In the fading days of Rome, an increasingly suspicious line of Caesars adopted from the East a practice that any self-respecting Roman would previously have scorned. They surrounded themselves with eunuchs as cup-bearers, foot-washers, barbers, scroll-scribblers, and accountants. Naturally, being so close to the ear of the emperor had its advantages. Under Constantius, the eunuch Eusebius became one of the most powerful men in Rome. Of Eusebius and his comrades surrounding the emperor, Gibbon writes,

The aversion and contempt which mankind has so uniformly entertained for that imperfect species appears to have degraded their character, and to have rendered them almost as incapable as they were supposed to be of conceiving any generous sentiment, or of performing any worthy action. But the eunuchs were skilled in the arts of flattery and intrigue; and they alternately governed the mind of Constantius by his fears, his indolence, and his vanity. (XXIX)

Slaves with enormous power are, spiritually speaking, the most wretched slaves of all.

We have no single emperor now who must surround himself with the scheming flatteries of impotent men, and one might think that freedom from such tyranny would lead to a universal liberality of spirit. We certainly have the material capacity for it. With wealth many orders of magnitude greater than nearly all our ancestors there’s no reason we could not fund another Renaissance. Yet somehow, we have developed what Somerset Maugham, nearly a century ago, called a new class of “white-collar proletariat.” The defining feature of this class, according to Maugham, is that such people “do not go to university to acquire culture, but to get a job.” Out of this class he knew that “A few will go into Parliament, become Cabinet Ministers and rule the country.” “I look upon myself,” he said, “as fortunate that I shall not live to see it.”1 Unfortunately for those of us born too late, his prophecy has been fulfilled, and all our masters are slaves now.

Like the eunuch of Rome, the white-collar proletariat is quite comfortable with his position. He lives in a sprawling open floor plan with orphaned and incongruous architectural details pasted in to give a sense of expenditure. He dresses in disposable clothing, manufactured cheaply but bought for much because it signals his loyalties. Brand is everything, taste nothing at all. He reads thousands of words per day from his magical shining boxes, but he has never heard of Proust. If he thinks about slavery at all, I suspect his sentiment is simply to wonder whether is it really slavery if he doesn’t care.

These people have been insinuating themselves into positions of power for a long time. As early as 1900, Dean Briggs of Harvard College remarked ironically upon the addition of a new degree to his own college’s offerings:

The new degree of Bachelor of Science does not guarantee that the holder knows any science. It does guarantee that he does not know any Latin.2

Not much later, T.S. Eliot records his horror at the emptiness he found inside the type of person produced by the factory line of modern society:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

We may not be able to do much about the prevalence of such people in society at large. I suspect that they have been with us wherever empires have expanded further than what their culture’s vigor could sustain and have settled down to die. I’m sure the Babylonians knew the type. What we can do is protect ourselves individually from the curse of their influence by warding off the Hollow Men with the charms and incantations that bookish people have always used: escapism, idleness, and song.

Liberality—freedom—is the opposite of servility, and this means escape from our cell. The trick is that the door is locked from the inside. The only thing needed to open it is the will to do so, just as Lady Philosophy told Boethius in his cell before his execution so many centuries ago. The servile men speak of escapism as a dirty word. It’s irresponsible to become distracted from the grind, for the grind is the whole of their religion and their only hope of salvation. The escapism of the bookish life, they think, is to lapse from the real world where things are getting done into the realm of fairy tales and lofty, abstract philosophies. Quite the reverse is true. The chthonic liturgy of their daily grind is the unreality of Plato’s cave. The world we open onto in literature, history, poetry, and philosophy is the real world seen aright, the world of acorns and mountains and the human heart.

The very beginning of opening this inner door requires the cultivation of a virtue that Dietrich von Hildebrand calls reverence. According to his essay by that title in The Art of Living, Hildebrand argues that reverence is a basic stance or posture toward reality, a readiness to hear the voice of Beauty calling our name. A reverent man, he says, lives his life open to the possibility that today he will be confronted by the revelation of something important in itself, something deriving its value from a sphere entirely different from what he happens to find subjectively satisfying or useful for his projects. He may be confronted by the blue heads of bachelor’s buttons bent face first by the weight of summer storms arching like the backs of postulants making their final vows. He may be confronted by a friend who needs companionship through doubt like a dark wood. He may be confronted by the gentle elegance of Bill Evans’ piano notes that tumble after one another like rivulets of rain on a pane of glass. He may be confronted by the bracing logic of Aristotle’s propositions stacked upon each other like bricks in an unassailable wall. All these call our name and call for an adequate response, but only the reverent man is ready to hear and change.

This openness to the real world and the readiness to give it its proper due is the foundation of all liberal education, and every great work in the canon is great because it embodies this spirit. Shakespeare is Shakespeare because he tells us not about the private petty affairs of Shakespeare (about which we know almost nothing) but because he tells us about the real, ever-recurring ways of mankind. Hopkins is Hopkins because he had the idleness and good sense to actually watch a kingfisher.

Readiness to hear the call of the real world requires that we cultivate what A.G. Sertillanges calls a “zone of silence” in our hearts, and this requires that we know how to abandon the crowded tumult of the factory society. In his magisterial book, Leisure the Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper puts it this way:

Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear…For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.3

It is telling that, when most of us hear Pieper’s word “leisure,” we immediately think of recliners, football, beer, and video games. Pieper meant something entirely different. He meant the freedom that a person achieves once he has escaped from a condition of life in which daily survival requires grueling toil. What does a free man do once he no longer has to sweat sixteen hours a day just to keep his family barely alive? Now that he no longer has to what does he do with his get to. Pieper thinks the answer is obvious: A free man would begin to pursue those things that are worthy of admiration for their own sake rather than for their necessity. So for Pieper, the step in the logic is easy: leisure = the liberal arts. If only he could see what we do with our armchairs.

If we want to recover this classical sense of leisure, we will need to turn away from short-term, shallow gratification and in its place we will need an infusion of joy. The legendary cellist Pablo Casals teaches us the way. Every day for eighty years, he tells us, he would begin his life with the same ritual. He says:

It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning for me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with an awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being human.

You may not be able to play two preludes and fugues of Bach, but I suspect that there is something you can do, some ritual that will serve as a benediction of the house. And which such rituals I think there’s a good chance that neither you nor your children will join the ranks of the white-collar eunuchs.

  1. Terry Teachout, “A Touch of Class,” The New Criterion, 1988.↩︎

  2. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence (HarperCollins, 2000), 45.↩︎

  3. Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (Pantheon Books, 1952), 27.↩︎