Dr. James Matthew Wilson (www.jamesmatthewwilson.com), a contributor to Catholic World Report, is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University; he has been at the university since 2008. He has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty.
A poet and critic of contemporary poetry, his work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, National Review, and The American Conservative. He is the author of several books, including the major critical study, The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood, 2015); a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things; and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Wilson is the Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine, and also serves on the boards of several journals and societies.
His new book, The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA, 2017), seeks to recover “the classical vision of beauty as a revelation of truth and being” and “revisits the ancient distinction between reason and story-telling, between mythos and logos, in order to rejoin the two.” It also has some very pointed things to say about politics, popular culture, and the intellectual and spiritual malaise of the West. Dr. Wilson recently corresponded with CWR’s editor, Carl E. Olson, about The Vision of the Soul.
CWR: Before talking about your new book, let’s mention your previous book, The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, which is a detailed apologia for the meaning and order inherent to poetry. In what essential ways does that book set the stage for The Vision of the Soul? Specifically, when you write, near the end, that poetry includes a “natural ordering of language” and “is also a grace that transcends those things [meter, metaphor, etc.] and reminds us of another Word”, are you directly confronting and rejecting the crude nominalism of much modern poetry?
James Matthew Wilson: My contention in Fortunes is that poetry has always accomplished certain things; it has an essential if broad and complex social function; and that it attempts to do them whether or not poets are aware of it. Under normal circumstances, the art of poetry will be understood as the paradigmatic art form whose “melody and rhythm” make possible the unified expression of stories and also interior reflection, and does so in part by means of figures of speech. In brief, poetry is a kind of making concerned with meter, memory, and metaphor.
These features of poetry have made it central to every civilization, because it enables us to know the truth about ourselves and about the world. Poetic form echoes and even reveals the forms that govern reality and so is a way for us to come to know the world. I suggest in the closing pages of Fortunes that the trinity of meter, metaphor, and memory in the essence of poetry is itself an analogical image of the Holy Trinity. Poetic words help to unveil the Eternal Word.
Much of modern poetry posits just the opposite: it is formless because it presupposes that there is nothing in the world or about ourselves to be learned and so there is only an emptiness to be “unveiled.” As such, it is only “nominally” poetry.
CWR: In the Introduction to The Vision of the Soul, you credit poetry for helping you “find words to order these awakened sympathies”. What sympathies, exactly? And how awakened? To what end?
Wilson: What I was trying to say was that I was a bit like the English fellow in the G.K. Chesterton anecdote. The one who hated his country, tried to leave it, and then—by disorientation and nautical accident—rediscovered his own country without realizing it—and found it good. I sensed at an early age that I wanted to know the truth. I thought everything from religion to contemporary morality—such as it was—stood in the way of that desire.
I soon discovered that the only obstacle our culture had put in the way of my quest was its prejudiced encouragement of presentism, of mass forgetting of the past, and utilitarianism, with its accompanying doubt that our souls are destined to dwell in the truth. Our age tends to proclaim our history a chronicle of benighted idiots best ignored and our minds a somewhat ungainly tool for the opening of canned foods.
When I first opened Homer and Dante, it seemed as if I had been lied to by the ignorant silence of my teachers. The past was a rich mine of beautiful insights and in that past lay the resources for the building up of the soul and the attainment of a life lived in the presence of truth. The intellectual life is intrinsically conservative, because it is impossible to live as a rational being without standing on the shoulders of giants and gazing up from there. Liberalism tears down those giants when it doesn’t fail to recognize them altogether.
Show me someone who thinks intellectual freedom is attained through leaving the past in the past and I’ll show you someone with a stunted and unoriginal mind. Show me someone steeped in the stories, the theology, and the philosophy of a long tradition, and I’ll show you someone dwelling in the presence of a beauty ever new. So, what I was awakened to was a respect for the achievement of western civilization precisely because it makes living a full life here and now and in the future possible.
CWR: One of the key themes of this book is that conservatism “is a literary movement” and is “literary in nature”. First, why have we not heard this on FOX News? Secondly, and more seriously, in what way is that the case? Isn’t conservatism about politics, economics, and (occasionally) morality?
Wilson: One could be forgiven, in our day, for believing that there is no good thing that people will not besmirch and degrade in their lust for petty pleasures or power. Our culture is in a state of tawdry vulgarity and, since contemporary conservatives are necessarily a part of that culture, they are bound to be vulgar in their own way. It is sad how deliberately people work to ensure that not one beautiful thing ever comes from their own lips, as if the test of authenticity were an incapacity to speak in complete sentences. It is sadder that what passes for political discussion in our age is in fact of phantasmagoria of spectacles calculated to excite, by turns, our self-congratulation or outrage.
But what we now call “conservatism” was born out of the vulgar and violent tumult of the French Revolution. It was a reaction against any lust for power that would depredate the good and the beautiful in the name of an impoverished, cold, and mechanical vision of the true. The first conservative, Edmund Burke, wished primarily to defend the hard won wisdom of the western tradition, which had succeeded in giving birth to a decent if imperfect civility and a fruitful culture capable of stirring the soul of even the most humble person to an ordered and gracious vision of the divine.
Conservatism is first a sensibility, a way of imagining the world with reverence for the mystery and beauty of being, for the traditions of the past and the kind of intellectual vision they have made possible. It is only secondarily a set of propositions about good government, flourishing markets, or sustaining moral habits. That is not just the case with conservatism but with any serious and comprehensive vision of the world. Government, markets, and morality are necessarily secondary things, but, of course, only someone who has a vision of those things that are truly first can value properly these other things which come second.
That’s one reason for the vulgarity of our time, especially our political climate; politics, for us, now consists of a series of angry parties scrapping bitterly over things of secondary importance under the mistaken impression that these things will satisfy the deepest hungers of their souls. Conservatism is literary not because it is impractical, but because it wishes to convey to us a way of imagining the world that is in the best sense poetic.
As William F. Buckley frequently remarked, modern liberals tends to seek fulfillment exclusively in political change, whereas many of their deepest longings—did they but know it—can be satisfied only by what goes on at church. Before all else, conservatism has been the necessary reaction against this absolutizing or sacralizing of the profane; it affirms culture and society as expressions or reflections of our perception of the divine but not as substitutes for it.
CWR: You provide some strong criticisms of what you call “the culture of liberal America”, saying in one place that it “tends to the self-congratulatory rather than to the discerning, to the dutiful observation of refinement and right-thinking rather than to good art and actual enjoyment.” You flatly state that liberalism “has no positive content.” What are some examples of this? And how does good art and literature provide an alternative?
Wilson: We have, it seems, only one narrative in our day. Someone—a woebegone adolescent, an impoverished immigrant, an abused but pretty young sprite—has to toil through an unfeeling, arbitrary, and cruel system. Along the way, our “hero” discovers some equally battered, kindred spirit, and they lick one another’s wounds. Eventually, they run away together, where they can—can what? Be free! For what? Whatever. Two hours are up. The theater lights come on.
This is the tale of every brooding pop song and feature film. It is a tale told and told again, or some version of it in our literary and our public culture. It is the only licensed narrative for an age that can believe in nothing better.
Liberalism, meaning the general regime under which the modern West lives, can propose only two goods for the sake of which life is worth living—the same goods Thomas Hobbes more or less proposed centuries ago—freedom and equality. By freedom is meant simply the absence of impediment and by equality is meant more or less being powerless along with one’s fellow citizens before the impartial arm of the state. That tale I just recited is therefore the only one such a vision of life affords. We find something like it in P.B. Shelley and James Joyce, and in the lyrics of pop starlets I’d rather not name.
And, of course, it is not a completely wrong tale! We are born fallen and ignorant yet desirous of something more. The ways of the world are often harsh in their practicality and frequently fail us as guides to the discovery of our nature and destiny. We are born social or political animals and we have no hope of discovering the truth without some sort of genuine communion with another person. And, finally, yes, we were born to be free—to realize our natures in discovering the end for which they were created.
The best of our culture takes these elements and sets them in a different, more profound story. John’s Gospel, the Saint Matthew Passion, the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Lee Oser or Ron Hansen, the Four Quartets of T.S. Eliot—these tell us the world is broken but good; that the world will not suffice only because it is a place of pilgrimage; and that the wounded plenitude of this world is a genuine foreshadowing of the fullness of life for which we were born, a freedom that is no absence of impediment but rather a ful-fill-ment of the self in the everlasting truth.
CWR: Drawing on Burke (who said that a good state should be like a good poem) and referencing the nature of poetry, you say that society and statescraft—politics!—should have “the character of works of art.” How is that the case? How is politics “aesthetic”? Isn’t art about expressing oneself and politics about “getting things done”?
Wilson: Art is about making and prudence, the virtue par excellence of politics, is about doing, and these things should not be confused. Society is not a project to be made but a gift and necessary condition to be received if one is to live at all. But society is a necessary condition precisely because it makes it possible for us to fulfill our destinies as persons. Ours is a divine destiny. Therefore, a good society will be one that is ordered to the divine and, as I said before, that reflects our perception of the divine. Its structure or form should give relative expression to what we understand of the absolute truth, and the moment one is talking of “form” one is talking of not just truth but beauty.
The political realm is, therefore, our undertaking the slow—not making, but—cultivation of our life together so as to bring it to beautiful order. It should be beautiful so that the society we love is genuinely lovable. But how beautiful? Its beauty is the temporal and formal expression of the divine.
There’s no opposition in what you said in your question. Politics would be meaningless and so evil if we “got things done” without having some final object in mind. Change is not intrinsically good; in fact most of the time it is detrimental. What change we must undertake is to make our society ever more adequate to our humanity and to make our humanity ever more adequate to the perception of the unconditionally true, the absolutely beautiful—life in Our Lord.
CWR: The Christian Platonist tradition is central to your remarks about the nature of conservatism. What is a short definition of “Christian Platonism”? How does it shape and inform conservatism? And culture?
Wilson: Gosh, I think I’ve been giving you tacit definitions of it in my every answer! But here’s the quick one. By “Christian Platonism” (and I use the phrase in an unusual way) I intend the whole tradition sprung from the ancient cities of Athens and Jerusalem. We are accustomed to thinking of history as a bundle of fragments, but in fact the history of the West is the ongoing story of the coming to birth and living out of the insights generated in the meeting of Christ and, as it were, Plato.
What insights? They are six in number, I argue in Vision, but let me just offer the fourth and most important: “the world is itself ordered by and to Beauty.”
Aristotle remarks at the beginning of his Physics that everyone acknowledges the world—reality as a whole—is one. The only question is in what sense is the world one and in what sense may that essential unity of the whole be understood relative to the fact that it also contains multitudes.
What he is considering there is something we all perceive—whether in our everyday experience of the world, in the laboratory or the classroom, and in prayer. That the world is a whole and can be called a whole only because its multifarious parts are finally intelligible relative to one another. Everything stands in proportion to everything else. We all see that. And so we see that the truth must be one as reality is one. But, if the truth is a unity of infinite proportions and infinite parts, then that means that the truth has a form—to see the form of something is to see it as beautiful.
So, the central claim of the Christian Platonist tradition is that reality is a beautiful whole given to us for our knowledge and above all our contemplation, and that our lives within that reality are enterprises in “conformity.” To live well is to be a conformist! That is, to live well is to form oneself in continuity with the ordered procession of reality. As every Christian Platonist will tell you, that means that to live well is to join in a great pageant of things brought into being by God and journeying back to him. The world is a beautiful order coming from Beauty and ordered to Beauty. God, my God, is Beauty, says Dionysius the Aeropagite—but he does no more than say aloud what a whole civilization has understood.
CWR: You argue that “there is a recognizable tradition of western civilization in which we all participate, even though, in many ways and over a long period, we have misidentified its fundamental characteristics.” What is that tradition? And why has become either misunderstood or rejected?
Wilson: As I say, the western tradition is the Christian Platonist tradition. Many modern persons think of themselves as neither Platonist nor Christian. I propose they misunderstand themselves. To offer just one example, Nietzsche thought he was demolishing the whole of western thought. In fact, the best understanding of his work is to see him has having felt the primordial encounter with beauty described in, say, Plato’s Phaedrus or the Book of Wisdom, and sought to make it the whole of philosophy. For Plato the sensation of beauty is simply our first stage of its perception; it sets us on a great quest to get to beauty’s depths. Nietzsche was hoping to preserve the sensation of that experience, including the sensation of the depths, without actual depth.
Our age, with its hyper-sexualization is in this sense Nietzschian. We want our lives to be ecstatic and intense and to find their meaning in that intensity. We propose that one must be “true to oneself” and that one is only being true to oneself if one is sexually fulfilled. In this we embrace Plato’s insight that the encounter with beauty is ecstatic—it draws us out of ourselves and sets us onto the path of a great adventure—but we truncate it, or rather, we cut the quest off right at the beginning. The worst hedonist in the world has not abandoned the Christian Platonist tradition, but simply perverted it.
CWR: Jacques Maritain has an essential place in your chapter on beauty. What did Maritain present about beauty that is so significant? What does the nature of beauty reveal about the nature and purpose of humanity?
Wilson: Since the eighteenth century, we in the West have normally thought of beauty as subjective, as a sensation or disposition in the person. Christian Platonism proposes that this is obviously false. Beauty is not in the beholder but in the beautiful thing. How else could we call the thing beautiful?
Maritain was one of the first modern thinkers to appreciate how important an insight this is. Beauty, he said, recovering our ancient tradition, is a property of being. Everything, insofar as it is real, is one, is true, is good, and is beautiful. He did not explore how crucial this truth is, however. Rather, Maritain’s reflections on beauty are a marvelous point of departure that allows us to ask, what does it mean for beauty to be part of being as such, rather than a sensation in us or an occasional perfection in some beings? I have spent the last decade trying to trace out the answer to that question and all the rich implications that follow from it, and I am not even nearly done.
But let me offer a few of the implications. Beauty is the self-revelation of existing form in itself and in its proportions or relations. A capacity to perceive beauty is necessary for one to perceive reality and truth as a unified whole; to perceive the world, including human life, as a good ordered to a good beyond itself. Only if beauty is a property of being can we take joy simply in knowing the truth or in perceiving what is not merely useful but good in itself. As Hans Urs von Balthasar incisively remarked, only because Beauty lies at the very root of reality is it possible for us to pray and to love God.
We all know all this. Some things we do because they are useful; we save money, for instance, in order to buy a car. But when we do something for its own sake, with no further aim in mind—well, say someone asked us, “Why did you do that?” The only response is, “for the beauty of it!” Beauty is being’s self-gift to other beings, and so reveals the essential gratuity of all being. Everything is a gift. A gift of God’s love. A grace. Why did God make us? As a tax write off? To take up space? No, he made us for the beauty of it. The whole mystery of the world lies in being as beauty and beauty as being.
CWR: In what way is “all historical discussion, all arguments about one age or another … fundamentally arguments about stories”? Why is narrative so important? And how does it build and sustain a healthy culture?
Wilson: In the third part of Vision I turn from beauty to truth and argue that the seeing-of-form, which is what we see with our mind when we perceive truth or beauty, has a clear implication for human life. To understand our lives, we have to see their form. To judge a life to have been good or happy is to perceive the whole form of that life, from birth through death. You can see why I had to talk about beauty first! Without a conception of being as form and form as what beauty reveals we would not have a vocabulary to talk about human lives as a whole.
Well, if all being has form, the form of the being of human life is a specifically narrative form. All our lives are stories; they have a story-form. They are marked by a beginning, a middle, and an end, all of which must be understood in terms of one another, though the meaning of the whole—as in any good story—will not be discernable until the form is complete.
This is an insight given to us from the ancient world. Aristotle and the historian Herodotus were fundamentally antagonistic to one another in their way of judging the purpose and contents of a good human life. About one thing, however, they clearly agreed. They both believed that human life had a story-form, and to judge a man happy was to judge the form of his life as a whole. “Call no man happy until he is dead,” they both wrote—not to be morbid, but because death of course marks the completion of a life-form.
I read years ago of a psychological study that claimed those people who feel themselves to be most happy are those who can perceive their lives as a story—with significant episodes, discrete chapters, a causality leading in surprising but coherent directions over time. People who suffer from depression view their lives as a flat chronicle—one damn thing after another. If that study has not been verified experimentally, it certainly can be verified philosophically and historically.
CWR: You write, in discussing the history and purpose of novels: “We pick up a tabloid scandal sheet or a bus station dime novel for much the same reason we go to Church; we are hoping to see God.” Can you elaborate on that? And what does that imply about Catholicism in the West today?
Wilson: I hope it implies that human beings desire the truth! We use the word erotic in a smutty way, in our age, but you cannot understand human life if you do not understand eros the way Plato, Christ, St. Augustine, and the Catholic Church as a whole has understood it. We are born into the world full of desire for what is good. The problem is, we are fallen creatures and do not know where to find the love of our life—but love itself guides us. Our eros, our intellectual soul’s desire to be fulfilled, goes out into the world in search of its true love, and it finds traces of it everywhere it looks. St. John of the Cross expresses all this beautifully, as when he writes of the soul in its search for God,
One darkest night I went,
aflame with love’s devouring eager burning
Because our eros is wounded and even a bit blinded, it can try to find love in all sorts of places, good or bad. But it is relentless! It will find its love. It will not be denied. That is why those whose eros is not transformed by grace so that it can pursue its proper destiny in union with God will become maniacal, zealous, in their passionate romance with finite and imperfect things. This is a second reason, I might add, for the sexualization of our culture and for the concern with “identity politics” wreaking havoc on our campuses these days: a deep erotic desire for the absolute, but one which has been sidetracked so that it treats as a divine good things that are only relatively good and, in the process, makes them into something ugly.
Human beings desire the truth so badly that, if that desire remains unredeemed or disordered, they would sooner murder the truth itself than give up the search and settle for nothing.
CWR: In the final chapter, which focuses on truth and intellectuals, you state that even most “self-described conservatives” embrace a view of truth that reflects either “the bloodless abstraction of a mathematical formula” or “the blood-letting simplifications of utilitarianism.” What distinguishes the Christian vision of truth from those lacking understandings? And how best to go about defending and encouraging it in today’s post-modern desert?
Wilson: This follows very closely upon what I just told you. Our love wants to be loved by the truest of loves. The pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty is itself a deeply erotic activity. But our age treats reason as if it were a useful method, a bit of cognition by cogs in a machine. The moment we separate knowledge and love, reason from desire, we have gone awry, because our whole life as creatures, as persons, is essentially a story about reason’s desire for the truth.
Those who absolutize “getting things done” fall prey to the fallacy of utilitarianism. They treat reason as one more useful tool to help the enclosed, secular realm to function more efficiently. But reason, to the contrary, is our first clue that we were born for something more, something great. We were born to know the truth, to know what is real. And Christ, the Logos, the reason, logic, word, and law of God flashes forth before us in every being—even the lowliest being—and says, “My child, if only you understood how dearly I love you, how entirely I give myself to you on the cross and even now in the very existence of things. If only you saw that your deepest desire will not cease in its resting until it gives itself to me in return. If only you saw these things, you would know already that you are on a great adventure, a wild romance, and throw yourself into it with all your mind and all your heart.”
What kind of politics follows from such a revelation? The only true politics. One that understands society exists to form and reform the human person so that he may be prepared for, and pursue, his simultaneously unique and absolutely universal destiny, to stand forever in contemplation of the beauty of God.
Our politicians are not priests and the world in which we live is a fallen one from which evils will never finally be rooted out. The best politics, the best society, will be one that recognizes itself as engaged in a slow cultivation of human personhood, deeply indebted to past generations and the traditions they fostered, because these things allow us to know the truth by way of reflection. It will seek to bring out the genuinely human in every person and will do so not just—not even primarily—by relieving “man’s estate” from suffering, but rather by helping what suffering we do endure to be fruitful and redemptive. It will not try to build heaven on earth, but to keep in being a decent arrangement that allows the human person to prepare himself for heaven. It might, say, endorse a free market and private property not because economic laws are absolute and necessary laws (how silly a claim that would be), but because these are principles suitable to the human person who seeks to become responsible for himself, to understand the truth about himself, and to journey toward his destiny.
I’m afraid we need a pretty clear perception of beauty if we are ever to have a very good political society. Happily, we cannot help but perceive some beauty. That is why most societies are not all that bad. They almost all perceive some clue to the truth of our destiny. The conservative recognizes this and so disrupts a culture and tradition only with fear and trembling for fear that he might destroy some precious and hard won beauty in the process. If this sounds odd to you, then try reading the great conservative thinkers—Edmund Burke, S.T. Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk. They will testify to how normal it is to be a conservative. True conservatism is, in turn, the love of the normal and the norm in all its reflective beauty.