The philosopher Epicurus has given his name to a kind of gross, sumptuous hedonism which he himself never espoused. Even his detractors, who were many, conceded that he was upright, patriotic, and modest, even austere, in his personal habits. Epicurus, after all, preached more the avoidance of spiritual anxiety than the pursuit of pleasure, and the pleasures he valued most highly were those of the mind. Lucretius gives us a really splendid picture of it, envisioning a few friends sitting by the riverside in the summer, enjoying a simple meal, the beauty of the day, and intellectual conversation. Epicurus died in terrible pain -- strangury, caused by bladder stones he could not pass. But he also died calmly, uncomplaining. Epicurus was not a barbarian.
His philosophy did, however, pose a threat to the life of the mind, one that his fiercely loyal follower Lucretius could not see. That is, if the avoidance of pain is all there is to life, and if no object of the intellect may be admitted unless it can be proved by what can be seen or heard or touched, then even the moral judgment that enjoying lentils and cheese with wise friends by the river is a good thing, and that drowning roast peacocks in Falernian while dabbling with slave girls and boys is a bad thing, must be ruled out. Epicurus was a good man, but Epicureanism tends not to produce good men. Cicero, who loathed the philosophy, saw it. Virgil, who was attracted to the philosophy, saw it too. It marked no advance for Greek civilization, but a slippage back towards barbarism.
So here's a second mark of the barbarian: the habitual relapse into easy gratification; the inability to sustain for long a noble and self-transcending quest. Washington at Valley Forge was not a barbarian. The Roman legions, by this definition anyway, were not barbarian. Are we? The other night I was with a group of Christian homeschoolers watching a Memorial Day ballgame at a minor league park. After the game and before the fireworks display, we were regaled by a dozen or so teenagers from one of the local schools, who had gotten up a routine called "Project Peace." The kids meant well, but even if the song they were singing had a recognizable structure to it, or identifiable notes, they couldn't sing it. It was part rapped out, part wailed, while the kids, in loose T-shirts and baggy pants, pranced about the infield in what was evidently some imitation of a dance. We were adjured to "love everyone," and that would bring about "peace on earth." There were a few political sentimentalisms which I let go in one ear and out the other; not an easy thing to do, given the decibels.
Yes, the kids meant well, but there was no order to their thought -- really, there was no thought at all, only the weak reliance upon slogans they had picked up at school or from mass entertainment. There was no order to the music, no order to the dance, not much order to their dress, a kind of slackness in the posture, and a self-gratifying assurance that they could teach their elders a thing or two about war and peace. Before and after their performance the stadium speakers blared at us, with commercials and bad pop music, so that you could only hold a conversation with the person next to you, if you tried hard. Flash, shriek, bang, blare, glitz, boom. That was, as I said, before the fireworks.
I know that in Tudor and Stuart England people enjoyed tying bears to stakes and setting hounds at them, then betting to see which would kill which. And that a man's head might not always be attached to his body, but might be stuck on a pole, for deterrent effect. On the other hand -- ordinary people were apparently capable of sustained intellectual effort. Shakespeare's groundlings understood quite a deal more than we suppose. People not only sat through the sermons of Launcelot Andrewes; they bought them when they were published. Members of the middle class who had a little money made Sidney's Arcadia a popular success. And I've been listening to the polyphonic music of Thomas Tallis lately -- on a CD called Spem in alium, with David Willcocks directing the Saint John's College Choir. Check out the haunting Cum transisset Sabbatum, with its blending of simple, long-held soprano tones and more hurried tenor and bass melodic phrases. It has struck me that that is the sort of thing that Shakespeare would have heard in London when he attended services on a feast day. Perhaps -- someone who knows more about liturgical history can advise me here -- perhaps he might have heard the polyphony of Tallis or Byrd or Bull on any Sunday, in one of the bigger churches of London. What is most impressive to me about the singing -- usually unaccompanied; these are compositions for the human voice, with Spem in alium pulling off a forty-part harmony -- is the unearthly sound of the children; the soprano parts were sung by boys. Now that's something. We have nothing comparable: children were an essential part of works of the highest artistic caliber.
Yes, I know that the Nazis liked Wagner. I am not saying that a taste for great art inoculates one against evil, or even against a certain barbarism. I am saying that barbarism goes along nicely with "art" that fails to elevate one's soul above the passions of the passing hour (Christian rock, perhaps?), and usually those are the grosser passions, too. If you enjoy Shakespeare, you may still be a barbarian. But if you do not have the capacity, because you do not have the intellectual and emotional discipline, to love virtue, then you will probably also shirk the attention that Sidney and Tallis and Shakespeare demand. You'll fall back upon the easy fix. So did the Royal Shakespeare Company recently, giving the world a Bottom who swived the fairy Titania, and did it with jouncing and asinine braying. Come to think of it, that would have been better than Project Peace. Maybe better than much of what passes for church music, too. Someone's braying, Lord, kumbaya.