Education as Re-imagination: Recovering a Communion of Love amidst secular fragmentation

By Jared Schumacher

This post is the first in a series that the Theological Anthropology Blog is hosting on the topic of love and education.  Portions of these posts were first delivered at an event organized by The Leuven Newman Society, titled “Faith and Reason at the University and Beyond: The Future of Catholic Intellectual Life.


In an oration titled “The Man of Letters in the Modern World”, the Catholic author and intellectual Allen Tate took up the very question of our panel more than a half-century ago and provided an answer that I believe is no less compelling today, despite the historical ditch that separates us from him.  I would like briefly to review that answer and explain why I find it of continued relevance today.

The Moral Obligation of the Man of Letters: Image and Standard

The question Tate sought to answer was articulated this way: “What should the man of letters be in our time?” Tate’s answer to the question is characteristically clear and straightforward.  The Man of Letters must do two things.  “He must do first what he has always done: he must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.”  These two tasks, the recreation of truthful images and the propagation of standards of judgment, Tate says constitute the “the moral obligation of the literary man.”

Modern Man: The Fragmented Self

The oration itself should be read as Tate’s own enactment of this moral obligation, as Tate both paints a verbal portrait of modern man and also communicates the standards necessary to judge that portrait, its beauties and its failings.  To the first task, Tate’s picture of humanity casts modern man as the inheritor of a divided anthropology descending primordially from Adam but more proximally from Descartes.  According to Tate, “[w]hen René Descartes isolated thought from man’s total being he isolated him from nature, including his own nature; and he divided man against himself.”  Thinking of human nature as essentially at war with itself––either in creating split personalities within one man or characterizing human society in toto as akin to a Hobbesian Leviathan in which man in a state of nature seeks to devour man–– creates what Tate calls an internal “psychic crisis”, which has political and social consequences. It is this crisis, this divided essence and consciousness descending from a conflicted vision of what man is, that is the hallmark of modernity on Tate’s reading.  Tate argues that at the political level, this anthropological vision can only “imitate[] Descartes' mechanized [understanding of] nature” and thus can only see human community as finally “a machine to be run efficiently”.  The improvement of man thus becomes synonymous with the management of a social machine. Tate rightly criticizes this modern, mechanical vision of society as Manichean in as much as it believes that society cannot finally be redeemed, only managed through greater technological and cultural ‘development’. 

Tate sees at the heart of this managerial strategy of the social machine the implicit logic of secularism, “the society that substitutes means for ends.” Modern man becomes that being trapped in what Charles Taylor has more recently called “the immanent frame”: his reason is only permitted free range in the end-less realm of technological development but dogmatically forbidden access to other transcendent ways of seeing the world.  Tate calls this “the dehumanized society of secularism”, “in which nobody [can] participate[] with his full humanity.”  He articulates what we might otherwise call the fragmented anthropology of modernity.

Politics Beyond Pragmatism and Resignation

In the face of this social condition, the circumspect man is seemingly offered two alternatives: to become what Tate calls “a politician”, a man of action, whose activity and political life become focused on the acquisition of greater means irrespective of final ends, or, alternatively, the man of letters but in a negative sense, what we today would call an ivory tower academic. The former adopts a political pragmatism, the latter a political resignation. Both are given over to the vision of society as an irredeemable machine. Tate sees clearly what this kind of social vision does to those who seek, against all odds, to retain some semblance of faith; they become Jansenist: “…disciples of Pascal, the merits of whose Redeemer were privately available but could not affect the operation of the power-state.”  They are pressured into privatizing their otherwise public life of faith, becoming slaves of compromise.

This is the fractured image of the man of Tate’s age, and I would argue that, to a great degree, it remains the man of our own.  “What should the man of letters be in our time?” Tate asks.  Notice that this is not the same as the fundamental question of ethics, Tolstoy’s and Lenin’s question, “What then shall we do?”  The important difference here is that the former question assumes concrete ends towards which to strive, the existence of an ideal or metaphysical image of man to become, while the later remains locked in the immanent frame, a call to activity without end, end-less activity.  Tate’s belief in the moral obligation of literary men stems from this metaphysical assumption that humanity can become something more than a well-oiled machine; it can become a communion in which the freedom of the love which is God abides. 

Communion of Love as Standard of Judgment

The standards of judgment that Tate says are the second part of the moral obligation of literary men arise from this difference.  His is not the political pragmatism of democratic or socialist stripe; his is not the mono-vision of a realm of immanently framed means; his is the ethos of a communion of love, his the sight which sees the old and compromised things passing away and the freedom of the children of God continually in advance.  Tate links these two ways of seeing to two linguistic communities, whose understandings of communication operate in different social imaginaries.  The one uses communication, the other participates in communion.  The one “communicates by means of sound over either wire or air”, the other “communicate[s] through love.”  Seeing love in this way––as the medium of reality, as the ontological grounding of all life and the sharing of that life––changes what we think it is possible to become as men and women in our postmodern age. 

Tate would let us know that it falls to the faithful to re-stir the social imagination to a form of sight which sees the possibility of love at all times, in all things; for as Tate concludes, “[t]he end of social man is communion in time through love, which is beyond time.” Modern fragmentation and its postmodern fetishization discourage such a unified social vision.  That is why we must use the letters we have garnered from that Society beyond time to tell the story of these sacred things in time through love, which is to say again what W.H. Auden perspicaciously declared, “We must love one another or die.”