Four great themes

May 16, 2011

“Men read and write only because they are convinced that certain great subjects are worth reading and writing about. Four great themes, it seems to me, have been the inspiration of most important imaginative literature from the dawn of Greek civilization down to our own age. The first of these is religion: the description of the relation between divine nature and human nature, as in Hesiod and Dante and Milton. The second is heroism: the nobility of strong and earnest men, as in Homer or Virgil or Mallory. The third is love: the devotion beyond mere appetite, as in classical legend or medieval romance. The fourth is the intricacy of character and class, ranging all the way from Chaucer to Conrad. Now a society which has lost its religious convictions and its society denies itself the first theme. A society which denies the right to greatness and to distinctions among men deprives itself of the second theme. A society which takes love for no more than the carnal appetite cannot attach real significance even to the novel of adultery. A society which looks upon men as mere production and consumption units of interchangeable value cannot understand the subtle shadings of personality and rank of a different sort of age. The springs of the imagination thus are dried up. For a time, satire can exist by pointing out the decay of faith and heroism and love and variety; but when even the memory of these themes fade, then satire, too, comes to an end. Then boredom triumphs in life and art.”

— Russell Kirk, “English Letters in the Age of Boredom,”
Shenandoah 7 (Spring, 1956).

(Hat-tip: The Imaginative Conservative)

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