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Obviously Protestants Ruin Poetry

The folks over at Sententiae Antiquae recently posted a passage worth reading from a letter of Benjamin Rush to Ashbel Green from 1807. Therein Rush says:

No more Latin should be learned in these schools than is necessary to translate that language into English, and no more Greek than is necessary to read the Greek Testament. One half or two-thirds of the time now misspent in learning more of those two languages should be employed in learning Hebrew and in studying Jewish antiquities. Eastern customs. Eastern geography, ecclesiastical and natural history, and astronomy, all of which are calculated to discover the meaning and establish the truth of many parts of the Scriptures. No one of the Latin nor Greek poets nor historians should be read in these schools, by which means a pious ignorance will be preserved of the crimes of heathen gods and men related not only without censure but often with praise. “Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them after that they be destroyed before thee, and that thou inquire not after their gods saying how did these nations serve their gods?” Deuteronomy xii. 30. All that is necessary to be known of the heathen mythology and of the crimes of men may be learned from the Bible, where they are recorded probably only for the sake of showing their immutable and necessary connection with the righteous vengeance of Heaven. Nor should moral philosophy be taught in these schools. It is in its present form, according to Mr. Edwards’ account of it, ‘infidelity systematized.’

Now, this is just the kind of thing that Christian culture vultures fidgety for BEAUTY use to ding Protestants as hopeless philistines (Rush and Green were both associated with Presbyterianism). No poetry?! Outrageous! Those Puritans!, scoff, spit, SMH. No wonder Protestants can’t write! Idiots!

All of this, of course, obscures an inconvenient truth–which is to say that those who make this kind of charge play a little, um, fast and loose with history, generally giving a pass to those who might be part of the GREAT TRADITION (sic) and of whom there are fancy paintings by Important Artists, while wringing their hands over the vulgarian Prots who gave us the Amish romance novel.

But where, pray, might Rush have gotten such an idea? Well, I dunno, but–and here’s the inconvenient truth–pretty much everything Rush says was already said by Augustine in Book 2 of On Christian Teaching. Augustine even (sort of) plumps for Hebrew, though, where Jerome was devoted to the Hebraica veritas, Augustine bizarrely gave preference to the LXX.

Yes, yes, of course On Christian Teaching 2 is where Augustine famously talks of “plundering the Egyptians”;1 but we should recall that (1) he mostly means Platonism (i.e. philosophy, not poetry); (2) he was not really what you might call a “fan” of poetry (cf. the Confessions passim);2; and (3) he concludes the book by saying, “#Actually, you can get whatever is useful from the pagans by just reading the Bible–but wait, there’s more!”:

But just as poor as the store of gold and silver and garments which the people of Israel brought with them out of Egypt was in comparison with the riches which they afterwards attained at Jerusalem, and which reached their height in the reign of King Solomon, so poor is all the useful knowledge which is gathered from the books of the heathen when compared with the knowledge of Holy Scripture. For whatever man may have learned from other sources, if it is hurtful, it is there condemned; if it is useful, it is therein contained. And while every man may find there all that he has learned of useful elsewhere, he will find there in much greater abundance things that are to be found nowhere else, but can be learned only in the wonderful sublimity and wonderful simplicity of the Scriptures.

Here’s the deal: love of literature and its BEAUTY!!! does not come from “the tradition” as such. Most “theologians” were hostile to it for over a millenium. It’s not a legacy of Augustine; it’s not a legacy of Thomas. It is in large measure a legacy of the Renaissance and of humanism (indeed, Dante’s ventriloquizing of Thomas in the Paradiso, in which he suddenly finds himself a devotee of Dante’s poetic art, is a kind of proto-Renaissance move, as Robert Hollander points out).

Certain aspects of that humanism then found a ready home in the curricular revisions of Protestant universities. That brings us to another inconvenient truth: one will find far more appreciative things said, and much more constructive use made, of the poets in the writings of someone like–wait for it–the Protestant Philip Melanchthon3 than he will find anywhere in the entire corpus of Augustine or Thomas.

So, then. I happen to think Rush is wrong in what he says above. I think the Greek and Roman poets and historians should be read, preferably in the original.4 But it’s not as though I think that in spite of my Protestantism.5 That would be absurd. Why? Because the most effective Christian counter to Rush’s Augustinianism (you thought I was going to say “puritanism”–oops!) is, precisely, a Protestant humanist one.

  1. For more on this topic, see my essay in this book.
  2. Does he protest too much, thereby revealing a strong attraction to the poetic? Of course; the same is true of Plato. But Augustine’s anxieties and guilty pleasures are not the point.
  3. A longer, revised version of this essay will appear in Davenant’s forthcoming Philosophy and the Christian.
  4. Increased study of the historians, by the way, is another legacy of the Protestant university.
  5. I also think that the aforementioned culture vultures don’t take Augustine’s Platonist critique of poetry with nearly enough seriousness; but that is a topic for a different time.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

2 replies on “Obviously Protestants Ruin Poetry”

Just for what it’s worth, Leithart’s oft-bashed argument has nothing to do with whether or not Protestantism is prudish or tear-out-the-organs puritanical; of course Catholics and Protestants (and, hell, orthodox iconoclasts) do that sort of thing at times. He was drawing a connection between traditions with impoverished sacramental theology and a lack of BEAUTY!!! which I think is totally valid.

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