This is the Last

“Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.” — Marcus Aurelius

Traditionally I have taken a break from blogging at the onset of Lent, and this moment provides a particular sense of closure. I have been commenting online for the past twelve years. I have little or nothing to add to what I’ve already written… but still a great deal more to learn. To quote a book I’m reading at the moment about the teachings of Confucius: “The aim of all learning is its practical efficacy.” We must not merely “acquire information about something but… make it our own.”

On that note, I want to thank my readers and announce my retirement of this publication so that I can spend more of my free time on other pursuits. In closing, I should call to mind once more the great Samuel Johnson, who was the original inspiration for this journal. Most apt are these lines of his final essay in which he says:

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 vicissitude of fortune, or alteration of employment, by change of place, or loss of friendship, we are forced to say of something, this is the last.

For more about the books and idea that have inspired this blog, please see my notes on “reading.”

Posted in Miscellaneous

Some Notes on Living

The time that I have not spent recently in blogging has been devoted to an online course on Communist Russia. Taking a momentary break, and picking through my accumulated notes from recent weeks’ reading, I thought this comment by Samuel Johnson was pertinent. It’s a brilliant response to those ideological schemes which promise “happiness” from the top down.

To general happiness indeed, is required a general concurrence in virtue; but we are not to delay the amendment of our own lives, in expectation of this favourable juncture. An universal reformation must be begun somewhere, and every man ought to be ambitious of being the first. He that does not promote it, retards it; for every man must, by his conversation, do either good or hurt. Let every man therefore, endeavour to make the world happy, by a strict performance of his duty to God and man, and the mighty work will soon be accomplished (Sermon No. 5 ).

In Johnson’s Rambler essay, “A suspicious man justly suspected” (No. 79). The author cautions us

We can form our opinions of that which we know not, only by placing it in comparison with something that we know; whoever, therefore, is over-run with suspicion, and detects artifice and stratagem in every proposal, must either have learned by experience or observation the wickedness of mankind… or he must derive his judgment from the consciousness of his own disposition, and impute to others the same inclinations, which he feels predominant in himself.

In other words, “it takes one to know one.” Meanwhile, perusing some treatises in Kierkegaard’s Spiritual Writings, I came across a beautiful meditation on the religious meaning of “silence.”

Praying is not listening to oneself speak but is about becoming silent and, in becoming silent, waiting, until the one who prays hears God.

Once could say much more on the subject, but as the author wryly observes, instead of keeping silent we are apt to make it yet another topic of study “in such a way that there [is] no longer silence but only talk about keeping silent.”

Addressing the topic of suffering the Danish philosopher offers this paradoxical insight, noting “what makes suffering heavier (the uncomprehending sympathy of others)… what makes suffering last all the longer (talking a lot about suffering) and… what makes suffering worse than suffering (the sin of impatience and dejection).” So perhaps we will think twice when it comes to “venting” about our woes? It would be an interesting experiment.

I will end with a brief adage by the Roman Stoic writer Seneca: “Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human….”

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Samuel Johnson, Stoicism

More Orwellian Reminiscences

I’m rummaging around in Orwell Remembered, a series of recollections about the famous English novelist. I remarked on the volume a couple of years ago and was tangentially prompted to pick it up again while sampling a friend’s bottle of Scotch. It was distilled on the island of Jura, the remote Scottish locale where Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One can only say of Orwell what one can say of most people, that he was an antinomy of qualities. Some acquaintances speak of a streak of cruelty, at least in his conversation and writing. Others frequently testify to his kindness—especially toward children and animals—and his generosity. Orwell was very jealous of his privacy. That is why he sought out Jura so that he could devote all of his failing energies to his cautionary tale about Big Brother. He wanted to avoid the distractions of fame that had come in the wake of his best-selling satire, Animal Farm. A former neighbor said of him that “he was quite easy to get on with” though one often didn’t see much of him as he quickly retreated to his bedroom to write. “He was imperturbable, he was terribly calm, and he was always pleasant.” At the same time the neighbor observed, on a sardonic note, that while the novelist “was a staunch socialist… if he had to live with working-class people, I don’t think he would have got on.”

Fellow writer Anthony Powell sums up his struggle between tradition and radicalism: “in many ways Orwell was a Victorian figure, for like most people ‘in rebellion,’ he was more than half in love with what he was rebelling against.” And a former pupil recalls a surprising discussion he had with Orwell about the English Civil War.

I remember him saying that he would have sided with the [Royalist] Cavaliers rather than the [Revolutionary] Roundheads because the Roundheads were such depressing people…. For temperamentally he was a Cavalier, lacking the fervour and fanaticism of the Puritan… He was never noisy and lacked the dogmatism of the insecure.

This explains the roots of Orwell’s criticism of Communism, a skepticism shared with contemporaries like Arthur Koestler and Malcolm Muggeridge. Then there was his defense of P. G. Wodehouse. The famed humorist was falsely accused of collaborating with the Nazis while naively agreeing to a series of chatty radio interviews during his wartime internment in Germany. On this point someone remarked that Orwell “always spoke out when he suspected an injustice was being done.” He was a true non-conformist who rooted for the underdog even if he disagreed with him. Another endearing quality was his penchant for more practical endeavors, like farming or motorcycle repair. Though the writer was not always successful, the good-natured attempts were appreciated by others.

Posted in George Orwell, Literature

Off the Shelf Remarks

Paying a holiday visit to a used bookstore, I reluctantly passed up a couple of enticing volumes. It was, I decided, better to conserve my depleted funds and catch up on the already prodigious stack accumulating by my bedside.

First up was Erasmus and the Age of Reformation by Johan Huizinga, author of The Waning of the Middle Ages—long a staple of college history classes. I read Waning as an undergraduate as did my father before me. Huizinga’s work on Erasmus is one of those rare pieces of engaging intellectual biography: sympathetic yet critical, analytical but full of personal and social insights. One passage discusses the Dutch humanist’s innovative role in the rise of print culture:

Erasmus is one of the first who, after his name was established, worked directly and continually for the press…. It enabled him to exercise an immediate influence on the reading public of Europe such as had emanated from none before him; to become a focus of culture.

It was as if Erasmus had come of age in the world of the internet and social media. He was a marketer of ideas as much as a scholar, and in that way very different from Renaissance figures even a generation before. Huizinga also points out the downside of this. The brilliant but vain intellectual was distracted by incessant controversy and much of his voluminous writing was of transitory value, though his philosophical “journalism” nevertheless had a major impact on the age in which he lived.

A truly obscure gem came my way earlier this year: Roman Road (1951) by George Lamb, sent to me by a longtime friend. Though forgotten today, Lamb was one of a legion of English converts during the Catholic Literary Revival (1860-1960) who penned highly articulate and insightful memoirs. I’ll quote one passage in particular, since it closely mirrors my own experience.

Speaking of Cardinal Newman’s famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Lamb writes, “I had heard of it as a great religious autobiography, and I had thought that I should read it. I read about thirty pages and could go no further.” It seemed, he says, no more than the musings of a sheltered academic preoccupied with obscure controversies. But taking the Apologia up again sometime later

At once the whole book, and the whole predicament behind the book, became alive. The language no longer sounded pompous, but as though common speech had of necessity grown enlarged by the breath of a lofty spirit; the tone, no longer querulous, seemed to express the sufferings of the most sensitive spirit… And when I read of those two luminous certainties, God and the human soul, of whose ultimate value the writer alone was convinced, I felt that I had at last in my loneliness discovered a friend.

Other books in my pile include literary criticism by C. S. Lewis, art theory by Jacques Barzun, and some philosophical history by Ernst Cassirer, which I’ll review in future posts.

Posted in Literature

Just Jazz

It’s nice to comment on music again. I am prompted by a recent Wall Street Journal column “Elevating the Great American Songbook” by Terry Teachout. He poses the question often on my mind:

Will jazz ever become popular again? I claimed in this space eight years ago that “the audience for America’s great art form is withering away.” I still fear for jazz, though I also believe (as I did then) that it remains creatively vital. The problem, I argued, was that its transformation from a dance-based popular music into “a form of high art…comparable in seriousness to classical music” inevitably alienated many once-loyal listeners, who turned instead to less complex, more immediately engaging styles of pop music.

Teachout references “fusionist” musicians who have tried to broaden their audience by integrating contemporary pop styles into their music. However, I am less interested in this than jazz instrumentalists who embrace “the American songwriters of the pre-rock era, whose appeal remains undiminished to this day.” He adds “That’s what Bill Charlap does—and nobody does it better.” I can only second Teachout’s praise. Charlap’s Live at the Village Vanguard album has long been a favorite, as well as many of his tracks from Somewhere: Songs of Bernstein.  I agree that the New York native’s “pellucid balladry, especially at the super-slow tempos that he relishes, is nothing short of exquisite.”

As regards overly esoteric jazz music, it is a by-product of the trends that have afflicted the arts since the birth of modernism. Not that the era has failed to produce excellent works; nevertheless, it signaled a move by intellectuals away from accessible performances.  The gradual elimination of a creative middle ground has done a disservice to both high brow and mainstream music. The latter has gone off on its well-known tangent, obsessed with volume and repetitive, mindless cadences; the former is fixated on abstraction and dissonance. What is so often absent in both is melody. (For related observations, see Scruton on Musical Ethics and Aesthetics.)

By contrast, Charlap plays “with a warmly singing tone that puts you in mind of the noted vocalists whom he likes to accompany whenever his crowded schedule permits.” In other words, these are songs that can be sung. Virtuoso experimentalism is natural to any creative genre—writing, painting or music. But such subjectivity, while of interest to the artist or a small coterie, quickly lapses into snobbishness (and indolence) when applied to public performance. For that reason it’s nice to know that artists like Charlap are keeping traditions alive. Perhaps, in time, music will recover from current extremes and jazz as well as pop and classical musicians will rediscover the aesthetic wisdom of their common cultural roots.

Posted in Art and Culture

Tales From the Golden Age

Recently I’ve taken time out with books from the “Golden Age” of science fiction. The first two entries are from the Winston series of the 1950s-60s, aimed at younger readers. The stories are definitely more facile, but action packed—the sort of tales I would have loved at age twelve, and which still evince a sense of wonder and adventure.

In Lost: A Moon (1955), Paul Capon describes the Martian satellite of Phoebus as a mysterious giant robot built by a long extinct Martian race. At one point the main characters encounter strange creatures and the remains of an ancient civilization on the surface of Mars. The Secret of the Ninth Planet (1959) by Donald Wollheim involves some thoroughly enjoyable planet hopping and an extra-terrestrial finale in which the protagonists encounter dangerous Plutonians and friendly aliens from Neptune. There is even a Galactic zoo on Triton with sentient specimens who help the earthmen defeat a race which is “stealing sunlight” and endangering the solar system.

In a more serious vein there is Arthur C. Clarke’s Earthlight (1955), a tale of intrigue, war and espionage set on the earth’s moon in the 22nd century. The ending reveals Clarke’s pacifistic and progressivist optimism. Though a solidly diverting tale, I found Star Watchman (1964), by Ben Bova, to be a more realistic and nuanced treatment of Cold War themes in the guise of galactic adventure.

The book is actually a sequel to The Star Conquerors, which chronicles the Earth’s Star Watch at an earlier period of interstellar empire. Bova’s second volume introduces us to a young Star Watch officer, Emil Vorgens, dispatched on a mission to deal with unrest on the distant planet Shinar. He is faced with a number of challenges: the young rebel leader Merdon, the warlike Komani aliens, and even opposition from the Earth marine commander.

In contrast to the utopian ambitions of Merdon, who wants total independence for his insignificant agrarian world in a galaxy dominated by great empires (while allying with the ruthless and totalitarian Komani to gain his ends), Vorgens argues that for all its faults, the Terran Empire is ruled by law. And if there are disappointments and frustration, he reminds him that in any society “there’ll always be differences of opinion, problems, arguments.” The events in Bova’s universe do not fundamentally alter human nature or basic moral challenges.

Star Watchman offers convincing depictions of futurist combat and military technology, and (while also aimed at a young adult audience) it deals with greater menace, psychological tension and character development than the Winston volumes. Truly impressive is its level of acumen concerning war and politics that is atypical of Bova’s peers—a hard-headed realization that these things cannot be pondered in a vacuum, and that if the good guys aren’t always perfect, the other guys are far worse.

For additional commentary, see my posts The Infinite Worlds of Lester del Rey, Islands of Space and Journeys in Early Science Fiction.

Posted in Fiction

Humanity, Ideology and Individual Destiny

“There may be community… of material possessions, but there can never be community of love or of esteem.”—Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

Continuing my reading of French philosopher Raymond Aron, I came across some passages which confirm the age-old insight that humanity’s primary challenges are ethical rather than physical. No amount of material comfort or perfection will eliminate human strife. Ironically those ideological regimes which have claimed to advance material welfare the most have done so with the least success.

The French writer denounces what he refers to as “doctrinarism,” or the idea of reducing all of life’s challenges to a single, politically solvable, problem (see related comments). It is not only individuals on the left who think this way. Certain utopian libertarian and rightists are guilty of the same fundamental assumptions. But “progressive” doctrinal simplification is the most widespread. In this regard, Aron remarks that

Marx’s thinking was characterized by a radical error: the error of attributing all alienation to a single origin and of assuming that the end of economic alienation would result in the end of all alienation.

Even Marx was inconsistent. Delving more deeply into his ideology one finds that there were pre-economic and pre-political roots to his outlook. On the other hand Aron, the self-professed agnostic, was more sensitive than other political thinkers to humanity’s spiritual dimension.

The Marxists and existentialists come into conflict at the point where the tradition of Kierkegaard cannot be reconciled with that of Hegel; no social or economic regime can ever solve the enigma of history; individual destiny transcends collective life.

Unlike the Christian Kierkegaard, materialist “individualists” like Nietzsche and Sartre take us on a path which ultimately merges with collectivism, because of their underlying social expectations. In a similar manner Aron critiqued modernist Christians who fell in with the fashionable “social justice” movement and ended up co-opted by Marxism rather than the other way around (as had been naively hoped).

What horrifies me about secular religions is the breakdown of the distinction between the profane and the sacred…. Christians should feel this horror more strongly than I do, but in fact some of them, certain worker-priests for example, have, on the contrary been attracted by the structural similarity of the opposing beliefs…. I continue to regard religion as essentially the negation or at least the questioning of social values. But the Marxists and the existentialists (at least Sartre and his followers), in their radical atheism, ultimately reduce existence to action; indeed, ultimately they place historical action above everything.

The ideologues ultimately fall short because they “have no theory in the sense of a contemplative metaphysic embracing the whole of the cosmos and of humanity…. They detest contemplative thought and the inner life, they see man essentially as the creature who works….” Aron’s particular insight on the aim of philosophy is actually much closer to that of the German Thomist Josef Pieper than many of their Catholic contemporaries, who opted for activism over theology.

Posted in Existentialism, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

From His Age to Ours: St. Bede the Historian

Relatively little is known about the Englishman St. Bede (672-735), traditionally referred to as the “Venerable Bede,” who lived in that misty period known as the Dark Ages. Even so, the genius of the Benedictine monk who labored at the monastery of Jarrow was acknowledged for centuries by the use of B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini – Year of Our Lord). Though the system was first devised by St. Denis of France in the 6th century, it had lain dormant for two centuries until Bede popularized it in his philosophical and historical tracts. From Bede it was passed on to English missionaries and thence to Charlemagne’s court, the popes, and eventually all European society. But most readers familiar with the Anglo-Saxon monk will know him through his chronicle The Ecclesiastical History of England (written in 731 A.D.).

Following the collapse of Roman rule England underwent a period of backwardness and savagery that defies imagination. One gets some sense of the gloomy zeitgeist from the writings of St. Ambrose, a contemporary witness living in Italy. He spoke of the impending Apocalypse as barbarians swarmed over the remains of a decaying empire.

There are many interesting sidelights to Bede’s panoramic view of the past. Describing St. Wilfrid’s mission to the pagans, we are told that found the inhabitants of early Sussex so idiotic that they hardly knew how to feed themselves and were reduced to starvation. In despair they began tying themselves together with rope and throwing themselves off cliffs into the sea. The priest asked why they didn’t catch fish for supper. The pagan king replied they were too slippery. The missionary took pity on the benighted Saxons and taught them to make nets whereupon the people, amazed at his wisdom, converted en masse and Wilfrid became their bishop.

One decisive turning point has been forgotten in the passage of millennia. It was the manner in which Britain was re-evangelized in the post-Roman era. Imagine for a moment that today we spoke a Gaelic dialect stemming from the original Celtic Christians of the island. But things didn’t turn out that way. The English monk explains that when St. Augustine of Canterbury began his mission among the Saxons in 597 the Britons in the west refused to have anything to do with the pagan settlers in the east. As a result, Anglo-Saxon became the basis of our language and culture and left its imprint well beyond the Norman Conquest of 1066.

A refined product of a crude age, the scholarship of Bede’s History was exemplary. The author conscientiously cited other books and even requested copies of important documents from the papal archives in Rome—all this at a time when civilization was near its lowest ebb. Bede’s chronicle remains a readable and instructive work for all times.

Posted in History, Religion

Adversity and Gratitude

“As no man can enjoy happiness without thinking that he enjoys it, the experience of calamity is necessary to a just sense of better fortune: for the good of our present state is merely comparative, and the evil which every man feels will be sufficient to disturb and harass him, if he does not know how much he escapes.”—Samuel Johnson

It is quite by chance that I came across Johnson’s essay “Adversity useful to the acquisition of knowledge” (The Rambler, No. 150), since the piece is not in either of my hard copy anthologies of his works. It is the perfect Thanksgiving meditation. I post it as much for my own edification as for anyone else’s.

Not only are there practical benefits to overcoming life’s challenges—it is often the motivator for new ideas and inventions; there is spiritual profit as well. Drawing inspiration from the Roman Stoic writer Seneca, Johnson explains that

By suffering willingly what we cannot avoid, we secure ourselves from vain and immoderate disquiet; we preserve for better purposes that strength which would be unprofitably wasted in wild efforts of desperation, and maintain that circumspection which may enable us to seize every support, and improve every alleviation. This calmness will be more easily obtained, as the attention is more powerfully withdrawn from the contemplation of unmingled unabated evil, and diverted to those accidental benefits which prudence may confer on every state.

It is a paradox of our imperfect state that too much ease and success can leave us just as unhappy as too much misfortune. It is easy to dwell on the things we desire yet do not obtain (regardless of whether they would have been really good for us) while at the same time being unmindful of how many difficulties we have been spared. For related commentary, see “Johnson on Gratitude.”

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

The Pursuit of Intellectual Integrity

“To pursue examination with a mind free of contemporary or private preconceptions is extremely difficult.”—Moses Hadas

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal highlights the continued challenges to intellectual freedom in higher education. In its November 17 column, Zachary Wood, a black senior at Williams College, describes the infantile and abusive treatment of a guest speaker in his Uncomfortable Learning series. Invited to address the topic of modern feminism from a dissenting point of view, Christina Hoff Sommers was irrelevantly (but predictably) denounced as “a racist white supremacist.” Wood’s point—raised by many observers of late—is that real debate has been replaced by denunciation. While some in the college audience engaged the speaker in an intelligent manner, the event was dominated by the usual mob of bullies evincing a limited vocabulary.

Wood is understandably disappointed at the lack of meaningful diversity in the political realm. Tolerance only extends to approved viewpoints. In this regard the civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz has asked the question which most journalists have shunned: which is more of a threat, the “hard right” or the “hard left”?

Although I disagree with the Dershowitz on other issues, it seems undeniable that these forms of extremism pose asymmetrical dangers. The postwar “extreme right” has historically been the smaller but more lethal element, perhaps second only to Islamicist terrorism in its violent outbursts—not counting the unsuccessful attempt by socialist shooter James Hodgkinson to even the score somewhat. That said, Dershowitz is being realistic when he asserts that Hitlerites are unlikely to take over the country any time soon whereas increasing leftist intolerance is more widespread and more consequential.

The hard right is dangerous largely for what it has done in the past….  The danger posed by the extreme hard left is more about the future. Leaders of tomorrow are being educated today on campus. The tolerance for censorship and even violence to suppress dissenting voices may be a foretaste of things to come.

Apropos of this topic are remarks of Raymond Aron, the French philosopher and former socialist turned critic of leftism, whose writings have been mentioned in previous posts.

In Germany, after 1930, I began my intellectual career with a reflection on Marxism. An “advanced thinker,” like most of the intellectuals who came out of the Jewish bourgeoisie, I wanted to make a philosophical critique of my political convictions, which I felt to be naïve, dictated by the milieu, with no other foundation than spontaneous preferences or antipathies (Marxism and the Existentialists, 1965).

Aron speaks of observations that gradually led him “to the conclusion that Marxism was not true (although I had wished with all my heart that it was).” It is to be hoped that contemporary academics and students would be equally objective in their political explorations. But so far the trend is not encouraging.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics