Thomas Howard critiques modern secularism in a well-written relatively short work entitled Chance or the Dance that does not pretend to be scholarly. Howard is a master wordsmith: he possesses the uncanny ability to turn unforgettable phrases. Furthermore, his vocabulary exceeds that of the ordinary mortal.
This book was initially published in 1969. So it has a few years under its belt. Howard nonetheless effectively analyzes modern secularism. But I do not concur with all of his assumptions or methods used in the critique. I will now summarize the work, then mention some of its strengths and weaknesses.
Chapter One outlines the difference between the so-called old and new myth. The old myth claimed that people have souls. Hence, the cause of mood disorders was considered to be demon-possession, whereas pestilences purportedly resulted from divine anger. These ages are often characterized by the adjective “dark.” On the other hand, Howard proclaims that the light eventually arrived. But one might characterize such modern enlightenment as the new myth.
Modernity relegates miracles, angels, devils, virgin births and divine works to artifacts of human memory. All supposed marvels have been replaced with special relativity, modern inventions, napalm weaponry, modern transportation and largely-populated cities. But the most important difference between the old and new myth is that in the old myth, everything meant something; however, in the modern world, nothing apparently means anything. Howard finds this aspect of modern secularism to be extremely problematic.
Chapter Two bears the creative title “Of Dishrags and Borzois.” It is fitting since the chapter focuses on the phenomenon of imagination. What accounts for imagination? Why do we craft poems, write songs, spin fantastic tales or make utterances such as “Love is a journey” or “Juliet is the Sun”?
Most persons would concede that vivid imagery pervades the human language. Just think of sayings like “He’s as stubborn as a mule” or “You couldn’t beat your way out of a paper bag.” But it would seem that the new myth has trouble explaining the prevalence of imagery or the meaning it conveys for rational beings. While secularism could possibly account for the comparisons that are often made between animals and royalty or geometry and mousetraps, the old myth could possibly explain metaphors with greater ease.
Chapter Four is probably my favorite part of the book. It represents a brilliant analysis of poetic verse. Howard designates this chapter “One Foot Up, One Foot Down.” One contention set forth by the author is that just as mealtime differs qualitatively from simply gulping down nutritious food, so poetry differs in quality from everyday language. The poetic articulation of words (at least, according to the old myth) is a manifestation of objective reality. Poetry, nursery rhymes, the divine comedy of Dante or the tragedies of Sophocles all communicate perennial truths.
I thoroughly enjoyed Howard’s work. He exposes the apparent cracks in modern secularism and elevates the English language like no other writer. Furthermore, this book accentuates one’s ability to perceive the sublime in putatively mundane things.
One criticism that I have of this book, however, is the suggestion that everything in the world has some hidden meaning. After all, I believe that some facets of human language are just social conventions associated with our universal speech patterns.