Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Flannery O'Connor on Ernest Hemingway

The Catholic fiction writer has very little high-powered "Catholic" fiction to influence him except that written by these three [Bloy, Bernanos, Mauriac] and Greene. But at some point reading them reaches the place of diminishing returns and you get more benefit from reading someone like Hemingway, where there is apparently a hunger for a Catholic completeness in life.

-- Flannery O'Connor. January 16, 1956. The Habit of Being

* * *

The man was hungry for everything so
why not God? Wine by the bottle, beer by
the case, fresh-bled bull roasted on a spit,
fish dragged from the sea on a thin pole
wielded by a man mad for its wet meat.
He wanted it all and got it. But it
could not be enough. Wife after wife
tried hard to satisfy his starved heart.
What made him close to happy was his art.
The daily dalliance with the blank page
was where he sought you out, trying to name
what he lacked at the center of his lone-
ly soul, an agon he loved and hated,
the one hunger that could not be sated.

-- Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O'Connor.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

It can happen that an individual posseses that objective holiness of mission and authority and yet has no subjective holiness. This is a grave misfortune, dangerously obscuring the Church's mission. But the Church as a whole can never fail to possess both gifts at the same time. This equally applies to the Church in its visible aspect. Consequently it will not do to divide the Catholic Church into two churches, an emperical Church with her authority, and her ascertainable membership, and an invisible Church of the saints, whose number is known only to God.

Augustine saw very clearly that the visible bearer of the power of the keys cannot receive a sinner back into the Communio Sanctorum; without he forgiveness (together with God) of the Church and the saints, which the Song of Songs calls the "one dove." But he does not draw the same conclusion as that Augustinian friar, Luther, namely, that only the Church of the saints with its "priesthood of all believers" has the true power of the keys. In Augustine the tension persists: Christ's Church has objective and subjective holiness, but they coincide, perfectly only in Christ, the Church's head.

- Hans Urs von Balthasar, In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Here and There

  • The Mass Is Still With Us Even Under Quarantine, by Timothy O'Malley. 03/19/20.
  • In Behold the Pierced One(pp.97-98), Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) wrote: "Joseph Ratzinger on fasting from the Eucharist (Catholic World Report 03/19/2020):
    “When Augustine sensed his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and undertook public penance. In his last days he manifested his solidarity with the public sinners who seek for pardon and grace through the renunciation of communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in the humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for him who is the Righteous and Merciful One. Against the background of his sermons and writings, which are a magnificent portrayal of the mystery of the Church as communion with the Body of Christ, and as the Body of Christ itself, built up by the Eucharist, this is a profoundly arresting gesture. The more I think of it, the more it moves me to reflection. Do we not often take the reception of the Blessed Sacrament too lightly? Might not this kind of spiritual fasting be of service, or even necessary, to deepen and renew our relationship to the Body of Christ?"
  • Thoughts on the obligation to attend Mass during times of pestilence In the Light of the Law 03/12/20.
  • A Catholic Debate over Liberalism, by Park MacDougald. City Journal Winter 2020. "Is it a guarantor of religious liberty or an imperial ideology incompatible with the Church?"
  • Thomas Merton on Henry Thoreau Maverick Philosopher 02/27/20.

  • Speaking with the Barbarians: Maritain, MacIntyre, and Christendom 02/19/20. The Public Discourse 02/19/20. "Contemporary Christians are called to infuse procedural liberalism with substantive language and concepts rooted in Christian tradition. We ought not spend our time despairing over supposed barbarians at the gate, or lurking within us—and not simply because it distracts us from our work, but also because it saps us of hope."

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Aquinas 101 - Free Video Course from the Thomistic Institute

Aquinas 101 is a series of free video courses from the Thomistic Institute that help you to engage life’s most urgent philosophical and theological questions with the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the end, you’ll be able to read Aquinas on his own terms and to master the essentials of his thought. Enrolling in a video course is easy - and it will always be free! We’ll send you two e-mails a week with everything you need. So scroll to enroll, and let’s get started!

Aquinas 101 is a project of the Thomistic Institute, located in Washington, DC. The Thomistic Institute exists to promote Catholic truth in our contemporary world by strengthening the intellectual formation of Christians at universities, in the Church, and in the wider public square. The thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Universal Doctor of the Church, is our touchstone.

George Weigel's "The Irony of Modern Catholic History"

The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform, by George Weigel.
Basic Books (September 17, 2019) 336 pgs.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, both secular and Catholic leaders assumed that the Church and the modern world were locked in a battle to the death. The triumph of modernity would not only finish the Church as a consequential player in world history; it would also lead to the death of religious conviction. But today, the Catholic Church is far more vital and consequential than it was 150 years ago. Ironically, in confronting modernity, the Catholic Church rediscovered its evangelical essence. In the process, Catholicism developed intellectual tools capable of rescuing the imperiled modern project.

A richly rendered, deeply learned, and powerfully argued account of two centuries of profound change in the church and the world, The Irony of Modern Catholic History reveals how Catholicism offers twenty-first century essential truths for our survival and flourishing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The 1619 Project and Its Critics

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Roger Scruton, 1944-2012

  • Roger Scruton: Conservative thinker dies at 75 BBC News. 01/12/20.

  • Tributes paid to ‘unusually rich legacy’ of philosopher Sir Roger Scruton St Helens Star 01/12/20.

  • Roger Scruton, R.I.P. by Michael Brendan Dougherty. National Review 0/13/20.

  • The ‘great adventure’ of Sir Roger Scruton, RIP by Rev. Ben Johnson. The Acton Institute. 1/13/20.

  • The philosopher’s mind at its end Dr. Mark Dooley, Sir Roger Scuton’s biographer on the last days of a giant. The Critic 02/12/20:
    In my books on Scruton, I consistently emphasised this theme of the sacred which has featured, either directly or implicitly, since his earliest works on aesthetics and architecture. But what does he mean by it? The best insight is offered in an essay from 1986, entitled ‘The Philosopher on Dover Beach’: ‘[T]he free being is incarnate, and to see human life as a vehicle for freedom – to see a face where the scientist sees flesh and bone – is to recognise that this, at least, is sacred, that this small piece of earthly matter is not to be treated as a means to our purposes, but as an end in itself’.

    When we lovingly behold another person, or when we contemplate an artwork, listen to music or marvel at a beautiful building, we experience something that transcends its material constraints. That ‘something’ is not separable from the material or biological order which contains it. But every time we gaze into the eyes of a loved one, or whenever we savour our favourite symphony or pray at a beautiful shrine, we encounter ‘personality and freedom’ shining forth from what is ‘contingent, dependent and commonplace’. We see the fabric of the world perforated by light from another sphere. In this point of intersection of the timeless with time, we catch glimpses of the transcendental and receive intimations of the infinite. ...

  • The Hounds In Full Cry: Roger Scruton’s Conservatism, by Bradley J. Birzer. American Conservative 01/14/20:
    One of the greatest dangers of the modern world—beginning with the Enlightenment and exploding with the French Revolution—was the imperialism of the political sphere. For nearly three centuries now, the West has seen the political sphere expand so rapidly that it has subsumed almost every aspect of our lives, and with globalization, uncontrollable forces of consumerism and selfishness have “broken free of the forces—religious, moral and national—which used to limit it,” while decimating “the old local pieties, the old customs, and the local attachments.”

    Once we politicize everything, Scruton feared, there will be nothing left but power, the struggle for power, and, consequently, only the nihilism of the abyss. To his consternation, he saw nihilism, widespread by 2007, “as the addictive drumbeats and soundbytes that form the background of popular culture.” Corporations, owing nothing to loyalty and attempting only to satiate the appetites, would never defend the good, the true, or the beautiful. “Nobody in the corporatist society will wish to fight for his neighbor’s rights, to devote his life to a cause, or to lay down his life for his country,” he lamented. “Indeed, he is unlikely to know which country is his.”

    The rise of Donald Trump in the United States especially worried Scruton, as he saw it as further proof of the decay of Western society. “Mr. Trump has at best only a distorted vision. He is the product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion,” Scruton argued in 2018.

  • Remembering Roger Scruton, Defender of Reason in a World of Postmodern Jackals, by Barbara Kay. Quillette 01/14/20:
    Scruton’s breadth of knowledge was astonishing. None of his enemies could dispute that. He wrote whole books with complete authority on religion, architecture, opera, the environment, Islam, philosophy. But running through them all was a guilt-free love for, and fidelity to his—our—cultural inheritance. He loved his own home, England, and he would not repudiate it for its disfiguring historical warts, which seemed to preoccupy almost everyone else. It was Scruton who gave us the word “oikophobia”—hatred of one’s home—which is the hallmark of progressivism. He was out of sync with the hey-hey-ho-ho-western-civ-has-got-to-go zeitgeist. ...

  • In Memoriam: Roger Scruton, by Allan Carlson. Front Porch Republic 01/14/20:
    In what will be one of his last newly published essays, Roger Scruton offers a similar message to Americans. Providing a Preface to the forthcoming Land and Liberty: The Best of FREE AMERICA [edited by yours truly and published by the Wethersfield Institute], Roger embraces the vision of the American agrarians and distributists who produced this journal from 1937 to 1946. As he summarizes: “The real wealth of a country … does not reside in the hectic exchanges on the stock market or the rivers of commodities that flow through every household without belonging there. It resides in local communities, in the work that holds them together, and the deep investment represented by a home, a place and the endowment across generations of human love.”

  • Roger Scruton, Philosopher of a ‘Humane and Moderate Politics’ National Review 01/13/20.

  • Roger Scruton, a man who seemed bigger than the age Spectator USA. 01/12/20:
    Doubtless there will be some talk in the coming days of ‘controversy’. Some score settling may even go on. So it is worth stressing that on the big questions of his time Roger Scruton was right. During the Cold War he faced an academic and cultural establishment that was either neutral or actively anti-Western on the big question of the day. Roger not only thought right, but acted right. Not many philosophers become men of action. But with the ‘underground university’ that he and others set up, he did just that. During the Seventies and Eighties at considerable risk to himself he would go behind the Iron Curtain and teach philosophy to groups of knowledge-starved students. If Roger and his colleagues had been largely leftist thinkers infiltrating far-right regimes to teach Plato and Aristotle there have been multiple Hollywood movies about them by now. But none of that mattered. Public notice didn’t matter. All that mattered was to do the right thing and to keep the flame of philosophical truth burning in societies where officialdom was busily trying to snuff it out.

  • The Last Speech: “A Thing Called Civilization” On September 19, 2019, at the fourteenth annual Gala for Western Civilization, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute presented Sir Roger Scruton with the Defender of Western Civilization award. Sir Roger gave these remarks on accepting the award. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer, the disease that would bring about his death on January 12, 2020.

  • The Passing Of A Giant, by Michael Warren Davis. 1/12/20:
    ... Because of Sir Roger, there was never any doubt that conservatism was something more than a mere confederacy of bigots and cranks, as the Left supposes. It’s something far greater than the raw profiteering of Beltway think-tankers—the “sophisters, economists, and calculators” that Edmund Burke warned against just two short centuries ago.

    Scruton’s conservatism wasn’t a “temperament,” as the smart set like to call it; it certainly wasn’t an ideology. His conservatism was a complete way of being. It was posture of defiance against the arrogant, imperial hideousness of modern life.

    He was an elitist, to be sure, in the sense that he believed there was a difference between civilization and barbarism, between taste and fashion, between true genius and mere pretentiousness. But he was also, in his way, a populist. Throughout his life, he was motivated by a righteous anger at the modern elites who pillaged Western man’s inheritance. The great conviction at the heart of his philosophy—the single belief that moves through all of his writing—is that everyone has a right to beauty.

  • Roger Scruton: In Memoriam, by Paul Kraus. The Imaginative Conservative:
    Like moths attracted to the flame, students from all continents came together to study and discuss everything from music and aesthetics to politics and metaphysics with Sir Roger, who seemed to be the incarnate flame of wisdom. He was our Virgil through hell and purgatory, and he left us at the top of the mountain, pointing to the light that lay beyond. Befitting a man of such humility, he once revealed that instead of being remembered as the world-class philosopher he was, he wished to be remembered as the organist for the small Anglican parish of which he was a member...

  • Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left - Against The Grain Review, 05/03/16:
    The original publication of Scruton's Thinkers of the New Left in 1985 reportedly "brought his career as an academic philosopher to an end", say Roger Scruton in an interview with Ricochet. This is not to say he was censored outright ("the people on the left don't 'censor' -- they look with compassion on your stupidity, take you quietly to the side, and recommend quietly that you retire for a while"). Rather, so great was the negative outcry from the left that his publisher eventually surrendered all copies, removed them from bookshops and relocated them to Scruton's garden. ...

Here and There

  • Why I’m Not a Cosmo-Globalist and other Musings of a Politically Homeless Philosopher, reflections from Daniel A. Kaufman (The Electric Agora):
    ... The subjects around which the most contentious political disputes revolve are extraordinarily complex and the views one takes are heavily dependent not just upon “the facts” involved but on the values one brings to the table, which themselves are contestable and contentious. Even more so than in philosophy itself, rarely if ever is there a demonstrably “correct” view on such matters and regardless, in a democracy — in which we all should be so lucky to live — one’s views may not prevail on this occasion or, perhaps, ever. It is not just inadvisable, then, but flat-out stupid to hold one’s relationships hostage to political agreement, and our increasing and lamentable inability to recognize this is just a further testament to the collective juvenility that seems to have descended upon us, like some horrible, disfiguring fog.
    Speaking of which, I find his 2018 assessment of the pathetic state of the political life of this nation is remarkably on-point going into the 2020 electoral season.

  • From the Age of Persuasion to the Age of Offense Los Angeles Review of Books 12/23/19. Colin Marshall reviews David Bromwich's American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us:
    ... Bromwich falls squarely into the generation of professors now watching in astonishment as their students, most of whom grew up in the 2000s and 2010s, blithely dismiss and even display undisguised contempt for what once seemed like the settled values of liberal democratic society. He ascribes this state of affairs to several recent developments; one of the most important and least surprising is "the soft despotism of social media," that distinctively 21st-century technology almost as enthusiastically resented as it is adopted. ...

  • Philosopher in the Ring: The Existentialist's Survival Guide" by Stephen Knepper. Commonweal 12/21/19:
    Gordon Marino teaches philosophy at St. Olaf College and curates the Hong Kierkegaard Library. He has spent decades writing about the existentialists. His passion for them did not begin in the classroom, though. After a failed relationship, with derailed careers in both boxing and academic philosophy, a young Marino struggled with suicidal thoughts. While waiting for a counseling session, he spotted a copy of Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love on a coffee-shop bookshelf. He opened it to a passage in which Kierkegaard criticizes a “conceited sagacity” that refuses to believe in love. Intrigued, Marino hid Works of Love under his coat on the way out the door. He credits the book with saving his life. ...

  • The Historian of Moral Revolution by David Brooks. Gertrude Himmelfarb 12/31/19. David Brooks' fitting tribute to the late Gertrude Himmelfarb, who passed December 30th:
    ... Accordingly, Himmelfarb didn’t fear immorality so much as demoralization, the sense that our age has lost a moral vocabulary and with it the ability to think subtly about moral matters. A great deal, she wrote, is lost when a society stops aiming for civic virtue and is content to aim merely for civility.

  • The post-Vatican II civil war Catholic Herald 11/20/19. In his new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, George Weigel traces the root of debates at the recent Amazon synod to a fracture within reformist theologians at the Second Vatican Council. [Tangential note: does it count as ironic as well, that Weigel continues to praise DeLubac, but especially after reading the likes of Lawrence Feingold my impression of him has been rather more critical in recent years?]

  • "From Kung to Catholicism" Russell E. Saltzman on Hans Kung, the relic of progressive Catholicism. Catholic World Report 11/25/19. I too admit to having an initial interest in Hans Kung, born of curiosity, and much like Saltzman becoming bored with the theologian's perpetual entreaties to fashion the Church to his own liking ("I simply didn’t care to read him anymore ... he had begun to repeat himself").

  • ‘The Two Popes’: What’s fact and what’s fiction?, by Joseph McAuley (America 11/27/19). The release of "The Two Popes" on Nov. 27 brought renewed attention to the papacy of Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) and the 2013 election of Pope Francis (played by Jonathan Pryce). But does the movie get the facts right? Yes and no.
  • How a 20th century theologian became a quiet prophet for our distracted age Tim Reidy on Romano Guardini (America 11/1/19).

  • Long overdue and warranted: A Catholic Conservative Considers Rod Dreher, by Tom Piatak. The Agonist 12/31/19. (contributing editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and was formerly a contributing editor of The American Conservative).

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Two Popes

Tried watching Netflix's "The Two Popes" over holiday break. Got through the first half hour before it lost my attention. I suppose I'll return to it at some point. I remain a fan of Anthony Hopkins, and he did his best given the script and material he had, but the initial character sketches of both Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- who exist to serve as mouthpieces for the most hackneyed and predictable theological cliches -- their exchange sounds very much like the fever dreams of Hans Kung after one too many gin and tonics.

I suppose those whose general conception of Ratzinger has been fueled by the press and/or the hyperbolic rantings of The National Catholic Reporter will find this film absolutely thrilling. Conversely, those who became acquainted with Ratzinger/Benedict via his theological writings or even his pastoral addresses, not to mention the historical facts of his life and papacy, will find the depiction of him in The Two Popes to not quite jive with reality, though it must be said it does do a satisfactory job of "preaching to the choir."

  • Two Popes, Two Many Untruths, by John Waters. First Things 12/17/19.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Thomas G. West's "The Political Theory of the American Founding"

The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom by Thomas G. West Publisher: Cambridge University Press (April 3, 2017). 428 pp.

This book provides a complete overview of the American Founders' political theory, covering natural rights, natural law, state of nature, social compact, consent, and the policy implications of these ideas. The book is intended as a response to the current scholarly consensus, which holds that the Founders' political thought is best understood as an amalgam of liberalism, republicanism, and perhaps other traditions. West argues that, on the contrary, the foundational documents overwhelmingly point to natural rights as the lens through which all politics is understood. The book explores in depth how the Founders' supposedly republican policies on citizen character formation do not contradict but instead complement their liberal policies on property and economics. Additionally, the book shows how the Founders' embraced other traditions in their politics, such as common law and Protestantism.

I found this to be a very rewarding and informative read as well as a welcome rebuttal to the critics (among the right and the left) who have taken to faulting the American founding for the present ills of our nation, revealing that the founders were actually far more coherent and unified in their theoretical understanding of the basis of the nation's founding in natural rights, and their application of such in fashioning our government, then is generally alleged in our times. Honestly, after reading Patrick J. Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, West's scholarship and defense of the founding comes across like a refreshing breath of fresh spring air.

Particularly surprising to me was the extent to which his critique extends not only to the usual suspects (Michael Zuckert, Patrick Deneen) but various scholars and historians I had otherwise held in high regard (Mary Ann Glendon, Gordon S. Wood). There's a good, if critical, discussion here regarding some deficiencies with West's approach, but on the whole I found West to be careful in his treatment of the sources. He's fair in the sense that neither the progressive left nor the right (libertarian and/or 'paleo-conservative') will come away pleased with this work, though I would much enjoy seeing some engagement with it.

West makes the salient point that in the study of political thought the tendency is to confine one's perspective to the 'founding documents' on a federal level, which is detrimental insofar as the founders left domestic policy to the states -- consequently, and it is only by a review of the wealth of largely-ignored documentation from the latter, that we can acquire a true understanding and appreciation of their thought.

What I especially appreciated then was the sheer depth and scope of West's survey, encompassing not only the individual writings of Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Washington, et al.; the Federalist papers and the original founding documents as such -- but his most rewarding investigation of the founding documents, bills of rights, laws and ordinances of all thirteen colonies, by which the reader can gain a sense of their consistent and theoretically-rooted understanding on a vast array of issues and questions, including: the position of church and state; government support for education and the cultivation of morality; the promotion of virtue and the founder's understanding of such; the proper definition of "freedom" and the pursuit of happiness; the defense of property, free markets and 'sound money'.

Related Reviews and Discussion

  • Founding philosophy, by Michael Anton. [Review]. The New Criterion June 2018:
    West sets for himself the seemingly modest task of “explaining” the American founders’ political views—first, their political theory per se, and second, how they applied that theory to the practical task of building a new government. The qualifier is necessary because while we think we understand the founding, West shows that we—especially, all too often, those who’ve been specifically trained to explain it to others—do not.

    We misunderstand the founding, first, because of the dismal state of modern education, and second, owing to deliberate efforts to libel the founders and their works. The founders’ political theory has been, by turns, denounced, misrepresented, mocked, dismissed, and forgotten. The culprits have been and are of the Left, Right, and Center. The founders’ detractors include fascists and communists, despots and anarchists, Yankees and Southerners, ardent abolitionists and slaveholding oligarchs, eastern elites and western individualists, foreign enemies and domestic terrorists, anti-American leftists and patriotic conservatives, smug atheists and the deeply religious.

  • A Partial Vindication of Thomas West, by James Stoner. Law and Liberty 12/11/17.
  • The Founders in Full, by Vincent Phillip Munoz. Claremont Review of Books 10/19/17:
    By reintroducing the moral underpinnings of the founders’ natural rights republic, Thomas West has made an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of American political thought. He shows that the founders’ republicanism is a part of their liberalism; that duties and rights, properly understood, are not at odds. In doing so, The Political Theory of the American Founding not only helps us better understand America’s principles, it explains why we ought to cherish them and fight to restore them to their rightful place in our political life.
  • Roundtable on The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom by Thomas G. West. Hillsdale College. 09/19/17. [Video]
  • Making Sense of the Founders: Politics, Natural Rights, and the Laws of Nature by Justin Dyer. Public Discourse> 06/09/17.
    [West argues] that the founders did in fact share a “theoretically coherent understanding” of politics rooted in natural rights philosophy. Other traditions were of course present, but the founders, West insists, embraced these other traditions in their official public documents and pronouncements only to the extent that those traditions could be enlisted as allies of the natural rights philosophy. When natural rights conflicted with elements of the common law, customary practices, or religious tradition, it was the natural rights tradition that won the day. Public documents and the affairs of state—rather than sermons, commentaries, private letters, or other musings—“point to natural rights and the laws of nature as the lens through which politics is understood.”[...]

    The Political Theory of the American Founding does a wonderful job of correcting some of the caricatures of the political thought of eighteenth-century Americans as amoral, areligious, individualistic, or otherwise hostile to public virtue and the moral conditions of freedom. The key, for West, is recognizing that the founders distinguished the purpose of politics (securing rights) from the purpose of life (happiness), and the founders created a society that remained open to the private pursuit of nobility, wisdom, piety, and the higher goods that were supposedly sublimated by the founders into the base pursuit of material gain.

    Throughout, West leaves open the question whether the founders’ philosophy is true. I venture a preliminary answer: yes, for the most part, but only because they were buoyed by those other traditions—notably Christianity, the common law, and elements of classical theological natural law—and thereby built better than they knew.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Reading Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands"

I was a bit late in the game in terms of reading Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Undoubtedly, I would consider this one of the most important and moving books I have read this year. I found it an outstanding work of history, and perhaps (in terms of content) one of the most horrifying and disturbing books I have ever read as well.

One of the things that struck me in reading this work is the manner in which the victims themselves can so easily lose their humanity, becoming "just another statistic" -- both in the view of the perpetrators themselves (ex. the effort to meet Stalin's quotas during the Great Purge) but also in my own experience as a reader, as one's mind is repeatedly forced to reckon with Snyder's citation after citation of casualties and bodycounts:

Mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region. The victims were chiefly Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts, the people native to these lands. The fourteen million were murdered over the course of only twelve years, between 1933 and 1945, while both Hitler and Stalin were in power. Though their homelands became battlefields midway through this period, these people were all victims of murderous policy rather than casualties of war.

The Second World War was the most lethal conflict in history, and about half of the soldiers who perished on all of its battlefields in the world died here, in this same region, in the bloodlands. Yet not a single one of the fourteen million murdered was a soldier on active duty. Most were women, children, and the aged; none was bearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.

I find this to be a common experience of reading military history -- the dissolution of individual human life into the background of statistics: the numbers of casualties so huge in nature that the mind recoils and is simply left reeling in its attempt to grapple with the sheer horror of it. (To the author's credit, what makes me appreciate this book even more is Snyder's insistence and dogged efforts to acknowledge the humanity of the victims, by virtue of detailing their individual experiences and testimonies, often right up until the point of their death).

This makes for very grim reading indeed. There are accounts of acts of cruelty, or simply acts of suffering and tragedy, transcending whatever fiction could ever convey. This was a very difficult book to read, and yet, I would consider this book fundamental reading for an integral understanding of what happened during those times. Moreover, — lest we forget — it is just the kind of book I wish could be foisted on every generation as "required reading", especially those possessing an overly-optimistic (deluded) conception of human nature, a naive faith in human progress, or even a perception of themselves (or their generation) as being more socio-politically "enlightened" than the past. The history of Europe's Bloodlands stands as a warning to never underestimate man’s capacity to abandon all sense of humanity and commit acts of abominable evil, in the cold pursuit of ideological progress.

Related Discussion

These are a few of the subsequent discussions of Snyder's book that I've found intriguing. I'll likely supplement this post with additional links as I come across more.

  • A Tragic Sense of History. DarwinCatholic 09/18/14. Responding to Daniel Lazar's article in The Jacobin which (predictably) takes strong exception to Snyder's presentation of Soviet history
  • The Charnel Continent, by Istvan Deak. 12/20/10. "This is an important book. I have never seen a book like it. But even Snyder does not broach the problem of explanation. Why was there was so much savagery in the bloodlands?"
  • Unshared Histories: Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands", by Menachem Kaiser. Los Angeles Review of Books 10/16/12.
  • The Worst of the Madness, by ANne Applebaum. New York Review of Books November 2010:
    Snyder’s original contribution is to treat all of these episodes — the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust, Stalin’s mass executions, the planned starvation of Soviet POWs, postwar ethnic cleansing — as different facets of the same phenomenon. […] Yet Snyder does not exactly compare the two systems either. His intention, rather, is to show that the two systems committed the same kinds of crimes at the same times and in the same places, that they aided and abetted one another, and above all that their interaction with one another led to more mass killing than either might have carried out alone.
  • The Diplomat of Shoah History, by David Mikics. The Tablet 07/26/12. Does Yale historian Timothy Snyder absolve Eastern Europe of special complicity in the Holocaust?
    • In Defense of Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder. The Tablet 08/03/12. The Yale historian explains his masterwork and its transnational narrative of the Holocaust.
    • The Last Salvo, by David Mikics. The Tablet 08/03/12. Mikics Replies to Snyder.

Monday, September 30, 2019

"The Madness of Crowds" by Douglas Murray

Douglas Murray's The Madness of Crowds is perhaps a little too reliant on lengthy anecdotes from current events, scene-by-scene (or blow-by-blow) transcriptions of televised traumas and social media skirmishes, such that those familiar with some of the incidents related my be tempted to skip over some pages. Nevertheless, I believe this stands is one of the best analyses of the functional incoherence of the phenomenon of intersectionality, with its competing oppressions [and/or] victimhood of race, sex and gender which to Murray "grinds hideously and noisily both against each other and within ourselves."

Murray mines the world of television talk shows, Facebook frenzies, Twitter-storms, and other locuses of current events to depict our times -- where a misconstrued word or phrase or action can become tinder for blame and resentment; where what might be an ordinary differing of opinions all-to-quickly escalates into the deaf shouts of a vengeance-thirsty mob; where daily life and social interaction is rife with "impossibility problems" (i.e., in the observation of Mark Lilla, one simultaneously demands "you must understand me" AND "you cannot understand me"); where life has been reduced to a "endless zero-sum game between different groups vying for oppressed status, [robbing] us of time and energy for the conversations and thinking that we do need to do."

That this cultural phenomenon has all the characteristics of what was erstwhile reviled in religion -- the zealous hounding of heretics, the establishment of campus inquisitions -- has not gone unnoticed to Murray ("A fixed set of virtues are being celebrated. And a fixed set of prepositions are being set up"). In this case, however, the claims advanced and to which everyone is expected to give assent are themselves a recipe for madness:

As anyone who has lived under totalitarianism can attest, there is something demeaning and eventually soul-destroying about being expected to go along with claims you do not believe to be true and cannot hold to be true. If the believe is that all people should be regarded as having equal value and be accorded to equal dignity, then that may be all well and good. If you are asked to believe that there are no differences between homosexuality and heterosexuality, men and women, racism and anti-racism, then this will in time drive you to distraction. That distraction -- or crowd madness -- is something we are in the middle of and something we need to try and find our way out from.

Murray's book is long in the diagnosis -- but worth reading for his keen ability to identify what is amiss. At the same time it comes up short on a prescription, perhaps impeded in part because Murray suspects those engaged in the fomenting the madness may not necessarily be in search of a cure (capitalizing as they are in the perpetuation of grievances) or otherwise chasing after a utopian dream. After all, muses Murray: "the most likely explanation of human motivations in the future is that people will broadly go on behaving as they have done throughout history, that they will continue exhibiting the same impulses, frailties, passions and envy that have propelled the species up to now."

One of the strongest chapters (if only a brief interlude) is on the necessity of forgiveness in societal relations and civic health -- culling from Hannah Arendt ("without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover"). Murray points out how society's capacity to forgive has diminished, hampered by the all-encompassing memory of social media, where one's sins are no longer confined to the community (where they might fade over time, or be negated by further acts of reconciliation) but instead rendered transparent and timeless on a global scale, for all eternity.

For it is the tendency of social media to bolster the trench-digging and doubling down on positions -- "when someone is face to face with another person it is far harder to reduce them to one thing that they have said, or strip them of all characteristics except one." Murray reminds us that it was not too long ago that Alexis de Tocqueville observed (in his travels in the 1830's), that one of the strengths of the United States was the capacity of the American citizenry to resolve their differences in face-to-face encounters, remedying disputes before the intervention of higher authority was needed. These days, it seems we are rushing headlong in the other direction -- thanks in large part to social media's ability to erase barriers between the private and public, past and present. To counter this, Murray asks if in fact the "spirit of generosity can be extended any more widely" in interpreting the remarks of others, and to counter the headlong rush to "politicize everything" by doing precisely the opposite:

"Of all the ways in which people can find meaning in their lives, politics -- let alone politics on such a scale -- is one of the unhappiest. Politics may be an important aspect of our lives, but as a source of personal meaning it is disastrous. Not just because the ambitions it strives after nearly always go unachieved, but because finding purpose in politics laces politics with a passion -- including a rage -- that perverts the whole enterprise. If two people are in disagreement about something important, they may disagree as amicably as they like if it is just a matter of getting to the truth or the most amenable option. But if one party finds their whole purpose in life to reside in some aspect of that disagreement, then the chances of amicability fade fast and the likelihood of reaching any truth recedes."

* * *

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Samuel Gregg: "Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization"

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization
by Samuel Gregg.
Gateway Editions (June 25, 2019). 256 pgs.

The genius of Western civilization is its unique synthesis of reason and faith. But today that synthesis is under attack—from the East by radical Islam (faith without reason) and from within the West itself by aggressive secularism (reason without faith). The stakes are incalculably high.

The naïve and increasingly common assumption that reason and faith are incompatible is simply at odds with the facts of history. The revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures of a reasonable Creator imbued Judaism and Christianity with a conviction that the world is intelligible, leading to the flowering of reason and the invention of science in the West. It was no accident that the Enlightenment took place in the culture formed by the Jewish and Christian faiths.

We can all see that faith without reason is benighted at best, fanatical and violent at worst. But too many forget that reason, stripped of faith, is subject to its own pathologies. A supposedly autonomous reason easily sinks into fanaticism, stifling dissent as bigoted and irrational and devouring the humane civilization fostered by the integration of reason and faith. The blood-soaked history of the twentieth century attests to the totalitarian forces unleashed by corrupted reason.

But Samuel Gregg does more than lament the intellectual and spiritual ruin caused by the divorce of reason and faith. He shows that each of these foundational principles corrects the other’s excesses and enhances our comprehension of the truth in a continuous renewal of civilization. By recovering this balance, we can avoid a suicidal winner-take-all conflict between reason and faith and a future that will respect neither.

Reviews and Discussion

Monday, August 19, 2019

Here and There

  • Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics, by Michael Matheson Miller. Law and Liberty 05/29/19:
    The relationship between Christianity and politics is a complex one. The Church has played a mixed role in the history of political liberty to be sure. At times it has suppressed political, religious and economic liberty. Yet despite that, and unserious caricatures of history from secularists like Steven Pinker, Christianity has been one of the most important forces for liberty and the idea of a limited state. Though Christianity is not a political program it nevertheless gives us a certain way of thinking about the state and the role of politics. ...

  • Remembering an Aristotelian Radical: Henry Veatch and Rational Man, by Douglas B. Rasmussen, Douglas J. Den Uyl. Law and Liberty 09/09/18:
    Veatch often remarked that there is a difference between having what it takes to live well and living well. Though he certainly would not dismiss empirical studies of human flourishing that attempt to measure the development of the capabilities people need for flourishing, he would rightly insist on a difference between the development of people’s capabilities and the exercise of their own practical wisdom. It is the deployment of the latter that is central to what constitutes one’s flourishing.

    In sum, we can say that Veatch has offered in Rational Man and his other works a way of understanding ethics that celebrates both the individual and the importance of the self-perfecting life. This celebration is based on his thorough-going realism -- a realism that rejects the temptation to make reality simply a human construction but also a realism that holds that human knowing, achievement, and flourishing are possible, if we will but exercise those virtues that make us rational animals.

  • Edward Feser notes the passing of philosopher and theologian Norman Geisler (1932-2019):
    I am sorry to report that philosopher and theologian Norman Geisler has died. Geisler stood out as a Protestant who took a broadly Thomist approach to philosophy and theology, and as an evangelical who vigorously defended the classical theist conception of God against the currently fashionable anthropomorphism he aptly labeled “neo-theism” (and which Brian Davies calls “theistic personalism”). Those of us who sympathize with these commitments are in his debt.
  • Widening Gyres, by Brian Kemple. The Agonist. While I admit sites like Quillette remain guilty pleasures (inasmuch as they advance a free and reasonable exchange of ideas in the face of fideistic oppression) there is something lacking in the greater scheme of things, and Brian Kemple nails it in this essay:
    Yet despite their adoration of reason, these “Reasonabilists” are in truth no more than “reasonablish,” I say somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Clearly, they are not so unreasonable as the raving social justice ideologues they rightly lambast, nor are they lost in the clouds of Gnosticism and mystical superstition that they readily attribute to pre-modern thought.[12] But the fact that they cling adamantly to this caricature of pre-modern beliefs reveals the limits of their reason. A critical examination of the true contours of pre-modern society would show it to be no less and, in some instances, a great deal more reasonable than the thinking that came to prevail through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and perhaps therefore induce reflection upon the modernist principles which they have uncritically taken for granted. [...]

    Indeed, ignorance of history is not only a hallmark of the Enlightenment and its contemporary advocates, but a deliberately cultivated shortcoming. Rather than engage with the whole system of scholasticism, men such as Descartes, Cudworth, More, and Leibniz extracted points for criticism that, once deprived of context, appear absurd. Likewise, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau emphasized an interpretation of history and society whose preoccupation with practical economics, technology, and politics relied on a caricature of the intellectual heritage of the Middle Ages. They thereby skipped over many details of life proper to the period, when the questions of philosophy were intertwined with the life of faith. The closeness of the Christian religion to philosophy shows how integral Christendom was to European culture, especially in the embrace and promotion of classical learning.[31] Truly, having the Enlightenment and its heirs as the only source of learning for understanding the Middle Ages would be like having Aristophanes as the only source for understanding Socrates.

  • Anselm's Account of Satisfaction Siris 04/14/19:
    There has been some discussion recently of this interview with Elizabeth Johnson; it was actually done late last year, but has been getting more attention now, since 'tis the season. Much of the interview is more a matter of provocative phrasing than substantially wrong claims, but some of it goes very awry. And pretty much all of the discussion of Anselm on satisfaction in Cur Deus Homo, is wrong. It's wrong in entirely avoidable ways; but, I find, ways that are often not avoided, so it is worthwhile to say a few things about them. ...

  • The Last Modernist: The Legacy of Jacques Barzun, by David Warren. The Imaginative Conservative 04/04/19:
    Barzun was “civil” as well as civilized, yet never pusillanimous. A large part of his work consisted of serenely articulated anger, focused chiefly upon the teaching profession. The phenomenon that is glibly called today “political correctness” — a far stronger term is needed to convey the stench of it — has been a feature of North American intellectual life for a long time. It is in fact the contemporary expression of the Puritan theological outlook, that landed with the Mayflower; and it has everything to do with cults of specialization, and with heresies (i.e. deceitful half-truths) both within and beyond the formal perimeter of religion.

  • Legutko: Enemy Of The Politruks, by Rod Dreher. The American Conservative 04/23/19. An interview with scholar and statesman Ryszard Legutko, whom in April 2019, after traveling to Vermont from Poland, was abruptly disinvited from a speaking engagement at Middlebury College after its administration decided that it could not guarantee his safety:
    [Rod Dreher] It seems to me that the way you were treated at Middlebury vindicates much of The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. If so, please explain how.

    The book is about how liberal democracy tends to develop the qualities that were characteristic of communism: pervasive politicization, ideological zeal, aggressive social engineering, vulgarity, a belief in inevitability of progress, destruction of family, the omnipresent rule of ideological correctness, severe restriction of intellectual inquiry, etc. All of these I remember from my young days in communism, and all these I have been observing, with a growing sense of alarm, in today’s liberal democracy. In the heyday of the communist rule it was customary that the communist students disrupted the lectures of old “bourgeois” professors, accusing them of having reactionary views, of trying to corrupt the young minds with idealist philosophy, and of being at the service of imperialist forces. Why teach Aristotle who despised women and defended slavery? Why teach Plato whom Lenin derided as the author of “super-stupid metaphysics of ideas”? Why teach Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was propagating anti-scientific superstition? Why teach Descartes who in his notion of cogito completely ignored the class struggle?

    The professors were abused and humiliated. Heckling and caterwauling were a standard weapon of the militant students then, and they are a standard weapon of the militant students today.

    Each time the results are the same: certain authors are stigmatized, certain arguments cannot be raised, and certain questions must not be asked. Both then and now the ideological hooligans live in the illusion that they open new perspectives and tear down the existing barricades. In fact, they are doing the opposite: they help to legitimize intellectual vulgarity and intimidate all courageous and independent thinking. They reinforce this feature of all ideological regimes, which George Orwell called "thought crimes."

  • Peak Woke Philosophy, by Daniel A. Kaufman The Electric Agora, commenting on a recent skirmish over gender-related politics and academic freedom:
    The essential thing to realize is that woke philosophy isn’t philosophy at all, but politics by another name. Philosophy, for the most part, is conducted by way of arguments and aspires to relative dispassion and (in the modern era) is largely an intellectual endeavor, the purpose of which is to raise tough, serious questions with regard to a highly diverse set of topics. It’s mode is essentially critical. The aim is not to win or to feel good about oneself or to obtain a particular policy outcome or to identify and punish wrongdoers of one stripe or another. These are the aims of social and political activism and agitprop. And yet, this is what woke philosophy is all about: specifically, the advancement and establishment of contemporary identitarian politics within the profession and the society at large.
    On a related note, Brien Leiter of Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog is keeping tabs on the internecine debate within the halls of philosophy.

    Salvador Dalí’s Illustrations for The Bible (1963):

    ... These are not his first religious subjects; he had always referenced big scenes and broad themes in Catholicism. But the illustrations represent a deeper engagement with the primary text—105 paintings in all, each based on select passages from the Latin Vulgate Bible. Published by Rizzoli in 1969, Biblia Sacra (The Sacred Bible) was commissioned by Dalí’s friend, Dr. Guiseppe Albareto, a devout Catholic whose intention “for this massive undertaking,” writes the Lockport St. Gallery, “was to bring the artist back to his religious roots.” Whatever effect that might have had, Dalí approaches the project with the same diligence evident in his other illustrations—he takes artistic risks while making a sincere effort to stay close to the spirit of the text. If he did this work for the money, he earned it.

  • Slut Shaming in the Adoration Chapel, by Larry Denninger. A Catholic Misfit 08/09/19. -- Or, how NOT to be a Catholic.

  • The Alt-Left Media Landscape, Ray Suarez (WBUR Podcast). "It’s not just the alt-right. A vibrant alt-left media landscape is peddling conspiracies to politicians and news consumers alike."

  • Leonard Cohen’s Cocktail Recipe: Learn How to Make "The Red Needle" OpenCulture 08/07/19.

  • Lastly, a bit of humor: Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong (NYMag)

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

David French vs. Sohrab Ahmari

Against David-Frenchism, by Sohrab Amari. First Things 05/29/19:
In March, First Things published a manifesto of sorts signed by several mostly youngish, mostly Roman Catholic writers, who argued that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016,” that “any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.”

Against whom, concretely speaking, was this declaration directed?

I don’t claim to speak for the other signatories. But as one of the principal drafters, I have given the question a great deal of thought, both before and since the document’s publication. And I can now say that for me, “Against the Dead Consensus” drew a line of demarcation with what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart.

Further Discussion

  • Response What Sohrab Ahmari Gets Wrong, by David French. National Review 05/30/19:
    What is singularly curious about this, and Ahmari’s essay on the whole, is the extent to which it depends on the creation of two fictional people: a fictional David French far weaker than I think I’ve shown myself to be over many years of fighting for conservative causes, and a fictional version of Donald Trump as an avatar of a philosophy that Trump wouldn’t recognize. It is within the framework of these two fictional people that my approach is allegedly doomed to fail and Trump’s approach has a chance to prevail. ...
  • What's at stake in the French-Ahmari Debate?, by R.R. Reno. First Things 09/19/19.
  • David French and the Revolutionary Style in Conservative Journalism, by Jake Meador. Mere Orthodoxy 07/03/19:
    just as in 2016, when fearful and reactionary conservatives told us to give our support to a man whose life represented the wholesale rejection of divine love, we must be willing to accept a loss of power before we would countenance cynical, consequentialist lines of thought meant to justify some greater good. When our methods of resistance become intelligible to our opponents we have left the path of fidelity. If First Things is going to resist liberalism through laughable misrepresentations of Trump and an increasingly cozy posture to some genuinely scary trends on the American right, then leaving the path of fidelity is precisely what they will end up doing.

    “What, then, of political power?” you might ask. Does not the above represent little more than yet another twist on Anabaptist style quietism, a refusal to get one’s hands dirty in the necessary and inevitably messy work of politics?

    It does not. Rather, it recognizes that a genuinely Christian political witness is not merely about a certain political content in our ideas, but a particular mode of existing as political beings. To become intelligible to those whose only political standard is the acquisition of power is to give up any political good other than power. It is, then, to give up our quiet confidence that God is at work in the world and that his work will not be advanced by those of us who would eat the king’s food and bow to his idols.

  • David French Is Right: Classical Liberalism Is the Best Framework for Protecting Religious Freedom, by Robby Soave. Reason 05/31/19. "In which First Things throws a temper tantrum."
  • The High Church of the Low Blow: Sohrab Ahmari embraces Trump’s sucker punch politics, by Bret Stephens. New York Times 05/31/19.
  • Sohrab Ahmari Vs. David French, by Rod Dreher. The American Conservative 05/31/19:
    I don’t have Ahmari’s faith in smashmouth right-wing politics of the Trumpian sort. David French’s fundamental decency as a man and as a Christian is not a fault, but a feature. I don’t get why his decency and honor is a liability. If we lose that for the sake of winning political battles, are we not at grave risk of having sold our souls?
  • David French and Sohrab Ahmari: What Are We Debating?, by Ramesh Ponnuru. National Review 05/31/19.
  • ‘David French–ism’ without David French, by J.J. McCullough. National Review 05/31/19. "French has been unfairly caricatured — but the caricature is worth defending."

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre and "Ordinary Values"

The difference between [Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus] seems to me wonderfully revealed in a little incident related by the Dominican priest Father Bruckberger, who was active in the French resistance and was close to both at the time. Bruckberger used to run into Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir at the cafe, the two of them huddled over books and notes and discussing points of philosophy. They struck him, he remarks, like two permanent graduate students (and perhaps we may add, Sartre remained something of that to the end). They were joined one day by Camus [...] Sartre was then in the process of completing his big book Being and Nothingness, and he was in the misdst of expounding to his hearers the view of absolute liberty which he develops in that tome. This liberty is a possibility we carry around within us like a terrorist's bomb, which at any moment we could detonate in any direction. "Nothing prevents us ..." -- this is Sartre's recurring phrase to indicate that at any moment we can step off in a new direction out of the rut that we have hitherto traveled in life. At that moment a German officer in full regalia walked past on the sidewalk, and Camus, who had been listening in silence, remarked: "Even granted that liberty, there are some things we wouldn't do. For example, you wouldn't denounce me to the Germans even though you had the pure possibility of doing so." The remark, Bruckberger tells us, seemed to disturb Sartere, as if he had never thought of the question so concretely and personally before, and he was at a loss for a reply.

This little episode seems to me to sum up the two men, Sartre the rampant ideologue, and Camus the advocate of what he came to call "ordinary values" -- those elementary feelings of common decency without which the human race would not survive. There was a quality about Camus which made him something different as an intellectual, a quality indeed that most intellectuals lack: he was a man of the people who remained in touch with our common humanity.

-- William Barrett, The Truants pp. 118-119.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering.

Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.

Suffering is consecrated to God by faith – not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. To accept suffering stoically, to receive the burden of fatal, unavoidable and incomprehensible necessity and bear it strongly, is no consecration. ... suffering has no power and no value of its own.

To believe in suffering is pride. But to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek Him in suffering, and that by His grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself, but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering but our selves.

* * *

Only the sufferings of Christ are valuable in the sight of God, who hates evil, and to him they are valuable chiefly as a sign. The death of Jesus on the cross has an infinite meaning and value not because it is a death, but because it is the death of the Son of God. The cross of Christ says nothing of the power of suffering or of death. It speaks only of the power of him who overcame both suffering and death by rising from the grave.

The wounds that evil stamped upon the flesh of Christ are to be worshiped as holy not because they are wounds, but because they are His wounds. Nor would we worship them if he had merely died of them, without rising again. For Jesus is not merely someone who once loved us enough to die for us. His love for us is the infinite love of God, which is stronger than all evil and cannot be touched by death.

Suffering, therefore, can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.

Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island [pp. 78-79]

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

James V. Schall - requiescat in pace - 1928-2019


Friday, April 12, 2019

On Thomas Merton, contra Garry Wills

I came into the Church not only by the philosophical route (studying Aquinas at a Lutheran college) but also by way of discovering the writings of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day (both of whom profoundly influenced my decision to convert). I wouldn't characterize myself as a "devotee" of Merton, but I've appreciated his work, particularly his private journals as well as his contributions to interreligious dialogue (where if anything I like him for his ability to engage Buddhism, Hinduism and Islamic Sufism with a clarity and precision that is often found wanting in the casual syncretism of contemporary dialogue today).

Which brings me to the newly published review by Garry Wills of Mary Gordon's On Thomas Merton, now making its way through Facebook and Twitter: "Shallow Calls to Shallow: On Thomas Merton 50 Years After His Death" (Harpers April 2019). True to form, Wills' take on Merton is particularly caustic, from his dismissal of the Seventh Story Mountain ("not much more than third-rate Joyce, fourth-rate Eliot, and some out-of-date Surrealism") to deriving rather great enjoyment in selectively-excerpted details of an affair, ultimately writing off of Merton as simply another phony:

[Merton's attempts to conceal the affair] are one with a pattern built into his “apostolate” as the with-it monk. He pretended to love the monastic community he thought full of “half-wits,” whom he wanted nothing more to do with, as part of the quest for a “greater solitude” he used to increase his audience of fans and the famous. He wanted the best of both worlds, as a holy preacher and a covert sinner.

On the matter of Merton's affair

Taking stock of Merton's affair, it's understandable how one might arrive at the conclusion: "Thomas Merton was a bad horrible individual. He abused the power of his office to prey sexually on an emotional vulnerable woman half his age, just because he could." The relationship certainly had aspects that were exploitative: she was a volunteer nurse, he a renowned and celebrated author. She was reportedly 25 (though some accounts place her even younger), he was 51, and in her care. Whether "M." would cast herself as helpless victim we do not know: she would go on to marry another and has opted to maintain a perpetual state of silence about the subject; Merton on the other hand chronicled every step in his journal, which was posthumously released.

Re-reading those passages from 66-67, my sense is less of Merton as predator than a celibate monk utterly blindsided by a dizzying, intoxicating plunge into eros -- though whether the relationship ever actually resulted in sexual "consumation" is questionable (Wills infers that it happened; textual evidence however is lacking). In any case, Merton should have known better, and the entire matter comes across as more confusing than Wills lets on. The content of the journal entries from this period vacillate between lovesick rationalizations, romantic celebrations, and moments of genuine moral anguish as Merton reconciles what he perceives as his love for "M." (and "M.'s" professed love for him) with his religious vocation and priesthood.

As to the question of whether he eventually repented, Merton seems to have achieved a state of regret with time, distance and perhaps -- though not absolving him of his moral responsibility -- attaining some measure of sobriety as well. I can't say I particularly cared for Mark Shaw's book on the affair (Beneath the Mask of Holiness), but he did make an interesting observation:

... a valid interpretation based on his journal entries leaves little doubt alcohol was, at the least, a contributing factor in the romance with Margie. Certainly his words indicate alcohol was a constant companion as the relationship intensified, perhaps a fortifier of the courage he needed to keep the love flame alive, despite a reality check now and then. His passion for Margie was intense, and the alcohol may have bolstered his feelings of manhood. Few Merton scholars have approached this subject, perhaps out of respect for him, or because no one has heretofore connected the dots between his pre-monastic conduct and Merton’s intermittent drinking during the Margie affair. It does appear that after he had finally decided to choose God over Margie, the drinking was curtailed, evidence that alcohol was less of a crutch than before.
Nonetheless, two years later he would write:
"It was a humbling experience: What I see is this: that while I imagine I was functioning fairly successfully, I was living a sort of patched up, crazy existence, a series of rather hopeless improvisations, a life of unreality in many ways. Always underlain by a certain solid silence and presence, a faith, a clinging to the invisible God – and this clinging (perhaps rather His holding on to me) has been in the end the only thing that made sense. The rest has been absurdity …. I will probably go on like this for the rest of my life. There is "I" – this patchwork, this bundle of questions and doubts and obsessions, this gravitation to silence and to the woods and to love. This incoherence!"
And a year after that, in 1967:
"I was literally shaken and disturbed, knowing clearly that I was all wrong, that I was going against everything that made sense in my life, going against everything that was true and authentic in my vocation, going against the grace and love of God." (4/10/67).

Merton's life is complex, flawed, psychologically troubled, subject to human vice and sin. The vows of a priest and the solitary life of a Trappist monk do not render one immune from temptation, and that Merton stumbled (greatly) along the way comes as no surprise. But I'd venture that we can yet learn from him, and he will likely persist in leading many into the Church. Reading his journals, I still find myself profoundly awed by the rigorous, unrelenting scrutinizing to which he subjected himself; the perpetual assessment of motives and the open acknowledgement of his failure and duplicity.

Commenting to Wills' article on Twitter, Greg Hillis (Associate Professor of Theology, Bellarmine U.) observes:

"... it would have been very easy for Merton to burn his private journals or at least to tear out the pages in which he talks about his relationship with Margie (he knew the journals would be published 25 years after his death). He he knew the potential damage this might have to his reputation. To me, this manifests a remarkable humility, a willingness to allow himself to be known, warts and all."

On Merton's Turn toward the East

Somebody else alludes to having burned Merton's later books, another claiming "his mysticism is closer to Buddhism than authentic Catholic mysticism". I notice in those unfamiliar with Merton a tendency to place his interest in other religions as something of a lark, a "post-Vatican II" infatuation. It might come as a surprise, but Merton's interest in other religions came much earlier, even in college and predating his entrance into the monastery; his later exploration of Buddhism was hardly the resigned capitulation of a disinterested and "lapsed" Catholic. Jim Forrest, a longtime friend of Merton:

"It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton's life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton's hermitage -- he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious."
For another fair-minded, rather more charitable (and yet still critical, from an orthodox perspective) assessment of Thomas Merton one might turn to "A Many-Storied Monastic: A Critical Memoir of Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey" by Patrick Henry Reardon (Touchstone Sept/Oct 2011), who also dispels spurious rumors that Merton lost his faith:
a couple of decades ago a well-known Orthodox writer, learning that I had been a novice under Merton’s tutelage, expressed misgivings about him: “It seems to me,” he confessed, “that Merton was a writer first, a monk second, and a Christian last.”

I was happy to dispel that impression. From my earliest meeting with Merton (at 4 p.m. on December 28, 1955) I was moved by the sense of his deep conversion, metanoia, and the humility that exuded from his person. He said to me, “I have reached the point in my spiritual life at which I am certain that I know nothing about the spiritual life.”

In addition, it is a documented fact that Merton, unto the day he died, cultivated standard and traditional disciplines of Christian piety: the observance of the Canonical Hours, the daily recitation of the rosary, the habit of regular Eucharistic adoration, the constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer, and so forth. These were not the practices of a Buddhist.

I suppose what I find most disappointing about Will's cherry-picked tabloidesque expose is the manner in which it will (predictably) provide a vehicle for a sanctimonious pile-on in the comboxes and an altogether convenient excuse never to engage the breadth and diversity of his works. I can take heart, however, as I've learned that Greg Hillis is in the process of writing a book that looks at "how seriously Merton took his identity as a Catholic, as a priest, as a monk, and also examines his Eucharistic theology." Perhaps Wills won't get the last word on Merton after all.


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"the servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction"

In On Thomas Merton, Mary Gordon takes note of a period in Merton's life where he served as a spiritual counselor of sorts to the English writer Evelyn Waugh (and Merton in turn would petition Waugh for tips on how to be a better writer). From their exchanges comes this recommendation which struck me as particularly appropriate for Lent [Merton to Waugh, September 22, 1948]:
The virtue of hope is the one talented people most need. They tend to trust in themselves -- and when their own resources fail then they will prefer despair to the reliance on anyone else, even on God. It gives them a kind of feeling of distinction.

Really I think it might do you a lot of good and give you a certain happiness to say the Rosary every day. If you don't like it, so much the better, because then you would deliver yourself from the servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction: and that slavery to our own desires is a terrific burden. I mean if you could do it as a more or less blind act of love and homage to Our Lady, not bothering to try and find out where the attraction of the thing could possibly be hidden and why other people see to like it. The real motive for this devotion at the moment is that the Church is very explicit: a tremendous amount depends on the Rosary and everything depends on our Lady.

Not to dismiss entirely the subjective element within one's religious life (the Church recommends a wide variety of spiritual devotions and practices which the layman can avail himself of), but I couldn't help but observe Merton's remark on the "servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction" as a wry comment alluding to a consumerist mindset that we can sometimes fall into, "spirituality-shopping" as it were, in the form of seeking out those practices that are most appealing, emotionally comfortable or psychologically "satisfying". Sometimes this takes the form of parish-hopping (don't like the hymns? the homily? the mass?); at other times it might be a particular way of meditating, praying, a regimen of fasting, et al. But I think Merton is on to something in his criticism of referring to our own self-satisfaction as the ultimate criterion for value in spiritual life, especially where we might be inclined to forsake a practice because we find too "hard", too "boring", too "uncomfortable" or that we simply (in the contemporary language of our age) "didn't get anything out of it."

Likewise regarding Merton's reference to the "slavery of our own desires", I find I am too entirely susceptible to misinterpret my wants as "needs", not just on a physical level (indulgence of the senses and appetite, especially in the way of food and drink) but mentally and psychologically as well, perpetually grasping after this or that fleeting desire which even when satisfied is found to be wanting.

Gordon observes in closing:

Merton here is urging upon Waugh, the amateur contemplative, the same self-forgetting discipline that Waugh urges upon Merton, the fledgling writer: embrace what is difficult, what is least comfortable and natural, and get on with the job at hand.
May these forty days of Lent -- with its small and large sacrifices -- provide opportunities for us to take notice of the relentless, distracting and demanding tug of of our own desires, but in those moments to seek more fervently God's grace to overcome, to "get on with the job at hand."