Friday, December 24, 2010

He Has Come!


This evening we celebrate the Vigil of Christmas, when we consider the Incarnation. On this night, more than twenty centuries ago, the world was changed.

On this night stones began to rouse one another, for in the humble Child they saw a glory not seen since the misty depths of the past, when God had brought them forth out of nothing. From one stone to another the message was whispered, "He has come!" The murmur swelled to a roar, as the stones shook off their slumber: "He has returned!"

On this night the colors of Bethlehem, indeed of the whole world, shone more brightly. Molecules danced and waves of light stretched as the fabric of existence celebrated its Maker's arrival. One star, perched over the City of David, was now joined by thousands - millions! - in announcing with trembling and wonder that their Creator had stooped to join the ranks His creatures.

On this night the forces of darkness worried and fretted. "Perhaps He has not... Perhaps He will not..." But they knew better: the long night that had covered mankind was receding at last.

Legions of angels guarded the lowly stable, but there was no need. The faint cry of a newborn baby pierced the night and demons fled, overcome by the light of His presence.

The physical world, near and far, rejoiced: the dying flames in Bethlehem hearths burst into new life, while on distant planets, wonders yet undiscovered blossomed to herald the coming of the King.

The spiritual world too rejoiced:
Behold an angel of the Lord stood by [the shepherds], and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear. And the angel said to them: "Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David...." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will." (Luke 2:9-11, 13-14, Douay Rheims translation)




Tonight's images are of the star HD 44179 and Messier 104 (M104), the Sombrero Galaxy. They come from NASA's Hubble Advent calendar (Day 5, 2010 and Day 9, 2009, respectively).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Advent Music


We don't hear much about Advent at this time of year. Once Thanksgiving passes, we pass over Advent in the rush to get to Christmas. We have forgotten that we must first patiently wait and ask for God's grace to prepare for the birth of Jesus.

One result of forgetting to live Advent is that we start listening to Christmas songs well before Christmas. But, if you want to hear some actual Advent music that expresses the Church's longing for the coming of the Savior, there is some out there. This week I discovered this setting by Bach (BWV 62/1) of Martin Luther's chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, which is a German translation of Veni, Redemptor Gentium, a much older hymn traditionally attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan.



The videos for the remaining movements can be seen here.

Finally, today begins the singing at vespers of the so-called O antiphons.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Curious Case of Christmas Censorship?


I recently finished reading science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star". I read it in The Other Side of the Sky, though it may appear in other collections as well. The tale is well-written, thought-provoking and short (always a virtue!). The main character is a Jesuit astrophysicist living in the 27th century, returning from an expedition to outer space, where he recently studied the remains of a supernova. The story has a vaguely holiday theme, though not warm or fuzzy or in the way you'd expect. For anyone with a modicum of interest in sci-fi literature, I'd recommend it.

Curiously, the copy of The Other Side of the Sky which I checked out from the Texas A&M library had sustained unusual damage: the entirety of "The Star" had been cut out of the book. Where the original pages would have been, were photocopy replacements which the library staff had carefully grafted onto the book. No other pages were missing or damaged. Why would someone remove "The Star" from a university library?


*** WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW ***


If you have read the short story, or you're electing to forgo the joy of an untainted first reading, continue on.

While studying the remnants of this supernova, our protagonist encounters a Vault left by a now-extinct civilization. Realizing their star was going to explode into a supernova, these humanoids built a massive repository of information about themselves, for later explorers to find, before they were obliterated. This alone is tragic, but not new to the Jesuit, who has seen other extinct civilizations in distant space. Rather, the stunning conclusion is his realization of the precise timing and nature of the this star's destruction:
I know how brilliantly the supernova whose corpse now dwindles behind our speeding ship once shown in terrestrial skies. I know how it must have blazed low in the east before sunrise, like a beacon in the oriental dawn. There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?

Did our mysterious book trimmer steal a copy of the story because it was so fascinating? Perhaps, though this seems unlikely, given that the other two dozen stories were left intact; were none of them worth stealing? No, my theory is that someone removed the story because they thought it blasphemous.

This strikes me as a curious misunderstanding, both of the story and of the science fiction genre. Clarke is not actually arguing that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova which destroyed an innocent alien civilization. Rather, he is asking what if evidence were discovered that this was the case? Would this constitute proof that God is not love? Or could such a thing be reconciled with the Christian faith? (If not, we would have to declare it heresy, though "astroclarkeianism" is a rather awkward term.)

So far as I can tell, this speculative quality is at the heart of the sci-fi genre. Sci-fi proposes situations which - under present conditions - are impossible, and then uses these situations to gain unique perspective on enduring questions about man, his nature and his place in the cosmos. Clarke's question in "The Star" is a subset of the "can scientific discovery radically shake theology?" question, which C. S. Lewis also considered in his essay, "Will We Lose God in Outer Space?" While Clarke is suggesting that such a discovery is a possibility, this short story neither argues that such as discovery has been made, nor that it necessarily will be. Is posing the question such a crime?

Oddly, in the mind of our book vandal, I suspect it was. Indeed, I wonder if he did not pull the book off the shelf precisely because someone told him it contained this blasphemous story (which he may not have even read). Why do I suspect this? Because, while I have not yet read any other works by Arthur C. Clarke, I would be surprised if he manifests a dramatically different world-view in other writings. Would a Clarke fan really get through a few hundred pages, only to suddenly be offended by this work? Perhaps. Perhaps Clarke alluded to similar questions in earlier stories, but in a way that an unalert reader missed. Perhaps Clarke is most explicit in this story about his religious doubts. Still, I worry there's an overzealous pastor out there who needs to read a little more sci-fi and encourage a little less censorship.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Announcement: Al Gore and Russell Kirk Agree on Something!


On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal ran a review by Nick Schulz, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, of Vaclav Smil's new book Prime Movers of Globalization. Smil's book is, as the subtitle puts it, a study of the "history and impact of diesel engines and gas turbines." The book would appear to be of interest to a history and economics buff who has a mechanical bent and a desire to learn more about the technical innovations that have driven globalization forward in the past two centuries. Besides explaining the role these devices have played in making it easier to travel long distances and transport great loads quickly, though, Smil also acknowledges that there are environmental drawbacks to these devices. Smil himself, according to the review, does his best to maintain a balanced perspective.

The review, on the other hand, is anything but balanced and can only be termed disingenuous. Schulz's rhetorical strategy is to frame his summary of Smil's book in a denunciation of environmentalism. He begins with Al Gore's utopian call (in Earth in the Balance) for the elimination of internal combustion engines by 2017. Then, at the end of the review, Schulz mentions that Smil addresses some of the environmental damage caused by diesel engines and gas turbines as well as "social disruption that their inventors could not have imagined." But if the "creative destruction caused by global trade" is so extensive, why then has Schulz just penned an ode to the internal combustion engine? How can he simply shrug off these problems? A hint comes in his final line, a variation on Irving Kristol's well-known quip about neoconservatives, saying that Smil, as opposed to environmentalists, "has been mugged by the reality of physics and engineering."

This phrase "mugged by reality" is obviously meant to show that Schulz is a realist, not a deluded "hard-line environmentalist." But what the last paragraph of the review really shows is that Schulz is dismissing out of hand concerns about social upheaval on a previously unimagined scale because they are not part of his reality, the "reality of physics and engineering." Since when, though, did any environmentalist deny the reality of the internal combustion engine, or of global trade? Do environmentalists believe that physics is an illusion?

Obviously not. Why, then, does Schulz resort to such dishonest rhetoric when discussing environmentalism? Schulz names Al Gore as the archetypal environmentalist because he can show that Gore's proposed cure would be just as bad as the disease. By holding up one prominent environmentalist for ridicule, Schulz can then sidestep the serious questions posed by Gore and others concerning the environment, such as: Is it possible that humans cannot be trusted to use internal combustion engines responsibly? Would it have been better if they had never been invented if the risk of serious damage to the environment is so great?

Schulz also resorts to dishonest rhetoric so that he can studiously avoid, while pretending to acknowledge, the social disruption caused by the internal combustion engine. But it is precisely this allegation of social disruption that forms the heart of the complaint against the internal combustion engine that Schulz refuses to answer. This allegation was leveled by at least one conservative thinker strongly opposed to all utopian fantasies: Russell Kirk, who famously called automobiles "mechanical Jacobins" on account of their revolutionary effect on society. If Schulz honestly faced Kirk's critique, he would have to ask himself more uncomfortable questions, such as: Is commercial prosperity perhaps bad for society because it chips away at solidarity among people? Is the decrease in social cohesion caused by modern modes of transport actually more harmful than the benefit of unrestricted mobility?

As strange as it may sound, Al Gore and Russell Kirk actually share common concerns about technical progress, though Kirk very likely would have rejected Gore's solution to the problem. This strange agreement should at least give Schulz pause to consider the morality of technology in addition to its creative power. But by ignoring Gore's and Kirk's questions Schulz shows that his ultimate fault is that he willfully equates what is technologically possible with what is morally good.

That anyone should make this mistake after the 20th century is sad indeed. The reality of the 20th century should have mugged Schulz and jolted him out of his complacent faith in technical progress. What, then, could prevent him from seeing that technical progress often poses difficult moral questions? Schulz, apparently a neoconservative, would likely answer that the "creative destruction caused by global trade" maximizes freedom through the increased production of wealth. But freedom and wealth are not ends in themselves, and neither is technology.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Creating Colleges


At Texas A&M, the Aggie Ring is a big deal for undergraduates. On the ring there are five stars, symbolizing development of mind and body, spiritual attainment, emotional poise and integrity of character. That sounds a great deal more like formation than simple technical education. But I am afraid that well-rounded sense of formation has largely been lost at our massive technical university.

We have our share of sharp students, but one would be flabbergasted to overhear in the dining hall, "After four years of study, I'm only now beginning to really grasp the meaning of the medieval synthesis." Love of learning rarely goes that deep. In spite of all the talk about "honor, the guiding star" around here, any TA or professor can tell you that cheating is no less common here than at most state universities. And while tens of thousands of Aggies go to church each Sunday morning, as many or more stay home and nurse their hangovers. Something is lacking.

While chewing on this problem, it occurred to me that formation is very difficult in a school this big, in part because it is no longer really residential. A number of students live on campus; a good many live in officially sanctioned private off-campus dorms, while others still live in various apartments, duplexes and houses throughout the area. The result is that there is no single shared life among Aggies. So far as I can tell, there is very little guarantee that two Aggies took the same courses (much less with the same professors), lived in the same building, engaged in the same extra curricular activities or knew the same people. (This explains, by the way, much of the appeal to the Corps of Cadets. In a sea of 48,000 students, these 1,700 or so students lead a tightly disciplined life which forms a shared experience.) This is not unique to A&M; it is a fact of life at any university with this many students.

But what, I thought, if we had residential colleges? This is the arrangement found at the ancient universities, which are federations of various autonomous colleges, each having their own students and faculty members. Departments, which focus on a single field, cut across the various colleges and include people from all of them (though certain colleges are known for strengths in certain areas). Why not create a collection of colleges here?

(To avoid confusion of terms, we could simply force the "colleges" as they now exist, such as the College of Liberal Arts, to become "faculties," thus the "Faculty of Liberal Arts.")

Within the broader context of the university, its history and its rules, imagine twenty autonomous colleges, each of about 2,400 students. The Corps of Cadets could have their own Military College. But an invitation could be made for proposals for the other 19 colleges, each with a unique character and certain strengths. All would be non-profits, and each could require 2 years of physical residency, as well as whatever other requirements the particular college thought necessary. They could be funded through a mixture of university fees and particular college fees (encouraging, by the way, competition, since who wants to join the most expensive college?). I can easily imagine the Diocese of Austin sponsoring a St. Mary's College. Indeed, there are so many Catholics here perhaps SOLT or the IVE would found one too. Other religious communities would be welcome to do likewise. Philanthropic donors could as well; I see no problem with a Gates College and its neighbor, Buffett College.

Of course, at a school as tradition-conscious as Texas A&M, such a scheme would probably be eschewed as too innovative and an attack on the Aggie spirit. And then there is the practical problem of all the land swaps that would be needed, selling or renting existing dormitories (along with many of the affiliated facilities for dining and recreation) to the new colleges, constructing more buildings near campus, etc. Still, it seems to me an idea with real value. This is, after all, the basic concept behind many schools trying to create an "honors dorm," though that strikes me as a half measure. Go all the way, I say, and return some focused character to American mass education.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gottfried Benn: Poetry and Nihilism


The other evening it was in the upper 30’s: cold, but not cold enough to snow. Instead, it drizzled as I walked home from the train—without an umbrella, of course.

An Anglophile would have found the cold rain bracing and a welcome reminder of London. I just felt miserable, and given my Germanophilia and general pessimism, what came to mind was not of a thick mist lying low over the Thames like in a Sherlock Holmes story, but rather a poem by Gottfried Benn (1886-1956).

Benn first rose to prominence as an expressionist before World War I with a morbid series of poems based on scenes from the morgue where he worked as a young doctor. Benn wrote many of his early poems in free verse and, even more unfortunately, wrote some of them to shock his readers for shock’s sake. Later in life he dropped this adolescent pose, though not his grim outlook on life, and concentrated on well-crafted verse. Benn’s later poetry is often marked by a stark contrast between his beautiful language and his frightening, nearly nihilistic Weltanschauung. I say "nearly nihilistic" because for Benn there were perhaps two things of value in life: beautiful language and flowers, which figure in many of his poems.

The following poem is a perfect illustration of the contrast between beauty and emptiness in Benn’s poetry. Perhaps because German is not my first language I am able to dissociate the sound of words from their meaning more easily than I can with English, which would explain why the contrast between the language and the content of this poem has always made such a deep impression on me. The very literal and very rough translation below the original German should give some idea of why this poem came to mind the other night as I trudged home through the rain, as well as give an impression of Benn’s nihilism:

In einer Nacht

In einer Nacht, die keiner kennt,
Substanz aus Nebel, Feuchtigkeit und Regen,
in einem Ort, der kaum sich nennt
so unbekannt, so klein, so abgelegen,

sah ich den Wahnsinn alles Liebs und Leids,
das Tiefdurchkreuzte von Begehr und Enden,
das Theatralische von allerseits,
das niemals Gottgestützte von den Händen,

die dich bestreicheln, heiß und ungewaschen,

die dich wohl halten wollen, doch nicht wissen,
wie man den anderen hält, an welchen Maschen
man Netze flicken muß, daß sie nicht rissen –

ach, diese Nebel, diese Kältlichkeit,

dies Abgefallensein von jeder Dauer,
von Bindung, Glauben, Halten, Innigkeit,
ach Gott – die Götter! Feuchtigkeit und Schauer!

—Gottfried Benn, Sämtliche Gedichte (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1998), p. 299

One Night

One night, that no one knows
Made out of mist, dampness and rain,
In a place with no name,
So unknown, so small, so out of the way,

I saw the madness of all love and sorrow,
The futility of desires and purposes,
The theatrical on all sides,
[I saw] how the hands had never been supported by God,

[Those hands], hot and unwashed, which want to caress you,
Want to hold you, yet do not know
How one should hold the other, on which stitches
One must sew nets so they don’t tear—

Ah, this mist, this coldness,
This falling away from all endurance,
From all bonds, faith, support, intimacy,
Ah, God—the gods! Dampness and shivering!

The final line expresses Benn's despondence over the failure of love, but the language provides a faint glimmer of hope. The soft sounds of ch, g, and sch in Feuchtigkeit und Schauer is a wonderful contrast to the hard guttural sound of ach Gott: it initially softens the exclamation of disgust, but gives way in the end to a silent, morose despair. Yet, the fact that Benn thought it worth the trouble to express his sorrow with such care and so much attention to the richness of the sounds in this poem and so many others, as if in an attempt to transfigure his sorrow, would indicate that he thought there was ultimately some meaning worth giving voice to.

One can only hope so, for Benn's sake.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Money, Creepy Criminals, and Respectability


Why do we equate money with respectability?

Maybe money has not always equaled respectability, but it certainly does now. I myself unconsciously assume that a man wearing a nice suit must be more trustworthy than a man wearing a blue-collar work uniform with his name tag sewn onto his shirt. Maybe some people are less prejudiced in favor of wealth than I am, but I know I am certainly not unique in this respect. There is a reason, after all, why professionals dress well—most of us would not place our confidence in, or give our money to, a man who dressed like a bum, or like a used car salesman.

This equation of wealth with respectability is so deeply entrenched in our society that we don’t notice it until something makes us examine this prejudice. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by government employees, university professors, businessmen who could afford to be country club members, etc. I didn't know any criminals. Criminals were people who did horrible things, like rob and murder people, in poor neighborhoods. I only knew about them because their crimes were reported in the local newspaper. That changed, though, once I started working for lawyers. But, before I started working for lawyers, I also didn't know anyone who embezzled tens of thousands of dollars. Over the last few years, I’ve realized that we underestimate the injury caused by the breach of trust that is at the heart of white-collar crime.

What first made me examine my prejudices about wealth was that I realized that money is not necessarily a predictive factor for "creepiness" among criminals. One of the occupational hazards of working for criminal defense lawyers is that you meet some real creeps. Some of the creepiest defendants I’ve met have been quite wealthy, or at least middle-class, not the poor street criminals I thought of as a child. The creepiness that emanates from all criminals comes from two sources. First, the initial meeting between a client and a criminal defense lawyer is always uneasy because (in my experience with criminal defense) there is generally not much doubt that the client at the very least did something bad, if not always criminal. Both client and lawyer do their best to dance around the question of guilt, and that dance produces a strange sensation in the onlooker.

Second, each individual criminal gives off his own weird vibe. Different sorts of criminals, though, are different sorts of creeps. And white-collar criminals have been among the creepiest, in my experience. What makes some white-collar criminals so creepy? The answer comes back to society’s equation of wealth and respectability. The fact that a man can maintain a façade of respectability for years, all the while defrauding those who trust him because of his respectable wealth, means that at a very fundamental level of his personality he must be extremely devious. This deviousness I find just as frightening as the lack of remorse in a cold-blooded murderer; in both cases it is a sign of a complete lack of conscience. It is this lack of conscience, which leads to a willingness to violate any confidence, or any ethical boundary, that is truly creepy and even more disturbing than a street criminal who can’t restrain his anger over a failed drug deal or his frustration in his personal life. These street criminals possess a certain simplicity. It’s obviously not a good type of simplicity, but at least these men are not devious and manipulative like most white-collar criminals.

(On a side note, pedophiles are especially creepy because they combine the worst aspects of both kinds of criminals. Their actions are violent and repulsive, like those of street criminals, but like white-collar criminals they usually first build up a great amount of trust between themselves and their victims before committing their crimes.)

* * * * *

The special creepiness of white-collar defendants prompted me to examine my prejudices, and led me to conclude that their violation of trust is in some ways worse than what common street criminals do. But we are rarely outraged over white-collar crime, usually because the criminal has money, even though we should be more outraged because the criminal has betrayed a trust.

The result is that somehow it's more "respectable" for an investment banker to steal money through fraud, e.g., through the use of complex financial instruments he doesn’t understand (see “master of the universe” Fabrice Tourre of Goldman Sachs), than it is to mug a pedestrian. It's even more respectable for a bank to commit usury, or for a lawyer to overcharge his clients. These are all forms of theft, and they often involve a breach of trust when one person relies on the professional for help. The 7th commandment makes quite clear that all theft is wrong, yet too often we make nice distinctions based on the criminal’s wealth where the 7th commandment doesn't.

Unfortunately, most of the time we view these behaviors in abstract economic terms; this makes us afraid to call a thief a thief. It takes some up-close experience to see that theft is theft, no matter who the thief is.

Lawyers for a prominent trust company can get away with depleting half the assets of a sizable trust in questionable fees—they were paying themselves directly from the trust until the primary beneficiary asked to see some invoices. Jarndyce and Jarndyce may be not a completely fictional case, after all.

A man can write checks to himself and embezzle from a charity for mentally disabled children. He may not get away with it forever—the IRS might want to ask him about his new personal airplane—yet, because such a man can pay for his defense, he is more respectable in most people's eyes than the simple street criminal who has to rely on the public defender.

On the other hand, there are men who rob jewelry stores who are not very clever—as well as oblivious to the fact that the entire robbery has been caught on videotape—and the police generally have little difficulty in recovering the jewelry within a couple days. They certainly deserve to spend some time behind bars, but I have a hard time seeing that what these armed robbers do is necessarily any worse than what white-collar criminals do. What these armed robbers do is obviously more traumatic for the victim in the short term but they generally steal less money than white-collar criminals; people like Bernie Madoff have easy access to lots of money. Finally, will those trust beneficiaries or charity beneficiaries ever be able to recover the money stolen by their trustees? It’s highly unlikely.

You can call me a soft-on-crime bleeding-heart liberal, if you want, but I am simply asking why we do not stigmatize white-collar crime as much as street crime. Is the physical injury the street criminal inflicts on his victim always worse than the breach of trust committed by a white-collar criminal? True criminality does not depend on a person’s violence. Rather, it depends on a person’s willingness to transgress basic ethical commands without compunction. And that lack of conscience is often more evident in a wealthy white-collar criminal than it is in a poor street criminal.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Looking for the King


I'm naturally skeptical of novels that have their own trailer, but I'm intrigued by Looking for the King, by David Downing.

The book is not another group biography of the Inklings. In fact, it sounds more like an imitation of That Hideous Strength or one of Charles Williams' novels, in which supernatural events in modern Britain evoke the island's ancient past and speak to the contemporary threat of evil. The background is Nazi-occupied Europe, the protagonists are two young Americans at Oxford, the object of desire an ancient relic and the wise old men who aid our protagonists are the crew you've been waiting for: the Inklings.

A variety of reviews have been positive, praising the novel for its measured action, its historical research and its decision to leave the Inklings in the wings, rather than trying to put them on center stage.

If you'd like to read a passage before buying a copy for yourself or a loved one, you can do so here. I found the excerpt a bit flat at first, but soon I was reading out of genuine interest, and not simply as a test. I ended by deciding not to finish reading the passage, since I'll probably read the book some day and it would make more sense to do it in order.


H/T to Maggie Perry for sharing this post.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nietzsche: Erudition vs. Wisdom


Back in April I wrote a post about the Great Books as a system of education, and argued that education should be about the formation of the individual within a tradition, and not just the amassing of knowledge.

Just the other day, though, I re-read a passage from Nietzsche's Schopenhauer as Educator and was struck by its relevance to the contemporary debate over the value of the Great Books. In section eight of the essay, Nietzsche denounces those philosophers, especially those in the Kantian tradition in Germany, who had let the state buy them off with cushy jobs as tenured university professors and thus became unwilling to question, much less criticize, the existing order. This easy accommodation with the state led to a grave danger:

This is actually the third, and the most dangerous, concession made by philosophy to the state, when it is compelled to appear in the form of erudition, as the knowledge (more specifically) of the history of philosophy. The genius looks purely and lovingly on existence, like a poet, and cannot dive too deep into it;—and nothing is more abhorrent to him than to burrow among the innumerable strange and wrong-headed opinions. The learned history of the past was never a true philosopher's business, in India or Greece; and a professor of philosophy who busies himself with such matters must be, at best, content to hear it said of him, "He is an able scholar, antiquary, philologist, historian,"—but never, "He is a philosopher."

The distinction Nietzsche draws between studying the history of philosophy and doing philosophy, between attaining erudition and wisdom, is what should guide the debate about the Great Books. Knowledge--or, as we say today, information--is of course necessary, but without a tradition to give form to that information, it will only become, as Nietzsche said On the Use and Abuse of History, "indigestible knowledge-stones." Without a coherent philosophy we will not be able to digest all the information and historical knowledge we already have and be nourished with wisdom.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Why Are There No Christian Democrats in America?


The other day I happened upon the Wikipedia article about Christian Democrats. I clicked through to the list of parties, and was surprised by the complete absence of American parties from the list, not even some minor third party outfit. (The closest we get might be the more-or-less defunct New York State Right to Life Party, the Jefferson Republican Party and the amorphous Working Families Party.)

Why is this? Why are there no Christian Democrats in the US?

Admittedly, Christian Democracy is not a monolithic concept. Using the Wikipedia article as a rough guide, we see that it can draw on Catholic social teaching or Calvinist ideas. It can be organized around Christian corporatism, subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, communitarianism, the stewardship of the Christian believer or the dignity of the human person. (Or lots of those!) Its economics can be of the simple market variety, a social market economy or distributist.

Perhaps it is a bit much to ask that such a diverse - if interrelated - group of ideas spawn a single party in the US. Perhaps there are political, cultural or historical reasons why Christian Democracy lacks a following here. But it strikes me as odd that such a body of ideas have little play in the American arena, where Christians are generally assumed to belong to the hawkish semi-libertarian Republican Party, or are seen as hippie lefties opposed to war, industry and any kind of authority. What a pathetically shallow representation of the political implications of Christianity. Yet that is all we seem to find.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reclaiming Metaphysics from the Mushy-Headed


One of the "problems" with a UD education is that the UD graduate likes to use certain "fancy" words that not many other people necessarily understand. (I write this as a UD graduate, but I'm sure anybody with a decent liberal arts education has encountered this problem too.) When he leaves "the bubble," he sometimes forgets that these words are not in everybody else's vocabulary. The careless UD graduate in his conversations occasionally lets drop a word which for him is rich in associations and encapsulates his point nicely but which only confuses his interlocutors; pretty soon he finds himself re-formulating his entire argument in order to make himself understood. One such fancy word is "metaphysics," and I recently ran up against the problem of trying to use the word in a conversation with someone from "outside the bubble."

After a lecture event sponsored by a certain libertarian-conservative student group, I went out for a drink with some other members of the group. In the ensuing discussion, I told a libertarian that one of my disagreements with libertarians is that they draw too rigid a distinction between the individual's private life and the public realm, and that this stark dichotomy has its roots in libertarians' arbitrary distinction between ethics and politics, on the one hand, and metaphysics on the other. I thought I had made my point relatively clear, but when my libertarian interlocutor heard the word "metaphysics" come out of my mouth, he looked at me as if I had just grown a nose in the middle of my forehead. He was under the impression that I was referring to old ladies with crystal balls charging me a few dollars to read my fortune, or maybe to some New Age fad. He thought I had a head full of mush!

When I saw his face, I hastened to explain that I was talking about a branch of philosophy. He replied, "I have zero background in philosophy. Why don't you just say 'reason' or 'logic'?" For half a second I entertained the idea of explaining that logic and metaphysics are distinct branches of philosophy, and for another half-second I considered mentioning something about "the study of being," but then I remembered that I had a train to catch. So, I just answered, "Yes, reason!" Of course, his conception of reason was probably a purely modern, instrumental conception of reason...but that was a discussion for another night.

Do so few people understand what "metaphysics" really means? What will happen to public discourse when members of a "learned profession" (yes, I actually am referring to lawyers) who believe they have a special calling to study and resolve the most pressing questions concerning men's relations with one another have no clue what "metaphysics" means?

It probably was always the case that the majority of lawyers were not familiar with philosophy. But, to hear such an open avowal of ignorance from someone who appeared to be interested in larger questions of philosophy was frightening. It wasn't so much his ignorance that frightened me, though, as his lack of shame at his own ignorance.

This ignorance and this lack of shame do not bode well for public discourse. We are left, then, with only one choice: We must reclaim the word "metaphysics" from the mushy-headed!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Tarantino Is Doing


Around the third grade I took to writing a series of short stories set during my favorite conflict, World War II. They were all written in the first person, and although I knew that the exploits of the protagonist were not exactly my own, this form of narrative had an extra thrill for me. And thrilling these stories were. Their protagonist was a sort of super hero of the conflict, seeing action in all theaters, on land, at sea and in the air.

In one of these stories, the narrator, while flying his fighter plane, encountered a flight of Nazi aircraft. He engaged them and shot down the flight leader, who managed to bail out. As the enemy pilot bailed out, the narrator recognized him as none other than Adolf Hitler!

When I submitted this particular story to my father for his comments, he said he was nigh certain that Hitler was not a pilot, and even if he was, he would not have been flying patrols along the front. At the time I thought this a rather unnecessary fixation with historical detail. Moreover, I found this bit of information about Hitler rather disappointing: we all know he was the leader of the Nazis, a fearsome band of warmongers. So why wasn't he out front personally warmongering, like a modern-day Alexander?

When I recently saw Quintin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, I immediately recognized what he was doing. The film, about which I have written here and here, centers on a group of Jewish-Americans who operate behind enemy lines, scalping Nazis. Their plans to kill all the top Nazi leaders - who are in Paris for a film debut - merge with the efforts of the French Jew who owns the cinema in question.

Not only does the visual style of the film hearken back to an earlier age of pulp comics and movies, but the basic notion of over-the-top pseudo-history is something I think you can find in the childhoods of most little boys. Why do we dream in this kind of way? I have not yet definitively answered this question to my own liking, but I have some theories.

The kind of super pseudo-historical character I created as a child lends a certain clarity to the historical narrative. No single historical individual actually served in all theaters, fighting every enemy, engaging in every form of combat; thus, to tell the story of the war as a whole we are forced to tell the story of vast forces, of military committees and other impersonal bodies which waged this global conflict. By creating a decidedly unhistorical character, my third grade stories were able to capture the entire war in a single person's experience. The other day I was reading an essay from a collection in honor of M. R. D. Foot, which noted that Foot enjoyed writing the history of the resistance during World War II precisely because it placed the focus on individuals rather than the divisions, corps and army groups of the conventional forces. I suspect that Tarantino's unhistorical tale accomplishes something similar: we know that Hitler was the single most important element in the Axis bid for power, so why not put him in the sights? We know that the Jews were some of the most hounded victims of the Nazis - and vigorously hunted them down after the war - so why not makes Jews the Nazi's face-to-face enemy? And why not tell this story with roughly a dozen characters, to keep things neat?

I think a second reason I wrote counterfactual stories as a child was that I wanted to be able to change things. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to have a role in the victories and reverse the defeats. But in writing historical fiction of the usual sort, characters' actions have to fit within the framework of what actually happened. They are prisoners, in a sense, of history; their actions are not allowed to change anything significant. Hitler may not have been a pilot who was shot down, nor was he ever ambushed by Jews in a Paris cinema, but these kinds of stories allow their authors, readers and viewers to partake in new outcomes, not simply reading about the defeat of evil in the past, but defeating it in new ways in the present. For a child in the third grade, the present age has rather few evils; if there are dragons to be slain, Nazis make excellent candidates. But even for adults, the evils of the modern age can be quite complicated. A story like Tarantino's may not provide detailed programs for solving modern ills, but it does provide moral clarity and the possibility that evil can be defeated again and again, in ever new ways. And that's not such a bad lesson, now is it?


On a related note, Sally Menke, Tarantino's editor on every film he has ever made, passed away the same day I happened to watch Inglourious Basterds. May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Joseph the All Comely


No, this is not another post about Joseph, the husband of Mary, one of my favorite saints. No, this is about a different Joseph, Joseph the Patriarch, otherwise known as Joseph the All Comely.

The other day I stumbled upon this intriguing image, and clicked through to find this Orthodox priest's blog.

Joseph, the son Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and rose to be a major official in Egypt, is venerated in a number of branches of Christianity. Eastern Catholics and many Eastern Orthodox commemorate him on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (two Sundays before Christmas) and on the Monday of Holy Week (known as Holy and Great Monday). The Armenian Apostolic Church venerates him - along with the other Holy Forefathers - in July, whereas the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church does so on 31 March.

The title "the All Comely" refers to Joseph's good looks - which got him in trouble with the wife of an Egyptian official - but even more to the beauty of his interior life. Similar images of him can be found here and here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

He Had the Right Stuff - 63 Years Ago


On this day in 1947, Chuck Yeager set one of the most tantalizing aviation records, becoming the first man to travel faster than sound. Yeager had the good sense to name his rocket-powered plane, the Bell X-1, after his wife, the "Glamorous Glennis". (Unfortunately her parents did not have the good sense to spell her name with a Y, but neither she nor her husband can be held responsible for that.)

Two days before the flight, Yeager broke two ribs while riding horseback. Fearful of being pulled from the mission, he told only his wife and another pilot, Jack Riley. Riley cut a broom handle for Yeager to use to close the plane's hatch, since raising his arm that high over his head resulted in excruciating pain. For his achievement, Yeager won the Mackay, Collier and Harmon Trophies. Breaking the sound barrier on 14 October 1947 was but one episode in Yeager's long and distinguished career.

On a personal note, my father had been born just days before. I like to think of Yeager's flight as a kind of good omen, like being born under a lucky star.

The Right Stuff's depiction of Yeager's accomplishment can be seen below.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Two Anniversaries


On this day in 1571 the combined Christian forces of Spain, Venice, Genoa, Savoy, the Holy See and the Knights of Malta defeated the Ottoman Turkish fleet at Lepanto. The victory was attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom the Christian sailors had appealed by praying the rosary. Pope Pius V declared the day the Feast of Our Lady of Victory (later changed to Our Lady of the Rosary).

This feast of interest to me for two reasons. First, Our Lady of the Rosary is the patroness of our parish here in College Station, St. Mary's. Second, when the University of Dallas was founded by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, the junior college they ran in Ft. Worth - Our Lady of Victory College - was rolled into the new school. (Incidentally, I think Madonna Hall should be renamed Our Lady of Victory Hall, in honor of this history.)

Today is also the ninth anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Since that October day in 2001, the Taliban has been toppled from power, but not defeated. Over 1,200 Americans have been killed, along with another 800 or so coalition forces and more than 6,000 members of the Afghan security forces. Countless civilians have lost their lives.



US Special Forces riding with the Northern Alliance early in the conflict. Photo courtesy of of The Virtuous Republic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Brief Note on the Social Utility of Religion


In most discussions about the role religion should play in public life in America, there seem to be two basic positions. Conservatives generally argue that religion is essential to a healthy society because it instills in citizens good morals, a love of order, and a spirit of obedience toward authority. This conservative argument based on morals can trace its lineage at least as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and the argument for religion as a guardian of order and obedience certainly extends as far back as Martin Luther. Most liberals, on the other hand, argue that religion is bad for society because it leads to social conflict in the form of clashes between rival orthodoxies. In making this argument, modern liberals are drawing, whether consciously or unconsciously, on the more radical writers of the Enlightenment, such as Thomas Paine and Voltaire.

Underlying both these arguments is the idea that religion removes doubt and encourages unity in action. The difference between the two lies in the extent of the unity: conservatives favor religion when it encompasses an entire society, while liberals fear religion in the form of a sect. Nevertheless, both positions seem to assume that religion is a tool for giving answers and providing unity. Conservatives support religion in society because it gives good answers to ethical problems for all of society, while liberals oppose religion in society because it gives bad answers and encourages factiousness, pitting unified groups against each other.

But, is that assumption right? Not according to Christopher Lasch, who had this to say in his essay on "the soul of man under secularism" in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

What has to be questioned here is the assumption that religion ever provided a set of comprehensive and unambiguous answers to ethical questions, answers completely resistant to skepticism, or that it forestalled speculation about the meaning and purpose of life, or that religious people in the past were unacquainted with existential despair.

Interestingly, Lasch includes this essay on the soul of man under secularism in a section of his book entitled "the dark night of the soul." There is a reason why this expression comes not from Voltaire but from St. John of the Cross. Catholic mystics interpret the dark night of the soul as a purification of the soul, a training in faith, hope, and love--not as a final overcoming of all life's problems. If the dark night of the soul is one of the most profound and authentic experiences in religion, perhaps religion is not as socially useful as so many people think.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?


Is there a conservative tradition in America?

That provocative question is the title of a recent article by Patrick Deneen, and for many readers his answer will be even more provocative: No, American conservatives are at best conservative liberals.

What could he mean by that? Aren't conservatives and liberals polar opposites? As Deneen explains, though, most of the central tenets of contemporary American conservatism, which he summarizes fairly and accurately in a five-point list, can be traced back to the principles of the liberal philosophical tradition, the tradition associated with the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke. Between these two thinkers, Locke has been the more influential in American political thought--the Declaration of Independence even borrows some of his language--and it is his ideas which formed the basis of what is often called classical liberalism (to avoid confusion with progressive liberalism). Classical liberalism in the course of the 19th century developed into utilitarianism, and in the 20th century morphed into libertarianism. Classical liberalism certainly has not been as radical as progressive liberalism, and is therefore more conservative, but--and this is Deneen's main point--it has always remained a form of liberalism, and for that reason is not truly conservative.

Deneen has performed a great service by identifying the true origin of mainstream American conservatism. Unfortunately, Deneen is only able to outline the conflict between, on the one hand, liberalism and utilitarianism, and, on the other hand, a more traditional or "reactionary" conservatism that found its greatest modern exponent in the English-speaking world in the likes of Edmund Burke, but whose origins can be found in the natural law theories of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. (Deneen's outline approach is probably due to the fact that he wrote the article in the form of a talk he gave at an ISI event in Washington, DC, called "conservatism on tap"; I suspect he expanded on some of his points in greater detail in response to questions.)

There is much more to Deneen's article than this simple summary contains, especially his critique of the Straussians and of Glenn Beck's reading of American history--so read the whole article!--but it does have one flaw--though it should be made clear that this is a relatively minor (and perhaps unintentional) flaw in what is otherwise an excellent article, and is probably just a quibble over terminology.

This flaw is Deneen's use of the term "collectivism" to describe his own conservatism. A better word would be "communitarianism." Collectivism is usually used to describe 20th-century ideologies like Communism, Nazism, and fascism. Collectivism, given the right historical circumstances, is the end development of individualism, the final deconstruction of society from a local, hierarchic, and estate-based structure into a mere collection of atomized individuals. Collectivism takes atomized individuals and unifies them, but in a great mass that actually deprives them of their individuality. Collectivism, then, is the form of politics corresponding to mass society in its worst possible form. Collectivism, therefore, is rightfully rejected by conservatives of all stripes.

Where Deneen parts company with mainstream conservatives, though, is with his insistence that individualism is not the answer to America's problems.

Communitarianism, on the other hand, is the golden mean between individualism and collectivism. What distinguishes communitarianism is that it recognizes that the bonds that tie individuals together--religion, family, and local commitments--are good. People need limits, such as hierarchical structures and authority, in order to flourish as individuals, not lifestyle freedom.

Those readers interested in reading more about the internecine feuds among American conservatives, though hopefully in a more irenic tone than is normally heard in such arguments, might want to look at these two earlier posts on conservatives and libertarians.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Rooms of St. Clare


One has only to go into any room
in any street for the whole of that
extremely complex force of
femininity to fly in one's face.

-Virginia Woolf

Hers is the mystery of rooms.
The room from whose window she watches
Francis walk across the Piazza San Rufino
and into whose tapestried forest
          she withdraws
to seek the unicorn's white horn
that brings her to that other room
where Bishop Guido places
the palm into her open soul.

Rooms open on rooms.
St. Mary of the Angels, the room of vows
that open onto the nuns at Bastia,
the monastery on Mount Subasio, and
San Damiano with its rooms God has prepared for her,
each room conforming to the contours of her soul
like a fitted wedding dress.
There at San Damiano
she crosses the threshold
          into the Royal Chamber.
Above the marble altar-bed she sees
herself in the mirror that spoke to Francis.
She's radiant, calm, pure with desire.
She kneels and the room
opens upon mansions of possibility;
other brides cross the threshold with her,
fill the rooms of their own espousals.
Rooms spill out into streets of their village,
a courtyard around whose well they gather
to draw water, talk their own domesticity.
They gather for church
          like women inside Assisi's
walls. They sing psalms, share the Bread of Life,
after which they pass
          a further threshold
into Lady Poverty's dining room where Clare
blesses another bread
          crossed with want and penance.

But it is the steep ascent from choir
through the narrow passageway
          opening
into their Bridal Chamber
that lifts Clare and the Poor Ladies above routine.
For there is the room of redemptive suffering where
Clare ministers to her sick sisters,
lies bedridden sewing albs and altar linens.
There she opens the door, kneels
before her Eucharistic Lord, and
prays away the threatening advances
of the Emperor's mercenary soldiers.

There in the room of consummations
she holds her Rule that holds
all the rooms of the Poor Ladies' lives.
She presses the Book of Rooms to her heart and
Crosses the final threshold into all the rooms of her life
          now graced with Him
who is the mirror she enters without effort,
without shattering the glass that
holds her image inside His.

-Murray Bodo, OFM

From Francis and Clare in Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Janet McCann and David Craig (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Happy Constitution Day!


Yes, yes, I know the actual holiday was on Friday, but this evening will be the annual celebration at the University of Dallas. The evening features barbecue, Shiner, a patriotic address and then singing. Lots of singing. The measure of a good Constitution Day is if you leave hoarse. In honor of this fine festival, I share a few of my favorites.

The evening begins with songs of the Revolution and the early Republic, then moves to Confederate songs and finally to those of the Civil War's victors.



(For those of you reading this on Facebook, click here for the YouTube video of "The Bonnie Blue Flag".)

One of the great things about the lyrics to this song are the strange rhymes in later verses. Words like "mar" rhyme with the recurring "star", but "rare" or "prefer"? I'm afraid not. At one point "Florida" is stuck in there, making no attempt at all to continue the rhyme. There are other fun ones: I guess "given" rhymes with "eleven", but it still sounds funny when you sing it.




(Click here for the YouTube, if you can't see the video.)

This songs works best with periodic shouting. The most popular lines for this practice are not the obvious "shouting the battle cry of freedom", since it occurs far too often, twice in every verse. Instead, the best words to shout are usually the last words of the third line of every verse. This works particularly well with "[singing] And although he may be poor, he will [shouting] never be a slave!" The song is made even more boisterous by a great sweeping of fists into the air every time the line "up with the star" occurs. I highly recommend it.




(Click here for video.)

This is a slightly odd video of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," containing rare color footage of World War II. Also, strangely enough, the song is performed by Russia's Red Army Choir. But I found that this rendition had adequate "We're going to whip the bad guys!" gusto, which other versions (such as that by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) lacked.

Happy Constitution Day!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Vanity of Human Hopes & The Abuse of the Printing Press


This summer I went to a gigantic used book sale. How gigantic? Books filled at least eight large rooms, some of which would probably be better described as "halls." Many of the books were hard to find and out of print, and nearly all cost under $5.

And yet, in what should have been heaven for a bibliophile like myself, I found only two books that I thought worth acquiring: a cheap copy of Meier Helmbrecht, and Critics of the Enlightenment. When I left the sale with only two books in hand, I realized that there was a reason why most of those books were out of print: Most of them weren't very good. How many of those authors had wasted their time producing mediocre books, whether in the hope of writing the next great novel or of making an original contribution to scholarship?

This thought reminded me of a few aphorisms by Nicolás Gómez Dávila:
Literature dies not because nobody writes, but when everybody writes. (#1,256)

The abuse of the printing press is due to the scientific method and the expressionist aesthetic. To the former because it allows any mediocre person to write a correct and useless monograph, and to the latter because it legitimizes the effusions of any fool. (#1,586)

This phenomenon is, of course, not new, and predates the 20th century's expressionist aesthetic. Here is what Dr. Johnson had to say about the glut of worthless books filling libraries in his day:
No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library; for who can see the wall crouded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditation, and accurate enquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue, and preserved only to encrease the pomp of learning, without considering how many hours have been wasted in vain endeavours, how often imagination has anticipated the praises of futurity, how many statues have risen to the eye of vanity, how many ideal converts have elevated zeal, how often wit has exulted in the eternal infamy of his antagonists, and dogmatism has delighted in the gradual advances of his authority, the immutability of his decrees, and the perpetuity of his power?

--Samuel Johnson, The Rambler 106 (Saturday, March 23, 1751)

As far as we know, some medieval monks probably made the same complaint as they copied books by hand in their scriptoria. And they would not have been completely wrong, even in a time when books were precious rarities. In every age, there is an abundance of information, but so little wisdom.

(Hat tips: Michael Gilleland; make sure to click through to see the amusing photo accompanying the quotation from Dr. Johnson. Picture from book lovers never go to bed alone.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Peter Hart, Historian


I tend to think of my fellow historians as falling into one of two categories: living and dead. My own advisor is living, as are the sort of people I run into at conferences. There are other historians, such as the great golden calf smasher, A. J. P. Taylor, who are deceased and hopefully resting in peace. After a long and profitable career, a historian may gently slip from the former category to the latter. My current rabbi, M. R. D. Foot, was born in 1919 and has produced more books that I have time to read, much less could ever write. Some day he will pass from this life, and though his passing will be mourned, his rest will be well-deserved and unsurprising.

Today, however, I had the unfortunate experience to discover that a young historian, Peter Hart, passed away in July at the much too early age of 46. His work on the Irish Revolution has been of great help to me; just yesterday I was reading The IRA and Its Enemies. One can only hope that his forthcoming work, Guerrilla Days in the UK: Revolution in Ireland and Britain, will still be published.

History is a discipline which rewards longevity. It takes years simply to acquire a PhD, the union card to participate in the dialogue. Even then, archival research and sufficient background material for a major contribution can take decades to collect. Hart's career was already impressive and showed great promise for better still to come. His death is a profound loss for the field. May he rest in peace.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Windmills & Aesthetics


While wasting time on the internet recently, I came upon two photographs of windmills on the German island of Fehmarn. (Now that I think about it, Caitlin and I might have passed by this island on our trip from Copenhagen to Lübeck a few years ago.)

The first shows a traditional windmill, the type which we Americans usually associate with the Dutch, but which, with variations, can be found across Europe--Don Quixote, after all, needed something to tilt at in Spain.


The second shows a modern windmill which is part of a windfarm on the island.


My question, to which I have no definite answer, is: When I compare these windmills for aesthetic purposes, why do I prefer the first windmill to the second? Am I just so obsessed with German culture that I prefer anything that looks German to me? That's possible. Am I just out of touch with the modern world and hankering for a tradition I've never been a part of? There's probably some truth to that accusation, too. Just maybe, though, I really am considering more purely aesthetic factors, such as the form of the structures, the materials, etc.

Nevertheless, whatever my own reasons for preferring the traditional windmill, I actually don't think that my aesthetic preference is all that uncommon; I suspect that many people share my instinctive aesthetic preference for the traditional windmill, and that many people still generally prefer traditional aesthetics to modern aesthetics. Why would that be, even though our culture generally looks down on tradition? It's a curious fact about our culture.

Finally, if a reader wants to defend the aesthetic superiority of the modern windmill, please go ahead and do so. I would love to hear that argument.

Source: The two pictures come from this slide show of the island. (The captions are in German, but if all you want is pretty pictures, who cares?)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Seeing and Understanding in Mark 8


The eighth chapter of Mark's gospel offers an interesting meditation on seeing and understanding. The chapter begins with the feeding of the four thousand. This is actually the second time Jesus has fed a multitude - back in chapter 6 He fed five thousand - but even so, His disciples ask "How can one feed these men with bread here in the desert?" Of course, Jesus pulls it off, with seven baskets full left over.

Immediately following this episode, the Pharisees come "seeking from Him a sign from heaven, to test Him." Just as the disciples had seen the feeding of the five thousand, but did not have faith that Jesus could feed the four thousand, so the Pharisees - like all those assembled - had just seen the miracle, but failed to understand it. Jesus answers them in an interesting way. In the parallel passage in Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah," that is, resurrection. Luke uses similar language about the sign of Jonah, as does Matthew in an earlier passage. But in Mark's gospel, Jesus simply tells the Pharisees, "No sign shall be given to this generation." Not even the sign of Jonah? Are the various gospels at odds on this point? I suspect not; rather, I think we can read Jesus' words in Mark as indicating that the Pharisees - who have clearly just had a sign - will not understand any, and thus all their seeing is of no more value than having no signs at all.

As Jesus and his disciples leave that area in the boat, He makes a comment about avoiding the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. The disciples misinterpret the remark and He must ask them, "Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear. And do you not remember?... Do you not yet understand?"

The point receives further exposition when the boat lands in Bethsaida, where Jesus heals a blind man. Spitting on the blind man's eyes and laying His hands on him, Jesus asks, "Do you see anything?" The man gives an odd answer: "I see men, but they look like trees, walking." As I child I found this a funny notion, but later came to assume that the man meant that his vision was fuzzy and the healing incomplete. But this is not the only possible interpretation and, in light of the context, seems unlikely. First, we should ask ourselves: had this man ever seen before? If he had been blind from birth, he would not know what either men or trees looked like; his sole sources of information would be his other senses (primarily touch) and the descriptions other people had given him. If he was born blind, perhaps his comment should be interpreted to mean, "I see men, but I mistakenly think they look more like how I imagined trees than how I imagined men." Even if the man had not been born blind, might his memory of how things looked faded during his years of blindness? In either case, I think we should consider the second healing the man receives from Jesus a healing of his understanding, not his sight. His sight was healed initially, but without a healing of his understanding, a metaphorical opening of his eyes, the literal opening was not worth much.

The chapter ends with a final episode, involving Peter, which again highlights the theme of understanding. In a moment of great faith, Peter declares to Jesus, "You are the Christ." But as soon as Jesus begins talking about His suffering and death, Peter scolds Jesus, earning the rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but men." Again, Peter's understanding was limited: he could see that Jesus was the Christ, but did not understand the coming passion, death and resurrection.

Parsing all of this out can be a fun parlor game, an exercise in literary analysis. But if this is to have real value, we should pray for the wisdom to understand all the signs that God has scattered across our lives. We should pray not only to see Him at work, but to understand His plan, to see the full depths that He sees, and not merely superficially, as man sees.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Josef Pieper: The Other’s Right (V)


And to conclude Josef Pieper Week here on the Guild Review...continued from Part IV:


Our topic, however, as we said, is not man’s relationship to God, but justice in men’s relationships to each other. Here there are also debts which by their very nature cannot be paid. For example, I cannot one moment say to my mother: Now we’re even! A mother, parents, or whoever is in their place—they also cannot be perfectly compensated and paid back. Once again, because justice, strictly speaking, is not achieved in this case, another attitude appears to take its place, if things proceed correctly, as a replacement and makeshift aid, so to speak. The ancients called this attitude pietas—for which the word “piety” is not at all a precise translation. Yet the main concern is that what is meant by pietas is clear; what is meant is the inward acceptance and the outward recognition of the fact that every man owes certain people a debt he is not capable of paying. Now, I think I could dare make the assertion that in the currently prevailing idea of justice among men, the concept of pietas is not to be found, and that the attempt to rehabilitate this virtue would be connected to very far-reaching prerequisites. Pietas, for example, can develop as an element of communal life only when the devastated region of “authority” can regain its proper place. Everyone knows that this is a barely manageable task.

This task could appear nearly hopeless when one takes into consideration a third concept, which according to the ancient doctrine of justice also aims at an attitude that is proper to man and should be demanded of him, and which is another response to an unpayable debt. Even the name used to designate this concept is now lost. The Latin term is observantia; dictionaries translate it as Ehrerbietigkeit [roughly “deference” or “reverence”], a term which nobody uses in real life. But, what is meant by it?

The following is meant: The individual, in his private existence, is always dependent on the meaningful, or just, administration of public offices, such as that of a judge or of a teacher, as well as of any other; it is only then that the individual lives in an ordered community (which by no means happens automatically). But the individual then contracts a debt, which he cannot actually pay to those holders of public office.

So, to repeat, when justice cannot be achieved, another attitude must make take its place: that of observantia, i.e., respect which is consciously accepted and expressed, which says: I owe you something which I can’t properly pay back, and I am letting you know that I know that! But of course, it goes without saying that the findings described here extend well beyond the circle of holders of public office; in almost all human services there is something for which the person who profits from them cannot, strictly speaking, pay. Neither the friendliness of a waiter nor the reliability of a housemaid can be compensated fully, so that as a result what is strictly due has been rendered. And that is where observantia must take the place of justice which cannot be fully achieved, which lets the other person know: I am indebted to you; I know it and I recognize it.

This is the point at which to close our remarks with a question. The question is as follows: Must not life among men necessarily become inhuman when the individual, for whatever reason, does not come to understand himself as someone who is in debt to and has been given gifts by God and man? This might sound a little Romantic and even “bizzare.” But what is meant is something very realistic.

To make my point clear, I would like to remind you of an episode from Helmut Gollwitzer’s account of his imprisonment “...And lead you where you do not want,” a true story. It deals with a work squad made up of German POWs who are supposed to carry out a certain task in the primeval forest of Siberia and may expect bonus rations if they carry out the task on or ahead of schedule. It so happens that they really do receive the extra rations, but that a part of the group (Gollwitzer calls them the “old prisoners,” which means those who were already inwardly acclimatized)—that the “old prisoners” want to deny a share of the bonus to the sick, who could not work at all or only in part. They could no longer, says Gollwitzer, understand our appeal to our common humanity and comradeship; but we, the “new prisoners,” could not yet understand their merciless calculation of what was due to them.

So, to repeat the question: Must not life among men necessarily become inhuman once you try to understand and especially construct and live it based on one point of view: What is my due?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Josef Pieper: The Other’s Right (IV)


...continued from Part III:

Now, in a few closing remarks, we must speak of justice’s limits. Even “restitution” which is always renewed does not suffice in certain significant cases, according to the ancients, to realize a just order even for a moment. Justice simply is not enough to keep man’s world working. Once again it must be said: In this thought there is an entire world view, a belief that penetrates to the roots of man’s communal life, as well as not just between one man and another. One element of this world view could be formulated in the following way: There are debts which by their very nature cannot be paid. There is a creditor, and a debtor, and a debt; but the debtor cannot satisfy it. And precisely when he wants to, when he (in other words) is just; when he, as the classical definition states, has the constant will to give what is due to those with whom he has to deal—precisely then he will realize his impotence especially keenly. And when someone asks further, what kind of relationships in concreto entail such unpayable debts, he receives the answer: those relationships which support our very existence.

It will not much surprise anyone that the ancients speak here in the first place of man’s relationship to God. This naturally lies beyond the topic at hand. However, it is worth it to consider man’s relationship to God for a moment; for in that relationship is realized the paradigm of a debt that in principle cannot be satisfied.

Although the great teachers of Christendom (of course) never said that man is simply nothing before God, it is nevertheless an obvious truth for them that everything which could be due to man from God is preceded by a gift. And this gift can in no way be satisfied and “made good again.” (This is a figure of speech in my hometown of Münster: when someone does another person a favor, he is then asked: “How can I make this up to you, how can I make this good again for you?”)

Now this gift (of mere existence, the donum creationis) we can in principle never make up to God. It is absolutely unthinkable that man could turn to God one moment and rightly say: Now we’re even! To be even means: to have paid off one’s debts. Being even is the state at which justice aims. One can say: Justice, strictly speaking, does not appear in man’s relationship to God. In men’s relationships among each other there is also something just like that (about which we will speak in a second). But we should stay just a little longer with the paradigm of man’s relationship to God. Here it becomes quite clear that and how something else must take the place of justice when it cannot be achieved, an attitude that could be something like a way out, a makeshift aid, a replacement.

The ancients have a name for this attitude which, in man’s relationship to God, makes its appearance when justice cannot be achieved: religio; I am leaving the Latin expression untranslated for a reason (because the world “religion” would immediately provoke or encourage a swarm of inevitable misunderstandings); it is not the phenomenon of worship, dogma, and church that is meant; what is meant, rather, is religio as an attitude of man toward God. The logical connection, the link to the topic of “justice” is this: only when someone on the basis of his relationship to God has recognized and “realized” that there is a discrepancy he simply cannot get rid of, which consists of a debt, a debitum, which by its very nature cannot in principle be settled or paid off—only then and because of this can the inner structure of the religious act (adoration, dedication, sacrifice) become at all understandable, much less able to be carried out. What perhaps also becomes understandable (or more understandable) is the quality of the exuberant and excessive, which according to purely rational observation is the so-called “kookiness,” which as a matter of fact is proper to all religious acts. Why, like the Greeks, should we pour the first sip of wine out of the chalice onto the ground or into the sea—even though maybe only this one glass of wine is still available and even though the gods obviously do not profit from it?! This seemingly “irrational” behavior stems from embarrassment and helplessness: a man knows that it is impossible to do what actually must be done, and for that reason he makes the “impossible” attempt, in some symbolic way, “to do enough,” to do satisfaction, by pouring away, burning, or destroying something valuable, for example, in a sacrifice.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Josef Pieper: The Other’s Right (III)


...continued from Part II:

Before I do that, however, one more rather aphoristic observation on another point of the ancient doctrine of justice which, so it seems, should surely arouse more curiosity than it usually does. I mean the name by which the fundamental act of justice is generally named. Its name is: restitutio, a restoration, then, a giving back, a reparation, a “making-good-again.”

One might ask: What does this “again” actually mean? Yes, when someone gives something back which he unjustly took for his own, or when someone compensates, or tries to compensate, for damage or an injustice he inflicted on someone else—we then speak of restitutio, of making good again; this is a clear case. But according to the ancients the giving of what is due always has, in every case, the character of restitution; surprisingly so, one thinks. But in reality this same surprise is hidden in the common phrase according to which justice consists of giving to each man what is due to him. Schopenhauer posed the question: “When it is his, why must someone first still give it to him?” How (in other words) can something be “his” and at the same time be something that must be given to him, and so obviously something that he has not yet come to possess or no longer has?

The realization of justice really does seem to presuppose that the state which is actually proper to the essence of human community, which for that reason can also be considered the original or “paradisiacal” (so to speak), does not exists (or: no longer exists), that it has been upset and must therefore be restored after the event. That upsetting must not necessarily be understood as the infringement of one’s rights. Every human action “upsets” in a certain sense the condition at a certain time, the static condition of balance. Goethe, to whom is attributed the saying that “[t]o become a man means learning to be unjust”—Goethe says (in Elective Affinities): “A man may withdraw from life into oneself as much as possible, but before he knows it, he has become a debtor or a creditor.” But inasmuch as this happens (that men, simply by being active, continuously contract debts with each other), the challenge comes ever closer to us, to “restore” the condition of balance by rendering and paying what we owe.

Yet it is not to point out these more or less trivial and obvious facts that I lay my finger on the concept of restitution. Rather, I wonder whether this concept, upon which the ancients insist with an odd exclusivity, might not imply a certain, very general idea of the form of all historical action, namely the conviction that in human society the state of everyone being quits with everyone else, of a complete balance of demand and payment, i.e. of justice, can never be definitively “set up” once for all; that rather this state must always be restored “anew,” iterato; that, in other words, the reductio ad aequalitatem, which occurs through restitution, is in principle an unending task. By this we are to understand that what on first appearance is so unimpressive, that the lack of finality, the provisional, the makeshift, constant repairs and patch-up jobs simply belong to the essence of man’s historical activity and to the fundamental condition of the world he has been entrusted with, whereas the militant assertion of exactly defined plans or from final eschatological orders, whereby justice on earth should be established and produced once for all, must of necessity lead to inhumanity (which in fact has been clearly confirmed by mankind’s not inadequate experience).

This is, one will admit, an all-encompassing view of the world and history, a conception of a certain explosive relevance today. But it is precisely this conception, I believe, which lies hidden behind the old, perhaps all too harmless, pedantic-sounding teaching, according to which the fundamental act of justice possesses the inner form of restitution, of making good again.