What was the inflection point for Western civilization in general, and American culture in particular, after which teachers took it upon themselves to ignore their cultural heritage, or to instruct their students either to despise it or to twist it ’round in support of the political cause of the passing hour?
Yesterday, I read for the first time, in French, Pierre Corneille’s triumphant play of Christian martyrdom, Polyeucte (1641). It tells the story of an otherwise obscure martyr during the persecutions ordered by the emperor Decius (r. 249-251). Polyeuctus was a Roman officer in Armenia who, under the influence of his friend Nearchus, became a baptized Christian. He had been honored for his military service, but when Decius, in an empty attempt to unite a fractured empire, mandated worship of the pagan gods, Polyeuctus not only declined to obey the edict but smashed one of the idols in public. Despite the pleas of his father-in-law the local governor and his loving wife Paulina, Polyeuctus refused to repent of his deed. He was beheaded.
What Corneille adds to the historical account is fascinating, and I think it is germane to the question I have asked. Corneille invents a Roman soldier, Severus, who wished to marry Paulina, but her father Felix refused the marriage, because he believed the match was of no advantage to his family’s standing. Instead, he gave her to the rich and honored Polyeuctus, and Paulina obeyed his wishes. Meanwhile, Severus was believed to have died in battle, but the news was false, and the young man returned to Armenia, now highly honored by the emperor, and still enjoying the esteem of Paulina, if not her passionate love. She is thus torn between the love she has conceived for her husband Polyeuctus, and her first love, Severus, who still loves her and wants her for his wife. When Polyeuctus smashes the idol, all should work out for Paulina’s worldly advance, especially since her husband, believing that she is in love with Severus and determined to undergo martyrdom, gives her over to Severus’ care. But this grand gesture of courage, generosity, and forgiveness stirs Paulina to the core. She too will become Christian, and so will Severus.
My edition was printed by the Librairie Hatier, sometime in the 1920s, as part of a series called “Les Classiques pour Tous,” “Classics for Everyone.” You might think of it as the French equivalent of the old Everyman’s Library, in English. It includes an introduction to the play by Corneille himself, a letter from the playwright to the Queen-regent, Anne of Austria, an account of Saint Polyeuctus, and the editor’s brief biography of Corneille and an appreciation of the play’s poetry and dramatic force. According to the editor, Voltaire, the skeptic who rarely had a good word to say about the faith, said that if it were not for the mutual love of Paulina and Severus, the figure of Polyeuctus would leave us cold. But, the editor adds, from the 19th century to the current day, the characters of Polyeuctus and Paulina have returned to the spotlight, following Corneille’s own thought, “and all the great artists have held it an honor to play those roles.”
The covers of this slender book are filled with a handsome list of advertisements for other classics in French literature, under the direction of M. Charles-Marie des Granges, professor and doctor of letters at the Lycee Charlemagne. The Lycee is not a university. It is a high school. You can study a remarkably broad array of languages there, though now the focus appears to be on computers and cybernetics. I cannot tell whether they still study Corneille. I would be surprised if they did not; the French retain an admirable devotion to their cultural heritage. I would also be surprised if they studied him with anything close to the sympathy for Corneille’s Christian vision of the world that M. de Granges evinces.
And what of our nation, the United States? We live in a time of cascading stupidity. What can be more disheartening than to find, online, such trivializations of English literature as No Fear Shakespeare, translating the Bard into the dull and plain and often incorrect to boot? Well, you can find lesson plans that are more disheartening, flattening Shakespeare down to current obsessions with feminism, imperialism, “queer theory,” and suchlike, anything but what might encourage a student to enter imaginatively into the poet’s own world of thought. It is impossible for me to imagine anything in English that is like this series from Hatier, or any high school teacher capable of directing it. Nor was the series peculiar or unique. I have an edition of Andromaque, by Corneille’s contemporary, Racine, published by the Librairie Hachette, under the heading of Classical Theater; it is of the same sort as my Polyeucte, and was printed at about the same time. The idea was simple. The classics are for everyone. The language of Corneille and Racine was modern French, but a tad old-fashioned for current readers, just as the language of Shakespeare is for us. So the editors sought not to import our concerns into Corneille and Racine, but to reveal their concerns to the contemporary reader
And what were the concerns of Corneille and Racine? They were ultimately profoundly religious, and not at all sentimental. Polyeuctus does not follow his heart, simply, but instead orders his heart to follow where the truth stands, shining and beckoning. He loves God more than he loves anything in the world—a world that inevitably disappoints us if we place all our hopes in it. It is because of this otherwise incomprehensible love that he can love Paulina in a way that startles his rival, Severus, as it persuades the young Roman that there must be something to a faith that can make an enemy so open-hearted and beneficent. How can we even begin to imagine discussing such a thing, now, in an American public school?
The historical irony, which Corneille expected his readers to catch, was that Decius would not be long for this world, and the Roman empire would soon turn a corner forever, when the emperor Constantine became a Christian catechumen, and legalized Christian worship. Polyeuctus the Armenian is thus more truly Roman than Decius is, as, someone might venture to say, the black slaves and children of slaves, in embracing the Christian faith, became more truly American than their masters and former masters were
Well then, you might have had such a discussion at the Lycee Charlemagne in 1921, and you might have had a similar discussion at any public school in the United States at the same time, because there still was an American culture, and Americans still honored their great lights in literature and still understood that the highest reaches of human art may only be found in the precincts of the divine. The figure of Polyeuctus would make sense not only to a young man in Paris, but to his counterpart in Peoria, assuming that the work of bringing up young people who can read great literature in English had been done.
To return to my opening question, when was that inflection point? There must have been one, though what led up to it might have been a steady stalling or modest decline. Was it some corner in the early career of that educational poison-peddler, John Dewey? Was it a slow leaching of modernism into the American mind—modernism that prides itself not on its accomplishments, modest at best, but on its supposedly courageous scorn for past forms and devotions? Was it the enforced hostility, in public schools, to religious faith and expression, that came in the wake of the 1960s?
And did anyone understand that when you drum all religious sensibility out of the public sphere, most of the classics of your own literary and artistic heritage must inevitably follow? What we have left, then, is deracinated—uprooted—both religiously and culturally. The task for us is to till soil that has been left untilled, or even to build up the soil again, restoring to it the nutrients that have been leached out. As for those who peddle No Fear Shakespeare, that they are not afraid of the judgments of teachers and readers in the future itself condemns them.