Liberal Humanism’s Lost World
Lionel Trilling resisted an apocalyptic progressivism at odds with liberty and complexity.
It has been said that the finest nineteenth-century prose was composed in the 1940s by Lionel Trilling. Not only the style but also the sentiments of his essays evoked the work of Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill, alive with the Victorian humanist’s fear that progress was changing human character, not necessarily for the better.
Much as Arnold deplored “this strange disease of modern life,” Trilling lamented a “fatal separation” between modernity’s narrowly socioeconomic approach to life and the “deep places of the imagination.” Both men traced the human shrinkage they saw around them to cultural failure; both feared that cultural failure was preparing the way for political breakdown.
Yet both insisted that they were neither reactionaries nor primitivists, but liberals who drew on humane techniques to strengthen modern liberties. Arnold feared nineteenth-century English working-class anarchists and complacent middle-class “philistines.” Trilling was preoccupied with the unintelligent progressivism of twentieth-century American intellectuals: an “adversary culture of art and thought,” he argued, had “detached” the highbrows from the main body of the citizenry and converted them to the belief that the nation’s freedoms were illusory.
Though his writing is full of insight for conservatives, Trilling never thought of himself as a conservative. “When Lionel was accused of being a ‘conservative,’ ” his student Norman Podhoretz remembered, “he would sometimes acknowledge that in certain respects he was.” Yet he “always regarded himself as a liberal,” Podhoretz said, even though he “more often than not” used the term “in a pejorative sense.”
The difficulty is that Trilling’s most striking perceptions lie buried in the prose of a man who wrote at a level of generality that concealed as much as it revealed, so much so that another of his students, Morris Dickstein, thought him deliberately obscure, the cultivator of an “elusive, even enigmatic” style, the prisoner of a “lifelong reticence” who hid behind the mandarin opacity of his prose.
Dickstein had a point. For all its richness of suggestion, Trilling’s most memorable book, his 1950 collection The Liberal Imagination, is maddening in its vagueness. In it, Trilling deplores the shallowness of liberal modernity, its “prosaic” incompleteness, its “denial of the emotions and the imagination,” its tendency “to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of mind.” But the language at crucial junctures is veiled and ambiguous; rather than name names and call out charlatans, Trilling speaks vaguely of recalling liberalism “to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility,” words that can mean anything or nothing.
Why the clouds of verbal vapor? Was Trilling’s secretiveness innate, or was obscurity a literary strategy? The modern writers he admired—among them Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce—showed that there is nothing like a verbal puzzle to beguile the curiosity of the intelligent. In setting up as a Delphic seer in his own literary grove, Trilling may simply have been borrowing a technique.
But surely, the strongest motive for Trilling’s dissimulation was prudence. His humanist idea that culture was giving way to a ruinous “politics of culture” was as uncongenial to the intelligentsia of his day as it is to ours. If he were to make his thought at all credible in an unsympathetic age, he had little choice but to resort to indirection.
We were in our first year on upper Claremont Avenue” in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, Diana Trilling wrote in her 1993 memoir The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, “when Lionel began to lie to me and say that he was going to the library when, in fact, he was going to the movies. . . . He had frequent recourse to this refuge: like someone unemployed or homeless, he sat through long blinding hours of double features in the moving-picture theaters of Times Square.”
The Depression was on. Diana watched as Lionel—they were both in their twenties—worked apathetically at writing a dissertation on Matthew Arnold and teaching an evening class at Hunter College. He “felt defeated.” Diana would be criticized for lifting the lid on her husband’s melancholia, but it was Trilling himself who, toward the end of his life, sought to account publicly for the “bitter time” he had in writing about Arnold, a period when he despaired at finding himself “working in a lost world, that nobody wanted, or could possibly want.”
In the early 1970s, Trilling thought of writing an “autobiographical memoir” in the mold of Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams, and in notes he composed for a 1971 talk at Purdue, he made a stab at self-revelation, sketching his earliest encounter with the “humanistic tradition” of Arnold, the “lost world” that deeply influenced his own. The encounter took place at Columbia College, where he matriculated in 1921 at 16, and where John Erskine, a professor of Renaissance literature, had recently instituted a “course in the Humanities” or “General Honors course.”
Only later did Trilling see that in taking Erskine’s course, he was making himself a guinea pig in a humanist experiment, one to which Victorian sages like Arnold and Ruskin stood godfather. Erskine, he pointed out in his Purdue notes, “had been the pupil at Columbia of George Edward Woodberry, who at Harvard had been the pupil of Charles Eliot Norton, who had been the friend of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold.” This humanist lineage made clear “the provenance of the idea that was at the root of the General Honors course—the idea that great works of art and thought have a decisive part in shaping the life of a polity.”
In his insistence that Erskine’s course was a humanist effort to shape the “life of a polity” and the minds of its citizens through art and poetry, Trilling argued that it was less a Great Books course, concerned primarily with literary texts, than an attempt to recover the thicker culture that molded character and aspiration in older communities. The humanists who inspired the course, Trilling wrote, believed that people “who were in any degree responsible for the welfare of the polity and for the quality of life that characterized it must be large-minded, committed to great ends, devoted to virtue, assured of the dignity of the human estate and dedicated to enhancing and preserving it.” Only a sufficiently rich artistic culture, integrated in the civic infrastructure of particular communities, could produce citizens of such “humanistic versatility”; only “great works of the imagination” could “foster and even institute this large-mindedness, this magnanimity.”
The paradox of Erskine’s course, for Trilling, was that it attempted to re-create, through books, an experience that was not bookish. Concerned with developing the potential of the citizen and the vitality of the community, the course set “great models of thought, feeling, and imagination” before young people that they might better understand “the close interrelation of the private and personal life with the public life,” the life of the town, the city, the res publica, and so develop a more complete and balanced character.
The basic experience survives even now in the Columbia class—Literature Humanities, or Lit Hum—that most directly descends from Erskine’s. The teenager compelled to take it—it is a mandatory course—is in the first months immersed in a world of epic poetry (The Iliad and The Odyssey), tragic poetry (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides), and ancient philosophy (Plato’s Symposium). The student is vicariously a citizen of spaces in which art is experienced not privately, as we today experience it (a thing printed in books, reproduced on screens, or relegated to museums), but publicly, as part of the ordering of everyday life. The course’s printed books serve only to remind the student that much of the poetry they contain was not originally printed in books. Homeric poetry was sung by bards and rhapsodes, a live rather than prerecorded music. The tragic drama of Athens—a choral and dancing art—was first performed in the marketplace of the city, where it was as natural for the citizen to encounter Cassandra and Oedipus as it would be unnatural for us today to find Lear and Hamlet in the shopping mall. Plato presents his philosophic poetry as arising spontaneously from a culture in which talk that begins in chaffing and gossip in public spaces leads naturally to speculation about what human beings are and what they might be.
In his Purdue notes, Trilling contrasts the Arnoldian humanism of the Columbia course, which brought art into the midst of life to educate the soul, with the modern idea of art and poetry as luxury or superfluous ornament. Such a Sunday-best culture, Trilling believed, could never engage the deep places of a people’s imagination, nor could it produce citizens capable of defending their community’s deepest ideals.
All I knew about Matthew Arnold,” Trilling said, by way of explaining how he came to write a book about him, “I had derived from an affection for some of his poems whose melancholy spoke to me in an especially personal way.” Of Arnold’s significance as “the great continuator and transmitter of the tradition of humanism” in England and America, he knew nothing.
But no sooner was the book “out of the way,” Trilling wrote, “than I found myself confronting a situation that I had inevitably to understand in Arnold’s own terms.” In Culture and Anarchy, which first appeared in book form in 1869, Arnold sought to supply what was missing in liberalism in its “classical” free-market phase. The “infinite commodities” predicted by Francis Bacon and Adam Smith were materially improving the lot of millions, and the dark satanic mills were being regulated; but even so, Arnold maintained, liberalism was stimulating too few sides of human nature “at the expense of all others.” The result, he said, was too many “incomplete and mutilated” human beings, “stunted and enfeebled” in their nature and potential.
Trilling saw a similar phenomenon at work in the social-cooperationist liberalism that in the 1930s was overtaking free-market liberalism. The new liberalism, derived from European thinkers like Marx, Lassalle, Comte, and the English Fabians, valued not competition but what Trilling called “cooperation, subordination, and an expressed piety of social usefulness.” But if classical liberalism was criticized for being too severe in its atomized individualism, the new cooperationist liberalism, with its social and group emphasis, was, Trilling believed, in its own way narrow.
In his Purdue notes, Trilling directly names, as he does not in The Liberal Imagination, the most insidious aspect of the new liberalism: “The liberal intellectual middle-class acceptance of Stalinist doctrine in all aspects of life—in art and thought. The Nation / The New Republic / the New York Times.” Yet Trilling’s deeper quarrel was not with cooperationist liberalism’s Stalinist affinities but with its own coercive “organizational impulse,” which, he wrote in The Liberal Imagination, “tends to select the emotions and qualities that are most susceptible of organization” and traffics in ideas that lack the “largeness and modulation and complexity” of thought that evolves in freer, less constrained environments.
Trilling professed sympathy for cooperationist liberalism’s desire for a “greater social liberality,” but he found in its “simple humanitarian” ideals and the “smallness of its view of the varieties of human possibility” so much “easy rationalistic optimism,” quite unfaithful to the realities of the human brain. At the same time, the new liberalism seemed to him to threaten, through its delegation of ever more authority to “agencies and bureaus and technicians,” the citizen’s liberty of thought and action in ways that would inevitably constrict the mind. The “ultimate threat to human freedom,” he wrote in a New Yorker review of George Orwell’s 1984, might well come from a “massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture.”
It was among the apparently most advanced sections of the American public—its intellectual and creative elites—that Trilling detected the most troubling forms of stunting and incompleteness that Arnold had deplored in Culture and Anarchy. In their faith in the purity of their motives and their conviction that their socioeconomic program would dramatically alter human nature for the better, cooperationist liberals betrayed, Trilling argued, an astonishingly “facile” intelligence.
To be sure, many cooperationist liberals professed admiration for the accounts of the mind’s complexity that they found in the great modernist writers, in “Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats, Mann (in his creative work), Kafka, Rilke, Gide.” But they failed, Trilling said, to digest the processes of thought that led the modernists to reject the “ideas and emotions” that social-cooperationist prophets had “declared respectable.” In their “vulgar and facile progressivism,” America’s thought leaders favored doctrinaire books “that praise us for taking progressive attitudes” and wallowed in a “literature of piety” with “neither imagination nor mind.”
Cooperationist liberals read Marx and Freud more attentively, but mainly to seize, Trilling argued, on the idea that “nothing was as it seemed.” It was this proposition that enabled them to maintain that America’s “institutionalized reality” was a “falsehood, or, as we might say, a mask. . . . [T]he great work of intellect was to strike through the mask.” They “thought of themselves as devoted precisely to the work of unmasking—of disclosing the falsehood of the established [American] order.” Trilling, fresh from Arnold, vowed to turn the tables. “The task, as I saw it, was that of unmasking. . . . To unmask the unmaskers—to show that the very ideals they were committed to were betrayed to very death by their way of dealing with ideas,” as instruments of “piety” rather than thought.
Trilling cataloged the self-deceptions of the progressives. First, they mistook their desire for power—an “impulse toward moral aggrandizement”—for virtue. Second, they pretended that their effort to rethink American culture was constructive. In their “growing intellectuality—or rather, intellectualism,” they put every “aspect of existence” under a microscope. “Not only politics, but child-rearing, the sexual life, the life of the psyche, the innermost part of existence was subject to ideation,” to a rationalizing effort to make culture conform to abstract ideas.
In preferring, at every turn, the enlightened policy of the moment to experience—to wisdom weighed in the balance of time and reality—progressives deceived themselves about the nature of the rational. Culture, an intricately woven tapestry of custom and time, poetry and tradition, often possesses a reasonableness that eludes our surface rationality, or so Trilling argued in a 1965 essay, “The Two Environments,” in which he defined culture as “the style of life” a society fosters, a creation that “we judge as a whole, rather as if it were a work of art.” The “psychic grace” of style is not necessarily irrational: it has a crucial place, “as I have tried to suggest, in the process of [the rational] intellect.”
In deceiving themselves, cooperationist liberals deceived others. All political systems rest on culture; in dissecting American culture—to avert, they claimed, the “extreme and apocalyptic” consequences of inaction—progressives weakened American political institutions. They acted, they said, to reform the republic; but in reality, Trilling believed, they sought to “transcend” it. In their deepest deception, they portrayed as liberating a program that “meant an eventual acquiescence in tyranny.”
Read in the light of the Purdue notes, Trilling’s parable of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Stuart Mill in The Liberal Imagination acquires a more definitive significance. Trilling describes how Mill (a liberal) urged liberals to read Coleridge (a conservative) not simply because of Coleridge’s “general powers of intellect” or his “nature and power as a poet” but because Mill himself had learned “through direct and rather terrible experience” the harm that comes of “liberalism’s tendency to envisage the world” too prosaically. What saved Mill from a “despairing apathy which brought him to the verge of suicide” were the poems of Coleridge and Wordsworth, which, as he recorded in his Autobiography, taught him to see in art and poetry “instruments of human culture” as essential to ordinary life as its practical prose.
Put thus baldly, Trilling’s parable savors of a commencement address, yet it supplies a key to his inquiry into why liberal modernity has so few means of reaching the mind’s “deep places.” Much as Arnold and Carlyle exposed the philistinism of England’s commercial classes—so many Plugsons of Undershot destitute of “sweetness and light”—so Trilling, in The Liberal Imagination, analyzed the callowness of American intellectuals bred up in an “earnest, sincere, solemn” politics that was unforgivably dull.
In his later writing, Trilling pondered more general erosions of culture. The students who came to his Columbia classroom in the 1950s and 1960s seemed to him unequipped by their formative culture to deal profitably with the modern literature to which he reluctantly exposed them. He had long believed that the “most effective agent of the moral imagination” in his time was the novel. But his students, with no experience of a culture “in which stubbornness, pride, and conscious habit” combine to create a moral road map, had no way of assimilating the nihilist strain in modern literature—its “Dionysiac rapture,” its “sadic and masochistic frenzy.” In contrast to earlier generations, brought up in cultures in which Apollonian restraints still lingered, the new generation saw only promise in the madder music, the stronger wine. The novel was not enough.
Trilling’s suspicion that his students were ill-equipped to contend with the modernist wasteland—could not see it as a stopover to something better—was strengthened by the 1968 student revolt at Columbia. That interval of saturnalian misrule showed how remote his students were from the humane idea of harmonizing the soul’s possibilities in the way of sanity. A number of his scholars embraced a New Left that not only reiterated the Old Left dogma that American liberty was a tyranny but also insisted (quite seriously) that psychopathic madness was sane.
Each of us, Arnold wrote in Culture and Anarchy, contains “far within, and unawakened . . . a whole range of powers of thought and feeling” to which we have too little “access” under modern stars. Places exist in our minds that will forever lie as forgotten as last night’s dream unless some chance music recalls them to life.
Like Arnold, Trilling believed that a culture that fails to supply the right music will know all the pain that comes when the soul’s powers are unstimulated, left to rot in the “deep places,” unrealized in worthy endeavor. For the humanist, possibility frustrated (or unintelligently nurtured) is possibility become poisonous. In the Purdue notes, Trilling looked back fondly to the “lost world” of John Erskine’s course, that touchstone of civic-artistic space in which “great works of the imagination” foster a “large-mindedness” that does justice to what is potentially virtuous in both the soul and the community.
Trilling and Arnold were attracted to the premodern idea (taken for granted by every civilization before Gutenberg set up his press) that face-to-face art reaches places that a more impersonal culture can’t. When, in Culture and Anarchy, Arnold says that “culture is of like spirit with poetry, follows one law with poetry,” he means that before modernity’s great leap forward, people organized the education of their young and the life of their communities around the lyric reasonableness that inheres in certain kinds of art—and around the power of certain kinds of poetry to uncover latent possibilities in one’s being.
Trilling died, in 1975, of pancreatic cancer. He perhaps never gave up his hope of “reconstituting the great former will of humanism,” yet he knew that its civic-artistic vision of human flourishing was weakening even in the academy. Only through a vast expenditure of thought and experimental labor could its methods be adapted to the sprawling life that lay beyond the ivory tower—an unlikely outcome. A culturally enervated people will have little appetite for the arduousness of such a renovation and will be drawn instead to simplistic but ever more extreme political solutions, however inimical to freedom.
With much of its population in therapy or on antidepressants, America today suggests that humanists were right in arguing that cultural languor makes for morose souls and injudicious politics. The Left, in its latest woke guise, convinces millions that American liberty is a delusion and that only more coercive measures will avert those apocalypses that, Trilling said, progressives conjure by way of curtailing freedom. On the right, a growing movement regards the Constitution as a piece of paper.
But style is always with us, the desire for comeliness in life. “I call beauty a social quality,” says Burke. Transformative movements in culture are made as much by changes in taste as by deliberate effort: the baroque art of the seventeenth-century Catholic revival, the neoclassical aesthetic that shaped the sensibilities of the American Founders. If Coleridge’s humane “nucleus, round which the capabilities” of particular communities might “crystallize and brighten,” is ever to be realized on a large scale, it will not be through a sudden vogue for The Liberal Imagination but through a modification of taste, a reaction against glass-and-concrete sterility, a craving for playful intricacies of form—the richer cultural modes that Keats adored in “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Top Photo: Columbia University’s commencement, 1930 (AP Photo)
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