Lionel Trilling’s Worldly Gospel — “Variousness, Possibility, Complexity, and Difficulty”

Lionel Trilling

In his excellent introduction to Lionel Trilling‘s book, “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent,” Leon Wieseltier describes Trilling’s passion for novel as a literary form in this way:

“Innocence bored him (Trilling); purity he refused to credit; sanctity was more than he wished to grasp. His gospel was complexity — or as he put it, “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This was not a theory or a method. It was a cast of mind and a pedagogical scruple. In Trilling’s hands, nuance was an instrument of clarification, not an instrument of equivocation. This made his work exhilarating and exasperating.

“He was always warning about appearances, and worrying that a life without illusion was itself an illusion. Trilling cherished the modern novel for its worldliness, for its ability to provide an accurate picture of the problem of reality and appearance in modern life. The subject of the novel was society, or complication. A multiplicity of classes had engendered a multiplicity of meanings, Trilling contended, so that certainty (where human and cultural life are concerned) was no longer possible, and appearances, in the form of manners, acquired a new prestige as a condition of knowledge; and of these appearances the novel was made. Since the world was social, it was epistemological. It was the art born when the settled sense of reality died.

“Trilling was not quite a party man, philosophically or politically. He inhabited an essentially inharmonious world. He was enough of an idealist not to mistake reality for mind, and not so much of a realist that he mistook mind for reality. He was, instead, a scholar of the relation.”

What I find fascinating in reading Lionel Trilling, the passionate moderate, is the realization that he valued reason without rationalism, science without scientism, sensuality without hedonism, emotion without sentimentality, imagination without irrationality, ethics without moralism, individualism without elitism, and democracy without mediocrity.  Trilling valued critical reason, but it was “reason after romanticism.” He valued both “day vision” and “night vision.”

Wieseltier remarks that “the imperturbability of his style was the consequence of a pained and permanent sense of the opacity of life.” Perhaps like Socrates he knew what he did not know. He knew the  ambiguities, perplexities, ironies and limitations of human knowledge, and in that knowledge of our excesses, obsessions, fixations and illusions was his wisdom. Because he accepted the experience of “variousness, possibility, complexity and difficult” as the perennial human condition, he was able to construct an epistemology, ethic and aesthetic “of the relation.”  His devotion to the critical intellect and the dignity of dialectic was a way of navigating his way through a pluralistic, ambiguous, polarized and unsettled world.


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