Wednesday, January 29, 2020

"A breath of springtime as the autumn winds blow"

Michael Dirda on re-reading (which he doesn't do very much):
...[S]ome folks discover the secret to thwarting the meretricious allure of the evanescently contemporary. Instead of picking up new books, they go back to old favorites. There are people who every year reread The Lord of the Rings or Jane Austen’s six novels or the complete adventures of Sherlock Holmes or all the plays of Shakespeare. My favorite college professor reread Madame Bovary whenever he taught the novel, which was essentially every year for three decades. He said that each time he found something new in it. Oscar Wilde contended that if a book wasn’t worth reading over and over again, it wasn’t worth reading at all. ....

One sure sign that a reader has reached old age is that he or she loses interest in new fiction. Seen it all. Been there, done that. It’s then that people nearly always do return to the books they loved when young, hoping for a breath of springtime as the autumn winds blow. And if they aren’t rereading Treasure Island or The Secret Garden? Then it’s likely to be the Bible, Plato’s dialogues or Montaigne’s essays because these inexhaustible classics address nothing less than the meaning of life, which really means, of course, the meaning of our own lives.

Alan Jacobs

I've been quoting Alan Jacobs quite a lot recently. It occurred to me that it has not been just "recently" so I did a search of the blog. Almost from its beginning I've been quoting from his books, his blog entries, and more. I have decided that it is time to create an "Alan Jacobs" label here. References to his work can be found here or by going to the label below.

Idle words

.... In response to the Pharisees who claim that it is through Beelzebub that Jesus casts out demons, he lashes them: “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (The same principle is at work in the parable of the unforgiving servant, who ends by being condemned according to the standard he applied to his fellow servant. Measure for measure….)

It is curious that Jesus speaks of the Pharisees’ accusation against him as a “careless word” — and disturbing that he clearly does not mean thereby to excuse them. Perhaps we would like to think that our careless words are more forgivable than our calculated cruelties, but it seems that we will “give account” for all our words alike. I doubt that we think about this often enough. There is sure wisdom in the Great Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim, much used in the Orthodox world, which begins thus: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk.” Idle talk! — how many of us would think to place, near the head of a long prayer to be repeated frequently in Lent, a plea to be delivered from that?

And yet many have been my idle words over the years. I wonder how much harm they have done to others, and even to me. ....

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

C.S. Lewis on reading

Alan Jacobs links to "an annotated anthology I was invited to edit — and then disinvited," consequently unfinished, but what he did finish would be interesting to anyone who reads and who enjoys C.S. Lewis.
.... But this man who could take delight in old books, old poems, that few others could read except as a matter of scholarly duty and under duress, was also a lifelong lover of children’s books. “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. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” And in the last scholarly book he published in his lifetime, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), he celebrated and defended once more the child’s way of reading.
As there are, or were, families and circles in which it was almost a social necessity to display an interest in hunting, or county cricket, or the Army List, so there are others where it requires great independence not to talk about, and therefore occasionally to read, the approved literature, especially the new and astonishing works, and those which have been banned or have become in some other way subjects of controversy. Readers of this sort … are entirely dominated by fashion…. Yet, while this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bed-clothes by the light of an electric torch.
Few indeed are the scholars — fewer still the great scholars, and Lewis was indisputably a great scholar — who could write so passionately in defense of the way he read when he was a small child, or who could enjoy The Wind in the Willows as much at age sixty as he had at age ten. This distinctive ability to read in so many ways, and for so many reasons, is what makes Lewis such a wonderful guide to the world of reading. ....

Lewis’s letters are full of accounts of the re-reading of his favorite books — a habit that those for whom adding to their list of Books Read is a major incentive to picking up a book cannot readily understand. For Lewis it was a practice so deeply ingrained that he felt it had to be restrained. When he reviewed The Lord of the Rings (which perhaps he should not in good conscience have done, given his intimacy with its author, but we’ll set that aside for now) he commented that “the book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our re-readings, I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.” ....  (more)

Monday, January 27, 2020


Perfect. Thanks, Joel.

"If he loved God’s law then so should we."

.... If Jesus is who he claims to be, then surely his opinion should be very influential in shaping our own.... Should we bail on the Old Testament?

Not at all. Here are three things that Jesus believed about the Old Testament:
  1. The Old Testament was historical. Generally speaking, Jesus viewed the Old Testament as telling about people that really existed and events that really happened. Sure, there are poetic portions (e.g., the Psalms) and apocalyptic portions which are highly symbolic (e.g., Ezekiel), but Jesus understood the historical portions to be, well, historical. ....
  2. The Old Testament was authoritative. In all of Jesus’ disputes and debates (and there were many), the highest court of appeal was always what Scripture had to say. Curiously, this was even an agreed-upon reality with Jesus’ enemies. Despite all their theological disagreements, they never disagreed about the role of Scripture as the ultimate authority. ....
  3. The Old Testament was inspired. On top of this, Jesus affirmed most plainly that the Old Testament contains the words of God himself. When it speaks, God speaks. Take, for example, Matt 19:4: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother…” (more, elaborating on each point)

Sunday, January 26, 2020


Re-posted because Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Can the clock be turned back? Can social disintegration be reversed? When it seems that things are falling apart, that "the center cannot hold," it may help to remember that there have been times when things did move in a more hopeful direction. For instance, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the great historian of 19th century England, described how the Victorian Era saw a remarkable improvement:
.... One of the extraordinary facts about Victorian England, which came as a revelation to me, was the low illegitimacy rate. Around 1845 the illegitimacy ratio was 7%; by the end of the century it had come down to less than 4%. In the poorest part of London, east London, it was 4% at its peak and 3% by the end of the century. Remember, this was a time of enormous political, economic and social turmoil: the industrial revolution, the cultural revolution, urbanism and so on. And yet it in spite of all these difficulties, illegitimacy was considerably reduced and the English emerged from this period in a state of re-moralization – in dramatic contrast to our present situation where illegitimacy rose from 5% in 1960 to nearly 30% today. ....

.... Like the low illegitimacy rate, the low crime rate is quite extraordinary. There was a drop in the crime rate of nearly fifty percent in the second half of the 19th century; again in dramatic contrast to the crime rate in our own times which in the past thirty years has risen ten-fold. The low crime rate was a reflection of the Victorian virtues – work, temperance, orderliness, and responsibility.

It was also a reflection of the degree to which this ethos had been internalized. We tend to think of stigma and sanctions as being externally imposed by society, by law and coercion. But in fact, what was most characteristic about Victorian England was the internalization of these sanctions. For the most part they were accepted by the individual willingly, even unconsciously; they were incorporated in his superego, as we would now say. This combination of external and internal sanctions made for a powerful ethos, an ethos supported by religion, law, and all the other institutions of society. ....
Alan Jacobs has been thinking about a book describing England in the preceding century and the tendency to believe that "progress" can only move in one direction:
I think it’s fair to say that most of us living in America today assume that, as we like to put it, “you can’t turn back the clock,” that history always and inevitably moves in a liberalizing direction. And we think that whether we consider such “liberalizing” as the epitome of good or the embodiment of evil or something in between. It seems to be endemic to Americans to embrace the “Whig interpretation of history”, that is, to see the whole of history as marching inexorably towards us, to see everything culminating in ourselves — whether we happen to like that culmination or not.

But when we seriously compare the social world of England in 1750 to the social world of England in 1850, it becomes harder to sustain the Whiggish model. As C.S. Lewis once commented, “as to putting the clock back”:
Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
Of course, we can and will disagree about what counts as real progress — about whether the clocks are wrong at all, and, even when we agree that they are wrong, where they should be re-set. But the key point is that history does not move in a single, inevitable direction — or at least, has not done so thus far — and if we imagine our grandchildren’s world as nothing but a continuation of our own, an extension or our own values and inclinations, we may prove in the end to be as wrong as wrong can be. [more]
Learning from Victorian Virtues | Acton Institute, A Not-So-Distant Mirror | Big Questions Online

Saturday, January 25, 2020

"Values" or "Virtues"?

From Keith Windschuttle, "Gertrude Himmelfarb & the Enlightenment":
.... She did not use the term “Victorian values,” as almost every historian of the subject did at the time. The Victorians themselves, she pointed out, did not use the word “values.” This anachronism only arose in the mid-twentieth century as a way to relativize morality. It implied that anyone’s values were the moral equivalent of anyone else’s. Some values could not be better than others, only different. Instead, she insisted on using the term “virtues.” In a much-quoted passage Himmelfarb wrote:
Hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight—these were modest, mundane virtues, even lowly ones. But they were virtues within the capacity of everyone; they did not assume any special breeding, or status, or talent, or valor, or grace—or even money. They were common virtues within the reach of common people.
To the Victorians, she argued, virtues were fixed and certain, not to govern the actual behavior of all people all the time, but to serve as standards against which behavior could be judged. When conduct fell short of those standards, it was deemed to be bad, wrong, or immoral, she said, not merely misguided, undesirable, or, that weasel-word, “inappropriate.” ....
Also quoted in the essay, from a book I own:
The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism—relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity. And since then, generations of intelligent students under the guidance of their enlightened professors have looked into the abyss, have contemplated those beasts, and have said, “How interesting, how exciting."
— Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss (1994)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Shot through with meaning"

Christopher Tolkien died last week. From "Christopher Tolkien Was The Unsung Hero Of Middle Earth":
My map
.... From the very beginning, Tolkien had a hand in crafting what would become one of the greatest literary achievements of modern times. As a boy, he would point out inconsistencies in the ornate stories his father told—stories that eventually became The Hobbit, first published in 1937 when Christopher was just 13. He helped his father sort through competing versions of stories, histories, timelines, and especially the geography. He drew the now-famous map of Middle Earth that accompanied the 1954 publication of Lord of the Rings, giving shape to the world that helped form his imagination, and in turn shaping the imagination of millions.

It is not too much to say that without Christopher Tolkien, we would not really have J.R.R. Tolkien or the fully realized world of Middle Earth. How much poorer we would be without it. Although The Lord of the Rings and the entire Tolkien compendium established fantasy as a literary genre, these works were themselves far more than fantasy as we understand the term today. J.R.R. Tolkien called them fairy-stories, but he meant it in a sacramental sense.

The world of Middle Earth, with its elves and dwarves and wizards and orcs, was shot through with meaning, and it revealed something true about our own world, not just about good and evil but about truth, beauty, and goodness as such. That’s why the saga of Middle Earth has resonated down the century. We recognize ourselves in this enchanted world, where the veil between the spiritual and physical is thinner, and in that recognition our world becomes re-enchanted, despite the ravages of scientism and secularism and modernity. ....
I've owned the map since high school. I didn't know it was the work of Christopher Tolkien.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Good intentions

From an interesting and wide-ranging 1998 interview with Roger Scruton:
In America the assumption is usually that the conservative is an apologist for the rich, or a religious fanatic, if not an abortion clinic bomber. Where liberals are seen as, at worst, well-intentioned but wrong.

That's a very parochial view, of course. Obviously, one element in conservatism must be that to be successful is not a sin, and I think conservatives on the whole have more patience with the idea of human success, and more desire to create a world where success is rewarded. Whereas it's true that what you call liberals — our left — is much more interested in supporting the underdog and usually believes some philosophy to the effect that the sufferings of the underdog are caused by the wealth and privilege of the successful, Marxism being the archetype of all such philosophies. And I think that's all nonsense — that the sufferings of the underdog are not caused by the fact that some people have managed to rescue themselves from this predicament. On the contrary, the more people who rescue themselves, the better. They create opportunities in their wake.

That's not the way liberals see it. If you are a purely materialistic person who sees everything human in terms of how much money is involved, then all you will see about conservatives is that they favor the rich, because you don't see any other difference between people than the amount of wealth they have. I take the view that conservatism has nothing fundamentally to do with wealth. It has to do with social order. Of course if you're in favor of the forces that create social order, you're in favor of the forces which make it possible for people to become wealthy. But that's a byproduct. I do agree that liberals have this reputation for being nice and conservatives for being nasty.

Isn't that a terrible PR problem? The liberals own the good intentions.

The fact is if you really want to think in terms of good intentions, Lenin and Hitler and Mao had thousands of them. But of what relevance are intentions? Intentions imposed in this belligerent and self-righteous way on the rest of us are actually deeply offensive, I think. It's true that liberals find liberals to be very nice and conservatives very nasty. But that's part of the narrow-mindedness of liberals. Conservatives in my experience are much more able to find moral value in liberals than liberals are in conservatives, because liberals, while believing themselves to be the most open-minded of people, are unable to see conservatism, or any opposition, as anything more than a moral failing.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Confession and forgiveness

Continuing to read Scruton:
...[I]t is by seeing our world in Christian terms that I have been able to accept the vast changes that have shaken it. Acceptance comes from sacrifice: that is the message conveyed by so many of the memorable works of our culture. And in the Christian tradition the primary acts of sacrifice are confession and forgiveness. Those who confess, sacrifice their pride, while those who forgive, sacrifice their resentment, renouncing thereby something that had been dear to their hearts. Confession and forgiveness are the habits that made our civilization possible.

Forgiveness can be offered only on certain conditions, and a culture of forgiveness is one that implants those conditions in the individual soul. You can forgive those who have injured you only if they acknowledge their fault. This acknowledgement is not achieved by saying 'yes, that's true, that's what I did' It requires penitence and atonement. Through these self-abasing acts, the wrongdoer goes out to his victim and re-establishes the moral equality that makes forgiveness possible. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition all this is well known, and incorporated into the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the rituals and liturgy of Yom Kippur. We have inherited from those religious sources the culture that enables us to confess to our faults, to make recompense to our victims, and to hold each other to account in all matters where our free conduct can harm those who have cause to rely on us. ....
Roger Scruton, How to be a Conservative, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Redeem the time

Samuel Johnson:
O LORD, who wouldst that all men should be saved, and who knowest that without Thy grace we can do nothing acceptable to Thee, have mercy upon me. Enable me to break the chain of my sins, to reject sensuality in thought, and to overcome and suppress vain scruples; and to use such diligence in lawful employment as may enable me to support myself and do good to others. O Lord, forgive me the time lost in idleness; pardon the sins which I have committed, and grant that I may redeem the time misspent, and be reconciled to Thee by true repentance, that I may live and die in peace, and be received to everlasting happiness. Take not from me, O Lord, Thy Holy Spirit, but let me have support and comfort for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

"True but boring, ...exciting but false"

Roger Scruton authored some fifty books. I've read only a few. One that I haven't has been among those often recommended in the days since his death. How to be a Conservative (2014) just arrived in the post. From his Preface in the "New Edition":
The conservatism I shall be defending tells us that we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep. In the situation in which we, the inheritors both of Western civilization and of the English-speaking part of it, find ourselves, we are well aware of what those good things are. The opportunity to live our lives as we will; the security of impartial law, through which our grievances are answered and our hurts restored; the protection of our environment as a shared asset, which cannot be seized or destroyed at the whim of powerful interests; the open and enquiring culture that has shaped our schools and universities; the democratic procedures that enable us to elect our representatives and to pass our own laws — these and many other things are familiar to us and taken for granted. All are under threat. And conservatism is the rational response to that threat. Maybe it is a response that requires more understanding than the ordinary person is prepared to devote to it. But conservatism is the only response that answers to the emerging realities, and in this book I try to say, as succinctly as I can, why it would be irrational to adopt any other.

Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the twentieth century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.

Because of this rhetorical disadvantage, conservatives often present their case in the language of mourning. Lamentations can sweep everything before them, like the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in just the way that the literature of revolution sweeps away the world of our frail achievements. And mourning is sometimes necessary; without 'the work of mourning' as Freud described it, the heart cannot move on from the thing that is lost to the thing that will replace it. Nevertheless, the case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents. It is not about what we have lost, but about what we have retained, and how to hold on to it. Such is the case that I present in this book. ....
Roger Scruton, How to be a Conservative, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019.

Modern times

In his Conservatism (2017) Roger Scruton contrasts the experience of an American conservative with one in Britain by observing that an American "can confess to being a conservative without being socially ostracised." Maybe, but it probably depends on where the American lives or works. Scruton:
...Orwell's political fables contain an accurate and penetrating prophecy of the political correctness that has since invaded intellectual life in both Britain and America. The humourless and relentless policing of language, so as to prevent heretical thoughts from arising, the violence done to traditional categories and natural ways of describing things, the obliteration of memory and assiduous policing of the past — all these things, so disturbingly described in Nineteen Eighty-Four, are now routinely to be observed on university campuses on both sides of the Atlantic, and those conservatives who draw attention to the phenomenon, as Allan Bloom did in his influential book The Closing of the American Mind (1987), are frequently marginalised or even demonised as representatives of one of the forbidden 'isms' or 'phobias' of the day — racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, etc. In a society devoted to 'inclusion' the only 'phobia' permitted is that of which conservatives are the target.

This situation, which puts conservatives at an enormous disadvantage in the intellectual world, has inevitably changed their way of defining themselves, and made the 'culture wars' central to their sense of what they are fighting for and why. Understanding political correctness and finding the ways to combat it have therefore become prominent among conservative causes. Is political correctness simply the final stage of liberal individualism — the stage at which all barriers to a self-chosen identity are to be removed? If so, which of those barriers can conservatives still defend against the onslaught, and how can they justify the attempt? Or is it rather a derogation from the great liberal tradition, a way in which equality has become so urgent and dominating a cause that nothing of liberty remains, and all social life is absorbed into a relentless witch-hunt against the defenders of social distinctions? ....
Roger Scruton, Conservatism, Chapter 6, "Conservatism Now," Profile Books, 2017.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The suicide of the Humanities

Ross Douthat on "a package of essays from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the academic world that helped educate me — the humanities and especially the study of literature....":
The package’s title is a single word, “Endgame,” and its opening text reads like the crawl for a disaster movie. “The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it.” Jobs are disappearing, subfields are evaporating, enrollment has tanked, and amid the wreckage the custodians of humanism are “befuddled and without purpose.”

The Chronicle essays cover administrative and political battles, the transformed hiring process, the rebellions of graduate students, and the golfing-under-a-volcano aspects of the Modern Language Association conference. But the central essays are the ones that deal with the existential questions, the ways that humanism tries — and lately fails — to justify itself. ....

A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation and recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that “the best that has been thought and said” is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection. ....

...[W]hen I was an undergraduate...our so-called “core” curriculum promised to teach us “approaches to knowledge” rather than the thing itself. It was, and remains, an insane view for humanists to take, a unilateral disarmament in the contest for student hearts and minds; no other discipline promises to teach only a style of thinking and not some essential substance. ....

.... This should, by rights, be a moment of exciting curricular debates, over which global and rediscovered and post-colonial works belong on the syllabus with Shakespeare, over whether it’s possible to teach an American canon and a global canon all at once. Instead, humanists have often trapped themselves in a false choice between “dead white males” and “we don’t transmit value.” ....

Monday, January 13, 2020

"A sanctified somewhere"

From an appreciation of Roger Scruton:
.... From him most of all I took my own idea of what conservatism is, the attempt to preserve or recover a home in this world — a place of consolation, a sanctified somewhere that connects us to the dead, the unborn, and our neighbors through love, memory, and sacrifice. A place that belongs to us and implants in us a longing for the true home that can never be destroyed by storms, war, neglect, or the encroachment of speculative exurban developers who want to replace our homes with parking lots and Panera Bread. We put in our labors to preserve freedom, decency, and culture, so that our children receive this somewhere as a place prepared for me by my father. ....

Sunday, January 12, 2020

"Be ye sure..."

Sir Roger Scruton died today (1944-2020). I have referred to him and/or quoted him many times on this site. For instance this, from Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life (2006):
Perhaps there is no more direct challenge to secular ways of thinking than the famous Hundredth Psalm, the Jubilate Deo, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer. .... The psalmist enjoins us to be joyful in the Lord, to serve the Lord with gladness and to come before his presence with a song. ....

Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh. The triumphs of science and technology, the vanquishing of disease and the mastery over nature—these things coincide with a general moroseness, the origin of which, I believe, is religious. Someone who turns his back on God cannot receive his gifts with gratitude, but only with a grudging resentment at their insufficiency. No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. And seeing, in the mirror raised by science, our own aggrieved and sullen faces, we are turned to disaffection with our kind. That is why the singing stops.

The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: ‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology. .... (more)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Tradition and authority

This is from an essay by Russell Kirk included in What is Conservatism? (1964):
...[I]f people really desire genuine freedom, they need to know genuine authority. "Authority" is not the policeman's baton. "Conscience is an authority," Newman writes in his essay on John Keble; "the Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is Antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are historical memories, such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions." Authority, in fine, is the ground upon which prudent action must be performed. If a man acknowledges no authority, he sets himself up as Cain, and before long he is struck down by nemesis, which follows upon hubris.

Political authority, the claims and powers of a legitimate state, though an important part of this complex of authority which rules our lives, is no more than a part. Sometimes authorities conflict; indeed, most of the great disputes of history have been, in essence, controversies over the higher source of authority. And such debates never are wholly and finally resolved. ....

Human nature being irremediably flawed, so that all of us in some degree rebel against the people and the institutions to which we owe most, there is in every man a certain impulse to make himself God: that is, to cast off all authority but his own lust and whim. From this vice comes the corrupting influence of total power upon even the best of natures. The rebellion of Lucifer is the symbol of this ancient anarchic impulse—the passion for overthrowing the just authority of God, that upon the vacant throne of authority the rebel may make himself absolute. Yet the doom of such risings is as sure as Lucifer's. For a grown man to rebel against all authority is as ludicrous as for a three-year-old child to defy his parents: whether they are good parents or bad, he can live scarcely a day without them. ....

Fulbert of Chartres and Gerbert of Rheims, those two grand Schoolmen, said that we moderns are dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants. We see so far only because we are elevated upon the accomplishment of our ancestors; and if we break with ancestral wisdom, we at once are plunged into the ditch of ignorance. All that we have and know is founded upon the experience of the race. As Burke put it, "The individual is foolish, but the species is wise." Men have no right, Burke said, to risk the very existence of their nation and their civilization upon experiments in morals and politics; for each man's private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can act wisely. Without resort to tradition and prescription, we are left with merely our vanity and the brief and partial experience of our evanescent lives. "What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!"

G.K. Chesterton expressed much the same truth when he wrote of "the democracy of the dead." When we decide great questions in our time, he held, we ought to count not merely the votes of our contemporaries, but the opinions of many generations of men—and particularly the convictions of the wise men who have preceded us in time. By trial and error, by revelation, by the insights of men of genius, mankind has acquired, slowly and painfully, over thousands of years, a knowledge of human nature and of the civil social order which no one individual possibly can supplant by private rationality.

This is true especially in matters of morals, politics, and taste....
The book is available from Amazon in a new edition.

Russell Kirk, "Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom," in What is Conservatism, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964, pp. 23-40.

Thursday, January 9, 2020


Commenting on the royal soap-opera this morning, Rod Dreher quoted from an earlier essay of his. I'm already tired of Harry and Meghan, but liked this:
.... Scruton’s observation highlights a fault line bisecting latter-day Anglo-American conservatism: the philosophical split between traditionalists and libertarians. ...[T]o paraphrase the historian George H. Nash, is [conservatism] essentially about the rights of individuals to be what they want to be or the duties of individuals to be what they ought to be[?]

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

"The stuff that dreams are made of"

Sitting atop one of my bookcases is my replica of the Maltese Falcon (which badly needs to be dusted). Mom and Dad gave it to me one Christmas (I had asked for it). It came, just as it appears in the film, wrapped in several layers of newspaper. Last night I happened upon a TCM documentary about Mary Astor who plays Brigid O'Shaughnessy in the movie. Humphry Bogart is Sam Spade and the rest of the perfect cast includes Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Ward Bond. It was directed by John Huston (his first, I think, in 1941). The book, The Maltese Falcon, was one of several "hard-boiled" mysteries by Dashiell Hammett. I hadn't watched the movie for several years but I watched it again last night into today's early morning hours. Superb! I need to read the book again.

Monday, January 6, 2020

"You take the high road..."

From Alan Jacobs' newsletter this morning:
Does anyone arrange music for voices more beautifully than Ralph Vaughan Williams? If you doubt his mastery, take 90 seconds — 90 seconds, that’s all it takes — and listen to “O Taste and See,” the glorious motet RVW wrote to be sung at Holy Communion during the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, 2 June 1953. Just that minute-and-a-half is a complete education in vocal arrangement.

RVW has an amazing knack for balancing three musical forces: the lead voice alone; the lead voice supported by a choir; the full power of the choir. Notice how beautifully he weaves together those forces in his utterly simple but also utterly perfect arrangement of “Loch Lomond.” It’s just a faux folk song, but one of the loveliest melodies in the world, and RVW knows better than to over-elaborate his arrangement. I especially admire the way he changes the pattern in the third verse: the first two had been solo-and-then-choir, the third is choir-and-then-solo. The lead tenor at the end does so much to emphasize the grief and longing of the song.

Is it a piece of Victorian sentimentality? Maybe. But Victorian sentimentality doesn’t always go astray. ....

Opinionlessness • Buttondown

Sunday, January 5, 2020

T.S. Eliot

I came across this BBC series about T.S. Eliot this afternoon. It is a time commitment, about an hour and a half, but very well done, and if you are interested in the subject, well worth your time.

Friday, January 3, 2020

"The Word became flesh..."

From Ben Dueholm's sermon preview for this coming Sunday:
This Sunday, after a few weeks of angels and shepherds and even wise men, we'll finally hear the vast and yet simple opening to the Gospel according to John. You can read the whole passage here, but for now I'll just take a look at this bit:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
This is a key verse for understanding pretty much the entirety of Christian belief and practice. ....

That was the big claim that made the philosophers hesitate when it came to this new religion. A divine Word carrying out the creative work of God is one thing; that Word becoming flesh, becoming human and living—and being crucified!—among us is another matter. It seemed impossible, not to mention absurd, that the creative power of God should be humbled to earthly existence like that. And yet without that claim, I don't know what Christianity would have become—maybe nothing more than a disappointed Messianic cult that died out as its hopes of vindication within history gradually failed.

Through centuries, and still today, we have to continually hold to this claim against all kinds of skepticism. There were arguments about how exactly the Word and human flesh were connected: was Jesus just an appearance of humanity, or was the Word inside his body, like an astronaut in a space suit? Does it mean that he became the Son of God at some point in his life, such as at his baptism? Or is it really just a way of saying Jesus was especially enlightened and knowledgeable about the Word of God?

The church answered those questions over the years: no, Jesus was not merely apparently human but was really fully human; no, the divine Word wasn't inside him like a parasite in a host, but was truly one with his human flesh; no, Jesus didn't suddenly turn into the Son of God and he wasn't just an especially enlightened or knowing individual. We come back over and over again to the insistence that the eternal, perfect, immortal Word of God was made human flesh and connected God and humanity forever. This insistence changes everything. We aren't just spirits trapped in human bodies. We aren't supposed to be indifferent to our own bodies or the bodies of others. Our frail, mortal, temporary human flesh became the dwelling of God the Word—the Greek word we hear as "lived among us" could be more literally translated as "pitched his tent among us"—and so even our weakness and our suffering and our hindrances are taken up into the absolute holiness of God. ....

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


A New Year's prayer

Samuel Johnson, New Year's Day, 1772:
ALMIGHTY GOD, who hast permitted me to see the beginning of another year, enable me so to receive Thy mercy, as that it may raise in me stronger desires of pleasing Thee by purity of mind and holiness of Life. Strengthen me, O Lord, in good purposes, and reasonable meditations. Look with pity upon all my disorders of mind, and infirmities of body. Grant that the residue of my life may enjoy such degrees of health as may permit me to be useful, and that I may live to Thy Glory; and O merciful Lord when it shall please Thee to call me from the present state, enable me to die in confidence of Thy mercy, and receive me to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The sin of all sins

.... What Leon Kass calls the “higher cynicism” has left many adrift, without recourse to the traditions of wisdom that might provide direction and guidance for life. ....

Despair is the unforgivable sin, for the despairing conclude that God will not or cannot act, that the universe is fundamentally unfriendly and inhospitable to the true, good, and beautiful, and that humanity has lost the imago Dei. To judge in this way is to deny the goodness of the world and its Creator and sustainer, and that is the sin of all sins. ....

...[T]he most indispensable virtue is hope, which is not optimism or a vague sentiment, but a disposition that all will turn out well in the end. ...I would add that this disposition is convinced that God does not fail to keep his promises. Kass insists, wisely, that hope is not hope for change, but rather an affirmation of permanence, of the permanent possibility of a meaningful life in a hospitable and meaningful universe. ....

My resolution for 2020 is to learn a quiet hope. It would do me well. ....