Enduring Longings: Reflections on DuBois’s Reflections on Francis of Assisi

The conception of the good life that W.E.B. DuBois discerns in the pattern of St. Francis of Assisi’s life straddles the secular and sacred. It can provide a starting point for a recovery and re-articulation of enduring longings in a secularized culture. The cultivation of those longings, in turn, is at the core of truly liberal education.

In a little-known speech, W. E. B. DuBois once proposed the life of Saint Francis of Assisi as a model of civilization. His was an exemplary life, DuBois pointed out, because he lived in response to the following queries: “What am I? What is this world about me? And the world and I—how shall we work and laugh together?” DuBois happily avoids the dominant modern celebration of Francis as a starry-eyed, nature-loving Romantic. Moreover, coming from a secular author turning to Francis, DuBois’s speech opens up the possibility of dialogue, increasingly rare these days, between sacred and secular about the enduring longings of the human soul—longings whose cultivation is at the core of truly liberal education.

He gave the speech in 1907, not long after a devastating earthquake leveled San Francisco. Like DuBois and his audience, we are living in a moment of cataclysm, in the midst of a pandemic and in a culture in which the foundations that might bind us together seem shattered. Why, DuBois asks, should we ponder the life of a medieval saint? Why go so far back in time to understand where we are today? By fixing in our memories the life of Francis, he argues, we will come to appreciate a certain “attitude toward wealth and distinction and the need and place of human training to emphasize this attitude.” The same is true for us today.

Francis understood that there were material and bodily needs and that satisfying these needs was a good. But he was also acutely aware of an order of spiritual goods, whose neglect deforms human life. These dispositions and virtues—these habits of self-renunciation and attention to things and persons other than the self—illumine our blindness and free us from being bound to the slavish pursuit of physical pleasure, wealth, and honor. Francis understood the tension between the great and the greater wants. To satisfy spiritual starvation requires some degree of renunciation of material goods.

Education helps us develop a sense of the relative importance of these different wants and goods. Properly understood, education is principally about what Francis’s life was about at its core: a quest to “read life’s riddle and tell the world its true unraveling.” It seeks not merely the development of skills or even intellectual virtue, but the perfection of the whole person over a whole lifetime. We are concerned with the person who thinks, not just with the activity of thinking. Without much book learning, Francis found a center in relation to which he understood the whole and all of its parts. He faced the same human condition we face, and he posed the questions each of us must—or at least ought to—ask. These are precisely the sorts of questions that are at the center of liberal education.

From a secular perspective, DuBois grasps this about Francis. Thus, his reflections on Francis can potentially provide a bridge to a secular audience, whom DuBois invites to the realization that there are enduring longings, desires that transcend particular times and places and speak to a perennial human condition.


Resisting a Technocratic Paradigm

It is striking that in response to a cataclysmic event of destruction, DuBois turns to the past for perspective and illumination. He does not focus on the technological resources of modernity, the way in which better building codes, forecasting, or improved construction might enable us to prevent such destruction in the future. He accepts that tragedy will come into our lives, no matter what our technological skills and material resources.

DuBois resists in advance the technocratic paradigm of problem-solving that would come to dominate America’s public culture in the years during and after World War II. He thus anticipates a host of public intellectuals from the 1940s, who were anxious that the West had become overly reliant on technological power. In his book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, Alan Jacobs studies precisely such a group of intellectuals from the 1940s, ranging from Jacques Maritain and C.S. Lewis to Hannah Arendt and W.H. Auden, who worried that the West’s means of victory over Nazism—namely, superior technology and technical expertise—might undermine the very things for which the West was fighting.

If the danger in Germany was fanatical group identity, the threat for the West was “technocratic pragmatics.” The menace of the former is palpable, while the peril of the latter is subtler. As many intimated at the time, however, subjection to techno-fideism could itself lead to a form of totalitarianism, particularly if that paradigm were to dominate culture and the state.

In one of his essays, the novelist Ralph Ellison writes:

Today we are an affluent society and yet we’re unhappy. We no longer know what truth is. We no longer recognize heroism when it is demonstrated to us. We do not understand the nature of forbearance. For too often we don’t take advantage of the wonderful opportunity which we have to project ourselves into the lives of other people—not to modify those lives but to understand them—to add dimensions to our sense of wonder.

As Ellison reminds us, pondering the lives of others in order to understand them deepens our wonder and enhances our self-understanding. So too, DuBois invites his audience to “pause tonight and listen to the old story and learn the life lesson it contains.”

A Hierarchy of Human Needs

In Francis’s life, DuBois finds a recognition of a hierarchy of human needs, from the bodily to the spiritual. Francis’s life is a response to the deepest and most enduring questions of the human soul. It is also an embodiment of the sort of discipline and the types of renunciation necessary even to see the questions clearly, let alone tell the world its “true unraveling.” Stressing that Francis made of poverty a bride, DuBois argues that:

the lesson of St. Francis of Assisi is not the renunciation of wealth and the deification of poverty; it is on the contrary simply this great truth: the work of the world is to satisfy the world’s wants. Now the world wants material wealth, such as good food and clothing and shelter, but this is not all, nor even the greater part of its need; it wants human service and human sympathy, it wants knowledge and inspiration, it wants hope and truth and beauty, and so great are these greater wants, that often their satisfaction demands in some St. Francis of Assisi an utter renunciation of much of the material good of the world, that its spiritual starvation may be satisfied.

Francis came to see the privileges of wealth, status, power, and pleasure as things that kept him bound. He was their slave and was ashamed that he had, in the words of Socrates, given more care for the body than the soul, devoting himself with greater energy to the possession of “wealth, reputation, and honors” than to “wisdom or truth, or the best possible state” of his soul. The sense of a hierarchy of goods raises the questions of the proper response to the inevitable conflict between lower and higher goods. Liberal education makes us aware of the hierarchy, of potential conflicts, and initiates us into the study of exemplary types or anti-types.

A standard criticism of any such hierarchy is that it can be, and in fact has been, used to inculcate in members of subordinate or marginalized classes an acquiescence to their condition. This criticism is a variation on Marx’s assertion that religion is the opiate of the people. In that misguided view, the appeal to hierarchy counsels the marginalized that, as long as they have spiritual, allegedly higher goods, they should be content with other sorts of deprivations—physical, legal, and political. It is important to see that DuBois’s account of Francis moves in an opposite direction. The sacrifice is not imposed on the lower classes, but is freely elected by those who already possess physical goods and social or political privilege. Known for his critique of capitalism and his adoption of Marxism, DuBois here insists, “no doctrine of universal selfishness will ever reform society.” That DuBois could deploy Saint Francis not only to inspire ordinary American citizens but also to undergird a critique of contemporary economic and political practices is instructive.

Our Enduring Longings Blur the Boundaries Between Secular and Sacred

DuBois does not, one must readily concede, focus on the specifically religious elements in Francis’s life. In that sense, he omits its core constituent elements. Yet Dubois’s Francis is closer to the Francis who transformed western Christendom in the thirteenth century than are most modern celebrations of the saint’s life, which tend to depict Francis as the great Romantic, a lover of nature and nothing more.

Francis expresses his sense of being bound in the language of sin—a rebellion against a personal God, a just and loving God, that results in alienation from ourselves, from others, and from the glorious beauty of the created order. DuBois does not delve into the religious roots of Francis’s conversion from the ways of wealth, status, and power to the celebration of poverty, but he does identify the enduring crisis of the human race as “spiritual starvation.” Dubois’s reflection on Francis shows us how permeable the categories of the secular and the sacred are in many of the most profound reflections on liberal education. Even those without religious commitments often reach for religious language, sources, and rituals as a way of articulating the enduring longings of the human soul.

On the theological side, there are likely to be objections to DuBois’s insufficient recognition of the explicitly religious sources of Francis’s vision of the human good. On the secular side, one can imagine objections to invoking a saint at all, particularly in an address before public school children. There are of course debates to be had on these matters. But one instructive feature of DuBois’s appeal to Francis is this: The conception of the good life that he discerns in the pattern of Francis’s life straddles the secular and sacred. It may even provide a starting point for dialogue between secular and sacred, for a recovery and re-articulation of enduring longings in a secularized culture.

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