Sunday, January 31, 2016

Either, or...

T.S. Eliot, quoted in a Weekly Standard review of his collected prose:
Man is man because he can recognize spiritual realities, not because he can invent them. Either everything in man can be traced as a development from below, or something must come from above. There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist. If you remove from the word ‘human’ all that the belief in the supernatural has given to man, you can view him finally as no more than an extremely clever, adaptable, and mischievous little animal.
Edward Short,"The Eliot Shelf: Old Possum’s prose is gathered together," Weekly Standard, Feb. 8, 2016, p. 37.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"No moral rudders"

In his review of Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era the New Republic's Malcolm Harris describes the darker side of certain early 20th century reformers:
The 1926 case Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes is a favorite liberal American story. On one side, a substitute accused of teaching evolution, the famed progressive attorney Clarence Darrow, and science itself. On the other, the state of Tennessee, creationism, and the populist demagogue William Jennings Bryan, who by the end of the trial was only days from death. Scopes lost the battle, but reason and progress won the war and the film adaptation. ....

When one revisits the primary material, however, the mainstream liberal narrative is far too simple. Jennings Bryan railed against evolution, true, but not just evolution as we understand the theory today. ...[A]t the time evolution came with a social agenda that its proponents taught as fact. Jennings Bryan didn’t use its name; today, we call it eugenics.

Scopes was charged for teaching from a textbook called A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, published in 1914. The book taught Darwin’s doctrine as fact, but it didn’t leave his conclusions there. The author, George William Hunter, not only asserted the biological difference of races, he insisted on the vital importance of what he called “the science of being well born”—eugenics. Like most progressives of the time, Hunter believed in “the improvement of man” via scientific methods. That meant promoting personal hygiene, proper diet, and reproductive control. A Civic Biology also has suggestions for what to do with “bad-gened” people, in a section called “The Remedy.” “If such people were lower animals,” the books says, “we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity would not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe.”

The textbook was wrong, both about degenerate genes and humanity’s near-term tolerance for genocide. Read between the twin specters of human engineering, The Holocaust and the American slave-breeding industry—the abolition of which was younger than Jennings Bryan—the warning in his closing argument seems not only warranted, but prophetic:
Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed, but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo.
“Some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo” is a near-perfect criticism of evolutionary theory and the era’s progressive thought as a whole. And if today’s liberals were to revisit their ideological foundations with some attention, they might not like what they see. .... It’s impossible to understand early twentieth-century progressives without eugenics. Even worker-friendly reforms like the minimum wage were part of a racial hygiene agenda. The progressives believed male Anglo-Saxons were the most productive workers, but immigrants and women were willing to accept lower wages and displaced white men. Capitalism was getting in the way of human improvement, promoting inferior genes for near-term profits. “Competition has no respect for the superior races,” Leonard quotes the economist John R. Commons on Jews. “The race with lowest necessities displaces others.” Commons found common cause with the xenophobic wing of the organized labor movement.

The minimum wage, in addition to providing some workers with a better standard of living, would guard white men from competition. ....

Oliver Wendell Holmes
.... Charles Cooley, a founding member of American Sociological Association, warned that providing health care and nutrition for black Americans could be “dysgenic” if not accompanied by population control. The eugenicists weren’t just dreaming: Between 1900 and the early 1980s, over 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized under the law.

To bring right-wing fears full circle, the progressive Supreme Court of 1927 (including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis) ruled 8-1 in Buck v. Bell that forced sterilization was constitutional. Holmes wrote that, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” .... [more]
Rod Dreher on this book and "The Return of Eugenics"

The Dark History of Liberal Reform | New Republic

Monday, January 25, 2016

Land of enchantment

by Norman Rockwell in 1934 for the New Rochelle Public Library, New York
Re-posted from 2014:

There was a golden age of children's literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were magazines like St Nicholas, and authors like Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald, Howard Pyle, Edith Nesbit, and many others. provides access to many of their books in electronic form. Although I would think young readers would much prefer the actual physical books, during the "read aloud to me" phase parents might well access this resource. Today I came across these. Each is provided in formats that can be downloaded for electronic readers.

When the subject is human nature...

Reviewing Bradley Birzer's Russell Kirk: American Conservative, Christopher Caldwell is uncertain that Kirk is particularly relevant to contemporary American conservatism. Caldwell, an editor at The Weekly Standard, nevertheless concludes:
".... Kirk’s guiding principle was that when the subject is human nature, nothing is ever really created. Institutions, traditions and wisdom are either handed down or, if need be, rediscovered. This remains a deep and necessary insight. 'Conservatism' is as good a name for it as any."
And as was written long ago:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Stephen R. Lawhead, himself a writer of fantasy novels, explains how he came to the genre. Not surprisingly, Tolkien had a lot to do with it:
.... Escape! To many people the term "escapist fantasy" connotes frivolity, sensuality, idleness, and unreality—hardly healthy involvements for hard-headed, feet-on-the-solid-ground, no-nonsense, just-the-facts Christians.

Tolkien had to face this same attitude; in his day, he was accused of writing an escapist literature which would lead people to abandon reality in favor of an impossibly rich and exciting imaginary life. Tolkien's response was unequivocal: "Yes," he declared, "fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the know-nothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"

In that pithy pronouncement I heard once again the sound of those prison doors swinging open. Tolkien brilliantly deflects the objection by admitting the truth of the observation. And he goes on to say that since fantasy is escapist, it makes little difference what you are escaping from, but a very great deal of difference what you are escaping to. For the best of fantasy offers not an escape away from reality, but an escape to a heightened reality—a world at once more vivid and intense and real, where happiness and sorrow exist in double measure, where good and evil war in epic conflict, where joy is made more potent by the possibility of universal tragedy and defeat.

In the very best fantasy literature, like Lord of the Rings, we escape into an ideal world where ideal heroes and heroines (who are really only parts of our truer selves) behave ideally. The work describes human life as it might be lived, perhaps ought to be lived, against a backdrop, not of all happiness and light, but of crushing difficulty and overwhelming distress. It is this modeling of behavior which nourishes and strengthens the inner child in all of us. And, unless I am very much mistaken, this same inner child is who we will become when the mortal flesh melts away, and we enter the life eternal.

Yes, fantasy is escapist. The spiritual journey of the soul is not easily rendered in terms of the ultra-rational, ultra-realistic. But it is natural to the escapist medium of fantasy, Tolkien maintained. And he might have added as an aside to well-intentioned Christians that Christianity itself is a venture founded on the conviction that escape is good for the soul. What is salvation, if not escape?

We hope, through our faith in Christ, to escape the death penalty which sin has decreed. It seems to me that fantasy literature actually mirrors this great hope in its fundamental design. Perhaps it is enough that it does so. But, when the mirror of fantasy is polished bright by a master storyteller engaged in the High Quest, it becomes, like Alice in Wonderland's mirror, not a mirror only, but also a window to another world. A world which is really our own world lovingly created anew.

The world of the author's creation is offered up to the delight of the reader, and because he delights he entertains. And because he entertains, all sorts of things become possible. An entertained person is a receptive person, open to the unfolding experience, open to taking in something of the artist's vision. It is all to the good if that vision is true and godly.

Tolkien demonstrates this process absolutely. In his tale of Frodo, Strider, Gandaif, and their beautiful, magical world of Middle-earth, Professor Tolkien masterfully illustrates the tremendous power of True Art to inspire, enlighten, ennoble, challenge, and persuade, not to mention entertain—which was, after all, Tolkien's primary purpose. ....

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Only if one sees things along the way..."

Whenever I re-read authors I haven't read for some time I am reminded that I have no originality — none at all. I may have forgotten from whence some idea or formulation came but it wasn't original with me. I am an unconscious plagiarist. My most important source has to have been C.S. Lewis, but having—over the last day—re-read essays by Russell Kirk that I probably haven't read since college or graduate school, I've realized how much he influenced me, too.

This morning I opened and browsed through Kirk's Confessions of a Bohemian Tory, a collection of (mostly) very short essays published in 1963. From some of them:

From "Walking":
I would have you know that I am one of a dying breed, the race of walkers. Several times I have done thirty miles, and more than once forty. Time was when almost anyone felt able to do that sort of thing, and folks walked all the way from Edinburgh to London without anyone thinking it extraordinary.

But I cannot commend the marathon-walk, which various freaks and political eccentrics have gotten into the news these past few years. Walking ought to be for pleasure, and for instruction, not for display. Only if one sees things along the way—old churches, interesting people or rare birds—is walking worth the exertion. ....
On marriage:
The object of human existence is to know God and enjoy Him forever. The object of matrimony is the perpetuation of the human race, for the greater glory of God. What we call "decadence" is the loss of an object, an end, an aim. Men and women are decadent when they have forgotten or denied the objects of life, and so fritter away their years in trifles or debauchery. ....
On riding the bus:
Being the last to lay the old aside, I still ride buses now and then. The surviving company of bus passengers might be assigned to a few categories, all of them groups that can't afford cars, or don't dare drive them: some students, mostly female freshmen; colored people short of funds; the aged and infirm; drunks; the insane; and your servant.

In his romance The Great Divorce, Mr. C.S. Lewis commences with a queue of passengers waiting disconsolately to board an omnibus for an unknown destination. Actually they are bound for Heaven—though most of the passengers don't relish the place once they have arrived. Well, my fellow travelers often resemble Lewis' passengers, bewildered in some dim and smoky city. But some of them definitely aren't destined for Heaven. ....
On T.S. Eliot:
Though nowadays a few envious people are trying to dent his reputation, Thomas Stearns Eliot is the great man of letters of our time. Also he is the kindest man in the world.

Now and again I have lunched with him at the Garrick Club, in London, or seen him at his publishing office on Great Russell Street, or sat with him in the austere parlor of a little hotel in Edinburgh. And always there is about Mr. Eliot an atmosphere of humorous goodness, mixed with melancholy. Old Thomas Burton said that melancholy men are the wittiest.

Although ever since the Twenties the young avant-garde have worshipped him, T.S. Eliot—far from being in the van—is culturally and politically fighting a rear-guard action: and more power to him. He calls himself a Royalist, finding modern British Conservatism too innovating for his taste. He says that there are no lost causes, because there are no gained causes—from age to age men fight the same battles, in different costumes, and so it must be until the end of all things. ....
Russell Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory, Fleet, 1963.

Monday, January 18, 2016

"Serve Him with mirth"

Several of the books on that shelf in the last post are by Russell Kirk. His Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormality in Literature and Politics is a collection of previously published material, revised and integrated. From Chapter V, "Rediscovering Norms Through Fantasy," in which he discusses several authors, including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and, here, Ray Bradbury:
Ray Bradbury
.... Bradbury['s]...real concerns are the soul and the moral imagination. When the boy-hero of Dandelion Wine, in an abrupt mystical experience, is seized almost bodily by the glowing consciousness that he is really alive, we glimpse that mystery the soul. When, in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the lightning-rod salesman is reduced magically to an idiot dwarf because all his life he had fled from perilous responsibility, we know the moral imagination. ....

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man's power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely from day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest. ....

...[N]o recent writer is more buoyed up by the ebullient spirit of youth, and none more popular with intelligent young readers. Probably no one ever has written so understandingly of twelve and thirteen-year-old boys as Bradbury does repeatedly, particularly in Dandelion Wine, with its prosaic-romantic setting of Waukegan, Illinois (Bradbury's birthplace) and a thousand other American towns about 1928. Perpetual youth, and therefore perpetual hope, defy in Bradbury's pages the fatigue of this century and the ambitions of exploiting scientism.

If spirits in prison, still we are spirits; if able to besmirch ourselves, still only we men are capable of moral choices. Life and technology are what we make of them, and the failure of man to live in harmony with nature is the failure of moral imagination. That failure is not inevitable. ....

...Ray Bradbury discovers the same ancient truths beneath the surface of existence, in Waukegan, Illinois, say, about 1928. The outer life of good and evil in an American town is described in Dandelion Wine; the subterranean, inner reality, in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

A carnival comes to a small town; and two boys, thirteen years old, Jim and Will, are fascinated by it. But this particular carnival is not merry. Its master is the Illustrated Man, Mr. Dark, seeking whom he may devour. His captive freaks are sinners whose monstrous bodies are the personifications of their sins. His carousel, running forward or backward at great speed, will give human beings their desire of youth regained or age attained and send the iron into their souls. His Mirror Maze will entrap the folk who seek what is not in nature, and will convert them into caricatures of themselves. Mademoiselle Tarot, the Dust Witch, can murder with a whisper. For centuries, preying upon frailty and folly, this carnival has wandered the world, its proprietors setting their snares for the unwise and the unwary, and often with success.

Only one man in town Will's father, the library janitor, growing old, recognizes the carnival for what it is. The carnival is not Death. "But I think it uses Death as a threat," says Charles Halloway, the janitor, to the terrified boys. ....

Yet one power is stronger than the temptations and threats of the carnival; and that power is laughter. ...Evil, after all, is ludicrous; and though God is not mocked, those creatures who batten upon tormented souls are aghast at healthy mockery.

Just when all had semed lost, Halloway and the boys destroy the carnival by mirth. But other creatures who prey upon warped souls will come to town presently, in some other disguise, and the fools who want everything will become their freaks. ....
Russell Kirk, Enemies of the permanent things: Observations of abnormality in literature and politics, Arlington House, 1969.

Permanent things

I have kept relatively few of my books about politics even though I studied political theory in graduate school and taught high school Political Science classes for some thirty years. I have retained far more volumes of history and biography in my library than books about politics — and nothing at all about contemporary political issues or partisan controversies. This is most of my collection of books related to politics — almost entirely political theory. There are a few I've placed elsewhere, usually with others by an author who wrote mostly on religious or literary subjects.  It was Russell Kirk who introduced me to Edmund Burke in his The Conservative Mind. Almost everything I read about politics these days I happen across or seek out online.

The world must be changed

I have pulled from my library a book I haven't opened for years, The Portable Conservative Reader, edited by Russell Kirk, from which "The Four Reformers" by Robert Louis Stevenson:
Four reformers met under a bramble bush. They were all agreed the world must be changed. "We must abolish property," said one.
"We must abolish marriage," said the second.
"We must abolish God," said the third.
"I wish we could abolish work," said the fourth.

"Do not let us get beyond practical politics," said the first. "The first thing is to reduce men to a common level."
"The first thing," said the second, "is to give freedom to the sexes."
"The first thing," said the third, "is to find out how to do it."

"The first step," said the first, "is to abolish the Bible."
"The first thing," said the second, "is to abolish the laws."
"The first thing," said the third, "is to abolish mankind."
Robert Louis Stevenson, Fables, 1888

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"So afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

It may be time to read the Narnia books again. Like all really good books written for children they reward adult readers, too. Joseph Rossell writes "There are plenty of stories from my childhood that I appreciate even more now that I’m older and realize how perceptively they connect to real life. One such story is The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia."

From "Dwarfs, Disillusionment & The Last Battle":
.... One particular plotline stood out to me during my latest experience with The Last Battle. The story’s protagonists – King Tirian of Narnia and children Eustice and Jill from Earth – daringly rescued about 30 dwarves from being enslaved by Narnia’s enemies. Instead of responding with gratitude, all but one of the dwarfs refused to fight for Narnia....

The dwarfs’ main complaint was they no longer trusted in Aslan after Narnia’s enemies set up a false Aslan....

“I feel I’ve heard as much about Aslan as I want to for the rest of my life,” Griffle the dwarf said. “We’ve been taken in once and now you expect us to be taken in the next minute. We’ve no more use for stories about Aslan, see!” ....

Perhaps in their most famous scene, the dwarfs demonstrated a baffling level of cynicism, eerily reminiscent of modern Western thought. The dwarfs refused to acknowledge they had arrived in Aslan’s country (aka, the “real” Narnia). They insisted they were still in old Narnia, imprisoned in the stable where they were thrown by their enemies. Even Aslan himself tried to convince the dwarves that they were free, but to no avail.
“Starting a new lie! Trying to make us believe we’re none of us shut up, and it ain’t dark, and heaven knows what,” the dwarfs said.

They later insisted Aslan wasn’t really there: “Don’t take any notice! They won’t take us in again.”

“They will not let us help them,” Aslan explained. “They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own mind, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” .... [more]

Monday, January 11, 2016

Freedom to think aloud

A Wheaton College professor on an advantage possessed by that institution:
.... Wheaton College is a covenant community. We faculty members all voluntarily allow our beliefs and practices to be held to account by the standards of this community. We annually affirm the college's statement of faith and agree to abide by the manner of life in its covenant. Prayer, worship, study and work all exist side-by-side in the regular rhythms of our lives on campus. In most people's minds, I think this makes us more like the Abbey of Monte Cassino than the University of Illinois.

Indeed, for some of our most thoroughgoing critics it means that we are not at all like the University of Illinois. A statement of faith, they assert, prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.

It feels differently from the inside. The vast majority of the professors Wheaton hires come either straight from a Ph.D. program at a major, secular school or from teaching at a secular university. Again and again they revel in the luxurious, new-found academic freedom that Wheaton has granted them: For the first time in their careers they can think aloud in the classroom about the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition without worrying about being accused of violating the separation of church and state or transgressing the taboo against allowing spiritual reflections to wander into a conversation about death or ethics or hope.

Just like no Catholic wants everyone to join a monastery, so I would not want every institution of higher education to be like Wheaton. Still, I have no doubt that the intellectual life of the entire nation is stronger because places like Wheaton exist than it would be if all higher education had its academic freedom curtailed by prohibiting theological lines of inquiry. .... [more]

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Evil...has every advantage but one"

From C.S. Lewis's 1954 Time and Tide review of The Fellowship of the Ring:
.... Probably no book yet written in the world is quite such a radical instance of what its author has elsewhere called "sub-creation". The direct debt (there are of course subtler kinds of debt) which every author must owe to the actual universe, is here deliberately reduced to the minimum. Not content to create his own story, he creates, with an almost insolent prodigality, the whole world in which it is to move, with its own theology, myths, geography, history, palaeography, languages, and orders of beings—a world "full of strange creatures beyond count". The names alone are a feast...[and are] best of all...when they embody that piercing, high, elvish beauty of which no other prose writer has captured so much. ....

Almost the central theme of the book is the contrast between the Hobbits (or "the Shire") and the appalling destiny to which some of them recalled, the terrifying discovery that the humdrum happiness of the Shire, which they had taken for granted as something normal, is in reality a sort of local and temporary accident, that its existence depends on being protected by the powers which Hobbits forget against powers which Hobbits dare not imagine, that any Hobbit may find himself forced out of the Shire and caught up into that high conflict. More strangely still, the event of that conflict between the strongest things may come to depend on him, who is almost the weakest. ....

Even now I have left out almost everything—the silvan leafiness, the passions, the high virtues, the remote horizons. Even if I had space I could hardly convey them. And after all the most obvious appeal of the book is perhaps also its deepest: "there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain". Not wholly vain—it is the cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment. (more)
W.H. Auden in 1956 reviewing The Return of the King for The New York Times:
.... Mr. Tolkien's world may not be the same as our own: it includes, for example, elves, beings who know good and evil but have not fallen, and, though not physically indestructible, do not suffer natural death. It is afflicted by Sauron, an incarnate of absolute evil, and creatures like Shelob, the monster spider, or the orcs who are corrupt past hope of redemption. But it is a world of intelligible law, not mere wish; the reader's sense of the credible is never violated.

Even the One Ring, the absolute physical and psychological weapon which must corrupt any who dares to use it, is a perfectly plausible hypothesis from which the political duty to destroy it which motivates Frodo's quest logically follows. ....

.... As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation in the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one—it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil—hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring—but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head....

The demands made on the writer's powers in an epic as long as The Lord of the Rings are enormous and increase as the tale proceeds—the battles have to get more spectacular, the situations more critical, the adventures more thrilling—but I can only say that Mr. Tolkien has proved equal to them. .... (more)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Without hope

Samuel Johnson via Anecdotal Evidence:
Stove quotes from The Rambler #69, a reliable antidote to all that AARP-inspired rubbish about the Golden Years:
“He that grows old without religious hopes, as he declines into imbecility, and feels pains and sorrows incessantly crowding upon him, falls into a gulf of bottomless misery, in which every reflection must plunge him deeper, and where he finds only new gradations of anguish and precipices of horror.”

Beyond politics

.... Kirk consistently rejected the typical right-left division of modern politics. In part, this flowed from Kirk’s principled rejection of ideology.

Kirk understood ideology as “inverted religion.” Here, one senses Voegelin’s influence. With this phrase, Kirk rejected the tendency to think that we can realize heaven on earth through implementation of a political program. Whether such agendas were derived from socialism, libertarianism, progressivism, or even conservatism was, for Kirk, irrelevant. According to Kirk, there was a straight line between ideology in this sense and regimes willing to abandon all natural and legal restraints in order to realize political goals. Historically speaking, this has predominantly manifested itself on the left, assuming demonic form in the case of Communist governments. But there have also been instances in which ideology, in Kirk’s sense of the word, has flourished among sections of the right—nationalism (as distinct from patriotism) being a prominent example.

A second reason for Kirk’s rejection of the right-left paradigm was his longstanding interest in subjects that did not engage “political” questions, as such, but nonetheless were crucial in defining Western civilization. Here, Birzer’s discussion of Kirk’s relationship with T.S. Eliot is eye-opening. By any standard, Eliot was a man of the right and, as Birzer notes, was quite happy to discuss conservative ideas and figures in his correspondence with Kirk. Kirk was primarily interested, however, in Eliot’s poetry, spirituality, and sense of the mystical. Such things were, to Kirk’s mind, simply beyond politics and ought to remain so.

A third reason for Kirk’s dislike for right-left paradigms was his growing commitment to what Birzer describes as a type of Christian humanism that had decidedly premodern antecedents. These ranged from Aristotle and Plutarch to Dante, Erasmus, and Thomas More. Given that the right-left political division is very much a product of a post-1789 world, Kirk’s rejection of this way of looking at politics could be seen as underscoring his commitment to the abiding relevance of schools of thought (such as natural law) and thinkers (such as Aquinas) that helped define his Christian humanism but that don’t fit into the contemporary categories of right-left, conservative-liberal-socialist divisions. ....

Kirk regularly stressed that conservatism is, among other things, a matter of outlook and habits. He also noted that it involves awareness of certain constants in human nature, a respect for inherited wisdom, and a willingness to take religion very seriously. Nevertheless, for all its insistence that some things are beyond politics (something that modern liberalism seems incapable of appreciating), conservatism is also a modern political phenomenon with clear implications for political actors in the modern world, including the sphere of policy. .... [more]

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"Virtue signalling"

James Bartholomew is pleased to have invented a useful phrase that labels a quite common behavior in social and political discourse (behavior of which I have been guilty):
To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. .... One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse. .... [more]
From the April 18 column:
.... Comedians make use of virtue signalling of the vituperative kind. With the right audience they can get laughs scorning the usual suspects.... The audience enjoys the caricaturing of all of these, sneering at them and, in the process, joining together as a congregation of the righteously contemptuous. What a delight to display your virtue, feel confirmed in your views, enjoy a sense of community, let off some anger and have a laugh all at the same time! It is so easy, too!

No one actually has to do anything. .... There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition. ....

There was a time when Britain had a form of Christianity in which pride was considered a sin. Maybe that is part of why some of us find all this virtue signalling obnoxious. It’s just showing off. .... Twitter lends itself very well to virtue signalling, since it is much easier to express anger and scorn in 140 characters than to make a reasoned argument. .... [more]

Monday, January 4, 2016

Viewpoint diversity

I just discovered a website called HeterodoxAcademy that describes its goals thus:
We are social scientists and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines. We have all written about a particular problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” It’s what happens when everyone in a field shares the same political orientation and certain ideas become orthodoxy. We have come together to advocate for a more intellectually diverse and heterodox academy.
The problem:
American universities have leaned left for a long time. That is not a serious problem; as long as there are some non-leftists in every field and every department, we can assume that eventually, someone will challenge claims that reflect ideology more than evidence.

But things began changing in the 1990s as the Greatest Generation (which had a fair number of Republicans) retired and were replaced by the Baby Boom generation (which did not). As the graph below shows, in the 15 years between 1995 and 2010 the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left. (The 12% in the red line for 2014 is mostly made up of professors in schools of engineering and other professional schools; the percent conservative for the major humanities and social science departments is closer to 5%).
Contributors to the site are all "professors, researchers, or graduate students." Among the names I recognized in the list of contributors were Jonathan Haidt, John McWhorter, Steven Pinker, and George Yancey.
.... We don’t all agree about the nature of the problem or its solutions, nor do we all endorse every blog post. But we all agree that our academic fields (and many others) would produce better and more reliable research if they contained more viewpoint diversity. We have come together to search for ways to address this problem and improve the academy.
This is a site I will re-visit.

"A person acts what he is when he may do what he will"

From History Today, "Speak Well and Act Accordingly," about a collection of 11th century proverbs:
.... Medieval literature placed a high value on proverbs and many lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry have a vaguely proverbial ring. But our best source of Anglo-Saxon proverbs is a single collection, which survives in a manuscript now in Durham Cathedral Library. The Durham Proverbs provide a vivid glimpse into the everyday life of Anglo-Saxon England.... The manuscript is a collection of hymns and canticles, in Latin with interlinear English translations, probably for the use of the monks at Christ Church, Canterbury in the first half of the 11th century. Not long after the manuscript was made, someone in the monastery took advantage of a blank space between the hymns to write down a group of 46 proverbs. ....
Some proverbial wisdom from the Middle Ages:
  • A friend is useful, far or near; the nearer the better.
  • A person acts what he is when he may do what he will.
  • He never knows the pleasure of sweetness, who never tastes bitterness.
  • He is blind in both eyes who does not look with the heart.
  • If you speak well, act accordingly. (more)
Two more that the author included on her blog, "A Clerk of Oxford":
  • It does no good to tell all truths or blame all wrongs.
  • They do not quarrel who are not together.
Speak Well and Act Accordingly | History Today, A Clerk of Oxford: Playing with the Durham Proverbs

Friday, January 1, 2016


Reviewing a new biography of Augustine Sameer Rahim writes "Lane Fox is informative and learned, but his book is, I must confess, a bit of a slog." Nevertheless Rahim on Augustine:
.... We know more about him than any other figure from the ancient world, and his personality and intelligence shine more brightly than his contemporaries.

Confessions is not strictly speaking an autobiography; it is a prayer addressed to God. But, as Augustine says, God knows it all already and so he can speak freely about his own sins – most notoriously, his sex life. ....

To Augustine, premarital sex was a false vision: “I was not yet in love but I was 'in love with love’.” As he came to reject sex, so he rejected Manichaeism. Their religion’s founder, the prophet Mani, claimed the world was divided into equally powerful forces for evil and for good, darkness and light.

Augustine knew, though, that he did not have a divided soul; instead it sometimes inclined to right and sometimes to wrong. Evil was part of human nature – which is why he came to popularise the doctrine of “original sin”.

Augustine learnt this from reading the Bible, but also from personal experience. As a teenager, he and a gang of friends stole pears from an orchard (echoes of Genesis again). Augustine had been led astray by something that initially seemed worthwhile: friendship.

Later, in Carthage, he joined a student club called “the Overturners” – the Bullingdon Club of its era – whose members went around harassing other students. He joined because he was lonely. He slept around for the same reason.

He came to realise that far from being cleanly divided into light and dark, our vices are often misdirected virtues. The combination of brilliant dramatic set pieces and close emotional self-scrutiny makes Augustine’s Confessions read like the work of a great novelist or poet. .... [more]