In the late 1920s, a very young Tom Burns and an only slightly older Christopher Dawson founded one of the most interesting journals of the decade, Order. Though it lasted only four issues, it was the standard bearer of a serious, if somewhat youthful and angry, Christian Humanism. Order, it proclaimed, was the highest need, and it must transcend all earthly political divisions, reaching toward the humane and the godly.
In its mere four issues, Order unified a generation of Catholic intellectuals in the United Kingdom. When Australian Frank Sheed, arguably the most important Catholic publisher of the twentieth century, met the two men in the very late 1920s, he suggested his relatively new publishing company, Sheed and Ward, fund and print the journal. A periodical, though, would prove too ephemeral. But, Sheed suggested, why not present the journal as a series of short books written as long, thoughtful, humane essays for the intelligent, religiously-minded person? Why not call the series Essays in Order? Additionally, why just unify British Roman Catholics? Why not connect the Brits with the emerging Catholic intellectual circles of Europe and even North America? Indeed, why not make Essays in Order not merely the standard bearer for young Catholics the world over, but also the standard bearer of Western Civilization?
Tom Burns and Christopher Dawson ran with the idea, recruiting Nicholas Berdyaev (who was Russian Orthodox), Jacques Maritain, G.K. Chesterton, E.I. Watkin, and a myriad of others.
The first series of Essays in Order ended with volume 14, a translation of the work of a German humanist, Theodor Haecker. Appropriately, given the nature of the series and its attempt to unify a current generation of Roman Catholic intellectuals to the entirety of the western tradition, the book was titled Virgil: Father of the West.
Though the book sold only marginally well, it is a profoundly influential book and remains so to this day. Its blatant direct influence, though, has been lost, and yet, at a very deep level, it is there to see. I will give one example of its influence for those of us who love The Imaginative Conservative. Reading over what many consider his best or second-best work, Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order (1974) we find that Kirk spends a considerable time exploring, teasing out, and promoting the virtues of the Roman Republican (at least as the last generation of republicans understood it). Kirk stressed the need to consider a great trilogy of Roman virtues: fate, piety, and labor. The footnotes reveal that Kirk drew upon T.S. Eliot’s seminal 1953 article in the venerable Sewanee Review, “Virgil and the Christian World,” as reprinted in the poet’s 1957 volume of essays, On Poetry and Poets. Eliot, himself, had given the essay first as a talk for the BBC in 1951. Even a cursory glance at Eliot’s talk/essay reveals that he borrowed extensively from Haecker’s book, Virgil: Father of the West.
Aside from this tidbit of intellectual history, Haecker’s book is well worth reading regardless of whom it has influenced.
If Haecker is remembered today, it is for two things: 1) his translations of Cardinal Newman’s works in German and his subsequent conversation to Roman Catholicism; and 2) his unwavering dissent in Nazi Germany as recorded in his beautifully tragic confessional, Journal in the Night, published five years after his 1945 death in Munich. He should, however, not only be well remembered for these two things but also for writing one of the single finest books of the twentieth century, Virgil: Father of the West.
As the author admitted at the beginning of his book on the Roman poet, he intended not just to analyze the life of a great Roman, but also to show that Virgil was a great man, a true human who understood the dignity of all human persons as well as their follies. In other words, in true humanist fashion, Haecker hoped to consider not just Virgil, but the very essence of all men. One can know the essence of man only if he recognizes that all of life fits into a divine “ordo as the spiritual nature of the universe” (x). In the current world, intellectual, political, and theological thought has radically separated the universal from the particular as western civilization approaches a new Tower of Babel. The totalitarians care only about the universal, while the individualists care only about the particular. Yet, even the individualist had gone out of fashion by the 1930s, its liberalism as dead as John Stuart Mill. Even at its height, Haecker claimed, was not liberalism merely a lesser devil challenging THE devil?
The job of the patriot of Western Civilization, and especially the Roman Catholic, is to remind the human person of his universal qualities as well as leaven his particular gifts, abilities, and excellences. The balance, even in the best of times, is precarious. “No human type,” he argued, “is outside the universally human. There is no human note or sound or merest whisper or simple cry but may be brought within the unity of a single primordial symphony” (7). Man, therefore, can do nothing other than stand in a relationship to all other men—past, present, and future—as well as all things in creation, from the highest to the lowest.
Attempting to walk a fine line between what man knows must be objectively true and what he knows to be immediately and particularly true, man must gravitate toward the eternal nature of existence to become, somewhat paradoxically, fully human. The person, therefore, who adamantly denies the objective as well as the man who fully embraces what he believes to be objectivity true (immediately a failure, as it would mean that man equaled God), merely reveals the worst incompetence of the human person (13).
At this point, in the book as well as in this review, one might reasonably say, “fine and good, but what does this have to do with Virgil?” Though a pagan, Haecker argued, Virgil was the ultimate pagan, the equivalent in the pagan world to what John the Baptist was in the Christian world. Haecker’s argument on this not only reveals his brilliance as a thinker but his very excellence as a writer. “A few short years before the Advent Virgil lived, that the foreseen measure of ancient paganism might be fulfilled; and he so fulfilled it that not so much as one drop overflowed. In the last hour before the fullness of time he fulfilled the measure of what was good in the ancient paganism, as others had fulfilled the measure of its evil” (13-14).
Far more than the abstract Plato, Virgil thought and lived as the best of Pagan Man. While Plato’s Greece had its accomplishments, it is remembered mostly for its chaos, Haecker believed, while Virgil’s Rome will always be remembered for its order.
For the Pagan, “the loftiest ideal and reality of the ancient world was the hero” but for the Christian living “after the Incarnation, the loftiest ideal and reality is the saint, the ultimate motiving of whose being is the glory of God.” If Virgil best understood the grace of will, St. John the Beloved best understood the will of grace.
Critically, Virgil came into the world in 70 BC, thus witnessing the collapse of the republic and the rise of the empire. In each of his three greatest works, The Georgics, The Eclogues, and The Aeneid, Virgil offered an idealized, nostalgic paean to the republican past. The monument that sits atop Virgil’s grave best explains him, Haecker wrote. “I sang of shepherds, farmers, and statesmen.”
True imagination and creativity, the greatest of Roman poets argued, comes not from the heart of man but from the receptive soul, the image implanted by the divine. “The great creative man is first and foremost boundlessly receptive; his purity consists not in receiving nothing, but in receiving all that there is to receive. Only thus will he be able to procreate” (23). Then, the creative man must, duty bound, offer gratitude to the divine rather than accept praise for his own accomplishments.
Haecker’s greatest argument hits the reader forcibly. The highest honor in the ancient world, he explained, was not to be a Caesar, but to be a poet. “To be a great classical poet requires no small measure of good fortune—more even than to be a Caesar” (27).
After all, there were many, many Caesars, but only one Virgil.
And, what was it that Virgil, high Roman pagan and poet that he was, proclaimed. That “love conquers all, and all things yield to love” (Eclogue 10).
Would we dispute that this is the greatest truth ever revealed to humanity? I certainly would not.
Author’s Note: Haecker’s “Virgil: Father of the West,” essay 14 in Essays in Order (First Series), edited by Tom Burns and Christopher Dawson, was published by Sheed and Ward of London in 1934. Johnson Reprint Corporation reprinted the 1934 version in 1970. Otherwise, it is very difficult to find and no ebook version of it yet exists. It is well worth the hunt, though.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.