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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

THE CLASSICAL MUSE

THE CLASSICAL MUSE

The classical muse is much more than it seems. It is responsible for the works of Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus et al. But it is much more than this. It is responsible for the philosophical musings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It inspired the mind of Virgil and its Virgilian spark alighted on Dante. It can be seen wending its way to Canterbury with Chaucer’s pilgrims. It flits through the plays of Shakespeare. It transformed the humanism of the Renaissance, for better or worse, from its Catholic genesis to its pseudo-pagan exodus. It descended in the likeness of a dove on the artist’s vision of the Virgin and turned her into a voluptuous Venus. It oversaw the loss of art’s virginity and some have accused it of turning art into the whore of post-modernity. Its august presence presided over the neo-classicism of Dryden and Pope, and precipitated, in France, the first homicidal revolution of secular fundamentalism. It reemerged, uglier than ever, in the Caesarian sickness of Hitler and Mussolini.

It is much more than it seems.

At its best it leads us to the Good, the True and the Beautiful, and to the God who is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty. But it also inspires the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, serving gods of various shapes and hues. It is to be respected, even revered, but never fully trusted. Above all, it can’t be ignored.

And yet the classical muse is not only much more than it seems, it is also, at the same time, much less than it seems. Isn’t this a contradiction? Is such a statement indicative of the present writer’s descent from the zenith of Zeus to the nadir of nebulous nonsense? Has the muse deserted me? Have I lost my wits? Is it time for the reader to turn the page in pursuit of something and someone who makes sense? Bear with me. In defiance of any appearance to the contrary, my muse and my reason have not deserted me. On the contrary, they have simply led me through the domain of arrant and apparent nonsense in order to arrive at the gracious realm of emergent paradox, a realm in which we discover that apparent contradictions point to a deeper truth. It is a realm in which Chesterton is king and in which Wilde is the mischievous jester, and in which I am a loyal subject.

What, then, is the mysterious paradox to which I refer? How can the apparent contradiction be made to make sense? The answer is to be found in the fact that the classical muse is not what it seems, not merely in the sense that it is more than it seems, as discussed above, but also in the sense that much that claims to be inspired by the classical muse is not truly classical and can be said, therefore, to be less than it seems. The muse that inspired Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale or Shakespeare’s Pericles was not truly classical; it was truly Christian. The truly classical muse is only to be found in antiquity. It has its fulfillment and consummation in Christ and ceases to exist following the Incarnation. It is consumed by its consummation. In the words of C.S. Lewis, speaking through the medium of Father History in The Pilgrim’s Regress, the pagan myths were pictures sent by God to the pagans because in their pre-Christian ignorance they didn’t know the fullness of the truth. These pictures were mere shadows, or foreshadowings, of the True Picture who is Christ, God Incarnate.

Through His Incarnation, and His Death and Resurrection, Christ consummates his love for humanity, impregnating culture with His Presence. He is the fulfillment of the Old Law of the Jews, but He is also the fulfillment of the twilit gropings of the gentiles. He is the consummation of the pre-Christian musings of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Virgil, and is the fulfillment of their honest, artistic articulation of moral truths and precepts; He is the consummation of the rationally articulate but visually impaired philosophical musings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He baptizes their desire and pours forth the fullness of the Truth that was beyond their grasp. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life for which they were seeking. He is also the End of their search, in both senses of the word, and is, therefore, the end of them. Henceforth the virgin musings of the pagans are no longer possible because the pagan imagination has lost its virginity. Impregnated by Christ in His Mystical Marriage with His Bride, the Church, the Muse becomes graceful, that is filled with grace. In this sense, the so-called classicism of the Renaissance or of the Augustan Age is not classical at all, nor is its muse. Neo-classicism is not classicism but is the child of Christendom. It is the fruit of Christ’s marriage to the Church and is the product of a baptized imagination.

This can be seen to be true of the neo-classical musings of Dante, Chaucer or Shakespeare, or of the neo-platonic and neo-aristotelian philosophizing of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. But what of those manifestations of neo-classicism that are avowedly anti-Christian? What of the superciliously self-named Enlightenment or Age of Reason? What of the rationalist butchery of the French Revolution and the Third Reich, those bloodthirsty heirs of the Enlightenment’s “Reason”? Even if these are not truly “classical” surely they cannot be described as Christian? Perhaps not, but they are certainly more Christian than they are classically pagan. They are not pagan because paganism is no more; it has ceased to be. They can be said to be Christian in the sense that they have grown out of the baptized culture of Christendom, even if they have grown out of it only in order to grow away from it or to spurn it. In this sense, the anti-Christian manifestations of neo-classicism and other forms of so-called “post-Christianity” can be likened to prodigal sons who have strayed away from home in order to cavort with swine. Some may return, in which case there will be much rejoicing; others may simply wallow in the trough until they find their way to the inferno. Either way, they are children of Christendom.

There is another metaphor that fits the neo-classicists and “post-Christians” even more aptly than that of the parable of the prodigal son. It is that of the wife who has divorced her husband. If we see the true classicism of the pagans as man’s virginity, and Christendom as man’s happy marriage with Christ, we can see the “post-Christians” as a disgruntled and disillusioned divorcée. If this metaphor is employed we can see that it is possible for the bride to return to her husband but it is not possible for her to return to her virginity.[1] Regaining the true classical muse is impossible because the classical “thing” was consummated and consumed by Christ; regaining the Christian Muse is not only possible, it is necessary, because Christ is whereas paganism is not. The choice for (post)modernity is to return to her Husband, who is the Light of the world, or to perish. There is no other option because outside of the marriage is the Night, and not only the Night but strange things in the Night.[2]

Divorced and devoid of hope, the divorcée finds herself in the inferno of her own deviant devising. There’s no escape and no hope except for her purgatorial return to the faith of her fathers. And in this purgatorial time the classical muse, as an invaluable part of her dowry, will act as a guide leading her Home. For Homer points the way Home, as do Plato and Aristotle. The classical muse and the Christian muse are in harmony; it is only poor (post)modern man, cut off from his inheritance, who lives in discord.

[1] I owe this metaphor to C.S. Lewis.
[1] And  I owe this one to Belloc.

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