Not long ago, an astonishing book landed on my desk. It’s called “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan” and it weighs in at an impressive 1,076 pages. The author is Anthony Kronman, a former dean of the Yale Law School.
In an age of academic specialization, this is an epically ambitious book. In an age when intellectuals have lost their sense of high calling, this is an intellectual adventure story based on the notion that ideas drive history, and that to dedicate yourself to them is to live a bigger, more intense life.
Kronman has always had an abiding obsession: to understand the meaning of the modern world. “Since I first began to think about such things in even a modestly self-conscious way,” he writes, “I have been haunted by the thought that destiny has placed me in a world with a unique historical identity and been anxious to know what this is.”
Kronman has never been religious, but he felt that to understand the current era, you had to understand it in relation to all the other moments in history.
He was convinced that if he understood the meaning of this history, he would be saved from the moral perplexities of life, and he would even in some way conquer death: “Although we cannot be immortal, the world is, and … every increase in our understanding of it, and in our power to sing its song, is a further, deeper experience of the deathlessness of the world.”
When Kronman was a college student in the 1960s, Karl Marx explained all things to him. In Marx’s view, history is driven by a single mechanism, class conflict, and it has a goal, communism, and we’re one revolutionary step away from it.
Then Kronman became a follower of Max Weber. Weber argued that science and reason give us vast powers, but the price is that we no longer feel our lives enchanted by religious significance. We live in a godless universe and must have the courage to face that squarely.
Later, as a middle-aged law professor, he became more Burkean. The search for a big philosophic explanation for everything is a fool’s errand, but we can gradually add to the practical wisdom of our species, and work out better ways to do things.
But the anti-philosophical position is too cold. Kronman wanted a worldview that would explain the sense of loving gratitude that is the proper response to living: “A life without the yearning to reach the everlasting and divine is no longer recognizably human.”
He is now a “born-again pagan.” He’s learned from the Greeks and the atheists, but he thinks such thinkers render people too prideful and solitary. He’s also learned from the Christians, but he thinks their emphasis on the next world disparages this world. He doesn’t like the way religion asks the intellect to bow down before faith.
To be a born-again pagan is to believe that God is not something outside the world; God is the world, down to its smallest detail. Kronman’s mother’s last significant words were, “The world comes back.” He reflects, “perhaps what she meant is this — that the world, from which we are separated at birth, returns to reclaim us at death, that it leaves no stragglers behind.”
His guiding philosophers now are Spinoza, Nietzsche and Walt Whitman, men who saw God “as the eternal intelligibility of the world itself, now expanded to include the whole of reality.”
Whitman, for example, was the prophet of diversity. The point is not for all of us to approximate a single model or a fixed pattern of living. Instead, “the supreme goal of democracy is to promote the uniqueness of every individual” — for each person to be vibrantly distinct.
Democracy isn’t a political or legal bargain. It’s enchanted like romantic love, but on a larger scale. Each democratic citizen receives the love of her fellows as a gift to which the only appropriate response is gratitude and love in return.
The poet has a special responsibility as society’s seer, who grasps the eternity in the present and sings to people about their own unique divine powers within.
Personally, I have issues with born-again paganism. Shapeless, it leads to laxness — whatever moral quandary you bring it, it gives back exactly the answer you’d prefer to hear. It throws each person back on himself and leads to self-absorption and atomization, as everybody naturally worships the piece of God that is one’s self. Naive, it neglects the creedal structures that are necessary for those moments when love falters.
But Kronman’s book is like a gift from another epoch, a time when more people did believe that time-tested books held the golden keys to life, a time when people defined themselves by philosophic commitments as much as by partisan, sexual or ethnic ones, a time when it was generally believed that if you didn’t throw yourself in some arduous way at the big questions of your moment, you’d live a meager life, and would have to live and die with that awful knowledge.