Talent and the Individual's Tradition:
History as Art, and Art as Moral Response

Talent and the Individual’s Tradition:
History as Art, and Art as Moral Response

Arthur Henry King and C. Terry Warner
Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah


In his essay, “Tradition and the
Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot said that “not only the best, but the
most individual parts of [the poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors,
assert their immortality most vigorously.”1 The poet’s ancestors are
those to whom he is indebted for all that he has inherited—his language,
his sensibility, his outlook, and his standards of conduct. He acknowledges his
debt by letting these forebears speak through his work. Paradoxically, the more
freely and fully he allows them to speak—which is to say the less he
self-indulgently tries to make his work appear original with him—the
more completely his work bears the stamp of his individuality. Tradition
provides discipline; out of the discipline springs the unselfconscious and
uncontrived quality of all good writing, which in this essay we will call

Eliot wrote this essay before he was
converted to Anglicanism. He thought he was describing a general cultural
phenomenon, which is that a cultural tradition (for example, that of Europe)
could liberate the artist who assimilated it. We agree with Eliot’s thesis, but
only if it is taken to its proper conclusion. That conclusion is that tradition
will liberate the artist only if he becomes a guileless and self-forgetful
individual, and we believe self-forgetfulness is possible only by yielding
one’s heart to God.

Why are assimilation of the tradition
and personal self-forgetfulness indispensable qualities of a genuine artist?
Why do we add this to Eliot’s thesis? Because the artist’s talent is more than
flair and ability that he possesses naturally. It is also a sensitivity to the
ways and heritage of his people; probably without being aware of it he speaks
for them, because he uses the language and images bequeathed to his people by
its forebears. So, in significant part, his talent is something entrusted to
him by others, and it is just for this reason that using this talent self-servingly is forbidden. If he does (and nonuse, too, is a kind of
self-service), what he will produce will be artificial. On the other hand, the
tradition is given fresh life in and through artists who magnify their talents
without self-regard. Nowhere else does literary tradition live. Nowhere but in
such artists can a living past be encountered. Without them, ritual petrifies
and folk art becomes sentimental or vulgar.

We have inverted the title of Eliot’s
essay because we want to express this modification of Eliot’s thesis. The
inversion expands the usual connotations of the terms “talent” and
“tradition.” It suggests that there is a strong sense in which
talents are fully employed by individuals only when they do not regard them as
their own (or simply, do not regard them), and that there is an equally strong
sense in which tradition exists only in the form of individuals in whom it is
reincarnated. We use this word rather than “transmitted” because it
suggests that tradition is not merely transported intact by individuals along
the passageway of time, but renewed and revitalized.

Eliot was thinking of the literary
tradition in a way that comprehends the whole of that tradition, including the
writing of philosophy, criticism, drama, social tracts, psychology, and
history. What we have to say about the historian in this essay might be said
(with appropriate adjustment of detail) about any practitioner of any literary
art, and this is a point that needs to be kept firmly in mind if our thesis is
to be intelligible. For our motivation in thinking about the subject is not
accusatory. We would do ill to write of other people, present or past, as if
their plight were not ours. Indeed, we have keenly felt the moral hazards that
beset historians in our own disciplines of philology and philosophy.

The discipline that must be acquired in
order to assimilate one’s tradition is more than an accumulation of
information. In the historian’s case this discipline is a matter of care, in
every sense of that word: carefulness in studying the random residue which past
people have left of themselves and caring for them even though they are no
longer with us. Without careful discipline there can be no incarnation of
tradition, and without incarnation there is no individuality.

By defining the historian’s discipline
this way, we want to distinguish it from method. Method can be mastered and
misused. For some practicing historians (philosophers, psychologists, and so
forth), this is just what happens; their method is not simply the thoroughgoing
care with which they set out a story of the past. Instead it is an affectation,
a style deliberately adopted with an eye for professional legitimacy and
success. In the writing of the disciplined historian who is absorbed in what is
to be done rather than in any social advantage that might accrue from doing it,
there is unmistakable freshness, individuality. On the other hand, the
historian who employs method and style for social recognition’s sake cannot
duplicate these results. The reason is, in seeking recognition he is
withholding part of himself from his work, controlling his response as a whole
human being to historical situations in favor of what he thinks is an ideal
response of a historian. However he may try to make it “original,”
his work will be stylistically stereotyped. He will produce less than he
understands in order to conform to the accepted canons of historical writing.
Method and rigor are necessary for the sort of historical work we want to
praise, but not sufficient—just as the law is honored by all who live the
gospel, but not all who live the law honor the gospel. Our subject, then, is
the abuse of method which might be thought of as an academic analogue of
self-righteousness. And our thesis is that those who are in the historian’s
profession primarily for themselves will, like the self-righteous, make sounds
of brass.

Until recent years, stylistic anonymity
among historians for self-promotional purposes masqueraded as
“objectivity.” But the issue is not an epistemological one about the
possibility of telling the past’s story “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist,” even though historiographers
may have thought otherwise for decades. The issue is a psychological one about
the quality of the historian’s motivation. With the breakdown of philosophical
positivism in our century, many historians have disclaimed any profession of
objectivity, yet even some of these still assess one another’s work against
(largely tacit) methodological and stylistic norms. It is not the
objectivity/subjectivity axis that should command our ultimate
historiographical concern, but the purity-of-heart/impurity axis. The question
is not whether the historian, like other craftsmen, colors what he makes with
his own personality, for inevitably he does. Rather, the question is what sort
of colors he gives it. Does he discolor it by harboring self-seeking

We have no disposition to pick on
historians. Philosophers are probably even more self-crippling, because the
modes of philosophical thinking are more explicit, canonized, and coercive than
the modes of historical thinking. For example, many philosophers assume that,
except in its most extreme speculative reaches, contemporary logic defines not
only the standard of one type of discourse among others, but the single type of
discourse in which certain kinds of truths may be stated. Historically, logic
was no such standard; instead, it was considered a branch of rhetoric—and
that in fact is what it is. To speak with philosophical precision is to adopt a
very narrow register of human speech in which much that human beings experience
cannot be expressed or described. Why would anyone speak so artificially? Why
would anyone be willing to censor his responses as a whole person in deference
to narrow philosophical canons of expression? Recent work in the rhetoric of
scientific discourse suggests that at least some of the motives are
self-assertion and professional legitimacy, and if there are others, we do not
know them. So philosophers and historians alike make myths when they take
themselves too seriously: when they promote themselves in their work. (Of
course, this means not taking themselves seriously enough as individual human
beings—trusting the canons of their discipline more than their own

Believing that a disciplinary method is
a mode of knowing rather than a heuristic device for arranging material for
specific purposes may not be simply an error. It may be a sin. The historian or
philosopher who uses his discipline self-promotionally finds immediate promise
of exoneration in the view that the discipline can validate his work
independently of his intentions. He clings to the idea that his social purposes
are professionally irrelevant. By this means, he provides himself with an alibi
if his conscience accuses him of seeking his own interest. How can he be accused
of coloring his materials, he insists, when his constant aim is to rid them of
coloration? Preoccupation with technique and method fits Plato’s definition of
sophistry and pinpoints the self-seeking in it: one sends out a highly
controlled signal in order to elicit a highly manipulated response. One can sin
in scholarship as anywhere else. It is wrong in writing to do anything but
write what is in us to be written.

Understanding Past People

The problem of understanding people in
the past, including their policies and institutions, is only a form of the
problem of understanding people generally. By setting out certain features of
our ability to understand our contemporaries, we may illuminate the claims we
are making about historical knowledge. Consider the following points:

Knowing about people is not knowing them;
that is, it is not understanding them. One cannot but withdraw from other human
beings—and thus render them humanly unreal—if one concentrates on
what properties they have, for that construes them as objects. Nietzsche,
Heidegger, Buber, Polanyi, and Levinas have all taught us this by numerous
cogent insights. When we know a person, we know more than we can tell; and
supposing otherwise is a mode of pushing that person away. Understanding people,
as opposed to knowing about them, comes in the course of being with them
unselfconsciously; it is a residuum of living in a sharing, trusting, and
caring community with them. Hence to
observe people in order to know about them rather than to respond unguardedly
to them is to withdraw from the conditions which must obtain if they are to be

Thus, acting as if one is an observing
center rather than a person does not mean one is disinterested. Such action is
an apparent self-obliteration in the form of a perceptual and stylistic
anonymity which is actually an intense preoccupation with guarding,
vindicating, and advancing the self. It is an intense form of self-assertion.

A historian can live with and
understand past people only if he regards the accoutrements of his profession
(the habits, the jargon, the frame of reference, and so forth) as inferior to,
and less valuable than, himself as a man and any man as a man. Only then can he
enter with unselfconscious empathy into others’ situations.

The Historian as Tradition Incarnate

Contrast the self-seeking,
depersonalizing writer of history with the guileless one. The former imposes
generalizations and theories upon “the data.” The latter expresses
patterns of selection in his work that go beyond what he can deliberately
produce or even completely comprehend. These living patterns of selection taken
together are an expression of what he is as one who by historical study has
assimilated tradition through his language, in his interaction with his immediate
forebears. This tradition then expresses itself in his unselfconscious writing
and teaching. And therefore what he produces is right. It is not false to what
he transforms. When he speaks or writes it is as if history is finding one
expression of its accumulating truth in his responses to that part of the world
which has preceded him. The self-serving historian, on the other hand, stylizes
what he comprehends of the past and thwarts the flow of tradition through him.
He is untrue to the living tradition that has enabled him to become both a
person and a historian.

If a historian accepts the gospel, he
is adopted; he gains a new ancestry; a fresh heritage becomes active in him.
His open, artless, and fresh way of seeing and speaking about the past will be
a correlative, an expression, of the new person he has become. If purely
motivated, he gives the history he has absorbed a spontaneous—that is, an
unguarded and guileless—expression. That kind of expression is wisdom. On
the other hand, the self-deceived historian performs something extraneous to
the purpose of the history which had made him what he is, and he is thereby
unfaithful to himself. And if he knows anything about the gospel, he is
unfaithful to the Lord. He does not produce wisdom.

Let us further contrast generalization
and wisdom. Generalizations are generally valid for general purposes; they are
not valid for specific purposes. We may induce a generalization from a number
of specifics, but when we have done so we find that it does not completely
apply to any of them. Perhaps in natural science it could (or could it?), but
historically it will not. Any generalization to be valid has to be one arising
totally from a total specific situation, not a generalization inductively
arrived at over many instances.

This is where the word
“wisdom” comes in: We read history in order to gain the great
historian’s wisdom. In him we encounter a unique historical situation alive in
a living, interfusing, and blending individual, the historian. And we discover
in the nature of that unique totality something of the nature of all other
unique totalities—something which cannot be expressed in any list of
generalizations, however lengthy. That is why history is an art rather than a
science (we are assuming, we suspect incorrectly, that there are in fact
sciences, the essence of which can be expressed in a theory, i.e., in an
adequate and consistent set of generalizations). It is why a fine history, like
a Baucis-and-Philemon pitcher, is inexhaustible (though not unfathomable).
There is no essential difference between the way in which Herodotus and
Thucydides use their material and the way in which Aeschylus and Sophocles use
theirs. The Swedish philosopher, Hans Larsson, said in 1892 (in spite of the
shadow of Herbert Spencer) that social scientists should not ignore the fact
that literature has given them far more subtle exemplars of human behavior than
they themselves describe. (The converse is also true: When social scientists
describe behavior well, they write literature; Adler is not literature but
Freud is, and that is the only reason why Freud is worth more attention.)

The historian can be true to the
history reposited within him only if he endeavors to give it the form that
suits the whole of it, and not merely parts of it. In doing this, he is doing
the same thing as someone who makes a poem. He should from this point of view
recognize himself as an artist and realize that his totality of knowledge
should be expressed through a totality of means. The historian who has a style
that is true to him will produce history that is also true to him, and because
it is true to him in this naive sense it will have truth in it.

This is a patently different sense of
“truth” than is current among many social scientists. It is
predicated upon the view that contact with history is not contact with the past
as such but with the historian who embodies the tradition in his own unique
way. The book he writes is only an aspect of what he has achieved in human
terms and cannot be understood apart from that achievement. The historian whose
style is true to him will be one in whom the tradition will have been truly
incarnated; style and what we are calling “incarnation” are but
aspects of the same thing. And if the style is wrong, the history written will
be wrong. There is no question of the style’s varying independently of the
“facts”—of the style’s being wrong and the “facts”
right or of the style being right and the “facts” wrong. To think
otherwise is to have a befuddled—an objectivist—view of factuality.
In the light of this personifying view of truth Gibbon comes off as a great
historian, for his style expresses himself. The same can be said of Thucydides,
Herodotus, and Livy; it could not be said of those nineteenth-century
historians who were eager to put rational order onto the material; or of those
twentieth-century historians who consider it imperative to order the material
professionally and impersonally. There is never a more significant result of
the study of history than the historian himself.

Historical Uniqueness and Moral

These three things happen together if
they happen at all: the author is self-forgetful, the historical situation is
captured in its uniqueness, and—we have not mentioned this yet—the
history written serves as an inexhaustible fund for moral lessons. Yet it is
not didactic in any ordinary sense of that term. Only a history that in the
first instance tried to abstract out the moral content of a past situation
would in the second instance be compelled to try to reimpose it in the form of
cautionary conclusions.

A situation captured in its uniqueness
has moral relevance because it is a whole situation like our own situation. We
are free to see it in any of indefinitely many ways, including those most
instructive for us. But when the historical situation is subsumed under a
generalization, it is seen in just one way, and we can easily exclude ourselves
from it. Many similarities between that situation and our circumstance are
artificially suppressed. (This is one of the great lessons of Nietzsche’s
doctrine that all events, including the propagation of ideas, have multiple
genealogies.) We let our preoccupation with discrete personal properties and
comparisons become a pseudo-Mosaic alternative to conscience. (Why aren’t we
led by everything we see to have a broken heart and contrite spirit? Certainly
it is not because we don’t have ample cause.) But letting the story tell itself
in all of the completeness with which we spontaneously apprehend it is
tantamount to a repudiation of this pseudo-Mosaic context. The reader is left
to face up to the whole of the matter—to be impressed by moral dimensions
and standards inherent in the story, dimensions which even the author may not
suspect are there.

Take the example of David. David is not
just any oriental monarch. He has been chosen by the Lord to be the leader of
Israel. He has shown himself obedient in every particular to the Lord. He has
not tried to hasten or evade the Lord’s plan for him; he has not anticipated
the time when he is to take over the kingdom; he has left the shape and
direction of his destiny to the Lord. He spares Saul’s life more than once. He
makes his way faultlessly to the throne. Who else in history ever did that?
Only after he has achieved the throne does he fail, and the story of his
failure, down to his last bloody deathbed utterance, is told in more detail
than the story of his success. Now to make the moral point of the story of
David other than the way in which Nathan did would be to hide that point. That
is, to impose a superficial moral generalization on the story would be to rob
it of its moral applicability to every reader— its moral
universalizability. What Nathan did was to set David a trap by presenting a
parable, and David fell into the trap. The climax of David’s life is Nathan’s
statement: “Thou art the man.” This climax is not set out in detail
and the moral point is not put in a proposition: it could not be. We cannot even
say that the story shows the moral point (i.e., the punishment for adultery and
murder). That is too cut and dried and limited a characterization, for the
punishment does not “fit the crime”: the crime’s consequences are its
punishment—to be an adulterer is the punishment for adultery. Instead,
the history’s moral point pulsates throughout the whole of it, as through a
parable, and cannot be abstracted from it. And we in our own individual and
different ways—in ways apposite to our individual cases—draw the
parable’s conclusion—a conclusion which may well differ from what we may
discover upon returning to the story later, after further experiences have
altered us. We are allowed to experience David’s life totally, to sense its
emotive tides, to work out the ironical implications of the account. The
inspired historian has produced, in a language of the whole man which uses all
the devices of rhetoric (including juxtaposition), a better biography, a finer
account, than any other anywhere. It is written for a spiritually educated and
subtle people. It goes as far as history can go, which is to re-create the
story of a past human being in the terms in which it is lived and valued, which
is to say, in predominantly moral terms.

The closest a self-deceiving historian
can come to morality is this: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
This effort at self-decontamination is not found in a historian who produces
pure history, precisely because his acknowledgment of impurity has been for him
a path to purity. The response of the guileless historian is therefore,
“Lord, have mercy on me, there go I also.” This is what the prophet
Nathan, speaking for the Lord, meant when he said, “Thou art the
man.” And for us, in all of the pages of history, there is implicit in
every line the unarticulated reminder: “We are the men.”

Thus does the response of the guileless
historian place him in community with the past people he encounters in his
work. He understands them as people. It is remarkable that only as we become
more individual, rather than less, can we live in community with one another.
And conversely: Only as we live in and through one another in our individual
uniqueness—the historian taking past people to understand and they taking
him to be understood by—is it possible for us to partake of each other’s
strengths and be individually richer for it. Otherwise, our relation to one
another is manipulative: we treat ourselves and each other as
replicable—indeed, as artifacts which in our social interaction with one
another we ourselves are continuously producing. For those of us who insulate
ourselves from one another by using each other, even the present is a sort of
past, cadaverized, an unbridgeable distance away; whereas for the pure even the
past is present, vivified and immediately felt. This is in the spirit not only
of the gospel but of thinkers like Heidegger, who have tried to clear away the
intellectual debris from our modern mentality so that we might receive the
revelation from God if only it were to come.

What Shall It Profit a Man?

It cannot profit a person to try to be individualistic in his way of
perceiving others’ situations or in his way of writing about them. It is as
unprofitable as trying to be nonchalant or sincere. One who does not feel
exigencies in his present situation is nonchalant; one who tries to be
nonchalant is tense. One who is concentrating wholly on something other than
himself in what he is doing is sincere; one who is trying to be sincere is
concentrating on himself, no matter how hard he pretends he is not. Taking
thought to make ourselves or our work be some particular way or other is in principle self-defeating.

Another reason why it is profitless to
try to be an individual is that taking thought to make ourselves is self-delimiting. Taking thought for the morrow in any way at all means trying to
conform to an anticipated pattern of self which in principle is too simple to
be a self. The more we conform to that pattern, the more we make of ourselves not
an individual but rather a replicable artifact—our own artifact. And the
work we produce is also too simple to be the work of the self, for behind it
was the motivation to produce that which will reflect a character too simple to
be a self.

A third reason why we cannot by taking
thought add a cubit to our stature as historians: By trying to conform
ourselves to a replicable model of what a historian should be we block our own
creativity. How? Taking thought for the morrow means substituting an imagined tomorrow
for the one that is really going to be there. And as we do not know the one
that is really going to be there, we prepare ourselves for a number of
hypothetical tomorrows that will never come. We do this instead of being ready,
by merely being ourselves, for any tomorrow that will come. When we wake up in
the morning, we don’t readily pick up the thread of the day that awaits us, for
we have determined in advance where it will be, and therefore we do not see
where it really is. Alas for Benjamin Franklin, planning his day at 5:00 A.M.,
how he will manipulate various Philadelphians! He must compulsively and
obsessively try to extrude many threads, to manipulate many clues to the
labyrinth in order to convince himself that he is on the right track. And Franklin’s
kind of planning for the future is simply the mirror image of the self-serving
historian’s planning for the past. The generalizations the historian has
convinced himself are the right guidelines for interpreting history preclude
him from discovering new patterns in the history he encounters; he is only able
to gather more details.

Here is a fourth reason why writing the
kind of history we have suggested is not something a person could possibly set
out to do: To try to get for ourselves in any fashion is to be anxious over the
treasure we seek, and to be thus anxious is to forfeit the freedom and
spontaneity or openness necessary for a total response to a total situation.
That is a message of W. H. Auden’s poem, “The Bard.”

He was their servant—some say he
was blind—
And moved among their faces and their things;
Their feeling gathered in him like a wind
And sang: they cried—’It is a God that sings’—

And worshipped him and set him up apart
And made him vain till he mistook for song
The little tremors of his mind and heart
At each domestic wrong.

Songs came no more: he had to make them.
With what precision was each strophe planned.
He hugged his sorrow like a plot of land,
And walked like an assassin through the town,
And looked at men and did not like them,
But trembled if one passed him with a frown.2

The moment we start to care about
succeeding we forfeit every possibility of it.

Auden’s bard was, to begin with, a
servant; later, a slave. At first he did not regard himself as being original.
He did not repeat himself at all. Instead he expressed what came to him to be
expressed and thus passed on an oral tradition. Later, he insisted on his
originality and individuality and suffocated his creativity. In the first phase
he was a classicist; in the second, a romantic. A Milton landscape is a
characteristic landscape—it is a typical landscape; yet at the same time
it is Milton’s landscape. He did not try to make it his: it is his because in looking in another direction than himself
he did not obstruct the expression of his personality in and through it. It is
only the inferior artist who feels a need to make a highly individual response
in order to be able to do something original, new, and different. The result is
strained. The result is precious. The result, ironically, is replicable: the
original of the piece is already a stereotype. For his part, the classicist is
never concerned with individuality for its own sake. He is concerned with tradition.
Were we living in 1798 and afflicted with tremors of insecurity about whether
what we were writing would be regarded as individual, we might take exception
to this statement, because our contemporaries would be interpreting the
tradition as a means of throttling individuality. But the truth is that
tradition can liberate the person who interacts with it.

Almost any moderately intelligent human
being could produce something highly individual and profound if he took no
thought for what was in it for him, provided he had assimilated a good deal of
the tradition. The old statement that everyone has at least one book in him is
relevant here; and, indeed, we have had occasional examples in English
literature of a peculiar pellucidity appearing just once. John Woolman’s Journal is an example. Compare it with
Franklin’s Autobiography. The
inadequacy and arrogance of Franklin resemble the explanations of the knights
in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
They are murderers who rationally explain away their act. (Whatever books there
may have been in Franklin, he murdered them.) It is not beside the point that
in creating the rationalizing knights Eliot was satirizing Shaw. Shaw’s plays
are appealing to many, for they offer an easy clarity, and (like many psychiatrists
and psychotherapists and like Eliot’s knights) a facile—a reasonable—mode of explaining away
personal guilt. The witch doctor, the advertiser, and the politician make
similar offers—reasonable offers.

These offers are quackery. An essential
feature of this kind of quackery is its respectability. The offers come in the
guise of a virtuous practice to be followed, an approved technique or method,
with all of the half-suspected quasitheory shared by the people who endorse it.
The quacks rail at historicism and point to the history Hitler wrote as a
misuse of history. That is a way of establishing their respectability by comparison. Their doctrine is almost
irresistible when made so respectable—so decently indecent. From that
point they can perpetrate immoralities in an atmosphere of legitimacy, as in
the contemporary theater where lewdness frolics on the stage without being
condemned as such because, besides being immoral, it is also dishonest about
what it is. Was not Hitler partly seduced by the wrong kind of history that he

For a person to be a historian—a
genuine historian—is for him cheerfully to run the risk that he may
never be acknowledged as such. He will also have to concede in advance that he
himself may discover what he has had to say after, rather than before, he
writes his words. He will draw his identity at a source different from the well
of his peers’ opinions.


We have been advocating what used to be
called “enthusiasm.” Contrary to what some would have us believe,
enthusiasm has nothing to do with romanticism; and if they think it
historically has nothing to do with classicism, it is because they tend not to
consider the classicists, like Milton and Dante, who were enthusiastic

We acknowledge that nothing could be
more alien to the intellectualist ideal of calculated impersonality. It is true
that this ideal seems not altogether unwarranted, for historical instances of
enthusiasm have been justifiably attacked. There is this danger in enthusiasm,
that impure people, like Hitler, will yield to an impure spirit. Our thesis in
this paper is that by the same token, there is an equally horrifying danger in
the repudiation of enthusiasm—namely, in the protection which some erect
against novelty and spontaneity in themselves—a disguised form of
demonism in which seizure by the Holy Spirit is precisely what is resisted. The
one alternative to being possessed by some sort of devil is to yield
to—voluntarily to let ourselves be taken over by—God’s Spirit. The
depersonalizing “wisdom” of the age, like the so-called wisdom of
ages generally, will when unmasked be seen to be only the self-protective
smoke screen of a professional clique so fearful of self-revelation through
their productions that they have yielded themselves up proudly to the demon of

What was to be the value of the long
looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”3

If you ask us to point to a historian
who represents much of what we say, we can readily do it: Hugh Nibley, of whom
we thought as we wrote. Who among us has been more completely absorbed in peoples
of the past and less occupied with impressing anyone with his style? Who has
expressed his own personality so well, with so little thought for it? Who has
better inspired us to care about and learn from the vast population of
historical souls who have intrigued and delighted him over the years? And he
has done this not by exhortation but by his example of wonder and absorption in
his constant learning and his gracious acts of sharing it with us.


This essay originally appeared in a
slightly different form in the unpublished “Tinkling Cymbals: Essays in
Honor of Hugh Nibley,” John W. Welch, ed., 1978.

1. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, new ed. (New York:
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1960), 4.

2. W. H. Auden, A Selection by the Author (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1958), 60.

3. T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York:
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 184-85.