Wednesday, September 30, 2020

"Shadows cast by eternal truth"

From Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity in a feature called "Commonplaces." This one is a quotation from Ronald Knox (who also wrote mysteries):
.... Our intellects stammer and boggle when they try to reach the truth about Divine things, not because the other world is a reflection of ours, but because ours is a reflection, and how pale a reflection, of the other. That was what our Lord wanted us to see when he turned our metaphors, even, inside out for us, as you may read in St. John. The water in Jacob's well isn't real water; the real water is the living fountain of grace which he will unseal for the woman of Samaria, if she will only stop to listen. The vine that grows on yonder wall is not a real vine; the only real Vine is his own mystical body. The things we see and touch are only the shadows cast by eternal truth. What marvel if we, to whom shadow is substance, cannot raise our minds to contemplate the substance by which the shadow is cast? ....

Ronald Knox,The Hidden Stream, chapter 4, "Our Knowledge of God by Analogy" (1953)

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Living in the past

Continuing to browse through The Quotable Chesterton (1986) I came across this from Avowals and Denials (1935):
We talk of people living in the past; and it is commonly applied to old people or old-fashioned people. But, in fact, we all live in the past, because there is nothing else to live in. To live in the present is like proposing to sit on a pin. It is too minute, it is too slight a support, it is too uncomfortable a posture, and it is of necessity followed immediately by totally different experiences, analogous to those of jumping up with a yell. To live in the future is a contradiction in terms. The future is dead; in the perfectly definite sense that it is not alive. It has no nature, no form, no feature.... The past can move and excite us, the past can be loved and hated, the past consists largely of lives that can be considered in their completion, that is, literally in the fulness of life.
It would, of course, be preferable to know more of the past than just your own personal past.

The Quotable Chesterton, Ignatius Press, 1986

Monday, September 28, 2020

Tender mercies

From Alan Jacobs' newsletter this morning, a "'Prayer for Persons Troubled in Mind or Conscience' from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer":
O Blessed Lord, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comforts: We beseech Thee, look down in pity and compassion upon this Thy afflicted servant. Thou writest bitter things against him, and makest him to possess his former iniquities; Thy wrath lieth hard upon him, and his soul is full of trouble: But, O merciful God, who hast written Thy holy Word for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of Thy holy Scriptures, might have hope; give him a right understanding of himself, and of Thy threats and promises; that he may neither cast away his confidence in Thee, nor place it any where but in Thee. Give him strength against all his temptations, and heal all his distempers. Break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax. Shut not up Thy tender mercies in displeasure; but make him to hear of joy and gladness, that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice. Deliver him from fear of the enemy, and lift up the light of Thy countenance upon him, and give him peace, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The person who wrote this prayer understood as well as anyone ever has the distinctive miseries of self-accusation, self-condemnation, and so beautifully pities the person so afflicted, and intercedes for that person with God: Shut not up thy tender mercies in displeasure; but make him to hear of joy and gladness.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

"Saying something true about human nature"

P.D. James is one of my favorite novelists and her series of detective novels, most of them with Scotland Yard's Adam Dalgliesh, are all good reading. Today I pulled her Talking About Detection Fiction (2009) from my shelves. The second chapter is about Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories:
.... Another Victorian whose influence and reputation have been almost as great, in my view deservedly, was as prolific as Conan Doyle but very different both as a man and as a writer. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who was born on Campden Hill in London in 1874 and died in 1936, can be described in terms which are hardly ever used of a writer today: he was a man of letters. All his life he earned his living by his pen and he was as versatile as he was prolific, gaining a reputation as a novelist, essayist, critic, journalist and poet. Much of this output, particularly on social, political and religious subjects, has proved ephemeral, but a few of his poems, including "The Donkey" and "The Rolling English Road," continue to appear in anthologies of popular verse. But he is chiefly remembered as one of the most brilliant writers of the short detective story and for his serial detective, the Roman Catholic priest Father Brown. The Innocence of Father Brown was published in 1911 and was followed by four further volumes; the last, The Scandal of Father Brown, appeared in 1935. G.K. Chesterton converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922, and his faith became central to his life and work. His fictional priest was based on his friend Father John O'Connor, to whom The Secret of Father Brown, published in 1927, was dedicated. ....

G.K Chesterton's output was prodigious, and it would be unreasonable to expect all the short stories to be equally successful, but the quality of the writing never disappoints. Chesterton never wrote an inelegant or clumsy sentence. The Father Brown stories are written in a style richly complex, imaginative, vigorous, poetic and spiced with paradoxes. He had been trained as an artist and he saw life with an artist's eye. He wanted his readers to share that poetic vision, to see the romance and numinousness in commonplace things. He brought two things in particular to detective fiction. He was among the first writers to realise that it could be a vehicle for exploring and exposing the condition of society, and for saying something true about human nature. Before he even planned the Father Brown stories, Chesterton wrote that "the only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will." Those words have been part of my credo as a writer. ....
P.D. James, Talking About Detection Fiction, Knopf, 2009.

Friday, September 25, 2020

"Knowledge is good"

.... Reading is not a generalized skill. It involves another factor, background knowledge, which is not an abstract intellectual capacity. If you hand two groups of kids a passage about baseball—one group made up of strong readers who know little about the sport, the other of middling readers who know a lot about it—an interesting result follows. When tested on their comprehension of the passage, the average scores of the two groups converge. This is why Hirsch says that a reading test is really a knowledge test.

It is also why he rejects “skills” curricula—that is, teaching and assignments that emphasize abstract capacities such as “critical thinking” and “problem solving” and, in the lower grades, “reading comprehension.” Exercises such as “Find the main idea” and “What does a topic sentence do?” are of limited value. It is much better, Hirsch says, for teachers to assign knowledge-building readings and discuss the specific content of those readings. One, this will build the background knowledge that will enable students to perform well on high-stakes tests later on; and two, students will absorb unconsciously how to find a main idea and what topic sentences do.

.... His new book has fresh scientific findings to back up the knowledge factor. There is a fascinating section on the memory of chess Grand Masters, good historical material on Noah Webster and nineteenth-century schooling, and dismal records of what happened to academic achievement when schools went with the “skills” approach to learning. I recommend his books especially to those parents who find themselves doing lots of homeschooling in this age of lockdown.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Reading aloud

I know of couples who read to each other. My parents did. And, of course, reading to children is crucial if they are to become readers. This essay argues that reading aloud does more good than we might suppose.
Today, silent reading is the norm. The majority of us bottle the words in our heads as if sitting in the hushed confines of a library. Reading out loud is largely reserved for bedtime stories and performances.

But a growing body of research suggests that we may be missing out by reading only with the voices inside our minds. The ancient art of reading aloud has a number of benefits for adults, from helping improve our memories and understand complex texts, to strengthening emotional bonds between people. And far from being a rare or bygone activity, it is still surprisingly common in modern life. Many of us intuitively use it as a convenient tool for making sense of the written word, and are just not aware of it.

Colin MacLeod, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, has extensively researched the impact of reading aloud on memory. He and his collaborators have shown that people consistently remember words and texts better if they read them aloud than if they read them silently. This memory-boosting effect of reading aloud is particularly strong in children, but it works for older people, too. “It’s beneficial throughout the age range,” he says. ....

For many respondents, reading aloud brought joy, comfort and a sense of belonging. Some read to friends who were sick or dying, as “a way of escaping together somewhere”, Duncan says. One woman recalled her mother reading poems to her, and talking to her, in Welsh. After her mother died, the woman began reading Welsh poetry aloud to recreate those shared moments. A Tamil speaker living in London said he read Christian texts in Tamil to his wife. On Shetland, a poet read aloud poetry in the local dialect to herself and others.

“There were participants who talked about how when someone is reading aloud to you, you feel a bit like you’re given a gift of their time, of their attention, of their voice,” Duncan recalls. “We see this in the reading to children, that sense of closeness and bonding, but I don’t think we talk about it as much with adults.” .... (more)

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Who are we?

I have no strong opinion about the larger argument in this post — I didn't really read it attentively — but when I noticed this paragraph I enjoyed it a lot! Who are we?
We are those who have been crucified with Christ, buried with him in baptism, and raised to walk in newness of life. We are those who have been set free from the Powers of death and darkness; liberated from the domain of Sin. We are those who have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. We are those who are “now called the sons of God,” who also “shall be like him” in glory. We are those bound by chains of grace, living between the great bookends: “No Condemnation” and “No Separation.” We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus. We are the ones who have been given “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We are not of those who draw back, but those who believe to the saving of the soul. We are the grateful recipients of covenant mercies made fresh every morning. We are those who have been filled with the Spirit, made partakers of the divine nature, adopted and appointed as sons of the Most High God, and destined to sit with Christ upon his Father’s throne. We are the Church of Christ; his living body and beloved bride. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us! ....


In this case, fasting not as a religious discipline, but fasting to lose weight. At "Five Books" the author of The Diet Myth is interviewed about the five books he would recommend on dieting. First of all he says "all diet books are fatally flawed because they suggest there’s only one way to do things. In general, the genre is outdated. And it preys on human weakness: peddling that there’s a quick fix for everything." One of the most serious errors that persists is the "low fat" diet. He drinks whole milk when he drinks milk. Meat itself isn't a problem (although he does have a problem with cows because farting causing climate change), but sugar is. Salt doesn't seem to be an issue. Exercise, on its own, doesn't work. About breakfast: "Try a high fat breakfast such as yoghurt, eggs or cheese, or skipping it altogether." And so on. The final book he discusses is The FastDiet, and that is the only diet he recommends.
.... This means that either every other day, or for two days a week, you will either fast completely or consume only 25% of your normal calories. The rest of the time you just eat normally. The idea was that you reset your metabolism and allow your body to rest. You’re able to lose weight on this diet, because you don’t overeat as much as you might think on the other days. ....

It turns out that the longer you fast overnight or during the day, the longer your body is not dealing with food and the better and healthier your metabolism. A lot of that’s coming from gut microbes. Your gut health is better when they have time to recover, heal, tidy up your gut lining, help your immune system. Or that’s the current theory, and increasing data is supporting that.

Our ancestors didn’t eat six times a day and feel faint if they didn’t have a McVitie’s biscuit at 11 o’clock. ....

I think if people start to experiment, they can find what suits them. You mentioned breakfast; studies show that if you randomise people to breakfast or no breakfast, but the same amount of food in a day, people overeat a bit if they miss breakfast, but not so much that they over-compensate. .... (more)
Interesting. Although this approach to dieting seems to have been around for a while, I don't recall ever having heard of it.

Monday, September 21, 2020


There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude. ....
G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer, found in The Quotable Chesterton, Ignatius Press, 1986.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Finally and ultimately

Modern Heresies is a book I found on the shelves of the Milton College Library, and soon ordered for myself. It was an early introduction to the idea of heresy. (If reprinted, it should be re-titled Perennial Heresies.) This is from Chapter Three, "The Personal God":
.... A friend of mine has characterized most preaching which he hears as consisting of "if-only" sermons: "If only people would obey the Sermon on the Mount, the world would be ever so much better." The image of God that such sermons project is of a Divine floor-pacer, wringing his hands over the mess men are getting into and wishing desperately he could think of something to do about it. How often one hears in sermons phrases like this : "God is trying to do so and so"; "God hopes we will hear and obey him." Some of this language is inevitable as the language of analogy, but we ought to be quite sure we see how very misleading it can be. God isn't really "trying" to do anything; he is doing it. God doesn't "hope" for anything; he is quite aware that his will is done perfectly both in earth and in heaven. The danger of talking about a limited God who is trying things out and hoping things will work out well is that one can put no confidence or trust in such a God. For if a limited and finite God is really our image of the Divine then he may very well fail. Perhaps our experience with democracy has misled us into thinking that God is not so much the eternal King of creation as just a candidate seeking that office ( and the preachers are his precinct workers, out drumming up votes). But what if he isn't elected?

Orthodoxy's answer to this heresy has always been the assertion that God can do anything he wants, but what he wants is to create free beings able to respond to him wholeheartedly and trustingly. Omnipotence is not the ability to do anything; it is the ability to achieve one's purpose. .... God's omnipotence is proved by the freedom with which he allows man to run the world as he wants. If he were interfering all the time, shrilly insisting that men hew to the line and seizing them by the scruff of the neck if they did not, one would conclude that he was a very nervous and uncertain Deity, indeed. God's omnipotence lies in his capacity to make all things work together for good, finally and ultimately. Perhaps the most powerful evidence for this is the story of the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
John M Krumm, Modern Heresies (1961), pp. 48-49.


Kevin DeYoung:
Wisdom is what we need to live a godly life. God does not tell us the future, nor does He expect us to figure it out. When we don't know which way to turn and are faced with tough decisions in life, God doesn't expect us to grope in the dark for some hidden will of direction. He expects us to trust Him and to be wise. This is the theme of Proverbs, especially chapter 2. Consider verses 1-6 (NIV):
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
Verse 5 gives the answer to the question, "What is wisdom?" Wisdom is understanding the fear of the Lord and finding the knowledge of God. Wisdom, in Proverbs, is always moral. The fool, the opposite of the wise person, is not a moron or an oaf. The fool is the person who does not live life God's way. Wisdom is knowing God and doing as He commands. Foolishness, on the other hand, is turning from God and listening only to yourself. So when we talk about wisdom, we are talking about more than witty aphorisms and home-spun advice. We are talking about a profoundly God-centered approach to life. Biblical wisdom means living a disciplined and prudent life in the fear of the Lord. ....
Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something (2009), pp. 88-89.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Ever after

Bruce Edwards on the Narnia book nobody cites as their favorite, Prince Caspian:
...I adjure all readers to read them in the order in which Lewis wrote and published them! For dramatic, thematic, as well as suspense purposes, it is crucial that LWW  [The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe] be the first to be read, followed by the Caspian Triad, then The Horse and His Boy (a kind of found tale, deliberately anachronistic), then Narnia’s origin story, The Magician’s Nephew, and, finally, the truly consummating The Last Battle. This is the most compelling and satisfying way to begin and complete a journey to Narnia. ....

If Prince Caspian is no LWW, there is no shame in that. For how could any story measure up to what is, in fact, a retelling of the greatest story ever told, the story with the greatest significance for every creature great or small, the scintillating and enchanting tale that delivers the “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” ....

Having said that, I will tell you that there remains a most important lesson to be emphasized from the very start of this underrated and undervalued Narnian tale, namely, that in imagining and creating Prince Caspian, Lewis has taught us the profound but overlooked truth that life does have sequels. Life is, in fact, filled with sequels, that emphasize our heretofores, once-agains, and ever-afters.

There is an “ever after,” even after the seemingly “most important things” have already happened. How could anything that occurs after the death, resurrection, and triumph of Aslan to set things aright be anything but trivial. Aha! The recent slogan, “been there, done that,” the older slogan, “the show must go on,” and the oldest one of all, no doubt uttered by Adam and Eve more than once in the Garden, “life goes on,” is certainly just as true in Narnia. The question is not “how has life gone,” but how can life go on? ....

“Old truths don’t lose their value or validity because they are old.” This is an important maxim governing the whole of the Chronicles—but especially relevant here. One must not judge the validity and truth of a statement by “when” it first originated. This is a fictional treatment of the challenge of “chronological snobbery,” which Lewis faced and defeated, described in Surprised by Joy as a key to his own liberation.

Dr. Cornelius, Caspian, Trumpkin, Reepicheep, all must fight through their skepticism in order to accept as true the “old” belief that Aslan exists and Narnia’s future is dependent on this “ancient” knowledge. Life for us all is “in medias res,” in the middle of things; we don’t get to choose the moment in which we will enter the world, nor what conversations, ideas, victories, and defeats have preceded us, or will succeed us. .... (more)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

A faithful, but unheralded, life

Via Mere Orthodoxy, quoting from the ending of a book I probably should have read, but haven't. I really like this:
“... [F]or the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” George Eliot’s Middlemarch

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

An opening to murder

.... Born on this day in 1890, in Torquay, England, she enjoyed surpassing fame in her lifetime and lays a current claim to being the bestselling novelist of all-time. She was and remains the undisputed Queen of Crime. But for all we celebrate her popularity, her prolific output, and her ingenious plots, Christie is sometimes overlooked on the craft level. .... [T]o celebrate the day, we thought: why not gather up some of Christie’s greatest opening lines?
For example, from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926):
“Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th–17th September—a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.”
Other examples of Christie's openings.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The worm in the apple

A graduate student explains "Why I am a Conservative":
A good political ideology must be concordant with human nature. Ideologies that are not, however inspiring they might sound, will inevitably lead to frustration and ultimately to disillusionment. I believe that conservatism is the political ideology that is the most consistent with human nature. And therefore, I am a conservative.

The fundamental premise, as I see it, of conservatism is original sin. Humans are flawed, fallible, limited creatures. For thinkers in the Christian tradition, original sin was a separation from God and an almost inexplicable drive to disobey his divine orders. For the secular, original sin can be understood as the belief that humans are compelled to imagine and create a moral order that they cannot possibly obey. Humans can imagine paradise, but they are condemned to dwell in the purgatory of earthly reality, bound inevitably by their biological natures. They can, for example, envisage a world of perfect cooperation, a world free from the strife of conflict and competition. But they can never instantiate it. Thus, original sin in this sense is a separation of humans from their moral ideal.

Humans have four chief limitations: They are tribal, local, competitive, and fallible. These traits lie like maggots in the fruit of humanistic idealism and preclude the creation of a progressive’s paradise. Communism, socialism, a world without tribes or irrational attachments — these are fantasies that will never come to pass. The conservative accepts this as the price of moral maturity and attempts to deal with humankind’s frailties and shortcomings without counseling despair but also without promoting utopian optimism. .... (more)


"Rethinking Race" is thought provoking and very much worth your time.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, to be a progressive, right-thinking American intellectual was to believe in the genetic superiority of certain racial groups. Otherwise known as eugenics or race science, the idea that races can be readily sorted along an immutable biological hierarchy had far-reaching policy implications, from marriage laws to immigration, and heavily influenced the racial policies of Nazi Germany. The logical conclusion of the belief that racial groups were inherently distinct from one another was that societal disparities between them must be a consequence of nature, rather than the results of a complex tangle of socioeconomic, cultural, historical and other demographic forces. At the time, to offer a critique of the prevailing vision of race, such as those made by Franz Boas and G.K. Chesterton, could have resulted in social stigma and opened up the critic to the charge of being on the wrong side of history.

What is considered progress at a given point in history can, with the passage of time and the advent of better information, come to look like the opposite. Nowhere is that juxtaposition more stark than on the loaded subject of race in America. ....

The term racecraft refers to all the ways in which we uphold the psycho-social construct of race, from subtle acts of projection to overt discrimination and brutal suppression. “Disguised as race, racism becomes something Afro-Americans are, rather than something racists do.” The one-drop rule under the systems of slavery and Jim Crow—whereby a drop of African blood made a person socially black even if their ancestry was largely European—is a clear example of the mental contortions necessary for racecraft. ....

.... When we look at race through a sociological microscope, isolating it from other associated factors such as culture, ethnic background, national identity and politics—we are left with almost nothing of any meaning or value: it refers to the general region of the world most of a person’s recent ancestors came from and may imply a heightened or reduced risk of certain medical conditions at the margins. But race itself has no human weight. ....

White supremacy was an abomination because it ascribed moral meaning to the arbitrary and unchosen fact of skin color. Yet much of what constitutes antiracism today is effectively an inverse continuation of this misbegotten belief. We see this in the lack of emphasis on concrete policy issues and the focus on totalizing theories of whiteness, privilege and structural oppression. We see this in the conceptual expansion of the term racism from individual discriminatory behaviors to an unconscious systemic bias that is built into the edifice of society itself. We see this in the cynical tokenization of minorities to score political points. We see this in the way the racial double standards of the past are used to justify racial double standards in the present. We see this in the unwillingness to track the astounding racial progress of the past 60 years. ....

Racial categories promote thinking in terms of race. As the ethnic composition of the country rapidly changes over the coming decades, it’s imperative to consider which guiding principles will allow us to see past superficial differences and embrace what we have in common as citizens and human beings. At the moment, we’re doing a terrible job of this. We need a different vision for American society, what Ralph Ellison called a new American humanism, which views the diverse strands of American identity in positive-sum terms and rejects all forms of identity essentialism. .... (more)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Kids like to know stuff

I thought E.D. Hirsch right when I first read him in the 1980s. Hirsch, who considers himself a man of the political left but not the cultural left, has given an interview at the Wall Street Journal that they titled "Bad Teaching Is Tearing America Apart." From the account of the interview:
.... The current fashion is for teachers to be a “guide on the side, instead of a sage on the stage,” he says, quoting the latest pedagogical slogan, which means that teachers aren’t supposed to lecture students but to “facilitate” learning by nudging students to follow their own curiosity. Everything Mr. Hirsch knows about how children learn tells him that’s the wrong approach. “If you want equity in education, as well as excellence, you have to have whole-class instruction,” in which a teacher directly communicates information using a prescribed sequential curriculum.

Mr. Hirsch, 92, is best known for his 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. It is an argument for teaching “specifics,” followed by a lengthy list of them—thousands of historical figures, events, concepts and literary works with which, in Mr. Hirsch’s view, educated Americans should be familiar. Heavily weighted toward Western history and civilization, the list provoked charges of elitism. Yet Mr. Hirsch is singularly focused on helping disadvantaged kids. They “are not exposed to this information at home,” he says, so they’ll starve intellectually unless the schools provide it. ....

He cites both history and neuroscience in explaining how education went wrong. It began in the 1940s, when “schools unbolted the desks and kids were no longer facing the teacher.” Instead children were divided into small groups and instructed to complete worksheets independently with occasional input from teachers. “That was also when our verbal test scores went down and the relative ranking of our elementary schools declined on a national level.” On the International Adult Literacy Survey, Americans went from being No. 1 for children who were educated in the 1950s to fifth for those in the ’70s and 14th in the ’90s. ....

Mr. Hirsch also takes issue with grade schools’ focus on “skills.” Whether it is imparting “critical thinking skills,” “communication skills” or “problem-solving skills,” he says such instruction is a waste of time in the absence of specific knowledge. ....

There are now about 5,000 schools in the U.S. that use some form of the Core Knowledge curriculum, developed by Mr. Hirsch’s foundation. And research suggests Mr. Hirsch is right. A recent large-scale randomized study of public-school pupils in kindergarten through second grade found that use of the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum had statistically significant benefits for vocabulary, science knowledge, and social-studies knowledge.

Even in poor neighborhoods, kids at Core Knowledge schools perform well and are admitted to competitive high schools. ....

Before classes began one morning, a second-grade girl approached him (the principal) and said: “I’m so excited for today.” When the principal asked why, she said, “Because today we are going to learn about the War of 1812.”

“Gee, I wonder what that’s about,” the principal said.

“I don’t know,” the girl replied. “But today I’m going to find out!”

For Mr. Hirsch, the lesson is clear. No matter the circumstances, “kids delight in learning things.”

(Just re-named the post.) 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Evil incarnate in someone else

This morning Kevin Williamson quotes a very good passage from T.S. Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society. Eliot:
It ought not to be necessary for me to insist that the final aims of the churchman, and the aims of the secular reformer, are very different. So far as the aims of the latter are for true social justice, they ought to be comprehended in those of the former. But one reason why the lot of the secular reformer or revolutionist seems to me to be the easier is this: that for the most part he conceives of the evils of the world as something external to himself. They are thought of either as completely impersonal, so that there is nothing to alter but machinery; or if there is evil incarnate, it is always incarnate in the other people — a class, a race, the politicians, the bankers, the armament makers, and so forth — never in oneself. There are individual exceptions: but so far as a man sees the need for converting himself as well as the World, he is approximating to the religious point of view. But for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself. It comes from an artificial stimulant bound to have bad aftereffects. It causes pride, either individual or collective, and pride brings its own doom. For only in humility, charity and purity — and most of all perhaps humility — can we be prepared to receive the grace of God without which human operations are vain.
T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 1940

Monday, August 31, 2020

Journey into Fear

CrimeReads posts about "The Crime Novels of Istanbul." Among them several that are favorites.
The great English espionage stylist of the pre-war years Eric Ambler set several novels in Turkey. Perhaps the best is Journey into Fear (1940) which features his recurring character Colonel Haki, the taciturn but basically likable head of Turkish Security. A British Engineer is in Istanbul having completed a deal that could cement an Anglo-Turkish alliance and see Turkey join the Allied cause in World War Two. Nazi spies and a Romanian hitman are out to kill him. However, Ambler’s slightly earlier novel The Mask of Dimitrios (known in the USA as A Coffin for Dimitrios, 1939), is his best novel for pure Istanbul flavor. English crime novelist Charles Latimer is traveling in Istanbul and meets Colonel Haki who tells him of the mysterious Dimitrios—an infamous master criminal whose body has just been fished out of the Bosporus. Fascinated by the story, Latimer decides to retrace Dimitrios’ steps across Europe to gather material for a new book. But, as he asks questions about Dimitrios, Latimer’s own life is placed in danger.
Both good books, but I agree that Journey into Fear is the better one. They were made into pretty good Hollywood films.

Sunday, August 30, 2020


Once again from one of my favorite books, Waiting, Ben Patterson in the chapter on Abram:
In his autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell recalls his friendship with a profane and brilliant skeptic named P.D. East. He and East had often argued to a standstill about the truth of Christianity. One day, as they rode together in a car, East came at him from a surprising angle.
Just tell me what this Jesus cat is all about. I'm not too bright but maybe I can get the hang of it.... If you could tell me what the hell the Christian faith is about maybe I wouldn't make an ass out of myself when I'm talking about it. Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what's the Christian message? ...Let me have it. Ten words.
Campbell thought hard for several minutes. What would be your answer, in ten words or less? Campbell's was this: "We're all bastards but God loves us anyway."

East swung his car over onto the shoulder of the road and stopped. He asked Campbell to repeat his definition. He obliged. East counted the number of words on his fingers. "I gave you a ten word limit. If you want to try again you have two words left."

The language in that definition is raw, but is it really any different from the words of the Bible which say, "Christ died for our sins"? We have anesthetized ourselves to the word sin. It no longer stabs us with grief and the fear of a holy God. To say that we are sinners is to say that we are all the misbegotten enemies of God, bastards every one, deserving judgment and death.

It is only as we see the enormity of our sin that we can appreciate the magnitude of God's mercy to us. If Christ would die for sinners, if he would love us misbegotten ones enough to do that before we even cared for him (and whether or not we ever did), then how much more, now that we have believed in him, will he preserve us by that same love? If we can believe the first word of the gospel, that Christ died for us, it should be no problem whatsoever to believe the next word of the gospel, that he will preserve us after we believe even when we fail. We are saved by God's mercy and we wait by God's mercy. Faith is not our ability to hold on to God, but simply trusting in his ability to hold on to us.

(Ben Patterson, Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, IVP, 1989)

Friday, August 28, 2020


Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them in a great measure, the Laws depend. The Law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.
Edmund Burke, First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796)

When will I ever learn...?

Read about an interview with Van Morrison this morning. I've been listening to him ever since.

When will I ever learn to live in God?
When will I ever learn?
He gives me everything I need and more
When will I ever learn?

Thursday, August 27, 2020


Happened online across a quotation from Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) and decided to browse around for more. There are many, many, more than these.
  • “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
  • “Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.” 
  • “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” 
  • “Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error” 
  • “To be content with what we possess is the greatest and most secure of riches.” 
  • “It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own.” 
  •  “We are bound by the law, so that we may be free.” 
  • “What can be more delightful than to have some one to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself?” 
  • “Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.” 
  • “Be, rather than seem” 
  • “But if I am wrong in thinking the human soul immortal, I am glad to be wrong; nor will I allow the mistake which gives me so much pleasure to be wrested from me as long as I live.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

"...To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance..."

From President Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, August 18, 1790:

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Go: Washington

Monday, August 24, 2020

The greatest crime film of all time?

Otto Penzler has been counting down his selection of the best 106 crime films of all time. The full list is here. Today he finally reaches #1: "The Greatest Crime Film of All-Time: The Third Man." Lists like this are fun and fun to argue about. I have no quarrel with his choice. It is a very good film and eminently re-watchable. If you've never seen it I would recommend the British version which is a few minutes longer. If you've never seen it don't read Penzler before you do — he summarizes the entire plot. The Third Man Blu-ray at Amazon.

Sunday, August 23, 2020


From "Beauty and Desecration," in his description of beauty here Roger Scruton used an example that reminded me of C.S. Lewis's use of Sehnsucht — the longing for something more, something beyond, that an experience can inspire. Scruton:
....Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be. ....
Beauty and Desecration by Roger Scruton, City Journal Spring 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2020


"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren't quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron's fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn't think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel's cheeks, but she'd forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George's head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

"That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did," said Hazel.

"Huh" said George. .... (the story)
Harrison Bergeron

Friday, August 21, 2020

Forced to be free

"The Gospel of Jean-Jacques" argues that today's utopians are directly descendant from Rousseau:
.... Rousseau’s first writings present an anthropology that, in essence, prevails on the cultural Left today. He envisions human beings as bundles of individual desire. He is preoccupied with autonomy, “the power of willing or rather of choosing, ...and the feeling of this power.” He identifies self-love as the predominant human impulse. But (in sharp contrast to the doctrine of original sin and to earlier secular thinkers such as Hobbes and Machiavelli) he sentimentalizes self-love. He argues that human beings are fundamentally unaggressive by nature. He teaches a feelings-based morality and argues that compassion can ensure a benign social order. He imagines a prehistoric libertarian golden age, and he aspires to utopia.

Meanwhile, he denounces existing institutions as corrupt. The Social Contract famously opens, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau and the cultural Left that follows him must find their way from an autonomy-obsessed, hedonistic notion of human nature to a collectivist, coercive theory of government organized for purposes of reform. Rousseau accomplished this paradox with his theory of the General Will.

Rousseau’s concept is that, human nature being essentially benign, the impulses of the general public inevitably tend toward the common good. He grounds this notion in a sentimental deism (“The voice of the people is in fact the voice of God”). True freedom therefore requires conforming each person’s will to the General Will. It is the “real will” of each citizen. Thus, as Rousseau expressly states in The Social Contract (and as Robespierre despotically asserted), people can be “forced to be free.”

These concepts readily passed from Rousseau’s sentimental deism, to Hegel’s doctrine of world-historical progress, to Marx, and to progressivism today. ....

The gospel of Jean-Jacques is ascendant in America today. Its libertarian strain is found in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, refining the logic of Roe v. Wade to justify abortion on these grounds: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Rousseau himself abandoned his infant children to near-certain death in orphanages, and this is his legacy — human beings conceived as atomized, arbitrary bundles of desire. Rising out of that legacy are assaults on moral norms of every sort: unrestricted abortion, assisted suicide, ubiquitous pornography, marijuana lotus-eating, insistence that all norms are mere social constructions. .... (more

Thursday, August 20, 2020


I really dislike spiders. I don't like how they look and I hate cobwebs. I get a lot of them seven floors up because of the tiny insects that fly about — no mosquitoes, though, because too far from plants and trees. Walking through the door onto the balcony, getting ready to grill, or do anything out there, I'm apt to walk through a cobweb. I hate that. I know they kill other things I dislike and I know they play a role in the food chain, but I still think of them as relatives of Shelob. So I went looking for a way to get rid of them and found it, "Miss Muffet's Revenge," at Amazon. One treatment around windows and doors, along the floor, corners and peripheral surfaces, and they're gone. No more looking through spider webs on the screens. No more bites as I read. No more cobwebs hanging everywhere. And the effect is supposed to last for months. If it does, another treatment in the Spring. Miss Muffet's Revenge, indeed.
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Against racism

Across the American political spectrum, nearly everyone agrees that racism is evil. Yet there remain deep disagreements not only about what counts as racism, but also over how to fight it. Because these disagreements are typically framed as a battle over means—that is, how best to fight racism—one can easily miss that there is a deeper question at stake: What is the end goal for American race relations?

For fifty years, the American left has been torn between two different answers. The first was best encapsulated by Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King looked forward to a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”—a day when race would be seen as an insignificant attribute.

The competing vision—let’s call it race-consciousness—was best encapsulated by the Black Power movement. The end goal of this movement was not, as King once put it, to bring about a “new kind of togetherness between blacks and whites.” Rather, it was to demand that black people, understood as a collective, receive more recognition, more respect, and more resources. Underlying this vision was the assumption that society is a zero-sum power struggle between oppressed groups and oppressor groups—and that a win for the former requires a loss for the latter. ....

America has a long tradition of liberal anti-racism that reaches back to Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Frederick Douglass, and beyond. It is an anti-racism grounded in the idea that there is a single human race to which we all belong—and that all the ways of dividing us up, though they may be important to understand our present reality, should not be given moral weight. That is the principle that ultimately conquered slavery and Jim Crow—and it is the principle that ought to be revived today. ....

The current system, warts and all, has enabled huge progress for black people in recent decades. Overturning the liberal principles on which our institutions are based would not hasten progress towards racial equality; it would threaten the very stability that is required for incremental progress to occur. It is time to restore Martin Luther King’s dream for American race relations—a dream that, even as it refuses to flinch from the injustices we still need to overcome, defiantly holds onto the idea that what we have in common is ultimately more important than what divides us. .... (more, read it)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A reading list

From an interview with Thomas Howard by editors of Touchstone magazine (1999):
One more question along this same line: What would you give for a C.S. Lewis reading list? If someone had a year to read five or ten books of Lewis' and wanted to know which ones to start with, what would you tell him, to get an overview of his prose and fiction?

HOWARD: There would be an obvious case for telling someone to start with Mere Christianity. I wouldn't quarrel with that, but I, myself, might say, start with the Narnia Chronicles. Reading the Narnia Chronicles has the advantage of almost inevitably drawing a reader in, head over heels, to a world,—the world, the world of truth, of reality that is Lewis' whole world. So I would say the Narnia Chronicles, The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, "The Weight of Glory" and "Transpositions"—which last two appear in a book of essays called The Weight of GloryThe Space Trilogy, Till We Have Faces.

Then, of his apologetic books, Miracles I think in one sense is a special-interest book. I think Mere Christianity does that job well for general readers. Of his scholarly books, the books on Edmund Spenser and his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century from the Oxford History of English Literature—the "OHEL"—are wonderful. They're glorious reading. Other works like Studies in Words and Experiment in Criticism are good, but they're not center stage.

I think I would include Preface to Paradise Lost, interestingly enough, even if the reader has never read and will never read Milton. Lewis touches on some very, very fundamental things there.

The Problem of Pain?

HOWARD: Yes, I would certainly include that.

Last night in your lecture you told everyone to drop everything and read The Discarded Image.

HOWARD: Ah! Yes! You see, the list gets longer. That's a glorious book. And he pursued an absolutely faultless course. He never drops into the error of nostalgia for the Middle Ages or of complaining that "Oh, we've gone down the tubes since then." He describes the mind of the Middle Ages, and at the very end of the book he says, "It will be obvious to the reader where my sympathies lie", but he doesn't argue it. Yes, I think one could even make The Discarded Image number one because it will lead you in a sober, classroom way or a Lewis tutorial way into the world that you are going to encounter one fine morning at the Last Trump.
Thomas Howard, The Night is Far Spent, 2007.

Monday, August 17, 2020


Thomas Howard again:
When I was very young my mother used to read to me, as she had done for all of my brothers and sisters, from the books of Beatrix Potter. Those fortunate enough to have had these books read to them will remember this enchanting set of very small books with their gray-green, matte-finish bindings, each with a small watercolor in the middle of the front cover, showing the Two Bad Mice, say; or Mr. Jeremy Fisher; or Simkin, the Tailor of Gloucester's cat, leaving deep pawprints in the snow as he trails up a narrow lane on Christmas Eve between the jutting gables of the half-timbered houses of Gloucester.

No one whose young eyes ever looked into the innocent and often sunlit depths of those watercolors can ever, it seems to me, quite forget the yearning aroused by these pictures. The little path up the hillside where Lucy found Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle's tiny house; or the warm rockery where Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit's three naughty kittens lost their frocks; or the sandy floor of the forest where we see Old Mrs. Rabbit with her shawl and basket, setting out to buy currant buns at the baker's: What, we ask ourselves, is it all about? Wherein lies the power of that spell? Why is it that the yearning awakened in us when we look at these pictures surpasses anything that we ever encounter in the real world? ....
Thomas Howard, The Night is Far Spent, 2007.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Not "woke" enough

Jim Wallis is out as editor of Sojourners. I've never cared much for his politics but it's hard not to feel sympathy right now. It is really difficult to be on the Christian Left and to keep up. From "Cancelling Jim Wallis?":
.... Wallis sensibly had recognized the article as incoherent and conspiratorial without evidently realizing that postmodern intersectionality disdains linear reason in favor of drawing ideological lines connecting all sinister oppressions. ....

As his critics of late have noted, Wallis is “an old white man” who’s not keeping up quickly enough with fast moving woke culture. Can he at age 72 adapt to the latest intersectionalist political demands? Will he pivot away from 20 years of seeking mainstream legitimacy in favor of alignment with the very latest street and online zealous activisms?

Or is Wallis’s stepping back from Sojourners magazine the first step in his ongoing cancellation by an increasingly frenzied woke culture, whose greatest fire is often aimed at longtime progressives?
I, too, am "an old white man" but without any inclination to keep up. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Julian Bream, RIP

It’s a safe bet that Julian Bream, who died on Friday at 87, would be remembered if he’d never done anything but play guitar. After Andrés Segovia, he was the best-known classical guitarist of the 20th century, a player of limitless sensitivity who could hold an audience spellbound simply by plucking a few quiet notes on his unamplified instrument—but who also tossed off more technically demanding pieces with the panache of an old-time barnstorming virtuoso.

Yet Mr. Bream did much more than merely play guitar. He doubled on the lute, the guitar’s ancestor, and was responsible in large part for the postwar revival of interest in that long-forgotten instrument. He led his own ensemble, the Julian Bream Consort, one of the first period-instrument groups....

Julian Bream’s epitaph will not be hard to write: He ranks alongside Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz as the classical musician who more than any other defined the musical horizons for his instrument, and his name will always be recalled with warmth....

Julian Bream: Spellbinding Talent, Inquisitive Taste - WSJ

Old enough

At CrimeReads, eight mystery novels written for children that are there recommended for adults. I haven't read any of them and so don't know whether I'd like them, but I certainly enjoyed the introductory paragraphs:
In his dedication in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis penned this note to Lucy Barfield, his goddaughter. “I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it.”

I love that part, someday you will be old enough to read fairy tales again. Later on, in his book, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature he wrote, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly.”

C.S. Lewis was a smart man. He cherished the idea that children’s books are ageless and meant for all to experience. As adults, why do we feel there’s an unspoken rule that we have to read “adult” books?

There’s nothing that says you wouldn’t love a good middle grade or young adult novel. In fact, I’d refer you right back up to Lewis’ quote and say you’re probably “old enough” to truly enjoy one.
The last "middle grade" mystery/suspense books I read and enjoyed were in Andrew Klavan's The Homelanders series and I very thoroughly enjoyed them. I've posted about the series before.

Friday, August 14, 2020


Theodore Dalrymple is another who is always worth reading. Here he argues "Against History-as-Nightmare":
The idea of the past as nothing but a nightmare, specifically one of injustice, is probably the prevailing historiographical trope of our time. Certainly no one could reasonably claim that nightmares have been lacking in human history. And yet, at the same time, it is undeniable that there has been progress: very few of us would care to take our chances in the kind of conditions, either political or material, that prevailed in, say, the 16th century. ....

This is not to say that resentment is never justified in the abstract. People have been mistreated abominably, both as groups and individuals, throughout history. They can inherit the effects of the mistreatment of their ancestors, the iniquity done to the fathers being visited upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation. ....

Nevertheless, such inherited effects attenuate with time and can even disappear very quickly, as they did in the case of my own family. Moreover, resentment, even where justified or at least understandable, is never a constructive emotion: for in any given situation, it suggests to the one who feels it all that he cannot do to improve his situation rather than all that he can, thus inhibiting effort. ....

Because resentment has certain sour satisfactions, it is one of the few emotions that can persist unabated for years: indeed, it tends to increase, because it exists in a mental echo-chamber. One such sour satisfaction is that it allows the one who feels it to think himself morally superior to the world as it is at present constituted, even if he has done nothing to improve it, or done something to make it a little worse. And where resentment leads to action rather than to passivity, it is almost always action that is destructive rather than constructive. .... an historiography that is capable of recognising defects and even horrors in a tradition, but also strengths and glories, such that the tradition can survive without remaining obdurately stuck in its worst grooves. This requires a certain sophistication, that is to say, an ability to hold in the mind more than one thought at a time. It also requires the recognition that, man being a fallen creature, perfection is not of this world and cannot be demanded of the past, however glorious aspects of it might be. .... (more)

Thursday, August 13, 2020


The Thomas Howard essay referred to in the last post was "The Life and Legacy of C.S. Lewis" (1998). It's a good short appreciation of Lewis's life and work and is included in The Night is Far Spent. Thomas liked CSL's poetry and mentioned "On Being Human" which I found in Poems (1964).

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
           Huge Principles appear.
The Tree-ness of the tree they know—the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth's salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it, all the holiness
Enacted by leaves' fall and rising sap;
But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
          —An angel has no skin.
They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang—can angels measure it?
           An angel has no nose.
The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot,
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf's billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges
           An angel has no nerves.
Far richer they! I know the senses' witchery
Guards us, like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb'd sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charm'd interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
           Forever ours, not theirs.
Angels have never been human, but "We one Lord Jesus whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man...." — human.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

"Pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable"

A Thomas Howard essay about Lewis directed me to these quotations:
The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual. ....

...[T]hose who dislike ritual in general—ritual in any and every department of life—may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. It is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance.
C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, 1942.

On Natural Rights

"The American Misunderstanding of Natural Rights" argues that Jefferson was wrong when he wrote that our rights are "self-evident."
...[The] fact is that moral reasoning, like mathematical reasoning, always begins with premises, or first principles, that reason doesn’t supply. If it were otherwise, we might expect universal agreement on these issues. Cultures around the world and throughout history have, however, had differing and often irreconcilable first principles from which their moral reasoning is done. All of these cultures, however, can be said to be “natural” in their own way. The moral intuitions that underwrite the unalienable rights enumerated in the American Constitution are, furthermore, emphatically not natural facts apprehended by naked reason, but cultural artifacts bequeathed to us by 2,000 years of Christian history. I would not in any way claim that adherence to liberal principles or advocacy for human rights requires adherence to Christian dogma; merely that a sound account of how human nature came to be understood in such a way that human rights are justified must include the advent of Christianity and the moral transformation it wrought upon our civilization.

.... [T]he Western understanding of human rights is predicated on one particular and historically contingent idea of what it is to be human: that of the Christian religion. There is furthermore no evidence that this particular notion of rights will outlive the faith that birthed it. We are already seeing the emergence of a new conception of rights that replaces God with the state and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the right [to] strike action and free health care. To amend a quotation from C.S. Lewis, we cannot castrate and at the same time “bid the geldings be fruitful.”

The Founders tried to carve out a vision of human rights that circumvented the need for metaphysical or theological commitments, but they were destined to fail. They were heirs to 1,700 years of Christian civilization and every page of their writings testifies to this fact in spite of them. .... The disestablishment of religion in the United States, a glorious victory for the claims of conscience, should not prevent us from acknowledging that the entire ideological edifice of classical liberalism has been constructed exclusively with borrowed capital from the Christian Church.... [T]hat capital is dwindling and is now almost spent. Our inheritance of human rights was built to reflect the fact that we are all living images of a particular crucified criminal from Galilee, who proclaimed that we are each and all more than what Caesar would make of us. If we care to enjoy the rights bequeathed to us by this tradition throughout the coming years, decades, and centuries, then we can no longer avoid publicly discussing the inextricable nature of religious and political ideas. A civilization can only avoid this discussion for so long before it begins to wither on the vine. For the United States, the day is already far spent....
Ramesh Ponnuru responds:
A self-evident truth is one that can’t be deduced from more basic truths and can only be defended by indirect arguments rather than formally proven. (Take, for example, the principle of non-contradiction.) And if we view self-evidence in that light, the Declaration is not susceptible to the debunking arguments that Hilditch makes. The self-evidence of the truth that all people equally have human rights does not imply that it is “an obvious and intuitive deduction from human nature,” and so the fact that many civilizations have not grasped it does nothing to dent its self-evidence. Nor does the self-evidence of this truth imply that our civilization’s grasp of it owes nothing to its Jewish and Christian inheritance; it owes a very great deal to it — as the Declaration’s own wording suggests.

Sunday, August 9, 2020


I watched Mr. Jones on Amazon Prime a few nights ago. It is very much worth watching although it portrays a terrible atrocity. Duranty still has his Pulitzer.
Mr. Jones is the story of a British journalist who first exposed the West to the horrors of the Holodomor, the Stalin regime’s forced famine of the Ukraine. ....

The plot follows the true story of Gareth Jones’s (James Norton) horrific trip to the Soviet Union in 1933. A rising star in journalism who recently conducted an exclusive interview with Adolf Hitler for Western Mail, Jones set his sights on Stalin, whom he calls a miracle maker. While Jones sets out for Moscow with the hopes of an interview with the man of steel, the murder of a friend sends him in another direction, the Ukraine.

When Jones arrives in Moscow, all appears to be well for the Western journalists he is cordoned off with. The journalists aren’t allowed to leave Moscow, but why would they want to? It would interrupt the sex-and-drug-fueled parties hosted by Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard), the New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief. Jones smooth-talks his way into a carefully monitored trip to the Ukraine and manages to escape his handlers to discover what is going on.

Jones quickly discovers that what was once considered the “breadbasket of Europe” is no more. Pursued by Soviet authorities across a monochrome wasteland, Jones discovers Ukrainian peasants willing to give up their coats for a loaf of bread, empty villages, and children resorting to cannibalism. What Jones discovered would later be known as the Holodomor, the forced starvation of somewhere between three to 12 million Ukrainians. .... (more
Mr Jones on DVD, also streaming at Amazon Prime.

Saturday, August 8, 2020


An essay at Quillette sent me looking for this 1945 Orwell contribution to a then new magazine. I quote below some passages that seem to me to always have relevance. By "nationalism" Orwell means here more than we might usually attribute to that term, perhaps what Eric Hoffer would have called the "true believer." [the emphases are mine]
By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly—and this is much more important—I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. .... The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality. ....

Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakably certain of being in the right. ....

The following are the principal characteristics of nationalist thought:

Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can only relieve by making some sharp retort. ....

Instability. .... A country or other unit which has been worshipped for years may suddenly become detestable, and some other object of affection may take its place with almost no interval. ....

Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. .... Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage—torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians—which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. .... The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. .... In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind. ....

Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. ....[emphases added] (more)