Books are liberating. Not all books, to be sure. Not the sort of books that are as bad as the fads they serve, the sort of books in which vanity vanquishes verity, and in which the passion for fashion crucifies truth. Not the sort of books that turn their readers into prisoners of the Spirit of the Age.
No, the books that are liberating are the good books. The great books, new or old. The seminal tomes that enrich and enlighten our beleaguered world. The sort of books, emerging in every generation, that are jewels in the gem-studded crown of civilization. These are the books that are truly liberating because they free us from the tyranny of passing fads and passionate fashions and put us in touch with the things that are always fresh and new because they are perennially true. Such books put us in communion with our ancestors and pass to us the torch of wisdom so that we can pass it, in turn, to future generations. They are chains in the continuum of human being showing us who we are and where we fit into the wider scheme of all things good, true, and beautiful.
One such book is Walter M. Miller’s minor and modern classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, a work of dystopian fiction, written in the chill of the Cold War, animated by a meditation on the tension between transience and transcendence, between the things that change and the things that are unchanging. Take, for instance, these powerful words from the novel, reflective of the nobility of tradition and the barbarism which is the consequence of tradition’s absence:
Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified, but soon, perhaps, a resurrection.
What marvelous words! What wisdom! What a penetratingly insightful encapsulation of the ebb and flow of human history and of the bedrock realities that remain unchanged and unchangeable even when unseen and unheeded. What a wonderful affirmation of those permanent things which are rooted in the knowledge that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, as Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us, and that such grandeur does not diminish when diminished souls fail to see it. What a powerful reminder that truth is not dependent on the eye of the beholder but that, on the contrary, and truth be told, the beholder is ultimately dependent on the truth, whether he beholds it or not.
Human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth might change but meaning and truth are not themselves dependent on such reflections and portrayals. That which is objectively real is not changed by the way it is perceived subjectively. A tree is no less real because a blind man cannot see it, nor is the song of a skylark less beautiful because some are deaf and some choose not to listen. As the narrative voice in Miller’s novel insists, meaning and truth reside even when knowledge of them recedes. Thus, for instance, the bedrock reality of physics is not dependent on the human knowledge of it but remains, unseen, “in the objective logos of Nature.” Nor is the bedrock reality of metaphysics dependent on the human knowledge of it but remains, unseen, in “the ineffable Logos of God.”
The laws of physics existed before physicists discovered them and are as unbreakable now as they have ever been. The laws of metaphysics existed before philosophers discovered them and are as unbreakable now as they have ever been. Virtue is still good and its absence is still bad. Humility is still the beginning of wisdom and pride still precedes a fall. Self-sacrificial love is still redemptive and self-serving lust is still destructive.
If this is so, need we be worried by those who crucify the truth? Need we be worried by those who say that there is no truth, and that there is no God, and, when all is said and done, that there is no real meaning but only chaos and random chance? Should those who see the grandeur of God in His Creation be worried by those who cannot see it?
These are good questions.
Taking the last question first, we should be worried for those who cannot see God’s Presence in Creation but we should not be worried by them. The Divine Presence is independent of their willingness to see it. And as for the first question, we need not be worried by those who crucify the truth because the truth always rises from the dead, which is another way of saying that it always reasserts itself. This can be seen from the evidence offered by the ever-living witness of history, as Chesterton reminds us in The Everlasting Man. “Christendom has had a series of revolutions,” Chesterton writes, “and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” We think perhaps of the persecution of the Early Church, or the mass slaughter of Christians in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, or of those prophesying the death of Christ and His Church in our own day. The Church is always dying and always rising again from the dead. This is the lesson that history teaches.
If, however, the truth can be crucified but always rises from the dead, the same cannot be said of perceptions of the truth which, being human and not Divine, are always subject to the death which is the mark of mortal men doomed to die. It is for this reason that new-fangled perceptions of the truth which follow the fads of the age should not be taken too seriously, especially if they contradict the way that truth has been perceived throughout human history. One example of this would be the latest fad and fetish for praising “Pride,” which has been made manifest in the past century by the racial pride of the Nazis and, more recently, by the sexual pride of the narcissists. Such Pride should not be taken too seriously, not least because it takes itself too seriously. It was Chesterton who quipped that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly whereas the devil falls by the force of his own gravity. The devil and others who are proud of their own Pride take themselves far too seriously, which is why they invariably fall flat on their own faces, tripping on the banana skin of their own false perceptions of the truth. This is part of the truly divine comedy that truth presents to us and part of the reason why we should emulate the angels in taking ourselves lightly.
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The featured image is “Time Unveiling Truth” (c. 1758) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.