One nice thing about Maine is that you can go home again. We Rumfords had been doing it for a couple hundred years. The men of our family, and sometimes the women too, would head out on their great adventure—crewing on a clipper bound for China, settling Oregon, converting the heathen (Uncle Bert got eaten in the Congo), going to war—but those who survived usually came back home again to Hartland and its surrounding farms.
Whether they returned as successes or failures made little difference. As I’d heard a chaplain say, in his day Jesus Christ was accounted a spectacular failure, so failure wasn’t something for Christians to worry much about. We had enough in our family to show we didn’t. I was just the most recent.
I wanted time alone to read, think, and simply live. I moved into what we called “The Old Place,” a shingle Cape Cod up on one of Maine’s few hills. The view down over the fields and ponds somehow helped the thinking part, especially in the evening as the water reflected the western sky, orange and crimson, fading to black.
No one had lived in the old place since my grandparents died, but we kept it because it had always been ours. It had no electricity, and the well worked with a bucket on a windless; by modern standards I guess it wasn’t a fit habitation. That suited me fine. I was tired of everything modern. I wanted a world with, as Tolkien put it, less noise and more green.
I’d put some money by during my time in the Corps, enough to cover me for some months anyway; the garden and deer in season (or, if need be, out of season) would keep me from starving. The whole country was overrun with deer, more than when white men first came to North America, because there were so many restrictions on guns and hunting. In some places they had become pests; we literally could not defend ourselves from our own food.
Once I got settled, I took up Professor Sanft’s books, “that golden chain of masterpieces which link together in single tradition the more permanent experiences of the race,” as one philosopher put it. Homer and Plato, Aristotle and Aristophanes, Virgil and Dante, and Shakespeare and the greatest literary work of all time, the Bible, which was once banned from American schools, which shows as well as anything what America had become.
I had some trouble getting going—Plato isn’t light reading—but I found my way in through my life-long study, war, beginning with the Anabasis of Xenophon. What a story! Ten thousand Greeks, cut off and surrounded in the middle of their ancient enemy, the Persian Empire, have to hack and march their way back out again—and they made it home. It was as exciting as anything Rommel or “Panzer” Meyer or any other modern commander wrote.
From Xenophon and Herodotus and Thucydides and Caesar and Tacitus and all the rest, military and not (I did finally make it through Plato, too), I learned three things. Maybe they were basic, even simple. I’m not a great philosopher. But they were important enough to shape the rest of my life.
The first was that these ancient Greeks and Romans and Hebrews and more modern Florentines and Frenchmen and Englishmen both were us and made us. They had the same thoughts you and I have, more or less, but they had them for the first time, at least the first time history records. Do you want a thoroughly modern send-up of Feminism in all its silliness? Then read Aristophanes‘ Lysistrata—it’s only 2500 years old. For a chaser, recall the line of 17th century English poet and priest John Donne: “Hope not for mind in woman; at their best, they are but mummy possessed.” Pick any subject you want, except science, and these folks were there before us, thousands of years before us in some cases, with the same observations, thoughts and comments we offer today. We are their children.
That led to my second lesson: nothing is new. The only person since the 18th century to have a new idea was Nietzsche, and he was mad. Even science was well along the road we still follow by the time Napoleon was trying to conquer Europe.
Back in the old USA, newness—novelty—was what everyone wanted. Ironically, that too was old, but early 21st century Americans were so cut off from their past they didn’t know it (or much else, beyond how to operate the TV remote and their cell phone).
You see, sometime around the middle of the 18th century, we men of the West struck Faust’s bargain with the Devil. We could do anything, have anything, say anything, with one exception: verweile doch, du bist so schön. We could not tarry, we could not rest, we could not get it right and then keep it that way. Always we must have something new: that was the bargain, and ultimately the reason we pulled our house down around us.
Satan, like God, has a sense of humor. His joke on us was that most of the stuff we thought was new, wasn’t. Especially the errors, blunders, and heresies; they had all been tried, and failed, and understood as mistakes long, long before. But we had lost our past, so we didn’t know. We were too busy passing around “information” with our computers to study any history. So it was all new to us, and we had to make the same mistakes over again. The price was high.
The third lesson, and the one that shaped the rest of my life, was that these thoughts and lessons and concepts and morals that make up our Western culture—for that is what these books contain—were worth fighting for. As Pat Buchanan said, they were true, they were ours, and they were good. They had given us, when we still paid attention to them, the freest and most prosperous societies man has ever known.
They were all bought at a price. Christ died on a cross. The Spartans still lie at Thermopylae. Socrates served Athens as a soldier before he drank its hemlock, also obedient to its laws. Cicero spoke on duty and died at the hands of the Roman government. Saints’dies natales, their birthdays, were the days they died to this world. Every truth we hold and are held by is written in blood, and sweat and tears and cold hours scribbling in lonely garrets with not enough to eat. None of it came cheap – none of it.
We Victorians, those of my generation anyway, know that fighting for the truth is not a metaphor. We killed for it and we died for it. By the 21st century, that was the only way to save it, weapon in hand. That, too, is nothing new, just another lesson we had forgotten and had to learn all over again.