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Volume 22, Number 2 (Winter 1982)

Paul Elmer More and the Relevance of Life and Letters

T. John Jamieson

Paul Elmer More, once described as the most “patrician” of American critics, together with Harvard professor Irving Babbitt, founded the short-lived Humanist school of criticism. The name they took for themselves alluded to the spirit of the ancient litterae humaniores, and it was against the lack of this spirit in modern literature, philosophy, and education that they reacted.

The authors, philosophers, and educators of the modern age, they declared, had lost the classical view of man, the belief in a human soul with an ethical sense and moral responsibility, distinguishing man from the animals not merely in degree but in kind. According to the Humanists, civilization could not survive without this view; and their observation that its lack in letters was not only a symptom but a cause implies a social purpose in letters with respect to life. The alliterative cliché “life and letters” occurs throughout their writings, as though life and letters together constituted one field of inquiry or body of knowledge; likewise, countless periods in the pages of their works hang upon this very antithesis, defining the exact relation between “life and letters.”

None of the Humanists made more of that relation than Paul Elmer More, whose essays often employ biography to illustrate a point. But More’s own life was equally a lesson in the relation of life and letters: his early reading of the Romantics affected his perception of his own experience of life, and left him in spiritual confusion, which only his later reading of the classics was able to clarify. To examine More’s life, therefore, confirms the message as well as the method of his own Shelburne Essays, which sought to trace the all-important connection between letters and life.

More has impressed many readers with the perspicuity of his attack on Romanticism, its ethical problems, and its false and morally culpable vision of life; yet few know that the precision of this attack is derived not only from a keen inspection of literary sources, but also from simple self-examination. More admitted that, until the age of thirty, he could only have been considered a Romantic. Since More was something of a literary prodigy, and amorous by disposition, the provincial bourgeois society of his native St. Louis tolerated his playing the role of a sentimental poet in its midst. When not paying court to the young beauties of St. Louis in person or in epistles and verse, he was poring over the works of the German Romantics—Tieck, the Schlegels, Novalis, Heine: “I sucked folly even out of Goethe.”1 His reading offered no principle by which to resist his infatuations; rather, like Werther, he sought egotistic glory in abandoning himself to emotional misery. His familiarity with the classics at this time was very slight; and the divus Platon, who in later life led him to Christ, at this time counseled him only in the art of worshiping unattainable women from a distance, under the pretext of contemplating the Ideal of Beauty. Perhaps the philosopher is to be thanked for justifying the sublimation of a really physical attraction; and More’s Calvinistic upbringing caused him to rebel against the inclinations of the flesh.

The beautiful daughter of a Presbyterian minister inspired his most soul-searing passion; and the girl, while returning his interest, kept him at a respectful distance with difficulty. At length, judging him too morbidly emotional and unfit for practical life, she rejected him. The experience left him desperate and world-weary, inclined not toward suicide but toward renunciation. Even his susceptibility left him. The girl returned his correspondence, and he transformed it into an epistolary novel called The Great Refusal, which he published later in pursuit of literary notoriety, despite the fact that he had begun to lift himself out of his Romantic phase.

In the introduction of The Great Refusal he caricatures himself as the wreck of a grand passion: “His mouth and chin were soft, almost voluptuous, the curve of the lips wavering between melancholy and sarcasm. The eyes, on the other hand, were cold, abstracted, and repellent. They were the eyes of a dreamer, but of an egoist as well.” “… His learning, which even at this age must have been prodigious, was wasted in the vapors of mysticism.” The dreamer is seen in his library walled with books, amid a portrait of the beloved, pictures of Buddhist monasteries, and a ghastly memento mori on the mantel. (The self-dramatizing impulse of Romantics often manifests itself in interior decoration.) Here he has retired from the world “in order to follow out certain Oriental notions concerning the spiritual life,” and here he dies.2

A little earlier More had been in Europe, no doubt rounding out his education with travel, but also seeking a change of scene while building upon the ruins of another unhappy affair of the heart. Amid the Alps his infelicitous muse again visited him, and he began what must have been his most fatuous literary attempt: “a huge epic, in which I myself figured as the Wandering Jew, whose curse began with Cain’s murder of Abel and was renewed at his contemptuous rejection of Christ on the way to the cross. I forget now in what manner the solution of the curse came about and how my hero was converted into the protagonist of the human race. Fortunately these ebullitions of a frenzied imagination went into flames.”3

More’s forebears were New England Calvinists who had followed a favorite preacher to St. Louis; their concern with practical religion bred in his mind an instinctive war of the spirit against the flesh. As an avowed Romantic, however, he had to disavow the Presbyterianism in which he was raised; yet it was the nature of More’s mind to pursue and tentatively accept at each moment of his life some metaphysical vision of the universe. Where religion was no longer possible, philosophy filled the void; and agnosticism, pantheism, Romantic idealism, and determinism each had at one time its appeal.

These philosophies, however, were not judged against any criterion of ethics or experience, but rather with that of aesthetics or the emotions. In a dark mood after the failure of his ponderous epic, More flew emotionally from his frenzied Romanticism to the opposite extreme of “hard rationalism and materialism. A thick notebook was filled with the project of a New Philosophy which should prove once for all that the world and men are the product of a fatalistic Law of Chance and Probability. I was to be the new Democritus, and to soar where he stumbled.”4

In further disillusionment More discarded this pose too. With rationalism providing no light by which to analyze his experience of life, and exhausted by revery and unfulfilled desire, he became convinced that the world was no more than a vale of dreams in which the actions of men possessed no meaning; for behind this existence lay a universal deity who reconciled all opposites into unity, and into whom our souls could be reabsorbed through the process of renunciation. It was not stoicism into which More was lapsing, but Hinduism.

Of the “hypocrites of learning,” the Rambler observes that “many impose on the world, and many upon themselves, by an appearance of severe and exemplary diligence, when they, in reality, give themselves up to the luxury of fancy …” As More conducted his sentimental philandering and tortuous philosophical inquiries, he pretended to be pursuing an academic career. He admits, however, that he was a mere dilettante of obscure learning, pursuing his studies without system according to the impulse of the moment. “Like many another, I thought to conceal from myself the want of intellectual purpose in miscellaneous curiosity.”5

Very early More showed great aptitude for language and philosophical analysis; yet as an undergraduate his studies were given no positive direction by his professors. In Greek he received more grammar than literature, and he was discouraged. His Latin he employed in the study of such obscure post-classical authors as Giordano Bruno, Scotus Engena, and Albertus Magnus. Inclining toward mysticism as his mood of renunciation deepened, he found no comfort in the thinkers of the Middle Ages who required the faith of Christ as the only solution; wondering what answers to the riddle of existence the Oriental sages had long ago discovered, he enrolled at Harvard to study Sanskrit—which he later admitted constituted the Romantic side of Hindu scripture, as opposed to the Pali, which even at this time might have provided a corrective influence if only he had had the wisdom to submit to it.

Nevertheless he had come to the turning point, for the only other student enrolled in his Sanskrit course was Ohioan Irving Babbitt. The year was 1892; More was twenty-eight, and Babbitt twenty-seven. Yet while More’s thought was destined to be in transition for some time, Babbitt had already found the position in ideas to which he would adhere for the rest of his life, in the future only deepening his conviction and amassing his evidence to support it. Babbitt then, as later, argued relentlessly with anyone who dared oppose his humanistic thesis—but to proselytize, not to perpetuate enmity. He insisted that there must be some objective standard above the flux of this world. The “flux” is another word dear to the Humanists, a metaphor borrowed from Heraclitus for the realm of illusion with its ever-changing tide of evanescent emotions and subjective impressions—the material world upon which nothing true and permanent can be based. To Babbitt it must have appeared that More was lost in this realm of illusion; and in recalling his nocturnal confrontations with this warrior of dialectic who would one day write Rousseau and Romanticism, More noted, “I am afraid that I held for him then the place afterwards occupied by Rousseau.”6

According to Babbitt’s dualistic philosophy, a man must limit his material desires and seek the vision of the single, eternal, and changeless truth; the contemplative life therefore is not one of intellectual leisure but spiritual labor. He demonstrated, no doubt through criticism of More’s ideas, that the Romantic lay passively in moral indolence; one wonders whether More had confessed what a practical sentimentalist he had been. More says that he had already begun to see the need for Babbitt’s point of view; nevertheless he resisted being dragged dialectically toward his moral duty.

When More began to agree with Babbitt, a great difference emerged. To Babbitt’s mind dualism was something self-evident in human experience, and therefore a secular philosophy which could be imparted through education. To More, however, it was basically a theological insight needing religious embodiment if it were to affect the lives of the multitude. Babbitt had delved into Hindu literature in order to reveal Buddha as a humanistic sage; he would later study Chinese in order to do the same with Confucius, thereby confirming the universality of the discoveries of the ancient Greeks who had founded the culture of the West. But More, with the need for faith inherent in his personality, had returned to the quest. He could never have been an atheist, for to him it would have been dishonest intellectually to deny those intimations of immortality, conscience, free will, and the intuition of divine purpose. At worst, he could only class them as illusions in a world absolutely dominated by spirit—Hinduism. It was monism that could not answer to experience, whether the form which reduced all existence to the terms of the spiritual or the material; and scientific rationalism is the monism of materialism. Still it was possible to be reasonable without denying the existence of the spirit, and this was the path of dualism. More turned at once from the study of Hinduism to Manichaeism, the ultimate religious embodiment of dualism, then to Plato, in whose mind the flux became the Realm of Becoming, and the immutable truth, the Realm of Being.

Needless to say, More now saw that a man had far nobler things to do than worship fair women and merely exist in revery as the passive receptor of his sensations and spectator of his own emotions. As he studied Plato seriously for the first time, he perceived that Platonic love, in the context of Romanticism, was blasphemy. He realized also that his curious pursuit after wisdom had kept him strangely ignorant of both life and letters. Fearing that he was about to become another specialist entirely ignorant of anything outside his narrow precinct of knowledge like the rest of the inhabitants of universities, he refused to stand for the doctorate and retired in the manner of Thoreau to a cabin in the woods of New Hampshire for two years, not to contemplate nature, but to read the classics.

In the following years he married, maintaining himself as an editor and literary critic, even as he continued contemplating the truths of Plato and composing the Shelburne Essays, whose name memorialized his one-time retreat into the forest. At length he saw that Christianity was the fulfillment of Plato’s theological inquiries; that the Christian and the Platonic logos were one; and that the Incarnation was the immanence of the Realm of Being within the Realm of Becoming. In the defense of this opinion he used the Higher Criticism’s methods to discredit its authors’ conclusions; showing that it was possible as a skeptic and rationalist to accept the argument of orthodox Christianity, if only the leap of faith could be made; and therefore one could be anti-modern in religion as well as in ethics, politics, and taste.

As a philosopher, therefore, More had actually lived each stage of his argument, and knew not only the speculative implications to reason of each step, but also the limit of its consolations to life and the point of futility beyond which one must move if one is to make spiritual progress. He could write of psychological states only through honest testimony to his own experience. Yet his tragedy was not to communicate sufficiently in his writings that it was from direct experience that he wrote of philosophy: “… I, whose life has been a passage through storms of emotion, am regarded as a cold and heartless intellectual.”7

To More the Humanist, literature must make comment on life: the work of the imaginative writers must offer an ethical insight, while the critic judges the relevance to life of their works, and further inquires into the soul of the writer to discover the source of that insight. There can be no such thing as art for art’s sake; literature must provide a corrective influence upon the mind of the reader. Meanwhile, the philosophers must not lose themselves in epistemological questions, but begin with the problems of life and end with their solution, and they must be honest in evaluating the moral consequences of their work; so that, in the end, their pursuit of pure research also produces a real contribution to society. Likewise, educators have an obvious mission to the world outside the university walls, not simply to dispense random information but to nourish the ethical faculty of the mind and thereby to raise a natural aristocracy. For the closest thing to an aristocracy that the modern republic will ever possess will not be composed of intellectuals, but of men of principle for whom ideas exist. Only such men can become statesmen, and rescue democracy from the hands of the politicians. The classics are the school of wisdom, a repository not only of empirical common sense but of inspiration for the moral imagination, as well as an exercise of mental discipline. When the classics are rescued from philologists who believe that their department is simply one of many equally valid curricula, and returned to widely literate manipulators of ideas who will re-establish Greek and Latin as the foundation of education, then the university will indeed again educate.

To the extent to which he was able, More fulfilled his own prescriptions in the vita activa. Conceding that he was no poet, he became a great critic. As a philosopher he found religion to be the practical application of philosophy to life. When his books earned him prestige within the academy, he was allowed to enter it, lecturing at many universities, and becoming a professor of classics at Princeton. In his religious phase he at last realized that the church was perhaps the most important of civilization’s institutions, and that the church might save civilization if first the church itself could be saved from those who were using it simply as a platform for advocating social change. If another lifetime were offered to him, he would have become a priest.

He regretted that wisdom had come to him so late, and that he had not been able to accomplish more; for he had not found what from his earliest days he was seeking until nearly sixty. In the year of illness before his death at the age of seventy-two, he commanded that his bed be wheeled into his library. From that bed he dictated his “Marginalia” and consented reluctantly to the publication of his only piece of autobiography, Pages from an Oxford Diary—which he had written a decade earlier, and for which T. S. Eliot sought a publisher unsuccessfully, because of More’s condition that it be issued anonymously. He finally received the sacrament; the Archbishop of York visited him; and daily the collects of the Prayer Book and the meditations of Johnson were read over him. Most fittingly, he was last seen by a friend reading the Odyssey in Greek. His intuition of spiritual purpose in the life he had led confirmed for him on the day of his death in 1937 that a new odyssey awaited him.  

1. P. E. More, Pages from an Oxford Diary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1937. Chapter V.

2. The Great Refusal. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1894. Pp. 3-10.

3. Pages from an Oxford Diary, Chapter V.

4. Ibid.

5. Shelburne Essays, Sixth Series, Studies of Religious Dualism. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1909. p. 65.

6. On Being Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936. p. 28.

7. Pages from an Oxford Diary, Chapter V.

See Arthur Hazard Dakin, Paul Elmer More, Princeton University Press, 1960.

T. John Jamieson is a writer and a member of the Eric Voegelin Society.

Posted: May 18, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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