In 1945 the German novelist Thomas Mann gave the title ‘Nobility of Spirit’ to a book encompassing a series of essays in which he reflected on the crisis of humanity and the qualities required for spiritual renewal. Both Julien Benda’s ‘Treason of Clerics’ and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy’ was written in similar vein. Neither individual accepted the decisive role of either the Protestant Reformation nor the Enlightenment as a source of insight into the origin of the problem regarding cultural renewal.
An American composer named Joseph Goodman borrowed the catch phrase and begin composing a cantata immediately after September 11. It’s a paean to freedom and democracy based primarily on Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’. Mr. Goodman arrived at American shores fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938. Thomas Mann’s youngest daughter Elizabeth Mann Borgese and Mann himself boarded the same vessel for New York. Mr. Goodman died in January of 2002, but Elizabeth Borgese’s desire that someone take up the challenge of cultural renewal in prose fell to a friend named Rob Riemen. Out this week from Yale University Press is ‘Nobility of Spirit’, a meditation on ideals that threaten Western Civilization and the required response desperately needed to sustain it. Rob Rieman has taken up the challenge of recognizing the challenge that September 11 posed for those strong enough to recognize it. For him, the fundamental challenge is within the cultural, theological and moral dimensions of Western Civilization itself. This is not a monograph on Islamic fundamentalism as it is a call to acknowledge the profound theological roots of the West.
For Rieman, we begin by acknowledging the nature of what it means to be human. For only an anthropology can properly contain both the need for a conformed conscience, and the proper trajectory of finite freedom. Without acknowledging this fundamental starting point, any text slides into the perils of idealism.
‘Nobility of Spirit’ houses some of the ‘best that has been thought and said in the world’, to cite Matthew Arnold. Here we find the originality, the singular achievement that the West achieved in both antiquity and modernity. Socrates, politically murdered for standing up to a fervent belief in the inadequacy of the idols of parochial sovereignty, Spinoza, for acknowledging a sphere of autonomy outside of revelation. Goethe (pronounced Gert-err), for passionate writing against a false ethos of religious sentimentality and John Stuart Mill on the economic and ethical conditions that permit liberty to thrive.
The originality of Mr. Rieman’s argument resides less in its defense of the universality of reason within a Christian anthropology than in its analysis of the assault both have suffered under the guise of Western intellectuals. He especially singles out Nietzche’s (pronounced Neat-chee) savage attach on the West’s moral underpinnings found throughout art and theology. For Rieman, the would be guardians of culture became efficient destroyers.
The late 20th century saw many a man and women take up the challenge thrown down by both the fathers of the Enlightenment and their offspring, the ‘masters of suspicion’. Make no mistake, the challenge is theological. But it plays out in the political theatre.
Rob Rieman never fails to acknowledge secular hands that espoused the absolute necessity in acknowledging politics as the handmaiden of theology. He presses the achievements of Raymond Aron, Arthus Koestler, Leone Ginzburg, Albert Camus, Andre Malraux, Henri De Lubac, Francios Mauriac (pronounced France-swah Muoor-ree-ock), and a host of others unassailed from the epic challenge.
There are many others: Hans Urs von Balthsar, Seamus Heaney, Pope John Paul II, Romano Guardini and perhaps best of all Oriani Fallachi.