Friday, April 16, 2021

Happy 94th Birthday Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI!

Happy 94th birthday to Pope Emritus -- there are many things one might say in appreciation of Benedict XVI; in addition to his steadfast faith, spiritual wisdom and theological vision, I've long appreciated him as a fellow lover (and adoptee of) many a cat in his life.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The ultimate Catholic coronavirus vaccine morality explainer

The ultimate Catholic coronavirus vaccine morality explainer, by Michael Deem. The Pillar:
Since Covid-19 vaccines began to be discussed, Catholics have raised concerns about the moral and ethical aspects of taking them. While the Vatican and the USCCB have weighed in on the subject, a lot of Catholics still have questions.

To answer those questions, The Pillar brings you The Ultimate Catholic Coronavirus Morality Explainer.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Victor Ambrus (1935-2021)

Chances are if you ran across children’s book or YA editions of timeless classics like Moby Dick, The Iliad, The Oddysey, Don Quixote, King Arthur, The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, English, Irish and Hungarian military history, as well as stories from The Bible — you may well have encountered the gorgeous, unique and unmistakeable illustrations of Victor Ambrus (1935-2021), who passed away last Wednesday (February 10th).

"... back in 1956, [Victor Ambrus] took part in the Hungarian Uprising. After escaping from a building with his fellow students when it came under fire from the Soviets, he eventually decided to leave his native Hungary and moved to England. After arriving in London, he continued his artistic dream and began to study at the Royal College of Art.

Whilst studying at the RCA, Victor embarked upon his first job as an illustrator, at just 20 years old. This first assignment was to illustrate the History of Britain for the Reader's Digest. This started his career as a historical illustrator, which has lead to him illustrating almost 300 books." -- Time Team


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Catholic Philosophy Classics - Getting a new life with Cluny Media

I've been updating various sites devoted to some favorite intellectual giants in Catholic though (a few of those who played a part in my own formation and conversion).

In the course of updating my page on the French Thomist Etienne Gilson, I discovered (much to my delight) that a Rhode Island publishing house called Cluny Media had fulfilled a personal wish of seeing a number of Gilson's old (outdated, and thus prohibitively expensive) books now back in print.

According to Cluny Media, "our publishing philosophy is simple":

A book, from cover to cover, should be an artifact, a work of art. Because our business is primarily to take the old and make it new, this philosophy demands a particular, careful process. Unlike the facsimile "republications" of other, similarly motivated publishers, Cluny editions are restorations. The restorative spirit especially animates the production and design elements of the publishing process.

You can read more about their publishing process and a brief history of their founding here.

Among their list of republished authors -- Georges Bernanos, Louis Bouyer, Paul Claudel, Jean Daniélou, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Romano Guardini, Charles Journet, Jacques Maritain,. François Mauriac, John Henry Newman, Charles Péguy, Josef Pieper, Hugo Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger, Fulton Sheen and Sigrid Undset (among others).

p.s. I see that Sohrab Amari made a similar discovery, while looking for a book on Jean Danielou and has a nice profile of Cluny Media in First Things.

p.s.s. Sign up for their email list and receive a promotion code for a discount (+ free shipping on orders over $25).

Monday, January 25, 2021

Pope Benedict XVI: "Prayer for Life in the Womb"

Lord Jesus, You who faithfully visit and fulfill with your Presence the Church and the history of men; You who in the miraculous Sacrament of your Body and Blood render us participants in divine Life and allow us a foretaste of the joy of eternal Life; We adore and bless you.

Prostrated before You, source and lover of Life, truly present and alive among us, we beg you.

Reawaken in us respect for every unborn life, make us capable of seeing in the fruit of the maternal womb the miraculous work of the Creator, open our hearts to generously welcoming every child that comes into life.

Bless all families, sanctify the union of spouses, render fruitful their love.

Accompany the choices of legislative assemblies with the light of your Spirit, so that peoples and nations may recognize and respect the sacred nature of life, of every human life.

Guide the work of scientists and doctors, so that all progress contributes to the integral well-being of the person, and no one endures suppression or injustice.

Give creative charity to administrators and economists, so they may realize and promote sufficient conditions so that young families can serenely embrace the birth of new children.

Console the married couples who suffer because they are unable to have children and in Your goodness provide for them.

Teach us all to care for orphaned or abandoned children, so they may experience the warmth of your Charity, the consolation of your divine Heart.

Together with Mary, Your Mother, the great believer, in whose womb you took on our human nature, we wait to receive from You, our Only True Good and Savior, the strength to love and serve life, in anticipation of living forever in You, in communion with the Blessed Trinity.

Pope Benedict XVI, "Prayer for Life in the Womb"

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Edward Baring, "Converts To The Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy"

Converts To The Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring. Harvard University Press; 1st edition (May 1, 2019). 504 pages.
In the most wide-ranging history of phenomenology since Herbert Spiegelberg’s The Phenomenological Movement over fifty years ago, Baring uncovers a new and unexpected force—Catholic intellectuals—behind the growth of phenomenology in the early twentieth century, and makes the case for the movement’s catalytic intellectual and social impact.

Of all modern schools of thought, phenomenology has the strongest claim to the mantle of “continental” philosophy. In the first half of the twentieth century, phenomenology expanded from a few German towns into a movement spanning Europe. Edward Baring shows that credit for this prodigious growth goes to a surprising group of early enthusiasts: Catholic intellectuals. Placing phenomenology in historical context, Baring reveals the enduring influence of Catholicism in twentieth-century intellectual thought.

Converts to the Real argues that Catholic scholars allied with phenomenology because they thought it mapped a path out of modern idealism—which they associated with Protestantism and secularization—and back to Catholic metaphysics. Seeing in this unfulfilled promise a bridge to Europe’s secular academy, Catholics set to work extending phenomenology’s reach, writing many of the first phenomenological publications in languages other than German and organizing the first international conferences on phenomenology. The Church even helped rescue Edmund Husserl’s papers from Nazi Germany in 1938. But phenomenology proved to be an unreliable ally, and in debates over its meaning and development, Catholic intellectuals contemplated the ways it might threaten the faith. As a result, Catholics showed that phenomenology could be useful for secular projects, and encouraged its adoption by the philosophical establishment in countries across Europe and beyond.

Baring traces the resonances of these Catholic debates in postwar Europe. From existentialism, through the phenomenology of Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to the speculative realism of the present, European thought bears the mark of Catholicism, the original continental philosophy.

Reviews and Discussion

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Marcin Wrona's "Demon" (2015)

"Demon" Synopsis: "A bridegroom is possessed by an unquiet spirit in the midst of his own wedding celebration, in this clever take on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk." This is an intelligent, well-crafted film, not quite belonging to the "horror" genre. Though it's theme of possession, it leaves you with the open question of who was truly the victim or recipient of such. It's underlying theme of guilt and collective "cultural amnesia" in the wake of the Holocaust. The dialogue -- in Polish, Yiddish, German and Russian -- is subtle and at times doesn't make a lot of sense at all in the immediacy of the moment, though in retrospect you grasp another layer of meaning. Disturbing, but recommended.

The director, Marcin Wrona (1973-2015), sadly took his own life during a festival screening the film.

  • Discover the haunting tragedy of this Polish possession horror Little White Lies 05/29/18.
  • Interview with Demon screenwriter Pawel Maslona
  • Olga Szymanska talks Marcin Wrona and DEMON – Exclusive Interview on the shooting of the film and its soundtrack (warning: spoilers).
  • Here and There

    • J.I. Packer: A Great Puritan, by Hans Boersma. First Things 07/21/20:
      ... Packer’s signing of the 1994 ECT ["Evangelicals and Catholics Together"] statement again led to sharp disagreement with evangelicals—influential leaders such as John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul—who felt that Packer had sacrificed doctrinal integrity. Packer, however, did not flinch. He published an article on “Why I Signed,” and pointed out that his continuing disagreements with Rome ought not stand in the way of making common cause. Today’s deepest division, he claimed, was not that between Catholicism and Protestantism. Instead, it was the division “between theological conservatives (or ‘conservationists,’ as I prefer to call them), who honor the Christ of the Bible and of the historic creeds and confessions, and theological liberals and radicals who for whatever reason do not.” Appealing to Francis Schaeffer’s concept of co-belligerence and Billy Graham’s cooperative evangelism, he threw down the gauntlet, insisting that it was high time to make common cause, even in evangelism and church education: ECT was merely "playing catch-up to the Holy Spirit," Packer insisted.
    • Francis Beckwith on Reading the Summa Theologia Cover to Cover: Mission Accomplished
    • Bill Vallicella (Maverick Philosopher) on the Profitable Study of Philosophy (01/01/21).
    • Walker Percy’s Prescient Dystopia, by Collin Slowey. Public Discourse 11/05/20. Love in the Ruins speaks to our present moment in the United States like few other books. Most important is what Percy has to teach us about the dangers of moral superiority, ideological idealism, and the capacity of intellectual humility and hard work for achieving genuine progress.
    • Overlooked in 2020 -- non-aggression pact or "truce" between the oft-sparring Edward Feser and David Bentley Hardt:
      David Bentley Hart and I have had some very heated exchanges over the years, but I have always found him to be at bottom a decent fellow. That remains true. During our recent dispute over his book on universalism, the one thing I took great exception to was the accusation of dishonesty on my part, and I let David know this privately. He sent me the following statement to post here, for which I thank him. I would also like to reaffirm my longstanding admiration for much of his work, such as his books Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God....
    • The Question of Catholic Integralism: An Internet Genealogy, by John Brungardt. 05/22/20 (a helpful roundup for those interested in the subject)
    • Joseph Ratzinger on the Creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger’s Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology
    • Pruning the Mind During a Crisis, by Margarita Mooney. The Hedgehog Review 04/16/20. "The great danger is to come to love what we know more than to love the pursuit of knowledge as an end in and of itself."
    • William Faulkner's Demons, by Casey Cep. New Yorker 11/30/20:
      What if the North had won the Civil War? That technically factual counterfactual animated almost all of William Faulkner’s writing. The Mississippi novelist was born thirty-two years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, but he came of age believing in the superiority of the Confederacy: the South might have lost, but the North did not deserve to win. [...] In contrast with those ["Lost Cause"] delusions, Faulkner’s fiction revealed the truth: the Confederacy was both a military and a moral failure.


      "Faulkner the man shared many of the closed society’s opinions and values," Gorra writes. "But when the novelist could inhabit a character—when he slipped inside another mind and put those opinions into a different voice—he was almost always able to stand outside them, to place and to judge them."

      Faulkner was unwilling in his own life to adequately acknowledge the evils of slavery and segregation, but he did so with savage thoroughness in his fiction.

    • John le Carré, Best-Selling Author of Cold War Thrillers, Dies at 89 New York Times 12/13/20.
    • An Interview with Historian Gary Gallagher, with Clayton Butler. "Thoughts on the state of current Civil War scholarship and the compelling nature of Civil War history." Gallagher thinks "Catton is best narrative writer who’s ever written about the Civil War. Better than Shelby Foote", and after reading Catton's This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War, I would agree. At least Catton serves as an alternative to Foote's "Lost Cause" nostalgia. To that end, here is David Blight on the career and influence of Civil War historian Bruce Catton (video).

    Monday, January 4, 2021

    A Summary of 2020 Election Voter-Fraud Claims (and their Debunking)

    Paul Zummo (Letters from Cato) writes:
    With the help of friend and former co-blogger Darwin Catholic, we have have put together a summary of the voter fraud claims put forth, and the sources debunking these claims. I have tried to be succinct as possible below or else the document would have been about 20 pages. For ion-depth analysis, please refer to the sourced link.

    You will see The Dispatch factcheck referenced many times. They are indispensable resource, and I believe these factchecks are available to non-subscribers. I should also note AG Hamilton, who has also put together a summary of allegations, and that is linked to at the end.

    If you see anything we missed, or have other resources you would like to share, please feel free to add those in the comments. This will be a “living” document and so will be updated as needed.

    See also

  • Brendan Hodge (Darwin Catholic on the 2020 electoral aftermath:
  • "Now What?" - Paul Zummo (Classical Liberal) Reflections on the future of conservatism after the 2020 elections.
  • Goodreads 2020 - Highlights of Another Year in Reading

    Surprised I met my GoodReads challenge this year, since up to this point my most efficient reading time is the 1.5 hours to/from work on the subway -- I slacked off a bit March-May as the pandemic hit but as I adjusted to the present circumstances I turned to late-night reading.

    Perhaps as a means of escape from the pandemic I picked up more fiction than usual, and discovered some intriguing new authors along the way.

    If anybody reading this uses GoodReads feel free to look me up and friend me -- I'm always curious what others in my audience are reading!

    Personal highlights:

    • Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery - comprehensive and definitive examination of the subject. I found him to be very fair: critical where criticism is certainly warranted, likewise credit where credit's due (Lincoln's position on slavery evolved over the course of his presidency).
    • Thomas Merton, The Living Bread - meditations on the Eucharist.
    • Emery de Gall, O Lord, I Seek Your Countenance: Explorations and Discoveries in Pope Benedict XVI -- very substantial work of Ratzinger scholarship, especially his chapter discussing Ratzinger's contributions as peritus to Vatican II.
    • Edward T. Oakes, SJ A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies -- an exploration of theological dilemmas such as nature and grace, free will and predestination, experience and divinization; sin and justification; original sin and evolution. I like Oakes' for the breadth of his own reading (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) which he makes ample use of.
    • Fr. Garrigou Lagrange, The Essence & Topicality of Thomism -- a treasure ... the bad rap he gets among the Ressourcement theologians is, at least in my mind, undeserved.
    • Stuart Walton, The Devil's Dinner - an informative "biological, gastronomical, and cultural history" of the chili pepper. The first two chapters alone on the origins of the chile pepper in South/Central America and its subsequent introduction -- by way of Portuguese trading -- to the entire world (India, Thailand, China, et al., each continent or country giving its own culinary spin to its use) is worth the read alone. Very informative.
    • William Faulkner, Light in August. I went on a Hemingway binge a few years ago. Lately I've been on a Faulkner binge, intending to read his works along with a biography on my list for 2021). Faulkner can be very dense at times, with odd syntax and a "stream-of-consciousness" style (ex. The Sound and the Fury), but I found this one more readily accessible.

    Some new discoveries:

    • John Le Carre - spurred by the news of the author's passing this year, I had enjoyed various movie adaptations of Le Carre's work (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; A Most Wanted Man) and decided to read the whole series featuring his character "George Smiley". Knocked out the first two this year, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality.
    • Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows -- a Russian novelist whose work was introduced as a source to Timothy Snyder's magnificent Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010). This is Vasily Grossman's unfinished and final novel, written after the Soviet police seized his earlier work and left him to write alone. It's about a prisoner returning to Moscow from the Gulag after 30 years and readjusting to the world around him, together with an account of the Ukranian terror-famine of 1932-33. (I now want to read his suppressed masterpiece Life and Fate, an epic account of World War II).
    • Ian McGuire, The North Water - oddly enough, I spotted the literary vocalist Neil Fallon (of the American rock band Clutch) reading this in a video tour of the band's bus, figured "why not check it out?" -- a delightful, gritty romp of mystery, murder and arctic survival in 1859. McGuire has a unique and visceral way with words. I'd like to read more of his novels in the new year.

    Thursday, October 15, 2020

    Thomas Howard, R.I.P. 1935-2020

    News from Mark Brumley on Facebook today, that Catholic convert and writer Thomas Howard has died. He authored many great and thoughtful works on the faith but mostly I will remember him for this one:
    And what is true here is true in all regions of experience. Your mad pursuit for freedom and intensity and bliss. It is natural. But, by a wry irony at work in the world, the pursuit leads you into a prison where your agony is to become more and more insistent that things shall be as you wish, and less and less able to cope with denial.

    But I show you a different way. It is an alien and frightening one. It is called Love. It asks that you forswear your busy effort to collect the bits of bliss and novelty that lie about. It asks that you disavow your attempt to enlarge your own identity by diminishing that of others. It asks that you cease your effort to safeguard your own claim to well-being by assuming the inferiority of others' claims. It asks, actually, that you die.

    For, paradoxically, it offers you your own best being beyond this apparent immolation of yourself. It says that the cupidity energizing all your efforts is the principle that governs wherever hell is found, and that the dwellers in that realm are a withered host of wraiths, doomed to an eternal hunt for solidity and fulfillment among the shards that lie underfoot. This is not your best being. You were meant to find your home in the City of God, which is among you. Here duty is ecstacy. For that is what is meant by caritas: It is the freedom which follows upon the capacity to experience as joy what you are given to do.

    Thomas Howard -- Christ The Tiger


    • Thomas Howard, Evangelical Catholic, by David M. Howard, Jr. Return to Rome. October 27, 2020.
    • RIP Thomas Howard: 1935-2020, by David Mills. Catholic Herald 10/15/20
    • Died: Thomas Howard, Author Who Said ‘Evangelical Is Not Enough’, Daniel Silliman. Christianity Today 10/19/20:
      “The question of the unity between Christ and his church is the fundamental one,” Howard explained to CT. “A close corollary to that, if not virtually synonymous with it, is the question of authority, which immediately turns into the question of the magisterium—the teaching authority of the Catholic church. There is no magisterium in Protestantism.”

      At the same time, Howard argued that he was more evangelical because of his conversion, not less. The Catholic church was the fullest and final form of the faith, he said, not another denomination or just an expression for a preference for a particular worship style.

      “I will never be anything but an evangelical,” he said. “As a Catholic, I can lay claim to the ancient connotation of the word ‘evangelical’—namely, a man of the gospel, referring to the gospel, the evangelical councils, and so on. If, however, by evangelical we mean the 18th- and 19th-century movements in the Church of England, or the Free Church movement, or if we’re speaking specifically of the American revivalist phenomenon, then I might find myself outside the circle that these people might like to draw.”

    • Thomas Howard, RIP, by Kenneth Craycraft. First Things 10/17/20:
      Tom came to believe that while the sacramental presence of Christ is certainly communicated by teaching, writing, and preaching, it is most powerfully and immediately known in the sacraments of the Church, sustained and communicated most fully in the Roman Catholic confession and communion. Thus, Tom saw that the liturgical expression of the sacramental presence of Christ was not incidental to, but rather part of the essence of Christian faith and discipleship. As he put it in one place, “Ceremony, ritual, enactment: these forms of ‘play’ touch on the sources of what we creatures are.” Thus, the “ritualizing” of faith “is the quintessentially human mode of perceiving and marking the truth about them.” The physical components of the sacraments “stand . . . on the interface between what we can see and what we cannot,” making the word present and “real to us only in a mystery.”

      But just as in his evangelical days he recognized the importance of liturgy and sacraments, as a Catholic he always maintained the importance of preaching, and of the interior subjectivity of faith. Liturgy and sacraments cannot be set against interior faith and an emphasis on the word, but rather are a means of communicating both. This is why he was able to maintain friendship with—and gain the admiration of—evangelicals long into his Catholic journey. Few prominent converts from evangelicalism to Catholicism have been able to sustain a significant evangelical following after their conversions. It is to Tom’s great credit that he did. Both catholic evangelicals and evangelical Catholics will mourn his passing and celebrate his legacy.

    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, April 3, 2020

    ... In this context the instinctual move of some conservative Christian commentators to practice social criticism while fomenting division among priests, bishops, and laity is spiritually corrosive. (What does it do to a priest’s soul, by the way, when we incite him to break the vow he made to God to obey his bishop?) Nor is it helpful to utter the tone-deaf claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is not so bad and that people are overreacting. People are not overreacting when they grieve as their patients, friends, or family members die by the thousands. In fact, the Christian message in this context is one of basic evangelical hope. What we are to learn first in this crisis is that there is life after death, that God loves those who die, that there is the possibility of the forgiveness of sins, that our littleness in the face of death is also an opportunity for surrender, that Christ too died alone from asphyxiation and that he was raised from the dead, that God can comfort the fearful, and that there is a promise of eternal life. In the face of death, Christians should be precisely those who put first things first.
    Epidemic Danger and Catholic Sacraments, by Thomas Joseph White, OP. First Things 04/02/20.

    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)