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I can imagine no better description of Cairns; all one need do is change the verb tenses from past to present. My only doubt about the limning is that its outlines are a bit too rarified for Cairns, who takes ribald interest in much that otherworldly types would consider sordid. He did, after all, live a long time in our nation’s capital and was in daily contact with a breed of men whom it would be flattering to describe as unsavory. Politicians radiate an odor that he found offensive, but from a distance they are amusing animals to watch. Which is not to say that he didn’t like some and even admire a few of them—William Fulbright, for example. But in the main he agrees with Mencken that the only way to look at a politician is down. It is altogether fitting that when asked, in the summer of 1955, to sift through some 700 of Mencken’s famous Monday articles for the Evening Sun and select the ones he thought most worthy of publication in book form, Cairns should have chosen 69 pieces that were concerned chiefly with politics. The volume, A Carnival of Buncombe, appeared the following year with an introduction by Malcolm Moos. Cairns also selected and edited the contents of H.L. Mencken: The American Scene (1965); his introduction to that volume is one of the finest essays ever written on Mencken.
Having mentioned his friendship with Mencken, I should remark that Cairns has known most of the eminent writers of his day, or at least those of the English-speaking world who have been at all amenable to the bonds of friendship. I list a few of those he has talked about to me, always with affection even though he may have been relating some episode that might at best be considered unseemly: Charles A. Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, T.S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, Herbert Read, C.P. Snow, Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Edith Hamilton, Robert Frost (who dedicated his poem “Kitty Hawk” to Cairns and his wife), I.A. Richards, Joseph Hergesheimer, and Ezra Pound (whom Cairns visited several times when the poet was confined in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.). But enough; a partial list is hardly fair to those omitted. I should, for instance, mention Mark Van Doren and Allen Tate, who joined with Cairns in creating the famous radio show Invitation to Learning in 1940.
EARLIER I CALLED Cairns a Platonist, or at least an admirer and scholar of Plato. I have also said that he is a rationalist who opposes all forms of mysticism. In that opposition he resembles George Santayana. Cairns once wrote me that when Santayana sat down to write his Reason in Science the Holy Ghost stood by his elbow, guiding every movement of the pen as it traced words on paper. Since many commentators have found elements of the mystical in Plato, I should point out that Cairns has done much to rescue Plato from the mystics who have employed his theory of ideas as a hand mirror for exploring the self at the expense of the infinitely more important world in which that self composes a miniscule and a rather unimportant part.
That misreading of Plato, as Cairns points out in his introduction to the Bollingen Plato: The Collected Dialogues, which he and Edith Hamilton edited, has been greatly promoted and popularized by the writings of Philo and Plotinus—the former having claimed, as Cairns put it, that “Plato’s Ideas and the Biblical angels are one and the same”; the latter gave us what is called Neo-Platonism, which simply turned the philosopher on his head insofar as the Neo-Platonists considered the world of sense and its miseries to be unreal, something Plato never did. While agreeing with Aristotle’s view that Plato’s “form was halfway between poetry and prose,” Cairns insists that “Plato was a philosopher and poet, but not a mystic.” He was, in short, “a philosopher-poet exercising consummate artistry in his presentation of ideas”—in contrast to Lucretius, Dante, Pope, and others who “have attempted to set forth in verse systems of thought not their own.” Furthermore, Plato believed the world to be intelligible; that is, “he held that system pervades all things.” Cairns thus makes the important distinction between Plato and the mystics, as the following clearly shows:
Plato’s aim is to take the reader by steps, with as severe a logic as the conversational method permits, to an insight into the ultimate necessity of Reason. And he never hesitates to submit his own ideas to the harshest critical scrutiny; he carried this procedure so far in the Parmenides that some commentators have held that his own doubts in this dialogue prevail over his affirmations. But the beliefs of mystics are not products of critical examination and logical clarification; they are, on the contrary, a series of apprehensions, flashes, based on feeling, denying the rational order. The mystic’s reports of his experiences are beyond discussion inasmuch as they are subjective and emotional; they must be accepted, by one who wishes to believe them, as a matter of faith, not knowledge. Plato’s view of the world is that of an intelligible system that man can know by disciplined intellect alone. He was, in fact, the founder of logic, a logician and a poet, but he was not a mystic, he never exalted feeling above reason.
While the passage tells us something about Plato, it also reveals something of the author, of his priorities, of his way of viewing the world. It reveals, as do all Cairns’ other writings, a Man of Reason. A vanishing breed, I sometimes think, but the only variety worthy of praise yet produced in the long evolutionary process. Having received numerous honors in his lifetime, Huntington Cairns hardly needs my praise. Nonetheless, I honor him.
William H. Nolte is Wallace C. Martin Professor of English literature at the University of South Carolina and author of Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony (recently published by the University of Georgia Press).
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