Portrait of a Civilized Man - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Portrait of a Civilized Man

When asked a few years ago by a reporter why he thought Mencken was superior to contemporary critics, Huntington Cairns replied: “If you are blind, how can I make you see the color blue?”

I WOULD LIKE to believe that a few windowpanes in Baltimore trembled and the streetlamps shone more brightly than usual on the night Huntington Cairns was born. Certainly all the courses of his life have shown him to be far removed from the ranks of common men. Indeed, I know of few men in this benighted age who have accomplished so much that is truly important in so many separate, albeit related, disciplines; and I consider it a privilege to have him as a friend. Were it not such a cliché I should call him, as have various other writers, one of the few extant Renaissance men; certainly he embodies those qualities which we associate with civilization, or rather culture, at its height. But the tag fits only in a metaphorical sense. There can no longer be such a creature as a Renaissance Man. Cairns stated it precisely when he informed a newspaperman that “The last man to know everything was an Italian cardinal in the fourteenth century. Then he died and it took two men to know what he knew, then three, and now, I guess, it takes millions.”

For all our collective knowledge, man still has difficulty answering the serious questions of being, the time-worn questions that have occupied the truly extraordinary men at least since the flowering of Athens and Greek thought. Not many people, I suppose, even consider asking the questions today, and many who do go to the trouble of asking quickly dismiss them as unanswerable. During my last visit with Cairns at his Southern Shores home, just north of Kitty Hawk, he seemed more than usually concerned with what makes a civilized man.

We were sitting in “Studeo One,” his name for the main study in the spacious home that he built thirty years ago as a summer residence and which now houses his classics library of some 6,500 volumes (his working library of 20,000 volumes is in the Washington apartment that he and his wife Florence moved into forty years ago), discussing the book he is writing on Shakespeare’s plant imagery, when he suddenly remarked that the two most important questions a person had to answer were, first, What’s the world made of? and, second, What is the good life? Concerning the first question Cairns follows Plato in saying that the world is composed in part certainly of Ideas, by which he (and Plato) means those impalpables such as pattern, form, essence. He believes the single most important book ever written to be Euclid’s Geometry since it taught men to think rationally. Rational thought, after all, as he pointed out, is the foundation of all logic, without which any form of civilized life would be unthinkable.

Before one can answer either of the questions Cairns posed, one must have a theory of truth, or, as he put it, one must follow one of three Ideas-that of Coherence, of Correspondence, or of Pragmatism. The first of these, which is the one Cairns has professed in all his books on legal philosophy, finds in life a rational basis, while the second considers all things as being relative, and the third depends upon the usefulness of an action to determine its truth or untruth. He rejects Pragmatism as a clear admission that truth has no meaning, or, put another way, that it can have any meaning, which is the same thing as saying it has none. His objections to relativism, certainly the most popular view today, follow from his study of Plato and Greek thought in general and from his knowledge of mathematics.

SOME OF THESE OBJECTIONS are implicit in his essay ”Law and Its Premises” (which was the twentieth annual Benjamin N. Cardozo Lecture, delivered before the Association of the Bar of the City of New York in 1962). There, and elsewhere, he insisted that law does not make the world but rather must conform to it. He thus disagrees with those who insist that ”man devises his own standards and law need not be understood in terms of any ultimate order.” He resoundingly rejects the idealistic notion that man is the world and subscribes to the older Greek view which held that ”there is an order of which all things are consequences.”

As with law, so with truth, of which (good) law is a reflection: It exists apart from man, who may discover it in the world but can never create it. Having borrowed from Nietzsche the terms Apollonian and Dionysian for the Cardozo Lecture, Cairns concludes on this pellucid note:

The Apollonian course suggests a legal order which is related to the nature of the world in which we are. Its emphasis is on the standards supplied, and the possibilities allowed, by the realms of order which constitute the world. The Dionysian course takes its departure from man, his wishes and his desires. Its appeal is to man’s emotions, and it knows few, if any, restraints. The inevitable course of Dionysianism is toward anarchy and then tyranny. It issues in the vast despotisms of the ancient river cultures, and in the tyrannies prevalent today.

At the heart of his legal philosophy, it seems to me, is an abiding suspicion that a beast lurks in all men, waiting for release from any restraint so as to run amok. Unlike the Romantic who finds man in tune with natural law, Cairns insists that only by mental effort can man discover that law-without which he must forever remain an alien in a meaningless maze of happenstances. Near the end of his exemplary study Legal Philosophy from Plato to Hegel (1949), he states the problem succinctly: “If law is an invention, it has no final reality and we are free to define its rules as we choose.” It is precisely this anarchical “freedom” that the modern existentialists embrace with fearful joy and then argue that it constitutes prima facie evidence of their uniqueness and even godliness. Cairns would doubtless attribute such preposterous “thinking” to the sleep of Reason. And yet we have here what seems a paradox in his thought: He seems to say that man is a rational animal whose actions testify to his essential irrationality. But the paradox is only apparent; it dissolves when one realizes that nothing exists in vacuo, and that although human reason is limited it is nonetheless capable of showing us that we are a part of an enormous system wherein lie values and meaning.

Before I leave Studeo One entirely, having already wandered away from our conversation, I should note that in his musing over what constitutes the civilized man Cairns mentioned Havelock Ellis as one of the truly excellent examples of that endangered species. It was Ellis’ interest in meaning, his dogged effort to find as much as possible of what meaning the world offered, that most appeals to Cairns. Moreover, one’s interest in meaning is, in effect, what makes one interesting. I recall his sardonic grin when he asked me if I thought that someone like James Joyce would have been interesting. The question was rhetorical in that he knew my views of such men as well as I know his: The narcissistic person can be interesting only to himself or to his attendant shrink. We sat for a moment in self-congratulatory ease and listened to the sound of the surf coming from over the high sand dune fifty yards back of the house. Then, for whatever reason, Cairns asked if I didn’t agree With Aristotle’s remark that “All men desire to know.” Of course not, I scoffed. Wouldn’t it be more nearly true to say that most men desire to be protected from knowledge? But isn’t it true, he asked, that the few civilized men seek knowledge and that their search, along with their findings, will designate the extent of their civilization? With the qualifications thus in place I agreed, and we rose together and left Studeo One in search of the cocktail shaker.

CAIRNS HAS OFTEN REMARKED to me, usually in the letters he writes, so full of his interest in the passing scene as well as his abiding interest in the natural sciences (his last book was a little volume on the flora and fauna of the Outer Banks, This Other Eden), that he considers himself fortunate for having grown up in Baltimore when Mencken was turning out articles almost daily for the Sunpapers. Certainly Mencken had a tremendous influence on the young Cairns, and now when he’s full of years and wisdom he considers the Baltimore Sage a national hero. When asked a few years ago by a reporter why Mencken was so palpably superior to any of the current crop of critics, Cairns answered with a question: “If you are blind, how can I make you see the color blue?” He then concluded the interview with this blunt assessment: “It is simply that Mencken was of a superior order.”

It has been more than fifty years since Mencken gave Cairns the best advice, so he insists, that he ever received. Having just graduated from City College (a high school) and won every honor in sight, Cairns met the Sage one day in the home of a lawyer named Robert J. DeBarrel. He asked Mencken to advise him on the choice of a college. Mencken asked what he wished to become. When informed that he wanted to be a lawyer, Mencken advised him to skip college and go directly to law school; after all, any intelligent, industrious youth could get on his own all that a college might offer. Needless to say, Cairns took the advice, went to the University of Maryland Law School, and received his LL.B. at the age of twenty.

After practicing law in Baltimore for ten years he moved to Washington when offered a position as special legal adviser in the Treasury Department. (It was not until he had made that drastic change of address, by which time he was known in the legal profession as well as in anthropological circles as one to watch, that his and Mencken’s paths began crossing once more. He then became good friends with Henry and his brother August.) In one capacity or another Cairns was associated with the Treasury Department for thirty years. During that period he also found time to lecture on taxation for two years at the University of Maryland Law School, and he lectured for ten years on criticism at Johns Hopkins. Most importantly, in 1943 he was named Secretary, Treasurer, and General Counsel for the National Gallery of Art, a position he held for the next twenty-three years until his retirement. During those years the Gallery was transformed into one of the world’s great art collections; for-that transformation Cairns deserves a great deal of the credit. I should also mention the magnificent volumes he and John Walker edited in 1944, 1952, 1962, and 1966. The last edition, a two-volume work entitled A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art, is quite simply the best thing of its kind I have ever seen.

Fifty years ago the great classical scholar Gilbert Murray wrote, in the introduction to his The Classical Tradition in Poetry, the following encomium about Charles Eliot Norton:

Distinguished, critical, courteous and a little aloof, breathing an atmosphere of serenity and depth of thought, he possessed to an exquisite degree the taste that is rightly called classic; that is, his interest lay, not in the things that attract attention or exercise charm at a particular place and moment, but in those that outlive the changes of taste and fashion. His eyes were set toward that beauty which is not of today or yesterday, which was before we were, and will be when we are gathered to our fathers.

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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