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Plato has gone before us

Conservatism needs a new prophet. James Matthew Wilson is the man for the job, and The Vision of the Soul is his calling card. Like T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, Russell Kirk, Roger Scruton, and many other heroes of the Right, Wilson understands that conservatism is a literary project with impeccable aesthetic and philosophical bona fides. And in The Vision of the Soul, Wilson asserts that the tradition that our project is called to conserve is dominated by one name: Plato.

Beyond partisan rhetoric there remains a widespread longing for excellence in society. And no one has articulated how this will to conserve operates better than Plato. Even as we innovate to our peril, we remain generally humble before the sacred task of maintaining and passing on what we have inherited. Wilson reminds us that even from the cesspool of modern art we find “the permanent things” oozing out. “The human intellect,” Wilson claims, “can really but imperfectly grasp the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.”

The Vision of the Soul
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
in the Western Tradition
By James Matthew Wilson
The Catholic University of America Press.
Pp. 352. $29.95

And since such things exist and we can have them, the conservative is the one who pleads with his fellows to accept no substitutes. The conservative’s task is therefore countercultural, “an anti-modern product of modernity.” This book takes us on a beautiful journey to a better way that sails, like the voyages of the fleet of conservative apologists since Edmund Burke, with clear skies and strong winds on the strange waters of an “untraditional defense of tradition.”

In Part I, Wilson describes the Western tradition, knowledge of which no scholar or commentator can now take for granted, let alone wonder why anyone would think it worthwhile. The crassness of the marketplace, the appetite for pornography, the addiction to our screens, and every other malady of 21st-century life belie a holy source. The world is good and has gone wrong.

Our pursuits are vain inasmuch as they miss their true mark, the Forms or, as Christians understand, God himself. We are, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, starving for real sustenance but accustom ourselves to poison instead. Wilson’s intimate knowledge of the philosophical wrong turns out of Platonism is astounding. And unlike your typical reactionary grouch, he recognizes Kant, Nietzsche, and the rest of post-Enlightenment thinkers as valuable but unpleasing variations on the major Platonic theme rather than a different tune entirely.

Part II proves Wilson’s point more surprisingly. This section is for the heartier philosophical appetite, but making room for it is rewarding. To Wilson, the modernist musicologist Theodor Adorno, of all people, becomes a pivotal player in a Platonic conservation mission. And with him comes Wilson’s powerful aesthetic argument for the examined life in our culture.

“The fine arts in their beauty,” he notes, “reawaken the soul to the perception of beauty as a property of being in general, and so they initiate or train us in the seeing of reality in its fullness.” Adorno was a Marxist who poo-poohed America’s cultural offerings even while taking refuge from Hitlerism within her borders. Nonetheless, in Adorno’s rejection of the American project and the poor artistic legacy of capitalism, he reinforced the intrinsic virtues that the ancients prized and that every -ism contorts.

Adorno’s near contemporary, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, arrives at a similar destination via neo-Thomism. His brand of modernism rightly looks back to the Middle Ages, leaping over the pretension of the Enlightenment, to remember when “man created more beautiful things … and adored himself less.” Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are not the stuff of utopia, but of time and space. Some times and spaces have them in greater abundance than others.

In Part III, Wilson takes on the failed, substitute values of contemporary culture directly. “Relativism is the liquidation of every story,” he argues. And try as they might, the Enlightenment’s inheritors have not eradicated a fundamental fact: Story is all there is. Hence, conservatism is literary.

Wilson develops a brilliant insight that even the non-philosopher can easily follow: “the logos of reason and the mythos of story … are effectively the same.” The Bible asserts this principle on every page. We are a part of a grand narrative that is God’s poem (Eph. 2:10), and yet our culture throws us onto a dangerous path of abstraction. “What is truth?” Pilate asks us across the centuries. But deep within the human heart, we know the terrifying and liberating alternative. As St. Augustine, Plato’s greatest Christian inheritor, puts it, “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Read The Vision of the Soul right away, and read it carefully. Then place it alongside the texts on your shelf that help you make your home in this world while longing to see the world to come. James Matthew Wilson has written a new classic. For it we give thanks to God, and to Plato.


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