Wednesday, January 4, 2017
For the first time in some years now we found ourselves passably sentient, on our feet, glass in hand, ready to join in the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” as the chimes of midnight announced the birth of the New Year. The setting was the grand ballroom of a grand hotel in Charleston. It was the finale of a sumptuous meal and of the even greater intellectual and spiritual feast of wit and wisdom that was the Renaissance Weekend briefly anticipated in my essay three weeks ago. We then went promptly to bed, facing as we did a fairly early return flight to Newark but a few hours later. The experience of the Renaissance Weekend was for us a new one. In trying to characterize the event I could not improve on the public description offered by its own elegant website, and I shall not try to do so. I can say, however, that I left it—as so often I left certain ceremonial events during my long years of university teaching—inspired by the awesome human potential of our country, and especially of its youth. There are all kinds of “bubbles” that I need to burst forth from, one of them being the bubble of pessimism.
Perhaps you will indulge me in a little bloggerly free association? Four hundred years ago there appeared a remarkable book written in the German language but with a macaronic or bilingual title: Fama Fraternitatis dess löblichen Ordens des Rosenkreutzes. This means, roughly, “A Divulgation of the Brotherhood of the Praiseworthy Order of the Rose-Cross,” the modest mission of which fraternity (also stated on the title page) was nothing less than “A Comprehensive and General Reformation of the Whole Wide World.” It is often called the “Rosicrucian Manifesto.” Though it pretended to be the announcement of an organization already founded, it was actually a kind of protreptic or pep-talk for learned men of good will who might be interested in seeking out like-minded peers. The real message of the announcement was “If you build it, they will come.” We have good reason to believe that, though published anonymously, its author was a Protestant theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae. Carefully sidestepping the alluring tar-pit of occultism and weirdness that is the popular history of Rosicrucianism, one can see in this book an invitation to a cultural and moral elite to join in a grand ecumenical, international, and “multicultural” project of social amelioration of the kind imagined in fiction a few years later by Francis Bacon in his New Atlantis (1624) and pursued as reality in such learned academies as the British Royal Society or in some Masonic lodges of the Enlightenment.
Cosmopolitanism denies neither the reality nor the value of specific commitment to the tribe, the nation, the place, or even the cult. It certainly does not quell firmly held views or spirited controversy. It does, however, hold up a broader vision of human universality. European intellectuals of the Eighteenth Century were distributed among a diversity of political states, of social organizations, and of religious and philosophical schools, yet they could find a broader unity in what they beautifully called the “Republic of Letters”. The Republic of Letters was in our terms “virtual”—not a nation-state with geographical borders walled or unwalled, but a frame of mind and a set of shared aspirations. The letters, to be sure, were real enough. The Republic could not have come into being without the printing press, which, though not fundamentally changed in technological principal from the age of Gutenberg, was now vastly more present and productive. The encyclopedic ambition to read all the important current literature on a subject was not yet absurdly pretentious. Nor were the ramparts between “sciences” and “humanities” yet fearsome and forbidding. Citizens of the Republic were the learned, or what the French called lettrés. Letters in the more familiar sense of epistles or missives were no less important. The Enlightenment was the great Age of Letter Writing. Space on my bookshelves must be competed for, but I shall never “downsize” at the expense of the multi-volume collected letters of Madame de Sévigny, Voltaire, or Horace Walpole.
Just recently there was much journalistic comment on the role of social media in the “Arab Spring”, as though this were some new phenomenon. Have we forgotten the role of the correspondence societies in the French and American Revolutions? Exchange of correspondence is a fine way to share and test ideas; but nothing matches face-to-face conversations and debates. Citizens of the Republic of Letters lacked jet travel and the “frequent flyer” programs that encourage it. The Renaissance Weekend, on the other hand, could exploit exactly those advantages. And though I saw no powdered wigs or silken knee-breeches, our clunky flip-top phones were enough to keep Joan and me feeling sufficiently archaeological. In the current American political and cultural moment, which is severely testing our unity, our civility, and what might be called our core social competence, a deep draught of rebirth was exactly what the New Year called for.