May 1990

Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on Lost Causes.  By Lewis P. Simpson. Louisiana State University Press. 110 pages. $15.95.

Lewis Simpson has never written one of those dense, fat scholarly tomes that everyone hails as “definitive,” one of those books that chisels one’s name on the academic wall of fame. What he has accom­plished in his books and es­says is far more important: Through a combination of knowledge, sagacity, and imag­inativeness, he has introduced new angles of vision, evoked fresh perspectives, and nudged us toward original ways of in­terpreting the history of Southern culture and letters.

Mind and the American Civil War, the 1988 Fleming Lectures at the Louisiana State Universi­ty, confirms this judgment. Taking as his subject the “complex, fateful, even tragic connection between the South and New England” — a topic he has frequently explored in his writings — Simpson ranges widely over the past, from Captain John Smith, explorer of Virginia and namer of New England, to Quentin Compson, Faulkner’s doomed Mississippian who kills himself in 1910 while attending Harvard. Simpson focuses his medita­tions upon one Southerner and one New Englander, that is, Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Simpson finds in the Virginian a worthy locus for a masterful analysis of the tragic connection in the Southern mind between slav­ery and freedom.

Even more than Jefferson, Emerson dominates Simpson’s ponderings — Emerson the sage of Concord, exemplar of so much that is both good and bad in the American national character. Hating the South, loving New England, and largely indifferent to the ul­timate fate of the freed slaves, Emerson viewed the Civil War as a chance to reassert his native region’s cultural, politi­cal, and moral supremacy. But this cause was as surely lost in the maelstrom of bloodshed as was the Confederates’ urge to erect an independent Southern nation. As Simpson sees it, Emerson refused to admit what the war really meant: “that the Harvard scholars who died for New England and the Harvard scholars who died for the South had sacri­ficed themselves for the de­struction of what they mutual­ly believed in: the old Union, a federation of ‘sovereign’ states, as opposed to an integral nation-state.” With the triumph of Union arms and the subsequent emergence of the modern American nation — an entity increasingly pow­erful, unified, and arrogant — Old New England sank into the grave alongside its erst­while antagonist, the Old South.

-



Test Everything: Hold Fast to What is Good.  By Hans Urs von Balthasar. Ignatius. 93 pages. $6.95.

In the minds of many Americans, even Catholics, the term “Catholic orthodoxy” evokes the image of a Grand Inquisitor, a dour, harsh figure railing at the modern world and armed, at least figura­tively, with rack, torch, and thumbscrew. How quickly this interview with Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (conducted by an Italian, Angelo Scolar) dis­pels that twisted notion!

An octogenarian orthodox theologian who witnessed the battering of the Church over the past several decades might be expected to betray a note of pessimism, even mild despair. Not von Balthasar. He does not repine for the fabled pre-Vatican II Church of the tradi­tionalists — present and future alone win his attention. The Church, he exclaims, “possesses a vitality…which is bursting forth with renewed life.”

The fortress-mentality, so prominent among traditional­ists, plays no part in his out­look. “The Catholic Church, if she is to impart her highest values to the modern world,” he advises, “must not meet it as a stranger or as an adver­sary but rather encounter it from within, assimilating whatever may be valid within its new systems.” In his per­son, von Balthasar, whose re­cent death deprived the Church of its greatest living theologian, exemplified the crucial difference between vi­brant orthodoxy and otiose traditionalism.

-



Russian Religious Philosophy: Selected Aspects.  By Frederick C. Copleston. University of Notre Dame Press. 158 pages. $24.95.

Frederick Copleston re­sumes a task he sketched in a chapter of his earlier book, Philosophy in Russia: the estab­lishment of Vladimir Solovyev as a philosopher of major pro­portions. Solovyev, who lived from 1853 to 1900, emerges as the pivotal figure in the devel­opment of religious philosophy in Russia. Even before his ar­rival on the scene, some of the Slavophiles had recognized the need to formulate a “positive worldview” to refute the ma­terialist ideologies propagated by the radical intelligentsia. Such a religious philosophy must not only impart a Chris­tian interpretation of God and man, but must also, by foster­ing “a promise of transforming society,” grapple with the social and political miseries of contemporary Russia.

The intellectuals mostly ignored Solovyev during his too brief lifetime, but in the first decade of the 20th century a mounting distaste for posi­tivism and materialism sparked an eagerness in some circles to wrestle with religious questions. Out of this ferment arose several thinkers worthy to be called Solovyev’s heirs: Semyon Frank, N.O. Lossky, Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergey Bul­gakov, and Pavel Florensky. Berdyaev most directly ad­dressed the social issue, calling for the creation of a personalist socialism that would carve out a middle ground between collectivism and capitalism.

-





Back to May 1990 Issue