The Faustian denouement of liberal learning

100_0205Since college I have loved books. In the decades since my first time in a theological bookstore as an undergraduate freshman I have bought, obtained, and procured thousands of volumes, many new, by most used. My library at the moment is over 6,000 volumes, and I know I’ve traded, sold, or given away hundreds, and probably thousands of books. Some I saw as of little use for my endeavors, items that had a short interest or proved of little value, and some I saw as things to sell in order to obtain other books. As I began moving away from studying Puritanism I saw no need to hold on to a great many volumes, e.g., the 18th-century Reformed divine John Gill’s The Cause of God and Truth. Granted, it is probably the most explicit effort of a Protestant scholastic to defend the doctrines of Dordt (the five canons of theology, what is generally referred to as TULIP) as all being not only consonant with Patristic thought, but indeed the very substance of what the Fathers taught and believed. But, should I want it back, I know where it is, in my brother Bill’s library (my brother, Canon William, and his son, Dean William, have been perhaps the greatest beneficiary of my largess – which reminds me, I have more books for you). Canon WilliamAll the same, with about 2,000 volumes in my EU office and another 4,000 or so at home, I have a great many books at my fingertips. At the same time, there are many books I still do not possess, nor can I reasonably hope to possess them, though I still have need of them. Thankfully, there’s such a thing as the Post Reformation Digital Library**. Umberto Eco’s library numbered over 30,000 volumes (he made a lot more money than I do), and was once asked “have you read them all?” To which he replied “Of course not; that’s not the point.” Well then, what is the point? Libraries, while not ends in themselves, exist for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, and within the academy are the chief repositories of knowledge that the academy guards. The academy, itself exists for the sake of the academy, that its, the continued pursuit and dissemination of learning. The center of every college or university should be its library system, and the academy that does not invest in the expansion and improvement of its library shows that it ceases to function as a place of learning. Granted, a library cannot hold every book, just on the basis of questions of space. And so discretion should be used, but it takes no great intellect to realize that one should retain editions of the Sources Chretienne as opposed to The Gospel According to the Simpsons. All the same, libraries should seek to expand their holdings in whatever way possible, even as prices for doing so electronically are happily falling. Even with the advent of the ebook, the Alexander library at Rutgers has a whole warehouse for older books that are seldom checked out, two of which I checked out for a colleague who could not obtain them at the Van Pelt library at the University of Pennsylvania. Many of my books have gone to places where I know I can find them again; e.g., the Gill title, and the other day I borrowed back from my colleague Mike Lee two volumes on political writings of the American founding.

Few things I look forward to more than spending hours reading in a library. About fourteen years ago, upon my return from Oxford, I was showing my daughter Kristen, then aged seven, all my pictures from Oxford and its libraries. Later in the day I made some reference about my favorite place to be, and wanted her to respond “St. Nicholas church,” then my parish, but instead she said with beaming face, “the Oxford Camera” (pictured above). I had to, though happily, correct her. Libraries have been around for millennia, from the famous such as that in Alexandria, to the prestigious, such as the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington, DC, and the Bodleian Library in Oxford (and the Bodleian is wonderfully supplemented by the numerous wonderful libraries of the colleges of Oxford). I count it a great joy that I have gotten to use both of them, and keep my reader’s cards as mementos of the same. While I don’t foresee getting back to the Folger any time soon, I will certainly return to Oxford, whose Bodleian holdings number 11 million volumes, not counting the probably equal number among the other libraries in Oxford. 100_0226Wondrous it is to sit with centuries-old volumes, whom none have looked at for decades, to breath in the age of the pages, and to read (almost always in Latin, though once in a while in Greek, but also English) the controversies and thoughts of the past. This is what the Academy is.

This brings me back to libraries that don’t grow their collections. Such places have become stagnant, and will soon start to stink, for knowledge is not static, some mere table to be memorized or list to be recited. Since ancient times, knowledge is a conversation that we enter into, first to sit and listen, then to question, then to enter into fully. A library without a mission to enter into this conversation more fully and amply at all times and in every way has declared the conversation either over, or, and here perhaps worse, irrelevant. But there is something worse, and of course an even more egregious sin, that libraries start to cut their holdings. Here I am thinking of two libraries that shocked me when I recently purchased two use books, Fr. Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm (Oxford University Press), and H. Outram Evennet’s The Cardinal of Lorraine and the Council of Trent (Cambridge University Press). These are no mere outlier books, but excellent historical studies which despite the passage of years remain unrivaled still in the treatment of their topics.Fr. Knox They are both still in print! Fr. Knox’s Enthusiasm covers the history of Christian rigorism, especially as regards the Jansenists and the Methodists, with wonderful chapters as well on the Montanists and the Donatists. This book consumed years of Fr. Knox’s energies, a man whose learning and wit he gave to all his endeavors, and Enthusiasm stands as perhaps his great testament to his learning and urbane soul. Evennett’s The Cardinal of Lorraine rewards its reader with all the intrigues, political, theological, and personal, that beset France in the late 1550s and early 1560s; that is, at the confluence in France of the rise of French Protestantism (the Huguenots), the rigidity of the ardent Catholics (which the Cardinal of Lorraine would eventually align with), and the interests of the Crown of France (the Cardinal’s interests at that moment). I easily place this book among the most learned and enjoyable histories I have ever read, and while other studies have augmented it, none have surpassed it. These two libraries simply discarded these texts, as neither replaced them with newer editions.

Thus when libraries start divesting themselves of books such as these I see not merely a disdain for knowledge, but also a disdain for that which is “human, all so human,” namely that we are creatures first and foremost logistikoi, that is, we are creatures born of words, reason, and rhetoric, and have been asked to exercise our minds to virtue, refinement, and devotion, to the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. This assault upon this view of the human commenced long ago and can be seen in Descartes’ assault upon the humanities, and continued in that undertaken by Voltaire and the Enlightenment (even though Voltaire and Diderot were among some of the most urbane and humane writers of their day). What is the nature of this assault? To redefine what makes mankind different than the animals, for in Voltaire’s mind, and in Diderot’s, we were only quantitatively different than the brutes. This anti-humanism can be seen as well in Henri Saint-Simon and August Comte, and it continued unabated in Nietzsche and Freud. It should not make us wonder then, that the academy has fallen into a caricature of itself, on almost every level, where, with students who hate discourse, are afraid of words, etc., and students and faculty who think we are more defined by our emotions and appetites than by reason: what is the mania for valorizing gender dysphoria other than the disdain for what it means to be human? “For Thou has made him a little lower than the angels (Adam and creation), and hast crowned Him with glory and honor (Christ, risen from the dead, trampling down death by death).”

FaustThis is the Faustian bargain, that having become tired of trying to pursue the truth, as had Faust, and thinking instead that the secrets of the universe were open to technique (i.e., scientific method, the historical critical method, statistical modeling, et cetera), we have abandoned the human as the imago Dei, a nature that is body and soul with a telos in the kingdom of God, and fitted for this end with a thirst for God via the true, the good and the beautiful; and have assumed instead that of a sovereign self, and ego free to chose its own designs, ends, and purposes free of any constraint by reality. Schools have become, and ever increasingly so, not places to where one learns of the great conversation, tackle the large questions, and engage person to person based on reason. One can trace the genealogy of this from Descartes on, and I can’t commend highly enough Jacques Maritain’s excellent study, Three Reformers. (Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau) on this question. It should not surprise us that rationality has no place in modern discourse, as we have abandoned the logos (and the Logos) in order to pursue Venus and our other appetites. Were I ever to start a school, the library, along with the faculty who appreciates it, is the first order of business.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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