This is the Last

“It is very happily and kindly provided, that in every life there are certain pauses and interruptions…. points of time where one course of action ends, and another begins; and by vicissitudes of fortune or alteration of employment… we are forced to say of something, this is the last.”—Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No. 103

This is my final entry as I retire Imlac’s Journal to undertake other projects in life. It was a rewarding literary and intellectual journey.  Thank you for visiting. I hope readers will enjoy browsing past commentary.

Posted in Miscellaneous

Dispatches from Oceania

“Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”—George Orwell, 1984

As noted in a previous post, Orwell’s dystopian novel can no longer be seen as a work of escapist fiction or an imaginative meditation on the totalitarian past (specifically Stalinist Russia). The aggressive ideological groupthink that it depicts is increasingly a fact of American life.

To pick just one illustrative passage from 1984, there is the moment when the main character, Winston Smith, learns from a dissident publication that

With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.

Prior to the digital age we consoled ourselves that television could never achieve this level of surveillance. But that has all changed with things like smart phones, voice assistants, artificial intelligence, and the Big Tech oligarchy. It is an ideal apparatus for monitoring potential opposition and controlling the flow of information… held at bay only by a diminished residue of constitutional safeguards.

Along those lines I am reminded of the point made by Orwell’s contemporary, Albert Camus. Unlike the ordinary person, the radical “cannot accept history as it is. He must destroy reality, not collaborate with it, in order to affirm his own existence.” The continual rewriting of the past and present is, of course, a major theme of Big Brother’s Oceania. Another characteristic is that it is not enough to simply refrain from expressing criticism. (The ominous phrase today is, “silence is violence.”) Camus, with reference to the French Revolution, spoke of societies “which exclude not only opposition but even neutrality.” Big Brother likewise demands fanatical support. After all, where continual assent is commanded, the least display of hesitation or doubt is rendered suspect.

If Orwell’s book has any flaw it is that it omits the resilient spiritual dimension of human existence. Winston is a lone rebel soon crushed by the ever triumphant state. There seems to be no answer to O’Brien’s vision of raw power: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” The moral factor in modern society has been diminished, but never completely extinguished. That said, the English writer was  justified in trying to shock Western society out of its decades-long complacency.

Posted in Fiction, George Orwell, Literature, Politics

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

“It is not often… that one’s pursuits both require intelligence and are entirely innocent. Depend upon it, Sir, that a man is so seldom innocently employed as in reenacting the death Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.”—Theodore Dalrymple, “Holmes and His Commentators,” The New Criterion

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will recall that ten years passed between the publication of the “The Final Problem” (1893), when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to kill off his fictional detective, and his much celebrated return in “The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903). In the earlier story Holmes confronted Professor Moriarity on the treacherous cliffs overlooking the Reichenbach Falls. As the sequel relates, the villain fell to his death, while Holmes wandered about incognito—eluding the vengeance of the professor’s minions—before making his sudden reappearance in London.

The reunion of Holmes with his faithful companion and chronicler, Doctor Watson, is storytelling at its best. It is also reminder that the crime-solving elements of Conan Doyle’s tales, ingenious as they are, invariably take a back seat to the characters and dialogue.

As noted in an earlier post, tobacco figures prominently in the cozy atmosphere of Holmes’ Baker Street lodgings. Having successfully apprehended the would-be assassin Colonel Moran in the “Empty House” the detective tells Watson, “I think that half an hour in my study over a cigar may afford you some profitable amusement.” His friend describes his return to the “old chambers”:

As I entered I saw, it is true, an unwonted tidiness, but the old landmarks were all in their place. There were the chemical corner and the acid-stained, deal-topped table. There upon a shelf was the row of formidable scrap-books and books of reference which many of our fellow-citizens would have been so glad to burn. The diagrams, the violin-case, and the pipe-rack—even the Persian slipper which contained the tobacco—all met my eyes as I glanced round me.

Posted in Fiction, Literature

Camus on Rebellion and Conformity

“Justice will not be preserved if we are… easy to deceive.”—Marcus Aurelius

If you think of yourself as a rebel consider reading The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt by Albert Camus. It is something like the Beatles’ song “Revolution,” but with a bit more scholarship.

Camus was enough of a dissenter to be skeptical of all ideologies. He was also genuinely consistent (unlike Robespierre or Lenin) in his opposition to the death penalty. He eschewed violence for the sake of liberation. While the Algerian born French philosopher had long championed the rights of Arabs in colonial North Africa, he opposed the ensuing civil war of the 1950s which claimed innocent lives on both sides. He saw questions of justice in very empirical terms. Contrast this with the Social Contract of Rousseau: “a book about rights, not about facts.” Camus was a reformer and a humanist, not a revolutionary. In his view, “the majority of revolutions… are homicidal.”

The Rebel critiques the intellectual adolescence of most radicals. Theirs is a life of exhibitionistic tantrums. “Our most effective terrorists,” he says, “whether they are armed with bombs or poetry, hardly escape from infancy.” Such rebels espouse “apocalypse and destruction” even while invoking “the love of mankind” as their “eternal alibi.” In another passage he sardonically observes: “Revolution consists in loving a man who does not yet exist.” Imaginary people impose none of the responsibilities found in normal relationships. This leaves them free to murder and oppress as many individuals necessary for the sake of an earthly paradise.

Even before postmodernist analysis became popular, Camus dissected the radical claim that all social structures are founded on power and exploitation (a criticism invariably leveled at the right, but seldom the left). The irony is that revolution inaugurates a regime of oppression by those who most loudly champion the cause of “justice.” The more idealistic the aim of “liberation,” the greater the “suspension of freedom” in everyday life. Justice and equality, it seems, are privileges of the revolutionary class (as in Orwell’s Animal Farm). In discussing Spartacus’ revolt of gladiators in ancient Rome, Camus notes that the former slave “wants to be master in his turn.”

Camus describes the pseudo-rebel we are now quite familiar with—one who enjoys virtue signaling on social media: “Conformity is one of the nihilistic temptations of rebellion which dominate a large part of our intellectual history.” After all, if there is no morality that is above politics, all interactions will be defined by utility and control. It is not surprising that the community activist gives way to the omnipotent bureaucrat; the street anarchist to the informer and the secret police. Invoking the realism of Montesquieu, Camus warns that “the abuse of power is greatest when laws do not anticipate it.”

See related commentary on the French existentialist thinker.

Posted in Existentialism, Philosophy, Politics

Artistic Preference

My appetite for current events is fairly satiated, even when dealt with (as it is on rare occasions) in ways that are intelligent. Theodore Dalrymple, my favorite essayist, invariably treats contemporary issues with feeling and insight. But here I refer readers to a very different study, which calls to mind humanist values that transcend daily concerns.

It is a beautiful meditation (penned under his real name, Anthony Daniels) on the art of Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), from the April 2020 edition of The New Criterion. Since most of their articles are behind a pay-wall, I will quote at length:

During my adolescence, Pieter de Hooch was my favorite painter, and to this day if I were given the choice of any picture in the world’s galleries to own, I might very well choose his Woman Peeling Apples with a Small Child (ca. 1663) that now hangs in the Wallace Collection in London.

It was this painting that first provoked me to ask questions…. For the first time in my life, I tried to formulate reasons for artistic preference…. I was about fourteen at the time, and during the school holidays my father would take me to his office where I worked as a temporary filing clerk. The office was just round the corner from the Wallace Collection, in those days almost completely unfrequented, and many times I would spend my lunch break in it….

A woman peeling apples watched by her small daughter—what could be less dramatic? The scene takes place in the corner of a room… and by which the woman sits as her daughter of about three stands looking at her with the grave and patient intensity of young childhood. In her right hand the little girl holds an apple, and in the left some peel as the mother lets it fall. The little girl is by no means pretty, but she is sweet, calm, and well-behaved because of the love she bears her mother. Her mother does not look straight at her, but there is nevertheless an expression of quiet tenderness on her face, evidently because of the presence of her daughter.

We need to be aware, it is true, of what is happening around us. That is also part of being a well-rounded person. But much of our ability to cope with life—in ways that are not dysfunctional or dissipating—is a recollection of things that give our striving greater meaning. Along those lines I am reminded of Ernst Jünger’s comment that during the First World War foremost in his mind, in between episodes of slaughter and destruction, were the books he was reading and discussing with others. In closing, I also recommend Dalrymple’s discussion of Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627), a pioneer of realist painting, in the context of postmodern philosophical and theological debate.

Posted in Art and Culture, Philosophy, Theodore Dalrymple

Refuting Idealism

There is a famous, oft-repeated, anecdote regarding the extreme idealism of English philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), as recounted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’

But there is an ever better witticism by Johnson on the subject, also related by Boswell:

Being in the company with a gentleman who thought fit to maintain Dr. Berkeley’s ingenious philosophy, that nothing exists but as perceived by some mind; when the gentleman was going away, Dr. Johnson said to him, ‘Pray, Sir, don’t leave us; for we may perhaps forget to think of you, and then you will cease to exist.’

For related discussion, see “More ‘John Bull’ Philosophizing.”

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

Life Without Opinion

“Dead counsellors are… most instructive; because they are heard with patience and with reverence….”—Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No. 87

Insofar as our lives are filled with opinion, it is the disadvantage of the living that their advice is presented to us through the lens of their personalities. Dead authors, as Johnson intimates, strike us as more objective. We are not distracted by their quirks, imperfections, and bad habits. At the same time Johnson pointed out that insofar as any bit of advice is good we should heed it regardless of who is offering it (whether dead or living). Still, an awareness of our short-comings should cause us to hesitate before pontificating on this or that subject.

This leads me to another meditation. In Evelyn Underhill’s Practical Mysticism (1914) I find the following remarks about “the light that never changes, above the eye of the soul, above the intelligence” (St. Augustine). Underhill notes:

If the doors of perception were cleansed, said Blake, everything would appear to man as it is—infinite. But the doors of perception are hung with the cobwebs of thought; prejudice, cowardice, sloth. Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond: too arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its way….

Writing and expression have their place in the intellectual life. Yet the untamed inner monologue often keeps us from the “state of pure receptivity, of perfect correspondence with the essence of things.” By this I do not mean an outlook of simple passivity. But frequently our ideas (very often, egotistical “ideals” about our own self-importance) come between us and the life we need to live.

Principles are not the same as opinion. It is possible to be quite opinionated without having any real beliefs. On the other hand, if our principles are really sound do we not begin to sense a certain futility in thinking we need to say just one more thing… and yet another thing.

Posted in Philosophy

More “John Bull” Philosophizing

Continuing my weekly perusal of Boswell’s Life, there are some passages which nicely illustrate Samuel Johnson’s “John Bull” philosophizing. The British sage often argued for effect, indulging in witty hyperbole. While discussing an aristocrat with intellectual pretensions, who disdained a military career, Johnson said to Boswell, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” His friend disputed this. However, the older man insisted, “No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.”

In April 1778 Johnson unexpectedly met an old Oxford companion, Oliver Edwards. Johnson did not recognize him at first. “But as soon as Edwards had brought to his recollection their having been at Pembroke-College together nine-and-forty years ago, he seemed much pleased….” Encouraged by Boswell to renew the acquaintance, Edwards spent part of the day conversing in Johnson’s London house. This gave rise to a delightful bon mot on Edward’s part. Referring to the author’s popular ethical essays, he remarked, “You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.” To which comment Boswell added this postscript: “The truth is, that philosophy, like religion, is too generally supposed to be hard and severe, at least so grave as to exclude all gaiety.” And indeed the English thinker was prone to a certain melancholy and skepticism as regarded human felicity.

Whenever Boswell was detained longer than expected at his Edinburgh home, he wrote letters expressing his desire to spend more time in London with Johnson and their entourage of friends. On such occasions, Johnson gently scolded him: “I wish you would a little correct or restrain your imagination, and imagine that happiness, such as life admits, may be had at other places as well as London…. [I]t is our business to exempt ourselves as much as we can from the power of external things. There is but one solid basis of happiness; and that is, the reasonable hope of a happy futurity. This may be had every where.”

Johnson is essentially correct, though his biographer notes that he was (like most of us) not particularly consistent. Johnson concedes, “I do not blame your preference of London to other places, for it is really to be preferred, if the choice is free….” Nevertheless, he adds that “few have the choice of their place, or their manner of life; and mere pleasure ought not to be the prime motive of action.” Such is life, with its lofty ideals and imperfect realizations.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

Some Notes on Religion at the Journal

Going through my desk top drawer I pulled out some old clippings from The Wall Street Journal. Prior to the current bug, I perused hard copies of the Journal at my office (since I don’t have a subscription, which is required to view articles online). It’s been a month since I’ve been in our building and the library is closed. But that gives me a chance to catch up.

The first item is a discussion from last November of the book That All Shall be Saved by David Bentley Hart. According to reviewer Barton Swaim, Hart takes the “universalist” view of salvation: “[he] adduces many biblical passages appearing to support the idea that every human being will in time experience fellowship with God in eternity.” This heretical minority view was first popularized by Origen of Alexandria (c.184-253), albeit with greater skill than Hart.

Swaim admits that for any normal human being the idea of external damnation is an uncomfortable one. On the other hand, can we imagine innocent children  and unrepentant psychopaths enjoying the same spiritual outcome? In fine, Hart indulges in unsubstantiated theories, straw man arguments and sloppy research.  A better alternative, to my mind, is the similarly titled Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? by Hans Urs von Balthasar, which cogently deals with the paradox (or “mystery”) of faith whereby a truly loving God intends that all be saved—a hope which we must embrace, as a theological virtue—while at the same time recognizing that some people can persistently reject beatitude of their own free will.

On a related note is Jeffrey Collins lengthy review of Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt by Alec Ryrie. According to Collins, “there is a long tradition of psychologizing” about religious faith by skeptics, from Hobbes to Russell to Dawkins. Along comes Ryrie, a historian at Durham University in Britain, who applies this same emotional profiling to the atheists themselves. “I am not,” he says, “arguing that atheism is irrational. I am arguing that human beings are irrational….” It is a more even-handed approach to contemporary polemics.

The book is also different for being less a study of intellectual atheism than it is of contemporary opinion—revealed in diaries, letters and trial records—during the crucial Reformation period of 1520-1670. Most people were untouched by the esoteric speculations of Hobbes and Spinoza. Instead, religious doubt emerged primarily because of widespread religious and civil strife. Traditional convictions were shaken. In later centuries this cynicism evolved into a formal atheist philosophy. Yet Collins also notes that modern Western society is historically abnormal for its increasingly godless culture. And it is a pattern that could change with new circumstances.

Although I take issue with Ryrie’s idea that arguments about God are largely subjective in origin, it is nevertheless refreshing to see arrogant and irrational scoffers put on the defensive. For a related study, I refer readers to the work of Dr. Paul Vitz.

Posted in Philosophy, Religion

Johnson’s Easter Message

James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, records a conversation with the famous author in the year 1778:

“On Sunday, April 19, being Easter-day, after the solemnities of the festival in St. Paul’s Church, I visited him, but could not stay to dinner. I expressed a wish to have the arguments for Christianity always in readiness, that my religious faith might be as firm and clear as any proposition whatever, so that I need not be under the least uneasiness,
when it should be attacked. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you cannot answer all objections. You have demonstration for a First Cause: you see he must be good as well as powerful, because there is nothing to make him otherwise, and goodness of itself is preferable. Yet you have against this, what is very certain, the unhappiness of human life. This, however, gives us reason to hope for a future state of compensation, that there may be a perfect system. But of that we were not sure, till we had a positive revelation.'”

For related Johnsonian commentary, see “A Season Apart.”

Posted in Literature, Religion, Samuel Johnson