Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Transforming a Suburban Parish

If you've been watching the links on our right sidebar, you might have seen this story from Beatus Est. But the links move pretty quickly, so in case you missed it, I wanted to put it here, front and center. The story needs little introduction; it explains how to turn this...

into this...

...and with minimal disruption and logical revenue flows to fund the project. So give the story a quick read. I think you'll be intrigued.

Monday, October 26, 2009

50 Beers to Drink Before You Die

Some time ago I came across this list of 50 Beers to Drink Before You Die. It includes some of my favorite beers, among them Rogue Shakespeare Stout (pt 1), Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barley Wine (pt 1), Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA (pt 3), Theakston Old Peculier (pg 4) and Stone Arrogant Bastard (pt 10). It's also got some beers I'm now interested to try, such as Orkney SkullSplitter (pt 4) and the Great Lakes Brewing Co. Edmund Fitzgerald Porter (pt 6).

I highly doubt, however, that this is the best beer list out there. In spite of the nice pictures and little write-ups, there are some omissions, such as Delirium, either the Tremens or the Nocturnum. And what about Weyerbacher Heresy? And where was Chimay Blue among the Belgians?

See any favorite beers on the list? Beers that you would add? Lists you'd recommend? Beer experts of the world: please share your wisdom!

In any case, I'm thankful for interesting beers, the people who make them and those who write about them.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Natural Law Theory: George and Arendt

The St. Thomas law school recently hosted Robert P. George, fellow at Princeton and natural law theorist, to receive the Humanae Dignitatis award and speak on “Natural Law, God, and Human Dignity.” His theory of natural law is that it is only known to us humans when we experience it. Knowledge of natural law is not innate, but rather experienced – something that we do rather than that is done to us. Through experience, we come to understand basic moral norms of natural law. The one he cited was a variation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act so that your action furthers the fundamental reason for man’s existence. Virtue he defined as the habit of acting in accordance with these moral norms.

Yet he did not seem to answer what sort of experience we must make. While it might be assumed that man will always act reasonably, and therefore always act in pursuit of his good, George also noted that whole societies have been misled as to the nature of the good and yet have continued to act entirely reasonably. In fact, as Hannah Arendt describes in her study The Banality of Evil: Eichmann in Jerusalem, the entire German society in World War II seemed to have turned conscience on its head, and accepted that state of affairs. She writes: “[C]onscience as such had apparently got lost in Germany, and this to a point where people hardly remembered it and had ceased to realize that the surprising ‘new set of German values’ was not shared by the outside world.”

Supporting her theory was the fact that Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” was an ordinary man with an ordinary sense of morality, who had initially experienced great aversion to the idea of “liquidating” the Jews. Until that order was given, he had simply assumed the “Solution” was to make Germany judenrein by expelling, exporting, and otherwise physically removing Jews from the country.

He felt these twinges of conscience for approximately 10 weeks, Arendt reports. At the end of that time, he attended the conference at Wannsee, devoted to the particulars of the Final Solution. Everyone, without exception, states Arendt, spoke as though the immorality of the plan was not even in question: it was a nonissue. Since his superiors had adopted this position, and, indeed, everyone Eichmann knew, he gave it no further thought. (Eichmann stated that no one, not even the local religious leaders, ever pointed out to him the evil he was engaging in. Instead, they worked within the “law,” obtaining “exceptions,” but never directly challenging the law.) Eichmann had corrupted Kant’s principle (“act so the principle of your action can become the principle for general laws”) to mean “Act so that the Fuehrer, if he knew what you were doing, would approve.” Hitler’s will was substituted for Eichmann’s and was regarded throughout Germany as having the force of law.

The horrors of the Holocaust are well-known. Following the end of World War II, at the Nuremberg Trials, international law began to adopt a minimum moral standard that would apply regardless of what the law of the individual country had been at the time the crime had been committed. The source of this moral standard was to be what all nations regarded as moral. But, again, there remained the question, which is coming back in the recent debates about medical conscience clauses, whether the conscience can be relied upon to define an objective morality, or whether, particularly if knowledge of morality is predicated on experience and habits of acting, conscience is simply relative and dependent on individual experience, cultural norms, and other subjective and changeable criteria. If the latter, there is no guaranty that something like the Holocaust will not happen again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Catholic, Lay and Modern, All at Once

I hope that this blog is more than just a collection of links, references to other people's work. I hope we generate real content, sharing new ideas and insights. Nevertheless, today I am once again simply going to recommend the ideas of someone else.

Three someones, in fact: The Magdalene Sisters. These pseudonymous blog writers describe themselves as "three women trying to figure out what it means to be Catholic, lay, and modern, all at once."

The other day I was trying to explain to a friend why I'm a reader. One of the things I like is the honesty about living the Christian life. I think they're good about sharing what's really going on in their lives, without giving undue details.

Maybe I've only picked 'em up because I don't have a lot of Catholic conversations in College Station, I suggested. But there's more to it than that: I kind of feel like I'm just keeping up with thoughtful friends of mine. Except I don't know them. That might sound creepy, but perhaps it makes some sense.

I've had moments of, "Yes, I deal with that too!" or "What? Really?!? Women think that way?!?" or "Wow, they're trying to live the Catholic life with way more sincerity than me. I'm humbled." or "Hmm... that sounds like interesting reading." Granted, it's kind of geared toward a female audience, but I find it's still very worth reading: grappling with what it means to be Catholic in the modern world.

Is reading about the personal, professional and spiritual struggles of three anonymous women voyeuristic? For some it might be. But I have found it interesting, insightful and uplifting. And something more: charming, you might say. I may have an inflated appreciation from being a regular reader, building, over time, a sense of who these women are and where they're coming from. Their blog is probably not for everyone, but it's one of my favorite reads.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Things We'll Do for Art's Sake!

The things we’ll do for art’s sake!

Some people, worshipers in the cult of genius, will attribute to artists a godlike status, exempting them from the normal rules of morality. Fortunately, most people would shy away from such a repulsive conclusion. Aspiring artists will show their devotion to art not by explicit artist-worship but simply by devoting their energy and talents to their chosen field. Practice (and study) makes perfect, right? A professional violinist will practice for hours each day perfecting his technique and learning new music. A serious sculptor will examine the works of past masters and learn more about the materials he uses.

Some artists, though, will resort to more extreme measures. Robert Schumann allegedly permanently injured his right hand when, in an attempt to strengthen his weaker fingers, he used a device that held back one finger while he played the piano. Schumann didn't realize that what the device really did was destroy the finger--as well as his concert career. A little manic, no?

But, what happens when the potential artist is only a child, and his parents really want to encourage him in his art? How much pressure should they put on their child? To turn to a more specific example, what about a young boy who is a promising singer? It would be a shame if all his hard work went to waste when he hit puberty, wouldn't it? So, why not just castrate him?

What, that isn’t a reasonable solution? In the last few years a lot of ink has been spilled over the phenomenon of overbearing parents who force their children to become the perfect golfer (e.g. Tiger Woods), or pianist, or whatever. But, at least contemporary parents have not been castrating their boys to advance their singing careers. But, in the 18th century, castration was a surprisingly—shockingly—widespread practice.

The theory was that that for certain physiological reasons only men—albeit evirati (“de-manned men”)—were capable of singing certain soprano pieces. Half a man apparently had more singing power than a whole woman. In the 18th century, the sound of a castrato's voice was all the rage in the opera world, and even in church music. Some historians have charged that besides aesthetics, the Church's restrictions on laywomen singing in church led to the widespread use of castrati. However, it should be pointed out that Pope Benedict XIV had already tried to ban the use of castrati in churches as early as 1748, though this attempt was unsuccessful. No matter what the cause was, at the height of the castrati craze in the middle of the 18th century, hundreds of parents, many of them poor, were castrating their young boys each year. The key advantage in the parents' eyes was that they could assure their boys entry into a lucrative career. Of course, there were also distinct disadvantages. As one might imagine, the surgical procedure was probably not entirely sanitary. Furthermore, these castrati didn't really have any options in life besides singing. (Marriage, of course, wasn't really an option either.)

One (the only?) benefit of the French Revolution is that it seems to have brought castrati into disrepute, since they were closely associated with the reigning fashions of the ancien regime. The last opera to be written specifically for a castrato was probably Giacomo Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto in 1824. In Italy, the use of castrati was outlawed upon unification in 1870. However, it actually survived into the 20th century in the Vatican, until Pope Pius X, with the cooperation of Don Lorenzo Perosi, finally ended the practice in the Sistine Chapel choir. In fact, there are some early sound recordings of castrati available, such as this clip of Alessandro Moreschi singing the Ave Maria.

The phenomenon of castrati is one of the more memorable examples of the mania which art is capable of inspiring: otherwise sane parents mutilating their young boys. But, there must be other examples of this type of behavior, such as Schumann's finger. Is there any general explanation for this mania, or is this phenomenon too idiosyncratic to admit of one general explanation? If you can think of an explanation, please let me know.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

While living at the Quincy House I developed a love of Wes Anderson films (and of one of Anderson's gurus, Whit Stillman). At the time I noticed that Anderson was working on a version of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. At last, that effort is coming to fruition.

I remember enjoying Fantastic Mr. Fox quite a lot as a child. It would be interesting to read it again, (a) to see if I still enjoy it and (b) to see if Anderson's take is a faithful one. From the looks of it, he has taken certain liberties with the story. This is not, in my view, necessarily a bad thing. When translating a work from one genre to another, slavishness can sometimes fall flat. I am hopeful, however, that Anderson has produced a film which works well on the screen and is faithful to the heart of Dahl's work (even if not quite every line).

Thanks go out to the oodles of people who simultaneously brought this trailer to my attention.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Conservatives & Libertarians (Part II)

As a short addendum to my earlier post on conservatives and libertarians, I just wanted to post a link to an article by Friedrich Hayek entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." This article, then, could serve as the libertarian counterpart to Russell Kirk's essay on conservatism's superiority to libertarianism.

One of the essential differences between conservatives and libertarians, according to Hayek, is the conservatives' "fondness for authority." This fondness for authority is based on its "fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces" and its "lack of understanding of economic forces." All of this is "difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty." Fighting words?

For those of you not familiar with Hayek, he was a famous economist (Nobel Prize laureate in 1974), and one of the key figures in the Austrian school of economics. In other words, he was a libertarian or a classical liberal. His most famous book, at least among the general public, is the now classic Road to Serfdom in which he attacked the creeping socialism of every major political system in the world at the time--Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, the New Deal in America, and similar programs in the other Western democracies.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wonder of Wonders!

Clive Cookson, commenting upon Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, writes:

Two chapters caught my imagination. One describes recent work on the way evolution influences embryonic development - a field sometimes known as evodevo. As Dawkins shows, the widely used analogy of DNA as a "blueprint" for the organism is misleading.

There is no overall plan of development, no blueprint, no architect's plan, no architect. Rather, the embryo grows according to local rules encoded in the genes of individual cells interacting with neighbouring cells. Genes are switched on and off by local biochemical signals. As Dawkins says, "this way of generating large and complex structures by the execution of local rules is distinct from the blueprint way of doing things."

The second high spot is Dawkins' description of the way every organism has its evolutionary history written all over it. This produces many internal structures that are less efficient than they would be if they had been "designed". An example is the "recurrent laryngeal nerve" that links the brain and the voice box. This take an astonishing detour in mammals, via the chest and heart, because it has evolved from more primitive ancestors. In giraffes that means a 15ft diversion down the neck and back again.

When Dawkins watched the laryngeal nerve being dissected in a giraffe, he realised the external elegance of animals is an illusion. A real animal is a criss-crossing maze of blood vessels, nerves, intestines, fat, muscles and more.

I generally find Cookson a sensible writer, so we shall accept his acceptance of the factual accuracy of Dawkins' account. (Likewise, we shall accept Cookson's summation as an accurate representation of Dawkins' thought.) What struck me, however, is that even allowing for this factual correctness, Dawkins fails to see the wonder of it all, or wonders improperly.

If embryos grow due to local conditions, rather than with a central "blueprint", this is a greater, not lesser, cause for amazement. Imagine that a group of construction workers just appeared at an empty lot one day and began building, without any plan or foreman. Each just did his own thing, only stopping or modifying his actions when he bumped into another worker. Each called in friend or associates to aid him in this way or that, as befitted his own little project. And somehow, all these workers, without any coordination, managed to build a complete home. Moreover, this is no mere four walls and a jagged roof: a home which will last for decades, accept expansions, and continue to look beautiful and function properly with only minor maintenance.

Such an occurrence would be exceedingly rare, nigh impossible. Indeed, if it did happen, could we blame anyone for looking for a blueprint, asking if there was an architect or some coordinating genius, some foreman who stepped forward and organized it all? Wouldn't we expect an awe-struck onlooker to ask not once but several times about these things? And if we finally discovered, some how, that a single person had indeed called together these construction workers and started them on their labors, would we not laud him even more than the conventional architect? This man was somehow such a master of human psychology and complex planning that he didn't even need blueprints. Wow.

Dawkins errs widely when he assumes that "no blueprint" means "no architect"; perhaps it means an Architect far greater than any he is willing to acknowledge.

Likewise, it seems to me that Dawkins has missed a key point in his consideration of the internal inefficiencies of animals: these inefficiencies work. He concludes that "the external elegance of animals is an illusion", but this is not the case, seeing as how the "criss-crossing maze of blood vessels, nerves, intestines, fat, muscles and more" on the inside actually does support the beautiful creature we see on the outside. If somehow animals were a scam, if they did not really eat and breathe and run and fly and reproduce and do all the amazing things they do, well, then Dawkins would have good reason to feel cheated. But as long as "external elegance" is real, perhaps we should approach the internal "maze" with a little more wonder, even if some things, like the giraffe's laryngeal nerve, are not as efficient as they could be.

In the end, Cookson concludes that Dawkins has been blinded by his own hatred of religion, reducing what could have been an excellent book to only a mediocre one. Nevertheless, those who do not share Dawkins' fiercely anti-Christian bias ought not dismiss his work simply because of this animosity. Indeed, it seems to me that Dawkins has opened up to the scientist of faith new and exciting ways to marvel at the Maker's handiwork, for which I thank Mr. Dawkins. No doubt to his chagrin.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Conservatives & Libertarians

One of the questions of political theory bugging me a lot lately is the compatibility (or incompatibility) of conservatism and libertarianism. This is of particular interest to me because I consider myself a conservative, but conservatives and libertarians generally get lumped together in America as "the right" or "the Republican party." This classification isn't completely inaccurate, of course. For example I belong to a student group that advertises itself as "conservative/libertarian." However, this classification does tend to obscure some fundamental differences between the two groups.

So, what are these differences? Well, that's one of those big questions that gets very complicated very fast. Nevertheless, Hunter Baker, writing at First Things, has managed to put together a relatively concise, and I think quite accurate, summary of the main differences between conservatives and libertarians. In other words, follow that link and read the article for yourself!

But, if you want to cheat and get a very quick summary from me, here it is. The main difference between conservatism and libertarianism, according to Baker, is that libertarians believe that the state should exist for the limited purposes of keeping the peace and creating a legal environment in which commerce is allowed to do its thing. Conservatives, on the other hand, are essentially Aristotelian and believe that the state should enact laws that promote human flourishing in more ways than just securing peace and encouraging the economy; conservatives believe that politics has something to do with a transcendent order. This difference explains, for instance, why many (probably most) libertarians support gay "marriage": Gay "marriage" isn't a threat to peace and isn't a threat to prosperity, so why should the state forbid it? Conservatives, on the other hand, see gay "marriage" as fundamentally at odds with a broader notion of human flourishing rooted in a transcendent order, and thus can be regulated by the state.

The example of gay "marriage" also raises the question that libertarians will always ask conservatives when it comes to moral regulations: What's to stop the state from becoming a busybody poking its nose into everybody's life? Is there any line we can draw to prevent the state from becoming a moralistic tyrant? Baker doesn't raise this question, but it's worth considering for a minute.

The key distinction to make here is that the state can encourage moral behavior, but it will never be able to redeem us from sin. Any time the state crosses the line from encouraging moral behavior to attempting to redeem us from sin, it has gone beyond anything conservatives would countenance. It may not always be a clear distinction, but then again these things never are perfectly clear. The important point is that conservatives acknowledge the transcendent order, unlike libertarians, but also recognize that the transcendent order cannot be realized perfectly, unlike utopians. Or, in the immortal terminology of Eric Voegelin: Don't immanentize the eschaton!

(Finally, this essay by Russell Kirk just came to my attention. Kirk, recently discussed by Aaron, compares a coalition of conservatives and libertarians to "a union of fire and ice," and gives at least six reasons for that conclusion. Warning: Libertarians won't like it.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Creepy Aesthetes & The Cult of Genius

The last time that I mentioned Goethe's Italian Journey, I commended Goethe for seeking to understand art as art, not by using lots of big words and abstract nouns to praise the artist's genius, but by examining the artist's hisotrical background and limitations. In other words, he actually studied the art, and so he knew how to judge the art as art. However, the following passage shows that just because an artist knows how to judge art as art or create beautiful art, he doesn't necessarily know how to judge art in relation to other things, such as morality.
The day before yesterday I visited Lord Hamilton at his villa near Posillipo. One cannot imagine a more glorious sight on God's green earth. After our meal, a dozen youths swam in the sea--that was a beautiful sight. The many groups they formed and the poses they struck while playing! He pays them to do this, so that he might have this pleasure every afternoon. (Letter from Tischbein to Goethe, Italian Journey; July 10, 1787)

Did anything there strike you as strange? How about the last line about paying boys to swim by his villa (pictured below)? I thought that was strange. Why does this strike me (and many others, I presume) as a bit, well, creepy?

There are two reasons. First, there are the obvious homoerotic and pederastic overtones here--paying for the sight of young boys wearing little or no clothing. Certainly, most fathers would not be happy when he found out some old man was enticing his son to take off his clothes for his pleasure.

However, that doesn't explain Goethe, Tischbein, and Lord Hamilton. There's no evidence that any of these men was a pederast. Indeed, Lord Hamilton kept a young, nubile woman, Emma Hart (pictured below), at his villa for "aesthetic purposes." Goethe mentions elsewhere (March 16, 1787) that Emma would dance for guests wearing only light sheets and pose for painters in very artistic poses, such as a devotee of Bacchus, or as Ariadne. However, the oddity of Lord Hamilton's relationship to Emma doesn't end there; he later actually married her, despite the unseemly difference in age between the two. But, it doesn't end there either. He later encouraged her to become Horatio Nelson's lover, and even shared his home with the couple and with Emma's mother. This behavior is certainly strange, and repulsive, but it has nothing to do with pederasty.

There must then be a second reason why this all seems a little creepy: Lord Hamilton (and perhaps Goethe and Tischbein too) treated Emma Hart and the young swimmers simply as pieces of art. They seemed to think that their aesthetic interests--enjoying the beauty of the human form--took priority over normal ethical rules, especially those concerning sex. They didn't even need to maintain the appearance of propriety, because they were above all those petty rules.

This isn't the only example of an aesthete who thinks that the normal rules of morality don't apply to him. The obvious contempoary example is Roman Polanski. Whatever the artistic merits of his films, they simply do not excuse the crime to which he pleaded guilty. Listening to his "aesthetic" friends from Hollywood and France, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that child rape is not a crime when committed by a great director.

What explains the difficulty that some artists and other aesthetic types have in recognizing what for most people are clear ethical boundaries? My only explanation is that some artists are prone to genius-worship. They think that anyone capable of creating beauty in a work of art should therefore be free to create beauty in their own lives--by their own standards. The artist as a god: that is the essence of the modern cult of genius.

This obviously is not meant as a smear on all artists. All this tells us is that being an artist does not by itself qualify someone to speak on matters of morality. Conversely, however, being a good person does not qualify someone to speak as an expert on matters of art. However, in today's world, where the cult of genius is so prevalent, there is a temptation for artists, or anyone who wants to be a genius, to construct his own moral universe. Geniuses, however, have to live by the same rules we all do.

Creating Culture

The other day I stumbled upon three interesting things all at once: a book, a blog and a reading list. Actually, the reading list came first, in the form of this bibliography. "Bibliography of what?" you ask. An excellent question. And that's where the book comes in, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch. I've never read Culture Making, but its raison d'être is thus:

For too long, Christians have had an insufficient view of culture and have waged misguided “culture wars.” But we must reclaim the cultural mandate to be the creative cultivators that God designed us to be. Culture is what we make of the world, both in creating cultural artifacts as well as in making sense of the world around us. By making chairs and omelets, languages and laws, we participate in the good work of culture making.

That sounds an awful lot like what we at the Guild Review are interested in. So if you're interested in this sort of thing too, you might give the book or the bibliography a read. And if you've read any of these titles, let us know in the comments section what you thought.

Finally, Andy Crouch and Company have a blog, which we've now added to the links on the right side of our page, so you can check back here from time to time for interesting posts on their end of things, or simply add it to your reader.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Two Words on National Security

I recently came across two interesting bits of national security information on the internet. The first was this interesting website on strategic communication. “Now what,” you rightly ask, “is that?” Well, one of the many useful things the website provides is definitions. In the case of this particular term, it refers to:

“The synchronized coordination of statecraft, public affairs, public diplomacy, military information operations, and other activities... to advance US foreign policy objectives.”

In other words, strategic communication involves making sure that your messages to foreign governments and populations are clear and consistent. All too often, American administrations from either party will forget about key components of strategic communication, or the whole thing. Messages from different governmental entities are frequently contradictory. Often they focus on traditional state-to-state diplomacy, to the neglect of public diplomacy. And they usually ignore the propaganda value of our deeds.

The Strategic Communication website is still a work in progress, and looks raggedy in sections, but there are a lot of good resources already, and I expect more to come.

The second thing I came across was this book, How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq by Matthew Alexander. I have not read it yet, but I am intrigued by the title and the reviews I have seen. Cruel and inhuman practices have caused many people to turn up their noses at the term "interrogation" - and rightfully so. But Alexander reminds us that torture is not the only means of obtaining information from captives. Indeed, smarter techniques not only avoid brutalizing the subject, but are also more likely to produce quality information. That is a lesson often lost in the polemics about interrogation.

This post first appeared on Statecraft & Security on Sunday 27 September 2009.