Book Review: The Year of Our Lord 1943

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian humanism in an age of crisis

By Alan Jacobs (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018)

Book review for H-Diplo By Or Rosenboim

In his new book, cultural critic Alan Jacob puts the spotlight on 1943 as a significant moment in the development of Christian humanist thought. In January, the Casablanca Conference set out the strategy for the remainder of the war, underlining the confidence of the leaders of the Allied nations in their imminent military success. For Jacobs, the implications of this military turning point extended beyond the realm of political decision making: Western thoughts started turning towards life after the war. What could warrant the moral survival of humanity? What kind of education served to preserve humanity’ cultural and moral achievements? How to counter the rise of destructive technologies, whose impact was not only physical and material but also – importantly – spiritual?

Out of the vast plethora of proposals for post-war world orders that were discussed in European and American political and cultural circles, Jacobs focuses on the ideas of a group of ‘Christian humanists’, concerned with reviving the moral and cultural backbone of humanity. Writing before the atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these intellectuals were concerned with the technological advances that facilitated the victory. They reflected on the doomsday prospects announced by technological innovation, which, translated into political terms, promised a post-war world ruled by experts and technocrats. If the world would survive devastating conflict, a new moral framework was necessary to guarantee humanity’s future.

In a sweepingly original narrative style, Jacobs examines the writings of a Christian intellectuals five Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden and Simone Weil, to outline their reflective critiques of technology and its impact on the human soul. ‘They saw with uncanny clarity and exposed with incisive intelligence the means by which technology has arisen and the damage it had inflicted, and would continue to inflict, on the human person’ (206).While these thinkers were not part of a coherent group, or constituted a recognizable school of thought, Jacobs outlined the similarities between their visions of the post-war future of humanity in general and the Western democracies in particular: they all sought to figure out and answer to the question ‘how should humanity live after the war?’. Jacob weaves together the biographical stories, political visions and literary works of his dramatis personae into a compelling history of a Christian reaction to crisis. Evidently, these thinkers were not alone or unique in their concern about humanity’s future. Other intellectuals make guest appearance, revealing the complex networks of personal and professional acquaintances linking Christian humanists in the mid-twentieth century: Robert M. Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Mannheim, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Ellul, and J. H. Oldham. Together, these intellectuals wanted to ‘rescue the world for a deeply thoughtful, culturally rich Christianity, and to rescue that Christianity for the world’ (206).

Claims about humanity’s moral decline were not uncommon in mid-century political thought. The dichotomies of technology and morality, matter and spirit, generated reflections on the high cost of modernity and progress. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the exiled German intellectuals who denounced the corruptive effect of enlightened modernity on humanity, found no solace in religion, and therefore little hope for redemption. Yet this book’s protagonists were more comfortably situated in the realm of optimism. Education provided the main cause for hope: as Jacobs states, ‘the primary task of this book is to explore this model of Christian humane learning as a force for social renewal.’ It is, perhaps, their Christian faith that reinforces their moral confidence, but, as Niebuhr had shown, faith is hardly enough to salvage humanity from the vices of power, both material and spiritual.

Jacobs diagnoses a degree of optimism in Maritain’s vision of Christianity and democracy, based on a personalist vision of human rights. These ideas have been scrutinized in detail, as Jacobs recognises, by Samuel Moyn in Christian Human Rights, but Jacobs is correct in highlighting the contribution of the oft-forgotten Weil to the emerging rights discourse. Weil was an original thinker about the interplay of morality and political order, who has not received, so far, the scholarly attention that her ideas deserve. Her life experience and intellectual force were characterised by a strong conviction about the need – and the possibility – of social and moral reform. Her writings weave together a wide range of ideas and experiences, based not only on her Christian faith but also on her first-hand knowledge of the social malaise of her time. In 1934, she spent months working in a factory, where she felt the dehumanizing effects of modern labour conditions. She described her reflections in a ‘factory diary’, later published as La condition ouvrière,as well as in her autobiography. The complete – physical and mental – dedication to exploring the conditions of modernity set Weil apart from the rest of the book’s protagonists, to my mind. For Weil, the life of the mind was much more closely related to the social organization of society than for Auden, Lewis, Maritain or Eliot.

In recent years, the humanist reaction to apparent moral crisis has interested scholars and cultural critics. Particular attention was granted to the mid-twentieth century, an era marked by the devastating implications of technology, most notably the atomic bomb. In 2009, Mark Greif published The Crisis of Man, a book that anticipated some of the themes and claims proposed by Jacobs. Greif discussed the ‘long’ mid-century, from 1933 to 1973, as an era of perceived crisis, that generated a range of responses from public intellectuals and scholars concerned with the future – and survival – of humanity. While Jacobs’ protagonists make only a passing appearance in Greif’s book, the underlying assumptions of the two books are similar: spiritual revival was identified as the appropriate and most effective answer to the material dangers facing humanity by technology of its own making. Another aspect that connects the two books is the relative minor place played by politics in their discussions.

Jacobs’ book reflects on the interplay of political ideas, such as elitism, nationalism, personalism, and universalism, within the intellectual realm of the Christian humanists; yet such interactions were obviously not without contradictions. How would Weil’s vision of rights translate into a concrete political plan? What was Maritain’s conception of democracy and Christianity’s role within it? How did Hutchins’ and Adler’s humanist education inspire their political universalism? Such questions, which occupied the minds of the book’s protagonists – and those of their opponents – emerge from the book’s discussions, but are not analysed in detail. Niebuhr appears as the most ‘political’ of thinkers, but others engages in more political tribulations than appear in the book. For example, the Chicago world constitution, drafted in 1945-1947 by a group of humanists that included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Richard McKeon and Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, inherited many of the conceptual frameworks of the educational Christian Humanist ethos that Hutchins advanced at the University of Chicago and sought to apply them to global politics and law. Maritain was a keen supporter of the constitution, and discussed it in his address to the UNESCO conference in Mexico City in 1948. The failure of this project does not undermine the fact that its proponents envisioned it as a direct result of their humanist world vision, which sought to revive humanity’s moral and spiritual standing after the destruction inflected on it by technology and war.

The complex and fascinating story that emerges from this book is, therefore, not only about a humanist resistance to materialism and technology, but also about a personal experience of displacement, detachment and exile. Weil, Maritain and Auden envisaged modernity through this lens of detachment, that conditioned their poetic and political reflections. During the war, the once-desired life of the immigrant, free from the shackles of society, because another cause for anxiety and distress. At the Moot, Eliot encountered European exiles such as Mannheim but also Michael Polanyi, the scientist and economist who embraced Christian faith and endorsed a humanist revival based on a community of faith. The sense of community remains, in the writings of Christian humanists, a strong lacuna which they sought, often unsuccessfully, to fill in.

Despite – or perhaps because of – their haughty aspirations, the visions of the Christian humanists were not always met with enthusiasm. Luigi Sturzo, an Italian catholic priest exiled by Mussolini to London then New York, regarded Maritain’s ideas of a Christian democracy with suspicion. As the founder of the Italian popular, then Christian Democratic party, Sturzo was keen to bring together Christian teachings, human values and democratic politics. Yet for him, Maritain’s vision lacked a real engagement with pluralism, which was the lifeline of any democratic system. Sturzo did not want a political system inspired by Christianity, but rather, a democratic system where Christians could operate freely and on equal terms with others. Jacob does not challenge Maritain’s claim that democracy and Christianity were closely intertwined rather than contradictory, and does not investigate in detail Maritain’s superficial treatment of democracy. Such discussions may be beyond the scope of the book, but the political assumptions behind them seem to me to be an inherent part of the Christian humanist vision, which the advance of technology and materialism as much as it feared the open-ended nature of democracy.

Did the Atomic bomb announce the final technological disaster, or the beginning of a new era? In the book, the nuclear bomb is mentioned only a couple of times. Possibly, for Christian humanists the new weapon of mass destruction was not a ground breaking novelty, but a continuation of a trend against which they had warned the public for a long time. Some mid-century thinkers, like Lewis Mumford, argued that the bomb epitomised the dichotomy of humanity versus technology as the final debasement of humanity. He denounced the cult of expertise, which infiltrated also the universities in terms of science and industry oriented research prevalence over humanities. In line with the gospel of Christian humanism, he called for a return to a moral education of humanity, based on the fundamental values of culture, faith and civilization. Mumford would have identified with Jacobs’ affirmation that, for Christian humanists, ‘the world has gone astray because its people had been poorly educated and if the total destruction of the human world were to be averted new ways of educating had to be found.’(xiv) for him, as for the protagonists of the book, the values that should illuminate the process of re-education were grounded in the cultural and historical experience of the West. The world worth saving from nuclear destruction did not encompass the entire globe. Despite Christianity’s claims for universality, Jacobs’ book highlights the geopolitical and conceptual limits of the mid-century humanist vision, that could not envisage a true interaction with non-Western people or values as a defining element of the post-war era.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is a fascinating and insightful reflection on intellectuals’ reaction to perceived crisis. In their literary, philosophical, journalistic and private writings, Eliot, Weil, Maritain, Auden and Lewis expressed their fear that humanity is approaching a destructive crisis of its own making. The book’s elegant style and gripping prose linger with the reader, along with a persistent reflection on the desirable and possible intellectual reactions to contemporary men-made crises, and on the human moral values worth preserving as a guidance for the future.

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