Modern Insensibilities

“When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”—Samuel Johnson

Recent years have seen the complete removal of filters on public discourse. Expletives grace the covers of best-selling volumes. Prominent celebrities — presumably not deprived of some semblance of education — regularly indulge in trashy rants with little or no repercussion.

What is worse than coarse humor or a limited vocabulary is the viciousness of petulant outbursts in print and electronic media. Name calling takes the place of substantive criticism. But along with the cultural shift in sports and entertainment, public expression even among the intelligentsia frequently wallows in tedious brutality. There was a time when political humor was funny and a joke could elicit bi-partisan laughter; now it is merely a stream of outrage and abuse.

It has of course long been fashionable to insist on candor while denouncing the supposed hypocrisy of good manners. No doubt there are times when, as Samuel Johnson admitted, “Courtesy and good humour are often found [in people] with little real worth.” But a decline in etiquette is not likely to improve matters. Elsewhere the English moralist describes propriety as a “fictitious benevolence,” while the lack of it “never fails to produce something disagreeable.” If we are forced to behave nicely even when we don’t want to, we are at less disposed to act badly when we shouldn’t.

Johnson also wrote, “Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.” At the present time, however, shame is not much in evidence.

Related comments: Hypocrisy Reconsidered, Josef Pieper and the Return to Dialogue and Politics of Easy Virtue

Posted in Art and Culture, Politics, Samuel Johnson

What Were They Fighting For?

Critics of the Confederacy say that slavery was the critical factor in secession. Some states, like Missouri, made it clear in their declarations to leave the Union that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” By contrast, defenders will argue that it was not the only, nor even the most decisive, justification for independence; rather, the issue was states’ rights.

Putting aside contemporary debates on the subject, I want to focus on the insights provided by Philip Dillard’s new book, Jefferson Davis’s Final Campaign: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves. The volume’s extensive documentation, based on period correspondence and newspapers, allows one to read what southerners of the time were actually saying about wartime aims. According to the author

From November 1864 to April 1865, Jefferson Davis…. hoped to gain significant popular support for revolutionary steps intended to make independence, rather than the preservation of slavery, the central tenet of the Confederate cause.

There can be no doubt that the federal government’s attempt to restrict forced labor was the major bone of contention in late 1860 and early 1861. However, as the war dragged on and northern victories accumulated some people were open to alternatives. One editorial in a South Carolina paper opined that there “is a deep substratum of public sentiment… that gradual emancipation may become the policy of the Confederacy.” This was not uncommon among those favoring Davis’ measure, which was finally passed by the Confederate Congress in March of 1865.

Needless to say the proposal was controversial. For many it meant forfeiting the defining cultural and economic characteristic of the South. Paternalist pro-slavery ideologues assumed that servitude was the best thing for blacks. Others might consider the option in theory but optimistically convinced themselves that the situation would never justify such radical steps. In the end it was a matter of too little, too late.

One can only wonder how the history of the war and of American race relations in general may (or may not) have been different had black and white southerners united in a common cause. Undoubtedly the measure could be seen as pragmatic and exploitative. Yet at least a few were sincere in their desire to have men of both color serve in Confederate gray. “We want them for soldiers,” declared a proponent in a Houston newspaper. Unfortunately Dillard does not detail the attempts to implement the new recruitment policy. Other sources tell us that at least two Georgia regiments were prepared to integrate newly freed blacks into their ranks on the eve of the Confederate surrender. Ironically these measures would have come decades before the U.S Army finally desegregated its own combat units.

A discussion such as this may seem academic. Ultimately it was Union policy and force of arms which brought about the end of a detestable institution. That said, Dillard’s book reminds us that there are always important nuances which are apt to be glossed over by simplistic partisan explanations of the past.

Posted in History, Politics

Medieval Advice on Simplicity

The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of the fourteenth century, contains a great deal of practical insight scattered throughout its austere and esoteric counsels on mysticism. For example, while discussing questions of self-discipline, the author says

You will ask me, perhaps, how you are to control yourself with due care in the matter of food and drink and sleep and so on. My answer is brief: “Take what comes!” Do this thing without ceasing and without care day by day, and you will know well enough, with a real discretion, when to begin and when to stop in everything else (Ch. 42).

Unlike many ascetics, he argues that it is best not to become fixated on scrupulously precise regimens which leave one preoccupied with the very distractions one seeks to avoid. In psychological terms, such preoccupation takes on the form of neuroses. Nor are mood swings, which give way to short-lived enthusiasms, as likely to succeed as the slow and deliberate reformation.

So for the love of God control your body and soul alike with great care, and keep as fit as you can. Should illness come in spite of everything, have patience and wait humbly for God’s mercy. That is all that is asked (Ch. 41).

Don’t embrace afflictions of one’s own choosing. No hair shirts or debilitating fasts. Rather, it requires much more patience to endure what happens by chance, taking the bad equally with the good. In like manner, our medieval sage implies that we are free to enjoy the innocent pleasures of life, but we should not be overly zealous in seeking them nor constantly disappointed when they elude our grasp. We enjoy things more when we treat them as something special and not something we’re entitled to, looking instead for opportunities to appreciate what is often unsought and unplanned.

A note to readers: I recommend the original Penguin translation of The Cloud of Unknowing by Clifton Wolters (now out of print, but available in used copies) over other editions for its accurate and sympathetic treatment of the subject.

Posted in Religion

Religion, Politics and Mysticism

 “Just as it is possible to conceive of a religion which will satisfy man’s religious needs without being applicable to the social situation of modern Europe—as, for example, in Buddhism—so we can construct, at least in theory, a religion which would be adapted to the social needs of modern civilization, but which would be incapable of satisfying the purely religious demands of the human spirit.”—Christopher Dawson

The English Catholic historian gives us an example of “faith” as social construct: the experiment of Communism which “threatens to be even more sterile and inimical to man’s spiritual personality” than the worldly philosophies of Rousseau or Comte. As for the reason for their repeated failures

It is useless to judge a religion from the point of view of the politician or the social reformer. We shall never create a living religion merely as a means to an end, as a way out of our practical difficulties. For the religious view of life is the opposite to the utilitarian.

It is a post-Enlightenment prejudice that says religion is inherently irrational. Higher civilizations, for example, develop highly complex and intellectual metaphysical explanations. On the other hand, a purely rational worldview—the sort espoused by the Stoics or Mr. Spock—satisfies very few. Looking at repeated historical testimony, Dawson believes that people seek not merely abstract knowledge of the divine but also a direct experience of it. This is mysticism.

Ironically, even the most ardent atheist can indulge in mystical longings. We see this quite strikingly in the millenarian beliefs of Marxism. While socialists like to advance their theories as empirical, a system that continually trades present for future goods is really a form of ersatz theology, not science. At least in the traditional religious context a saying like that from The Imitation of Christ makes sense: “Set aside the things of time, and seek those of eternity.” It pertains to a transcendent reality, not some fairy-tale notion of free goods and services handed out by a government operating in a truly miraculous fashion, not bound by the normal laws of the universe.

I leave readers with a final consideration from Dawson: “A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.” In pondering this statement it is worth remembering that root of the word “culture” is “cult”—which originally meant not a dysfunctional spiritual sect but referred to a society’s widespread sacred rituals. As seen from Dawson’s analysis, the kind of belief that nurtures the human spirit cannot be fabricated. The noblest and most enduring creed comes to us from on high. It demands humility. By contrast, arrogant convictions serve us ill and soon lead to tragedy.

This is my third and final segment discussing The Dynamics of World History. For previous comments, see Christopher Dawson on Religion and Civilization and A Genealogy of Morals.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

A Genealogy of Morals

Continuing my reading of The Dynamics of World History, author Christopher Dawson explains that just as all pre-modern societies can be shown to have a religious basis, so every culture has also possessed a moral code. Beginning with the Enlightenment, however, many thinkers questioned the need for a sacred order. They argued that it should be possible to find a pre-religious basis for human conduct. Of such a code, Dawson says, “there is not much evidence [but]… there is no doubt about the existence of a post-religious [morality].” More advanced societies typically attain a level of heightened criticism during which the ethical and metaphysical initiative passes from traditional religion to philosophy. While the European Enlightenment did not produce an overnight shift in worldviews; nevertheless, it did witness the greatest polarization of thought since antiquity.

Orthodox belief ceased to predominate. Secularism and skepticism emerged as a small but increasingly influential segment of society. Of the many people in the middle, who espoused a purely “practical” ethos, Dawson describes their tenuous situation in this way: “The very conception of morality involves a duality or opposition between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be.’” To say that things should be a done a certain way implies some yardstick that is more than just a matter of efficiency or custom. Pragmatism may be widespread, but it is not intellectually decisive in the long run.

As for the newer systems of thought, philosophers who sought to derive ethical norms from purely empirical findings were faced with a conundrum. To base moral choices on factors of biology and environment is to make human activity deterministic. To deny the transcendent is to say that people are no different from other animals. Yet other animals, unlike humans, are not faced with crises of conscience; they never have to justify their actions. Presented with this paradox some atheistic thinkers, like Sartre or Bertrand Russell, felt that we must try to impose meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. The problem with this assertion is that if the universe is truly aimless, we would never know it.

Ever since the Renaissance our society has turned its attention to the control of nature. This makes it superior to earlier epochs in knowledge and power while at the same time becoming “far less unified and less morally sure of itself.” The fact is that the recurring dualism between spirit and matter remains just as insolvable now as it was two or three millennia ago when the great sages arose in India, Greece and Judea, in protest against the ethical complacency of their age. Humanity in the mass still requires some faith to uphold it, whether it be traditional religion or the salvific promises of progressivist creeds. As for the outcome of this contest, Dawson does not offer predictions; however, he does offer insights, which will be considered in a future installment.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Religion

Christopher Dawson on Religion and Civilization

“It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture. The great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense, the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest.”—Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History

Everything that we know about human societies, however primitive or complex, is that they all had a religious basis. Even those communities which later militantly denied religion grew out of a previous order which admitted the sacred. As historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) points out, in discussing the ancient cultures of Egypt and the Near East, all facets of life were governed by hieratic and sacerdotal practices, from their agricultural rituals to the ordering of city life. This included ethical conduct. To commit a crime was not merely to violate the trust of another person; it was an offense to the gods.

This theocratic stability was long-lived, but eventually there came the “decline of the archaic religion-culture.” It seems that advanced civilization carries within itself the seeds of discontent. As material conditions improve people have more time for reflection and analysis. The result is “a profound criticism of life, and an intense spiritual ferment.” In addition to the Hebrew lamentations of Job, there were Egyptian and Babylonian equivalents.

Man no longer accepted the world and the state as they were, as the manifestation of divine powers. They compared the world they knew with the social and moral order that they believed in, and condemned the former.

Such a development marks the spiritual shift from the collective to the individual (a point noted by Dawson’s contemporary, A. N. Whitehead). In the course of the millennium that followed there emerged the true universal creeds, with their rejection of the “world of appearances” and a corresponding quest for the underlying cosmic essence of reality. Such themes were undoubtedly very pronounced in Buddhism, yet they had their parallels in Platonism and later Christian asceticism. The result was a dualism in which the life of the city and the life of the person gave rise to growing tensions. But this outlook was still far from being secular or irreligious in the modern sense.

It is only in the third and final phase of Western society that there arise purely “naturalistic” and non-religious ways of the thinking. Ironically, as Dawson points out, the sort of moral and spiritual frustrations voiced by prophets in the past have, with the repeated disappointments of material salvation, merely increased rather than abated. I will discuss more of Dawson’s insights on this topic in my next post.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Religion

A Curmudgeon’s Tour of Scotland

Once again I invoke the “patron saint” of this blog, Samuel Johnson, who never ceases to delight me with his observations on “life and manners” as I peruse excepts from his Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland,* in which the author and his companion, James Boswell, make their way through the rugged Highlands near Lough Ness. At one point they come upon a dwelling which is extremely primitive to their eyes, yet it turns out that the windowless stone cottage with its thatched roof is regarded as opulent by local standards. It contains more than one room. According to Johnson:

This was the first Highland Hut that I had seen… To enter a habitation without leave, seems to be not considered here as rudeness or intrusion. The old laws of hospitality still give this licence to a stranger.

Therein they find “an old woman boiling goats-flesh in a kettle.” She speaks little English and is the matriarch of a large family.

With the true pastoral hospitality, she asked us to sit down and drink whisky. She is religious, and though the kirk [church] is four miles off, probably eight English miles, she goes thither every Sunday. We gave her a shilling, and she begged snuff; for snuff is the luxury of a Highland cottage.

A bit further in their journey the travelers discover a more refined hut in the village of Anoch, which has a chimney – rather than a simple hole in the roof – and a single small glazed aperture for light. (One learns that the dearth of windows and adequate ventilation in many Scottish dwellings is a frequent annoyance.) Their hosts are fluent in English language and etiquette. While noting a learned volume on a bookshelf, Johnson attempts a compliment that is inadvertently condescending.

This I mentioned as something unexpected, and perceived that I did not please him. I praised the propriety of his language, and was answered that I need not wonder, for he had learned it by grammar.

The sensitivity of many Scottish in the face of English snobbery (real or perceived) is a recurring theme in Johnsonian literature. It reminds one of the initial encounter between the London author and Boswell, his future biographer,  in which the young man awkwardly blurts out, “Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” To which the older man roguishly replies, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”

Johnson notes that “after dinner we were surprised by the entrance of a young woman, not inelegant either in mien or dress, who asked us whether we would have tea.” Ever gallant with the ladies he says, “I presented her with a book, which I happened to have about me, and should not be pleased to think that she forgets me.”

* Collected in Samuel Johnson: The Major Works (Oxford Classics).

Posted in Literature, Samuel Johnson

Leisure Revisited

In “Josef Pieper: leisure and its discontents” (The New Criterion) editor Roger Kimball explains that

For Plato, for Aristotle, for Aquinas, we live most fully when we are most fully at leisure. Leisure… meant the opposite of “downtime.” Leisure in this sense is not idleness, but activity undertaken for its own sake: philosophy, aesthetic delectation, and religious worship are models.

Yet, he notes “the extent to which our society has devoted itself to defeating genuine leisure, replacing it where possible with mere entertainment….” A helpful guide to understanding the idea of contemplative activity is Pieper’s important treatise on the subject, which has remained steadily in print since it first appeared in 1947. Philosophy, we are told, is more than mere “theorizing.” It is not an escape from reality; rather, it is an honest and objective openness to existence. This includes openness to our individual moral responsibilities and not obfuscating them through ideological jargon or hair-splitting excuses.

Kimball makes this point quite poignantly while discussing Pieper’s own experiences as a man who not only studied, by tried to live by, the perennial beliefs of Western thought. In 1942 the scholar was assigned as a psychologist to the German Army fighting in Russia. At one point he interviewed an emotionally distraught soldier from whom he gradually elicited the fact that the young man had been transporting Jews to wooded areas where they were being shot in large numbers. It was the sort of thing that most of Pieper’s contemporaries preferred to overlook or dismiss as ugly rumors. Kimball observes that

Philosophy, of course, is a futile weapon against tyranny. (A point underscored by Stalin when he contemptuously asked how many divisions the Pope commanded.) But philosophy is not at all futile in helping to create a moral climate intolerant of tyranny. (Which helps to explain why it can be said that in end the Pope prevailed over the tyranny of Communism.)

Clearly not all philosophizing is of equal worth. After all, bad ideas can engender bad actions—e.g., Hitler’s genocidal practices—and, ironically, much that passes for “philosophy” since Pieper wrote his book is decidedly anti-leisure in its assumptions and outlook.

Readers will find more details about Leisure: The Basis of Culture and other works by this insightful writer in my article “Thinking as a Christian with Josef Pieper” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review).

Posted in Josef Pieper, Philosophy

Necessary Evils: Readings on Politics

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”—Thomas Paine

Apropos of my own observations on the recent clamor for social perfection is an opinion piece in The Atlantic (“The Unfortunate Fallout of Campus Postmodernism“). According to Michael Shermer:

If you teach students to be warriors against all power asymmetries, don’t be surprised when they turn on their professors and administrators. This is what happens when you separate facts from values, empiricism from morality, science from the humanities.

My father brought the essay to my attention, noting “It may be that ‘thinking’ leftists (like Orwell) are beginning to realize that they won’t be spared if the ‘feeling’ leftists (which is most of them) succeed in taking firm control of government.” Critical thought should not be conflated with ideological intellectualism. On the eve of Stalin’s first purges Leon Trotsky declared: “We do not live in the Middle Ages. Witch trials cannot be staged now!” Ironic optimism from a brilliant but arrogant man who fell victim to the monster he helped create. For additional background I recommend an article by Clive James, socialist critic of the famous Bolshevik.

Being obsessed with desired outcomes rather than realities, one finds that many progressives profess to like democracy only when the masses favor their policies. Often as not they don’t, in which case the elites priggishly denounce “populism,” seeking to overrule public opinion through non-electoral means. As British philosopher Roger Scruton observes in the March 2017 issue of The New Criterion (“Representation and the people“), the decline in representative government is partly due to the fact that

Now there are no filters, and thanks to social media every kind of person, and every kind of opinion, has an equal chance to be heard.

The operative word is “equal.” The leftist technocracy is annoyed at the leveling effect of new media, disingenuously insisting on “net neutrality” (truly an oxymoron) even as they implement increasingly draconian censorship on internet platforms that dominate much of our access to news and ideas. For related discussion, see Joel Kotkin’s essay.

Scruton explains that traditional “representative democracy injects hesitation, circumspection, and accountability into the heart of government—qualities that play no part in the emotions of the crowd.” I agree. Yet such processes require mutual trust. Where that is lacking, and when the establishment squelches open debate of tough issues through propaganda and polarization, then “it is precisely at this point that doses of direct democracy may be needed.”

Posted in Politics

Reviewing Nineteenth Century Authors

A friend from work, now retired, kindly passed along copies of some pricey intellectual journals, including the November 2016 issue of The New Criterion, which proved to be a trove of commentary on nineteenth century literature.

Among the columns was an interesting piece on the best-selling (though largely forgotten) English novelist, Margaret Oliphant. Known to her readers, including Queen Victoria, as “Mrs. Oliphant,” she was a combination of old-fashioned probity and feminine resourcefulness, forced to support a family when her husband died of tuberculoses. By her own admission, she “might have done better work,” but she was an honest wordsmith who cranked out over a hundred volumes to generously provide for herself and others.  Unfortunately only a handful of her works are still in print, including Hester and Miss Marjoribanks. As a fan of the period, I am definitely adding them to my list.

Next in the issue is a look at a new biography of Thomas De Quincey, the famous memoirist, essayist and opium addict, by Frances Wilson. Reviewer Alexandra Mullen sums up his career in this way

De Quincey never finished anything he set his hand to. Indeed, until he went bankrupt in his early thirties and was faced with a wife and many children to support, he could barely even get started.

The melancholy but insightful writer exerted a tremendous influence, not only on English authors like Dickens, Pater and Wilde, but also Baudelaire, Sartre and Dostoyevsky. Speaking of De Quincey’s relationship with books:

[He] was a creature of words. He mastered them and was mastered by them in turn; words paid the rent and led him into debt…. And books devoured him—they became the first instantiation of the passion and guilt that dogged his steps for the rest of his days. As a young bibliomaniac with pocket money, he signed up to buy a series of books on naval history that was coming out in parts—and then realized, with a dawning horror, that he had no idea how many parts there were and how much money he might owe.

Paul Dean discusses John Henry Newman: A Portrait in Letters (edited by Roderick strange, Oxford University Press).  Admittedly I have never been a big fan of correspondence. For me they are more of a reference source than something to be read cover to cover. That said, the reviewer culls out some interesting specimens. Speaking of Darwin’s theories, Newman writes that they “need not be atheistical…. accidental evolution is accidental to us, not to God.”  Elsewhere, Dean notes that the English prelate “finds it puzzling that no female saint has ever been declared a Doctor of the Church (subsequently, four have been).” The letters help shed light on the controversy surrounding Newman’s alleged “liberalism” and his conflicts with other Catholic leaders.

In closing, Newman once opined, “A man’s life lies in his letters.” I wonder exactly how that works out for literati in an age of ephemeral and hastily written emails, online comments and texting?

Posted in Cardinal Newman, Literature