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Katie van Schaijik

Montgomery on modernity

Apr. 25 at 11:41am

Early into this review of Marion Montgomery's Trilogy, The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age, I thought, "Hey! A kindred spirit!"

I mean, take this:

Gerhart Niemeyer (in Center Journal, Spring 1985) calls the trilogy “a meditation, a sensitive man’s experiential journey,” noting that Montgomery’s examination of literacy and political ideologies and false consciousness, with the main focus on American aberrations, fills a gap left vacant in studies by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Jonas, Henri de Lubac, and Eric Voegelin.

And this:

In the service of truth (not of scholarship, a university, or a thesis), Montgomery takes his readers “considerably beyond the usual limits of literary criticism” (I, 5). He eschews “that strict, objective detachment still generally expected of the critic,” a detachment that ignores the heart’s knowledge, among other things, and hence is a kind of blindness, a detachment from existence (I, 11). Like Flannery O’Connor, whose mind and heart, faith and reason, were informed by Christian orthodoxy, Montgomery sees the world, history, and literature with a fullness of vision, assessing what he sees by the light of his faith.

I mean to say! But then came the let down.

Ultimately St. Thomas Aquinas is the chief guide in Montgomery’s journey through modernity’s aberrant wasteland, though Montgomery frequently calls upon others to shed light along the way.

Sorry, but I just don't buy the idea that someone who died before it began—no matter how sublime his philosophy—is capable of being the ultimate guide through modernity.  He can help highlight and refute its errors, but he lacks the wherewithal to comprehend its deep concerns and recognize its real achievements. He's simply missing too much human experience.

Nor can I abide the characterization of modernity as an "aberrant wasteland." That would be a fine way of describing the heresy of modernism, but modernity is not a synonym for modernism. Our age, rife with errors and evils as it is, isn't without its great goods and genuine contributions.

But soon I was back to admiration:

Along with Aquinas, Strauss, and Voegelin, impressive figures from antiquity to the present accompany Montgomery on this reflective journey through ancient and modern disorders toward order and right reason:  Aristotle, Plato, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Dante, John Milton, Pascal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Wordsworth. Coleridge. C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Richard Weaver, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Jose [sic] Pieper, and Gabriel Marcel.

I couldn't help noting with something more than relief the absense of "personalism" in his parade of modern horribles:

To complete the explanatory metaphor, one must imagine a discussion among these and other figures, with Montgomery as moderator, as they take a wandering journey across the Western landscape surveying key concepts (being nothing less than the Creation, the Fall, Original Sin, nature, evil, sin, grace, language, history, the self, the community, the state, the Incarnation) and cultural, philosophical, religious, and ideological distortions (some of which might be called the unholy “isms”: absurdism, atheism, nihilism, gnosticism, Communism, Fascism, scientism, educationism, materialism, commercialism, positivism, secular humanism, relativism).

Maybe he never really encountered personalism. Maybe he had no opportunity to recognize in it the key to harmonizing modernity and Tradition.

The final paragraph decides me: I will order it.

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper observes that philosophy has always been connected to wonder and to hope, has always sprung from humility, not pride. It is, he notes, the loving search for wisdom, an act and exercise of piety, born of wonder of the creation. This, of course, is philosophy at its best. One can find this kind of philosophy in Marion Montgomery’s trilogy.

Maybe we can even make it the subject of a Personalist Project reading circle.


 

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