened when he was still a very young man—so the whole war was formative for him in ways it wasn’t for any of my main characters. And perhaps for this reason Ellul saw with remarkable immediacy and clarity that the victory was not that of democracy but rather technocracy. The other five lived through a great struggle for, as they all would have seen it, the soul of the West; but Ellul came into his intellectual maturity when that struggle had been concluded. I thought it important to end with a look at a brilliant thinker who didn’t worry about whether rule of the technocratic elite could be averted, because that rule was already established, and the only question remaining, for thoughtful and serious Christians, was how to live in it.