In late May of this year my wife, step-son,
and I—along with a group of students and faculty from my school—went on a tour to
London and Paris. It was my fourth trip to London. Before my mom died, she and I
had gone there and to Oxford twice, and then my wife and I went a year ago, when
we were actually able to spend our first anniversary amidst the towering spires
Save for sharing
a brief summary of
C.S. Lewis as philosopher, I had no official duties as chaperone on this year’s
trip, so I could relax and just take in the sights—and sites. From seeing
(with EPS vice president
Phantom of the Opera,
to attending Evensong at St. Margaret’s next to Westminster Abbey, to visiting Oxford—an
embodiment of the nobility of the intellectual tradition, as my buddy
puts it—England was wonderful as always.
Not the food so much,
with their penchant for adding beans to every plate for inexplicable reasons and
refusing to remove fish heads before serving them—though I suppose even this is
one of England’s many charms.
was just breathtaking, its aesthetic eclipsing even that of London, perhaps because
Paris was not bombed as London was during WWII. Seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral,
my wife’s favorite stop on the trip, was nothing less than transportive. The Gothic
structure took 200 years to build, and I couldn’t help but wonder, as I stood mesmerized
before it, what sort of worldview could inspire such an accomplishment? Surely nothing
as drab and arid as materialism.
David Bentley Hart likes to point out that what is certain is that, to this
point, most of the unquestionably sublime achievements of the human intellect and
imagination have arisen in worlds shaped by some vision of transcendent truth.
My step-son’s favorite
part of the trip was Versailles, especially the Hall of Mirrors, where World War
I officially came to an end. As a history major he was practically moved to tears
there after having been a bit of a reluctant tourist until then.
My favorite was the Louvre, and recently reading
C. S. Lewis’s
An Experiment in Criticism proved a great help in developing my appreciation
for the experience. It’s a book I should have read much sooner, teaching us not
just how to be better and more discriminating readers, but how to appreciate nature
more, listen to music, and look at art. Really looking and listening, allowing the
literature or scenic beauty or musical performance or artwork to capture us, speak
to us, and do its magic: it takes patience to listen and look carefully enough to
penetrate appearances and see and hear what’s there beneath the surface.The paintings
I looked at spoke about the sublimity of the everyday, the importance of self-examination,
the echoes of beauty in the provincial, the intimations of eternity in the temporal.
Seemingly ubiquitous nudity in the art led to reflections on the distinction between
art and pornography—with some more help from Lewis, this time his “looking at” versus
“looking along” distinction, which can help explain the original scandal of the
ornate and risqué artwork outside the Paris Opera House.
Whenever I go to places like London or Paris
or Rome with their venerable, storied, and protracted histories, I’m always amazed
at the mixed bag those stories offer, from the ignoble to the sublime and everything
in between. I couldn’t help but think that the process of sifting through history
to learn its lessons, to bend our ear to its voices, to celebrate what’s worth commemorating
and mourn what’s worth lamenting, requires that we bring more to our examination
of history than the sensibility of a faithful chronicler.
Historians have to
choose what to accentuate from among the plethora of historical details, but as
human beings, all of us have to distinguish between the tragedies and triumphs of
the past. And history itself doesn’t provide the tools for such discernment. History
records what happened, but the rest of the humanities—most certainly including philosophy—are
necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, the virtuous from the vicious, the
beautiful from the ugly, the kind from the cruel.
After seeing the
fifth site of a beheading or hanging, reported in perfunctory and sanguine fashion
by a tour guide treating it as casually as a gelato stand, I couldn’t help but worry
about a creeping callousness of heart. Enjoying the Jack the Ripper walking tour
as much as I did exacerbated my fears all the more, I have to confess.
Outside the British Library, where the
is on display, I sat down and wrote a bit about this issue, of which this is an
When we study history without including
the necessary evaluative components, the problem seems to be not just bland
storytelling, but a narrative lacking humanity. Sometimes I think this is what
can bother me about certain tours in which abysmal human failures and tragedies
are used as punctuation marks, attention-grabbing or even entertaining aspects
of the experience. The danger of desensitization looms—only intensified by the
historical distances involved. The study of history, then, needs evaluation.
Good history needs to retain its humanity, which requires it contain a critical
stance whose force comes from beyond the confines of history alone. Good history
isn’t possible without the other humanities.
So a wonderful trip overall,
and, like everything else, great fodder for a bit of philosophical reflection. One
more of which, if I may: Going to France made me regret not keeping up with my French.
In general I wish I’d taken my language studies in the past—New Testament Greek
and French—more seriously. Learning a language, far from being a mere hoop to jump
through, is a great discipline. It requires we conform to
than it accommodate
us, and going abroad
is a poignant reminder that it’s not just an academic matter. Proficiency in a language
provides a window into another culture and an opportunity for another real eye opener.