Minor Prophets
Alan Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis
Thomas Albert Howard

With good reason Germans refer to 1945 as “Year Zero” (Stunde Null), a year that saw civilization, Jonah-like, spat up from deep darkness. Once elegant cities lay in ruins, millions had perished in the war, displaced persons scavenged for food, knowledge of the Holocaust came into focus. It was a time of desolation, of soul-searching, of rethinking pretty much everything.

Two years earlier, in 1943, the Allied powers felt that victory lay in reach even if much work also lay ahead. Experts and analysts, statesmen and scholars began seriously asking how ought one to prepare—economically, politically, socially —for the immense challenges of the postwar world?

The five dramatis personae—C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, W. H. Auden—in Alan Jacobs’s latest engaging book offered little with respect to specific political or economic prescriptions. But that’s only if one defines these terms narrowly. If one sees politics and economics as expressions of society’s deeper cultural and moral assumptions, they had much to say. The tragedy of the postwar world, in Jacobs’s interpretation, is that they amounted to minor prophets: loquacious but diminutive Cassandras drowned out in the technocratic, GDP-chasing, statist, and consumerist realities of the early Cold War and which, alas, continue to the present.

Recognizing manifold differences among his principals’ outlooks and acknowledging that their thought was in no way coordinated, Jacobs nonetheless believes that they shared a common cause in championing Christian humanism, an intellectually rich set of ideas and sensibilities about the dignity and capacities of the human person that traces its roots to the Renaissance and ultimately back to classical philosophy and biblical revelation. Steeped in these traditions, Lewis, Eliot, et al. felt that the “world had gone astray” and circa 1943 began asking: “if the free societies of the West win this great war, how might their young people be educated in a way that made them worthy of the victory—and that made another war…at worst avoidable and at best unthinkable?” (xiv-xv).

Education lay at the core of their vision. For civilization to prosper in more than in strictly material terms, educators needed to return to first principles, ask fundamental questions, beginning with quid sit homo? What is man? What is human nature? As Maritain put it in his Education at the Crossroads: “[Education] cannot escape the problems and entanglements of philosophy, for it supposes by its very nature a philosophy of man, and from the outset it is obliged to answer the question: ‘What is man?’ which the philosophical sphinx is asking” (123).

For Maritain, right thinking about this question points to theological anthropology, a recognition that all human beings are created in the image of God and are obliged to honor this reality in themselves and in others. As Jacobs engages Maritain:

It is against the animal and numerical modes of accounting for human beings—two ways of “losing all human sense”—that Maritain wants to resist by grounding education in a commitment to personalism. “To say that a man [Jacobs here quoting Maritain] is a person is to say that in the depth of his being he is more whole than a part and more independent than servile. It is this mystery of our nature which religious thought designates when it says that the person is the image of God” (125).

The others whom Jacobs treats shared Maritain’s assumption, and all five would resonate with John Milton’s famous statement on the purpose of learning in his 1644 essay, “Of Education,” which Jacobs quotes: “the true end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection” (50). If this sounds mawkish and antiquated to our ears, it would serve as evidence to these thinkers that the barbarians had long overrun the gate.

Jacobs’s principals were perhaps even more unified in what they saw themselves arguing against, which included a) a highly specialized, just-the-facts approach to education as championed by “positivists” in the academy; b) an individualism averse to normative judgments as championed by an assortment of liberals and libertarians; and c) what today we might call STEM reductionism, a commitment to science and technology at the expense of all else, as championed by industry and military establishments.

For each, humanism without God was an especially dangerous path. For without some sense of transcendence to circumscribe human ambition and inspire the better angels of our nature, society might head toward what Lewis diagnosed in The Abolition of Man (1943): a world that boasted of the human conquest of nature when in fact something quite different was the case, as Lewis spells out: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument” (134). Avoiding this fate requires what Lewis famously designated as the Tao, recognition that morality cannot be seen as a malleable “social convention,” a set of irrational taboos wholly dependent on subjective caprice and the whims of time and place. Though undetectable by microscope or stethoscope, it is rather the most real part of our distinctly human reality and must be respected as such. Without God and the Tao, education readily devolves into the “training of an [human] animal for the utility of the state” (124). The historical record of twentieth-century totalitarianism amply bears out the validity of this concern.

Jacobs admires but does not pedestalize, recognizing that prophets often come with clay feet. With “terrifyingly intense earnestness” and a “strenuous theology,” for instance, Weil never fathomed how God might “graciously reveal himself to someone who has not fully earned that revelation” (110-11). Eliot, Jacobs contends, sometimes drew less from Christian sources than from “a kind of conservatism that was even then archaic” (153) And if you have struggled with Eliot’s prose, Jacobs sympathizes: “What makes Eliot’s prose so distinctively bad is the way it joins an insistence upon the most peculiarly minute distinctions with an inclination toward the most impenetrable abstractions” (180).

Is Jacobs’s claim that these thinkers enjoyed little influence fair? Here I might quibble. Auden and Eliot are safely in the literary canon, if perhaps admitted today only grudgingly. Through his popular theological writing and Narnia books, Lewis has deposited the general outlines of a Christian-humanist anthropology in far broader circles. Among people of faith and secularists too, Weil has become a go-to sage for many interested in “spirituality.” And Maritain, in addition to influencing the United Nations’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948), left his mark in contemporary philosophy, even if he is known today mainly by those interested in “personalism” or in Maritain’s towering, medieval mentor, Thomas Aquinas.

Admittedly, all this might not add up to much in light of the technocratic juggernaut and servitude to Mammon and Leviathan that these thinkers saw themselves battling against. But it’s not nothing.

I might also quibble with one highly relevant thinker that Jacobs left out: the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper. He would have made a nice German companion to the French, American, English fivesome. In particular, Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture, albeit published just after the war, was a masterful apologia for a type of Christian humanism and liberal education that shares much in common with the works of those treated and, at least in some circles, has enjoyed considerable influence. 

Like all serious moral engagements with the past, Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord is as much about our own age as it is about the 1940s. If you feel that the world remains astray—or if “astray” for you in fact characterizes the permanent state of things—Jacobs’s book will provide, at a minimum, some consolation and, at a maximum, a provocative blueprint for educating toward a post-astray world.


Thomas Albert Howard is Professor of Humanities and History in Christ College and holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

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