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)

Friday, August 7, 2020

Wisdom in judging what is possible

This is very good. Guelzo is good on anything Civil War but particularly on Lincoln. It's his review of Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy. The review is brief.
...[W]hat leveraged Lincoln’s politics to the level of statesmanship? Schaff uses Harry Jaffa’s four criteria of statesmanship—the pursuit of worthy goals, wisdom in judging what is possible (rather than simply desirable), the use of “apt” means, and actions that do not hinder others from going beyond his accomplishments “and achieving greater justice.”

It is especially on the question of means that Schaff dwells, since what he finds most remarkable in Lincoln is his prudence and moderation. Prudence is meant here not in the cheap sense of prissiness, since Lincoln was willing to pay high prices for his politics and absorb staggering amounts of punishment on their behalf. And certainly Schaff does not mean moderation in the beastly sense of constantly calculating the mid-point of a loaf others are always cutting in size. Moderation is about recognizing the legitimacy of competing claims, refusing to dismiss as unquestionably immoral that with which we simply disagree. Prudence is about reverence for law, about healing the wounds of the body politic. This prudence and this moderation are always aimed toward justice, but they do not regard justice as the sole question.

For Schaff, one of the central aspects of Lincoln’s statesmanship is his attachment to natural rights. In this, Lincoln stands apart from both Burkean conservatives of the past and modern traditionalists of the order of Alasdair Macintyre (who prefers the inculcation of a “virtue ethics” in politics rather than talk about natural rights). ....

...Schaff, in the second half of his book, to take up the issue of Lincoln’s distaste for power. He is categorical in his denial that Lincoln presided over a “second American Revolution,” finding in Lincoln a president scrupulously deferential to Congress in developing economic legislation, and resistant to the manufacture of incessant “crisis” and the creation of utopian mandates. In this, Schaff is unquestionably correct. “Lincoln attempted to reinvigorate a tired democracy by inciting a love for natural rights and a respect for the dignity of free labor,” he concludes, but Lincoln did so by keeping “the attention of the people on what was practically and legally possible.” In that respect, Lincoln was not the model of the modern elective messiah. ....

The devil doesn't sleep

I just opened at random my copy of Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ (c. 1420) and immediately came across this:
I have found no person so devout that he or she never suffered sometimes a withdrawing of grace, or a decrease in zeal.

Never did a saint exist so lost in God, or so illuminated, who sooner or later experienced no temptation.

Reason? No person is worthy to meditate about God who has not first struggled with trials for God's sake.

In fact, temptation now means peace later. For those who pass the tests, heavenly comfort follows that's a promise. Here is the promise:

"To overcomers," God says, "I give food from the tree of life."

Moreover, divine consolation comes to fortify us against adversities; temptation comes also to keep us from pride over any good we do.

The devil doesn't sleep; the flesh hasn't died yet; therefore, always stay fit for battle: for on both your right and left your enemies never rest.
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Monday, August 3, 2020


Mom, Mary Elizabeth Bond, was born on this date in 1911.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The tumble and force of novelty

Thomas Howard in "The Touchstone of Orthodoxy" (1979):
.... There is wheat and there is chaff. Distinctions have to be made. There is good stuff and bad stuff. And the only way to sort out the good from the bad is to discriminate. There is no question of a moral democracy, any more than there is of a gastronomic democracy. If you eat vegetables, they will do you good; if you eat toadstools, they will kill you. Somebody has to discriminate between the two and tell us which is which. They are not neutral data for our stomachs. Again, there is no moral democracy any more than there is a mathematical democracy. Two plus two equals four, and we may knock our foreheads on the floor and turn purple in the face because this stark datum doesn't grab us right, or we may shout that our math teacher is an uptight traditionalist and pig—we may adopt this line, I say, but "two plus two equals four" remains unthreatened by our tantrum.

We need a touchstone. We need to learn to discriminate. Your big job in life is to learn the discipline of discrimination, if you didn't learn it in school. The moral vision furnishing this touchstone I am speaking about is that of ancient orthodoxy.... [T]he moral vision that obtains here is that of catholic orthodoxy, that is, of the dogmatic tradition taught by the apostles, received by the Church, and agreed upon by all orthodox Christians always and everywhere, whether Anabaptist, Reformation, Latin, or Eastern. The Vincentian Canon is a useful way of phrasing it: quod semper, quod ubique, et quod ab omni-bus creditum est: what has always been believed, everywhere, and by everyone. Any serious and thoughtful Christian is a dogmatist, not in the sense of being pig-headed or ostrichlike, but in the sense of having a lively awareness that he stands in a defined tradition of received teaching that has been articulated by the holy prophets and apostles and handed down through the centuries. It is spelled out in the Bible and guarded and proclaimed by the Church. The Christian vision is a vision of the eternal, that is, of majestic fixities and mysteries that stand in judgment upon our history and our existence. The Word that was Incarnate in the drama played out on the stage of our history was the Word that articulated order out of chaos in the beginning and that will utter the final summing up at the end. ....

It is particularly difficult now for Christians to keep their wits about them and their sights unblurred. The sheer tumble and force of novelty that comes at us all makes it nearly impossible to keep clear in one's own imagination—or in one's moral vision, shall we say—the fixities arching over the broil of our history and our fashions. ....
From The Night Far Spent, Ignatius, 2007, pp. 269-271, 272.

Saturday, August 1, 2020


Anecdotal Evidence explores the etymology of humbug and finds it obscure.
The OED defines humbug as “a thing which is not really what it pretends to be; an imposture, a deception, fraud, sham,” dating its appearance in English to 1750, but doesn’t even try to come up with a likely etymology....

One thinks first of Ebenezer Scrooge’s trademark dismissal: “Bah! Humbug!” Our blessed English is rich with synonyms and near-synonyms: claptrap, buncombe (a Mencken favorite), guff, balderdash, rot, blather (the title of a magazine edited by Flann O’Brien at University College, Dublin), malarkey, baloney, hooey, hogwash, poppycock, codswallop, bilge, bosh, tripe and, of course, the always useful bullshit. ....
Got into an argument about classroom discipline once on a faculty in-service day. It got heated because the other guy thought I had accused him of incompetence. (I realized that later — I hadn't intended to convey that.) I apparently used the BS term and quite offended him — he had earlier told the others present that Skaggs's opinions were nonsense. I wasn't sure why my words carried a more insulting message than his.

Reading history

Matthew Franck recommends several non-academic historians—C.V. Wedgwood, Barbara Tuchman, Antonia Fraser, Winston Churchill, Paul Johnson—all of whom I have read (but not all they have written). This is history that is fun to read. His list is hardly exhaustive but it is a good one. This is what he writes about Johnson:
If a history of Europe in the fourteenth century is ambitious, how about the whole world in a period just closing as the author writes? That was the subject of the prolific British journalist and author Paul Johnson in Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (1983). This is highly opinionated conservative history writing, but eminently readable and with a strongly argued thesis about modern totalitarianism’s threat to the freedom of the human mind. Johnson punctuates his tale with vignettes that show the follies of the great and the good, as when George Bernard Shaw, during the Soviet Union’s 1932 famine, “threw his food supplies out of the train window just before crossing the Russian frontier ‘convinced that there were no shortages in Russia.’ ‘Where do you see any food shortage?’ he asked, glancing round the foreigners-only restaurant of the Moscow Metropole.”
Regarding Churchill:
.... The day after Churchill’s death in 1965, the political philosopher Leo Strauss said to his graduate seminar at the University of Chicago, “Not a whit less important than [Churchill’s] deeds and speeches are his writings, above all his Marlborough—the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding, which should be required reading for every student of political science.”