Last week I began a new feature on this blog that I am calling “From My Commonplace Book.” A commonplace book is a journal in which you record favorite quotes from what you are reading, and sometimes the thoughts that they evoke. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, it was not uncommon for students to be required to keep a commonplace book, and many of the leading lights of the American revolutionary generation did so. I’ve been doing so now for more than a year, selecting quotes that help me to think through my calling as a Christian, historian, and teacher.
I could type them on my laptop, but I like the idea of writing the quotes out by hand. For one thing, it heightens the sense that I am following in the footsteps of those who have gone before me. We live in a present-tense society that dismisses 94 percent of all the human beings who have ever drawn breath on this planet simply because they are no longer living. When I sit down to my commonplace book with pen in hand, I am self-consciously engaging in a countercultural act. It’s a symbolic gesture but no less important for that. It helps me, imaginatively, to think of myself as entering into a grand conversation about enduring questions, something far bigger than the transient fads and obsessions that so easily steal the best days of our lives.
Writing the quotes out by hand also forces me to slow down, and that in itself is a countercultural act as well. By lingering over a passage and recording it with painstaking care, I am symbolically setting it apart from the ocean of information that inundates me daily. Much of that information may be valuable, but the passages that go into my commonplace book are life-changing.
The quote that I want to share today is taken from Essays on His Own Times, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I have frequently put it on my course syllabi, both now at Wheaton College and in years past at the University of Washington. I mean it to challenge, and in challenging, to inspire. I’m not confident that it has that effect (do my students read the syllabus?), but it has definitely had that effect on me.
The author of the quote was a British poet (author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and essayist whose life spanned the close of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth. I don’t know much about Coleridge, honestly. He is often remembered as one of the founders of the Romantic Movement in England, and T. S. Eliot evidently thought highly of his literary criticism. His personal life was troubled, however. He suffered extensively from anxiety and depression, and he struggled for decades with an addiction to opium. He at least briefly contemplated becoming a minister as a young man, but for much of his life his religious beliefs were closer to Transcendentalism than to orthodox Christianity.
And yet God in His grace regularly grants partial insight to unbelievers, and we lose much when we limit our reading to those whose faith is identical to our own. The quote below, which I first came across in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, effectively conveys truths that we need to hear.
In every state, not wholly barbarous, a philosophy, good or bad, there must be. However slightingly it may be the fashion to talk of speculation and theory, as opposed (sillily and nonsensically opposed) to practice, it would not be difficult to prove, that such as is the existing spirit of speculation, during any given period, such will be the spirit and tone of the religion, legislation, and morals, nay, even of the fine arts, the manners, and the fashions. Nor is this the less true, because the great majority of men live like bats in twilight, and know and feel the philosophy of their age only by its reflections and refractions.
The prose is hard going, but there is a lot here if we’ll stick with it. I tell my students that there are three enormously important observations packed into this one paragraph, one in each sentence. First, every time and place is characterized by a predominant philosophy or way of looking at the world—answers to questions like Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is the basis of knowledge? How are we to treat one another? Second, that prevailing philosophy or world view is hardly limited to formal academic theorizing (“speculation”). Its spirit is everywhere: in law and literature, art and architecture, Facebook and fashions and every form of popular culture. Third, and most sobering, the philosophy of our age is something that most of us will absorb subconsciously rather than study systematically. Coleridge’s word picture here is powerful. Like bats guided by sound waves bouncing off of the terrain around them, we too can be guided by values that we feel more than see.
This is one of the most compelling reasons why, as Christians, it is imperative that we study history. Studying other times and places will invariably introduce us to people who lived and thought differently. “The past is a foreign country,” British writer L.P. Hartley famously observed, “they do things differently there.” It is in grappling with these differences that the values we take for granted come into focus.
“Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold,” Paul warned the church at Rome (Romans 12:2). Do we want to see the philosophy of our day more clearly? Or are we content to live “like bats in twilight”?